The Story of a
True Pol-Am Philanthropist

by Robert Strybel

Edward J. Piszek, Polish-American industrialist and philanthropist, died March 27th, 2004 at the age of 87 at his home near Philadelphia. The co-founder of the Mrs. Paul’s frozen-fish concern, he was a friend of Pope John Paul II, Lech Walesa and personally knew U.S. presidents Nixon, Carter, Reagan, Clinton and both Bushes as well as many other major public figures. But many Polish-Americans will remember him mainly as a true friend of Poland and Polonia, generously supportive of worthwhile Polish causes and driven by an almost obsessive desire to uplift the Polish image.

After finishing school, Piszek worked at General Electric Co. and Campbell Soup Co., before forming what would become a true frozen-fish empire. In 1946, with $350 and the help of a friend, John Paul (who gave the company it’sname), Piszek set up a small, local frozen-food business and bought out his partner in the 1950s. When he sold the company in 1982, annual sales at Mrs. Paul’s Kitchens topped $100 million.

During my many meetings with Piszek, whom I first met in Warsaw in 1970, he told me how he had grown up in Philadelphia thinking Poles and things Polish were somehow inferior. “The first time I visited Poland, before my plane landed in Warsaw, I wondered who handled the country’s utilities,” Piszek said. “Did the Swedes pipe in the electricity and the did the Germans run the phone system? I couldn’t imagine Poles being up to installing such things themselves. Not the Polish people I knew in America.”

Piszek, was raised outside the traditional Polonian mainstream. His parents, had emigrated from Poland in the early 20th century, but became small-scale businesspeople in America who had little time for Polonian activism. Little Eddie had fist-fights with neighborhood kids who called him “you dumb Polack,” but really had little to do with his heritage during the first 50 years of his life. In his own words, “back then, when Polack jokes were at their height, I was not proud of my Polish roots. Being Polish in certain situations was an embarrassing secret. Most of my Polish-American friends felt the same way and we told Polack jokes like everyone else. As it was with many Americans of foreign parentage, we felt that getting rid of our heritage was the price we had to pay to fully participate in America’s social and economic life.”

The turning-point came in 1964 thanks to a most unlikely encounter. Afro-American Bill Sykes, a representative of the American charitable organization CARE, approached Piszek about a donation towards an ambulance needed by the people of Tarnów. That struck a respondent chord (Piszek’s parents had been born in that part of southern Poland), one thing led to another and, within a few years, the Philadelphia industrialist had declared war on tuberculosis in his ancestral homeland. He provided Poland’s health service with a fleet of mobile X-ray units, ambulances and medical equipment that enabled even the residents of remote mountain hamlets to be diagnosed and treated.

Piszek’s first trips to Poland, during which he met medical experts, scientists, cultural personalities and churchmen, proved to be an eye-opening experience. Sure the country was poor and still scarred by World War II, and yes—it was controlled by a Soviet-backed regime, but those things could not overshadow Poland’s proud history, the beauty of its ancient monuments, nor the overwhelming hospitality and pro-Americanism of its people.

The contrast between his encounter with Poland’s thousand-year heritage and the abysmal ignorance and derisive anti-Polish sentiments of many of his fellow Americans was behind his decision to bankroll Project: POLE. The purpose of this $1 million public-relations campaign, launched in cooperation with Polonia’s Orchard Lake Schools in Michigan, was to use the American media to uplift the Polish image at a time when anti-Polish jokes were trying to tear it down. He later founded the Copernicus Society of America to inform those of Polish descent about their heritage.

A successful entrepreneur, Piszek fully appreciated the importance of advertising. He thus realized the great pro-Polish public-relations value of a Polish-born Pope and the emergence of the Solidarity movement—both of which had placed Poland in the international limelight. He befriended Lech Walesa during Poland’s 1980-81 labor crisis and donated ten million pounds of food to his ancestral homeland during its severe shortages of that period. After the country finally dumped communism in 1989, he was instrumental in bringing Peace Corps volunteers to teach English in Poland and set up The World of English magazine to promote interest in English which he called “the world’s universal language.” He also helped bring Little League baseball to Poland and was instrumental in having the Polish city of Kutno declared Little League Headquarters for Europe and Africa. In appreciation for his efforts, the Kutno Little League facility is officially known as Edward J. Piszek Stadium.

Piszek’s pro-Polish philanthropy has encompassed, sports, health care, education and culture. During Copernican year (1974), he sponsored a U.S. tour of Polish astronomer Mikolaj Kopernik’s scientific instruments and memorabilia, and in the 1980s he successfully persuaded his writer friend James Michener to write the novel Poland. In 1992, Piszek received the Rotary International Award for World Understanding and Peace. He held an honorary doctorate from the Jagiellonian University and the Commodore’s Cross of the Order of Polonia Restituta, Poland’s highest decoration bestowed upon non-Polish citizens.

He died surrounded by his four children and their families after receiving the Last Rites of the Catholic Church. In and out of hospitals in recent months, he asked to be taken home when he felt the end approaching. His home was the stately Emlen House in the Philadelphia suburb of Fort Washington, an historic mansion that had served as George Washington’s headquarters during the Revolutionary War.

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