Sept. 30, 1925 - Aug. 30, 2012
Michael J. Kogutek, the first Polish-American to serve as national commander of the American Legion, died Thursday in Fox Run, Orchard Park, where he had been a resident for the past four years. He was 86.
Mr. Kogutek was only the third New Yorker to become national American Legion commander and the first from Western New York when he was elected at the national convention in Boston in 1980.
During his year as commander, he visited all 50 states and traveled to the Far East, where he had served in World War II. He and his family met with President Ronald Reagan in the White House.
He advocated for medical benefits for veterans, notably for Vietnam War veterans suffering from the effects of the chemical defoliant Agent Orange. He had served on the national American Legion executive committee since 1981.
Mr. Kogutek was state American Legion commander in 1968-69. When he was Erie County American Legion commander in 1964-65, he was elected a life member of his home post, Matthew Glab Post 1477 in Lackawanna.
He joined the post as a charter member in 1946 after serving as a petty officer second class on board landing craft in the Navy for three years in the South Pacific. He served as post commander in 1961.
He also was a life member of Col. John B. Weber Post 898, Veterans of Foreign Wars, in Lackawanna and a member of the Polish Legion of American Veterans U.S.A. and the United States Unit of the Army-Navy-Air Force Veterans of Canada.
Mr. Kogutek served as chairman or honorary chairman of several state American Legion conventions in Buffalo and Niagara Falls, including back-to-back conventions in 1983 and 1984.
Born in Lackawanna, he attended Lackawanna High School. He studied industrial and labor relations at Cornell University and earned an associate degree in science from Empire State College.
Returning from service, he got a job at Buffalo Brake Beam Co. in Lackawanna, working in shipping and as a foreman before he became plant manager.
Active in Republican politics as a committeeman locally and an adviser on the state level, he served for four years as commissioner of public works for the City of Lackawanna after engineering a Republican victory as campaign manager in the mayor's race in 1972. He served as Lackawanna police commissioner in 1956-57 and ran unsuccessfully for mayor of Lackawanna in 1983.
In 1982, he was appointed Erie County occupational safety and health coordinator. He served as president of the Western New York Safety Conference and was a director emeritus.
Mr. Kogutek was a former president of the Lackawanna Chamber of Commerce and past president of the Buffalo Ambassadors and the Central Railway Club of Buffalo.
He was a life member and third- and fourth-degree member of the Knights of Columbus. He was a member of the Holy Name Society at Our Lady of Victory Basilica and a member of the Polish Union of America.
He received numerous honors and awards. He was named Legionnaire of the Year by the New York State American Legion Press Association in 1979. The Am-Pol Eagle named him National Citizen of the Year in 1980. He was presented the Sacred Wampum Belt of the Six Nations Veterans Association.
In 1992, he was named to the U.S. delegation that flew on Air Force One to escort the remains of Polish prime minister and pianist Jan Paderewski to Poland for interment. Paderewski, whose dying wish was to be buried in his homeland after it regained its independence, had been interred in Arlington National Cemetery for more than 50 years.
Mr. Kogutek's wife of 57 years, Dorothy Druzbik Kogutek, died in 2003.
Surviving are a son, Michael D., and a daughter, Sharon.
A Mass of Christian Burial will be offered at 10 a.m. Wednesday in Nativity of Our Lord Catholic Church, South Buffalo Street and Thorn Avenue, Orchard Park.