One man …many hats

It’s impossible to hear the name Joe Pokrzywka and not think of the White Eagle Bakery. That’s because Joe, who was named after his father (aka “Joe the Baker”), stepped up to help run this immensely popular Dunkirk landmark so the family business could continue to thrive. And flourish it did for 64 years – from 1925 to 1989.

Generations of area residents – and their sweet tooth – will forever thank their lucky stars that Joe, who died July 15, 2014 at the age of 86, was willing to make that sacrifice at such a young age. Ever the dutiful eldest son, Joe left Washington College in Chestertown, Md. – where he was a physics major with an interest in atomic energy – in his junior year to return to the family business, knowing its successful operation depended on it.

A baker’s work is never done and is oftentimes nothing short of grueling. Those oh-so-yummy fresh baked goods and warm breads didn’t appear in the White Eagle display cases daily without a lot of sweat equity being expended first. Since everything was made from scratch, the work schedule often ballooned to 16-hour days, seven days a week.

Sugar and flour were delivered by Buffalo wholesalers in 100-pound bags. The piles and rows of bags in the storeroom rose to nine feet high. The baking process commenced with the back-breaking delivery of those sacks to the mixing machines. Joe, his dad and his grandfather Ignatius, the founder of this Polish bakery, did this heavy lifting year after year with only a rare vacation squeezed in. Ignatius Pokrzywka was an immigrant from Poland who worked in the coal mines to save money to bring his wife Hedwig and 7-year-old son Joseph to Dunkirk.

Judging from the buzz around town, the tradition of the White Eagle Bakery, along with the incomparable work ethic of the Pokryzwka family, will live on as stories are passed down to the younger generations, memories that always end with a wistful, “What I wouldn’t give for just one more loaf of that sour rye bread.” As word of Joe’s death spread, comments on social media started pouring in. Many praised the fruits of his labor as being the best ever. The best breads, best rogaliki, best “black and white” cookies, best jelly doughnuts, best cupcakes, best coffee cakes … It was no surprise that every single goodie sold at the White Eagle Bakery was deemed by one Facebook post or another as “the best.”

Yes, Joe wore a white baker’s hat, and in a game of “Password,” Pokrzywka would be defined simply as “baker.” But he was so much more than that. I can think of at least a dozen other hats that could be piled on top of this gentle man’s head.

For starters, Joe was a devoted and much beloved son, brother, uncle and great-uncle. In his youth, his athletic prowess garnered attention as he became a champion sprinter for Dunkirk High School. A decorated veteran, Joe served his country in the U.S. Army during World War II for which he was awarded the World War II Victory Medal along with the Army of Occupation Medal (Japan). Musically inclined, he would trot out the “Pokrzywka accordion” to play duets at family gatherings. He was an accomplished photographer as well as a self-taught weather watcher.

A noted historian, Joe took great pride in preserving the very essence of our city and county for future generations. He was instrumental in establishing the Brooks Locomotive Train Exhibit at the Chautauqua County Fairgrounds. Over the years, he won the praise of city officials for his keen insight into the needs of the community and how to best meet them.

Joe also was a man of faith and conviction. This writer’s most vivid personal memory of him is at the Kosciuszko Club street dance in July 2007. At the urging of his brother, Bill Parks, I was bending Joe’s ear about the movement that was under way to close the Polish churches in Dunkirk and the proactive game plan Bill and I had drafted to thwart it. I rambled on and on stressing the gravity of the situation and how close we were to seeing both churches close while the parishioners remained asleep at the switch. Joe stood there stone-faced as he mentally processed what was transpiring. With a slight nod, his subdued yet firm response to me was, “Time to kick ass!” which I would adopt as my rallying cry.

Guess I can stop counting the hats now. I’m up to a baker’s dozen.

Joe’s list of achievements includes real life drama reminiscent of the movie, “It’s a Wonderful Life.” As a mere boy of 12, Joe saved his younger brother, Art Parks, from certain death while putting himself at great risk. In Art’s own words:

“I have one personal experience, out of the many fond and remarkable experiences I had with Joe, that occurred when I was about 10 years old. Joe and I were walking in a blizzard and spotted a car stuck on the railroad tracks on Nevins Street in Dunkirk. We both volunteered to push the car from the rear, but for some reason the driver put the gear in reverse. I was being dragged under the bumper and beneath the car. As fast as lightning, Joe lifted me out and threw me aside and then he also jumped aside. He saved my life!”

While Art thanks his brother for saving his life, the countless other people he touched thank Joseph P. Pokryzwka for enriching theirs.

Direct comments on this story to mherrington@observertoday.com