Most of you reading this will have no idea who “Polka Pete” is. In this post I hope to give you a snapshot a great man, who was enormously influential in my life.
Seventy-two or so years ago, when street cars were still the main mode of transportation, Pete met his wife, Alice. At around that same time he met my dad – Bill. It was the 1930s, the era of the great depression in Cleveland, Ohio. From those early days on, and as my dad met my mom, Mary, the four names – Pete & Alice, Bill & Mary, went together as though the four words had been coined by God to naturally flow from the lips.
Pete was many things in his life. An orphan, a baker, a friend, a husband, a father, a godfather, and so much more. But to me growing up, he was something that I have called no other in my life – a father figure. Many others are far more qualified to tell you the story of Pete the baker, Pete the dad, Pete the brother or Pete the Polka dancer. I want to tell you the story of Pete the godfather and father figure.
When I was born my parents brought me to the Catholic Church to be Baptized. They asked their best friends – Pete and Alice – to be my Godparents. In those days in the Catholic Church, Godparents were asked to see to it that a child was raised in the Faith should something happen to their parents. Most families gave little thought or care to such things. Whether my parents paid more than a passing mind to that is not known. What is known is that they made a good choice in my life.
My own dad, Bill, died in 1968 at the age of 49. I was six-years-old at the time. Completely unaware of the gravity of the circumstances, I remember that I cried, but without really knowing why.
In the next few years I watched as the “friends” of my mom and dad faded into the background. Names and faces that have long-since faded from my memory. Through it all, one couple was there – my godparents – Pete and Alice.
Pete was a fun loving man.
By day he was a baker. To this day I have somewhat of a discerning palette when it comes to fresh baked goods – no doubt influenced by the Danishes I ate with him.
Pete was a gardener. Some of the most beautiful flowers I have ever seen he grew effortlessly (or so it seemed to me), in his yard in Willowick, Ohio. I think that my love of taking macro pictures of flowers has been influenced by what he grew.
Pete could dance. There was a time in the 1980s and 1990s when the name “Polka Pete” was known at dance halls and street festivals throughout the Greater Cleveland area. When Pete came to dance, every lady was a potential partner. At my wedding in 1983, I distinctly remember him convincing members of the kitchen staff to take some time out to have a spin around the dance floor with him.
Pete was a sports fan. Those who know me, or who are my readers, know that my first passion in sports was baseball. I spent countless hours in the back seat of Pete’s car, traveling all around Ohio, listening to broadcasts of Cleveland Indians games. From time to time Pete would pick me up and take me to a ballgame at the old Cleveland Municipal Stadium. His brother was an usher there, and we were always sure to have a prime seat. Back then the Indians were the dregs of the league. But Pete taught me to be an enthusiastic fan regardless of the outcome, a trait I carry with me to this day – both in the areas of sports and in life in general.
My sometimes annoying love of History was shaped while taking long Sunday rides with Pete and Alice to all of the sites of Historical significance in Ohio. Along the way I experienced street festivals, reenactments, and got to see, touch and smell places that influenced our culture. I can’t watch an episode of American Pickers without wondering what treasures we might have found on those drives had we stopped in the places we saw.
In the years after my dad died, Pete was among the most consistent male, adult figures in my life. I can’t think of a single time when he sat me down to have a talk with me. It’s not that he set out to “teach” me how to live, how to be a man, how to be a husband or any of that. No, he didn’t set out to teach me….he just showed me.
I have been asked many times whether I had a “father figure” in my life after my dad died. When I was younger I vociferously protested that I had NO father figure. I didn’t want to think of my own dad being “replaced” in my mind. In more recent years I have mellowed and matured, and in doing so have recognized that there were positive male influences in my life. But still, I have stopped short of calling anyone a father figure.
Well, in my most honest moment I will tell you that one man truly was a father figure to me. Pete.
Pete passed away on a cold December day in Cleveland a few years back. Today, May 17th is his birthday. I don’t know what heaven is, but I do know this: If there is a dance hall in heaven, then there are many angels being spun around the polka dance floor. And between those spins around the dance floor there is a red-haired woman looking on – sometimes approving, sometimes exasperated, but always lovingly. And there is a buddy at the end of the bar hoisting a friendly beer with you. Yes, this weekend heaven is having a birthday party for Pete.
If you have stuck around long enough to read this entry, thank you. Honoring his memory by reading this note means something to me. If you are a person of prayer, please take a moment to pray. Pray that you will find and recognize the people in your life, like Pete, who have shaped you into who you are today. And pray that everyone you know will have the golden opportunity to experience a truly great person like Pete in their lives.