You’ve probably heard of Richard Solecki, the president of the Polish American Congress’ local chapter. A former two-term Cheektowaga Town Board member, Solecki has been active in local politics for years. He worked as an aide for former State Sen. Mary Lou Rath, and he served as local representative for Gov. George E. Pataki. In 1998, he lost a bid for Erie County Clerk against David Swartz.
Solecki, who is also a Realtor, started as president of Polish American Congress, Western New York division, in 2005.
Founded in Buffalo, the congress will mark its 70th anniversary this year in Buffalo, with a series of events that start May 29 at the Millennium Hotel at 2040 Walden Ave. For a schedule, visit www.pac1944.org.
Solecki, 66, and his wife of 35 years live in Depew. They have one daughter.
People Talk: What’s Lech Walesa up to these days?
Richard Solecki: Raking in money. He’s a Nobel laureate so he’s on the speakers’ circuit. He’s no longer in politics. He’s a heck of a guy. I knew him when his mustache was still up, dirty fingernails. He was an electrician in a boat-building yard in Gdansk. I spent a night in his home. I knew his kids, his wife. I almost got arrested with him. We were conducting some interview we shouldn’t have been. I got thrown out of the country for almost four years.
PT: What did your mother say?
RS: At first she was ashamed. Her son’s getting thrown out of the homeland. But she understood. It was Communism.
PT: How did you take it?
RS: Terribly. I was looking forward to going back to Poland, but I when get off the airplane in Warsaw there they are: ZOMO, the secret police. Interrogations. They searched me. They took some things and gave me 24 hours to leave the country. Back then I knew the Polish Cardinal Glemp, and I thought maybe somehow he could solve the situation. He made a few phone calls and said: “Richard, Richard, you’re being thrown out from the top.” So I went back to my hotel and called Jack Kemp. Getting a phone line out was difficult during Communism.
PT: As congress president, what has been your shining moment?
RS: Keeping the organization afloat in Western New York. We had 10,000 people here in 1944. We’re expecting nowhere near that amount for the 70th anniversary. We work hard to commemorate national observances and traditions and in keeping the language alive. We have a Polish Saturday school at St. John Gualbert in Cheektowaga where kids and adults can learn the Polish language.
PT: What are some issues facing the Polish American Congress?
RS: Foremost is the Polish visa immigration waiver bill that we need passed in Congress. We’re about 50 votes shy. The Lt. Col. Matt Urban grave site at Arlington National Cemetery should be distinguished because he is one of America’s most decorated combat soldiers, not because he’s Polish. Young people – we lack that. We need to encourage our scholarship program.
PT: What is your greatest challenge as congress president?
RS: Lack of involvement. I’d like to have 10,000 members in Western New York. We have a large organization when you put all the numbers together, and we have 18 member organizations: Chopin Singing Society with 200 members. The Polish Heritage Dancers and Polish Legacy Project. Andy Golebiowski’s group.
PT: Do you have many members who are veterans?
RS: We only have five or six pure World War II veterans, my mother being one of them. They’re all in their 90s. My mother was in the Air Force in Britain. My father was a Polish pilot who served in Britain. My mother turns 90 in October. She gets Meals on Wheels. Through the war, my mother was sent to the Siberian gulags. She saw her father hung. Her little nephew died on the train. She had a tough, tough life.
PT: And here you are, a former Cheektowaga Town Board member.
RS: It was sort of different as a Republican. I was a councilman for eight years. It wasn’t easy. I went door-to-door for nine months.
PT: Are you retired?
RS: Yes, I don’t work anymore, but I still have my real estate license. I just sold a house last week. I do one a month. It gives me spending money.
PT: What have you learned from your years in politics?
RS: I liked it more back then. It’s so broken today. You can’t sit down and talk. It’s all blasting each other in the paper. It just got ugly. It was ugly back then, but it was a different type of ugly. Nobody took it to heart. People would kill each other today. I just don’t like the way things are.