Vol. 9, Issue No. 28/2002
Some Good in the World: A Life of Purpose
foreword by James A. Michener
University Press of Colorado
Ed Piszek: A Life of Purpose
by John Radzilowski
As anyone who has wandered through one of those mega-bookstores can tell you, there are lot of books to read. Not nearly as many of them, however, are worth the time it would take to read. More rarely means better.
Every so often, though, you come across a book whose title is not very sexy, whose dust jacket is not very expensive, and you find a gem that puts a lot of the heavily marketed best sellers to shame. The autobiography of Edward Piszek is such a book.
I knew a little about Piszek. He founded Mrs. Paul's and when I was a kid we always bought Mrs. Paul's fish sticks because it was owned by a Polish guy. Growing up in a town where being Polish made you very unpopular, eating Mrs. Paul's was an act of patriotism. Other than that, I knew very little.
I never knew how Piszek and a partner created the business with a thousand dollars when the idea of frozen fish seemed downright alien to most Americans. Or how Mrs. Paul's was an innovator in marketing, pioneering techniques that are today commonplace.
Nor did I know that Piszek had relatively little interest in his Polish heritage until an African American representing CARE walked into his office asking for a donation for ambulances for Poland. And I did not know how this man first sparked Piszek's interest in Polish history and culture.
I never knew how Piszek was on the front lines of battling tuberculosis in Poland. In the 1950s and 1960s, TB ravaged Poland. Piszek bought a whole fleet of mobile x-ray machines, funded treatment centers, and battled the communist bureaucracy to see it through. Within a decade, TB was almost gone from Poland. Years later, while touring hospital in Krakow with a delegation of Westerners, the young intern, unaware of Piszek's work, pointed out the hospital's disused TB ward. When asked if TB was still a problem in Poland, the intern said no, but that it had been. "The story is that an American came over and cured it, said the intern. An American doctor?" - asked one of the visitors.
I don't know, said the intern. "It was an American, that I do know. But it was a long time ago. Now TB is hardly something we think about."
Piszek was also responsible for "Project Pole," a national advertising campaign in the 1970s designed to change the public image of Poles and Polish Americans and battle the anti-Polish stereotypes rampant in the media. It was Piszek who convinced his friend James Michener to write the novel Poland, which became one of Michener's most popular works, introducing Poland to a world-wide audience. And it was Piszek who saved Tadeusz Kosciuszko's house in Philadelphia and donated it to the National Park Service.
Maybe I never knew about this because Ed Piszek so rarely blew his own horn. Maybe that is why so few in Poland or in Polonia know about him. Like so many Polish Americans he went about his business, worked hard, and tried to help people without a lot of fanfare. He made his money honestly, didn't cook the books, or engage in insider trading.
Wečre bombarded with stories that are supposed to be inspiring, and it is easy to get jaded about such "inspiration."
But Ed Piszek's story is inspiring. And it is full of insights how Polish Americans have had to hide their identity to become success; about the nature of communism in Poland; about what success ought to mean.
Piszek's story is one that all Polish Americans should read. Buy this book, give it to a friend and learn about the most famous Polish American you've never heard of.