New England - Polish New England

by Stephen R. Jendrysik

I am currently completing my first term as a member of the Board of Directors of the New England Chapter of the Kosciuszko Foundation. Recently, our chapter president, Carolyn Topor asked me to prepare some material for the foundation's national website. I was delighted. I recalled my visit to the United States Military Academy at West Point, New York. Towering over the Hudson River framed against the deep blue sky the marble image of the great Polish Engineer was a glorious site.

Thomas Jefferson described him as "the purest son of liberty," hailed as the "hero of two worlds" Thaddeus Kosciuszko, "Colonel of Engineers, Continental Army." On September 21, 1777, he was thousands of miles from home laboring in the picturesque foot hills of the Hudson River Valley. The young soldier/engineer had cast his lot with the American Revolutionary Movement. Operating from a small farmhouse on Bemis Heights, his hastily prepared fortifications would repulse the best army in the world. That day, the British failure to seize the high ground spelled defeat in the pivotal Battle of Saratoga.

In his "History of the United States" the famous American historian Edward Channing called the New York battle the turning point in the Revolutionary War indicating that: "whatever credit there may be would seem to belong to General Gates and to his Engineer, Kosciuszko, the Polander."

Dr. James S. Pula in his 1999 book, "Thaddeus Kosciuszko The Purest Son of Liberty," writes that: "Kosciuszko's masterpiece in North America was the fortress at West Point. Beginning with a rough, rocky hill over the Hudson River, Kosciuszko's genius created a citadel which still exists today as the home of the United States Military Academy."

In 1924, Dr. Stephen Paul Mizwa, an economics professor at Drake University, organized the Polish American Scholarship Committee. The committee was among the first exchange programs with the recently united Polish State. Five out of the first eight students came to America to study business administration and economics at prestigious American universities. The scholarship committee was the beginning of the Kosciuszko Foundation.

The man who created the foundation came to America in 1909. Stephen Mizwa's first goal was to reach Northampton, Massachusetts, where an earlier Polish immigrant Joseph Stonina lived. The Stonina Family helped the seventeen year old find work at the Williams Manufacturing Company, then believed to be the largest basket-making factory in the world. For the rest of his life, Dr. Mizwa retained the letter of commendation he received from the Williams shop foreman Clifton J. Hanna.

The young man enrolled at the Carnegie Institute located on Gothic Street in Northampton. Smith College girls volunteered as teachers. The classes were small of about five or six people at a round table. He enrolled in an English class. His first teacher, Alice Steele Kent, convinced her prized pupil to enroll at American International College. She assured him that the pre-college program was intended for young men, foreign born but anxious to learn.

He worked briefly in a Chicopee cotton mill, but his ability to speak English landed a day-time job as a retail clerk. He attended school in the evenings, and by 1913, he finished the grammar school course and within the following three years, completed all the college preparatory courses. Allison Lockwood, writing in the Hampshire Gazette, reports that: "In 1916, he graduated together with four Italians, two Ukrainians, another Pole, one American and one Greek. Four of the young men went off to college."

Mizwa's support group during those years was the Stonina family. The family was living in Chicopee and his young friend Anthony Stonina had just opened Chicopee's first filling station. Although accepted at Princeton, Mizwa entered Amherst College which granted him a full scholarship. In 1920, he graduated cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa and won a masters from Harvard the following year. In 1921, at the age of 29, he became an assistant professor of economics at Drake University. About that time the Stonina Brothers were in the automobile business selling Pontiac Sensible Sixes in a business they called the Chicopee Tire and Accessory Store. When Mizwa gained the financial support of Samuel M. Vauclain, the President of the Baldwin Locomotive works, which had sold locomotives to Poland, his fledgling foundation was launched. The year was 1925, Chicopee Alderman Tony Stonina was one of the first contributors to the Kosciuszko Foundation and its loudest supporter in western New England.

Stephen Mizwa would devote the rest of his life to its mission of scholarly and cultural relations between the United States and Poland. During the difficult years of the depression, the Baldwin Company failed and Mr. Vauclain withdrew his support for the project. During those difficult years, the help and encouragement of his old friend kept the dream alive. A. J. Stonina, New England's first Polish American mayor rallied support in the region's Polish communities and as the economy revived the foundation regained its stability and was able to survive. After serving twenty years as the foundation's secretary, in 1955, he became the president of the foundation, serving for the next fifteen years. The final resting place for this extraordinary American is a little hillock in the Holy Mother of the Rosary Church Cemetery on Bennett Street in Chicopee, Massachusetts.

Today, the New England Chapter of the Kosciuszko Foundation is busy keeping the seventeen year old immigrant boy's dream alive. As relations between the United States and Poland reach unparalleled levels of support and cooperation, the Kosciusko Foundation remains in the forefront.

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