“Magic is the Spice of Life” – Honoring Ray Okonski

Grand Marshall for 2017 Polish Day Parade

By Frank J. Dmuchowski

It was billed as a night full of magic honoring Ray Okonski who is known as the “Ambassador Plenipotentiary and Magician in Residence”. This evening (June 10, 2017) was the annual fund raiser for the annual Hamtramck Polish Day Parade which is held each year on Labor Day. This year’s fundraiser, which was sponsored by Polish American Congress – Michigan Division, was held at the very popular American Polish Cultural Center and attended by over 175 Polonians. There was also a 34 page brochure with many pages of congratulations and thanks to Ray for all of his good works.

The night by coincidence was also a celebration of Ray’s 91st birthday which made the celebration a little more special (Mr. Okonski insists on be called Ray).
The evening is usually intended to be a humorous and good spirited “roast” of the guest of honor? But how do you effectively “roast” someone who continues to have such a distinguished career of providing so much assistance to Polonia through his wise counsel and financial assistance. Well that was the challenge for the Master of Ceremonies Judge John M. Chmura and four friends of Ray’s who are Sebastian Szczepanski, Michael Lesich, Michael Mandell and Dennis Walkowiak. They all tried their best but Ray managed to top them all!
Every “roaster” and every speaker thanked Ray for something special he had done for them or groups that they belong to. There was a number of very touching remembrances by the “roasters” and everyone else.

Ray Okonski has done so much for Polonians and most of it is completely unknown to Polonia. He believes in quietly working his magic and simply doing good. He is a major sponsor of scholarships through a foundation created by himself and his dear wife Suzanne who passed away. Another example has been his sponsorship to help get “Polish language proficiency” recognized on a high school student’s transcripts. To do this requires a national Seal of Bi-literacy exam which must be developed by an independent qualified test developer. Ray is helping this project to move along! In memory of his late wife, Ray along with the Friends of Polish Art established a literary competition program for young people. His generosity covers a wide range.

While there are so many other instances of Ray’s generosity to Polonia which are quietly known and deeply appreciated, he is also committed to developing a unique wheel chair escalator to assist those who are movement restricted. Ray, who was trained as an engineer at the University of Michigan where he received a master’s degree in business, has been working with the University of Detroit Engineering Department and the John Dingell Veterans Administration to develop the wheel chair escalator. Ray has brought the same engineering, financial and marketing talents to the project which led him to develop and lead the successful Michigan Dynamics corporation which was ultimately to become a part of the Fortune 500 corporation United Technology.
Ray’s interest in developing the wheel chair escalator can be viewed partially as a consequence of his having been a combat soldier during World War II where he would have seen first-hand the devastation of war. Ray received a Purple Heart as a result of being wounded during the fighting for the Famous Bridge at Remagen over the Rhine River on April 12, 1945. His unit, which was involved in heavy action, received a coveted Unit Citation and 3 battle stars. (Ray, thank you for your service, – Frank)

Ray who is a native Detroit Polonian said “he was born on Dorothy Street in Hamtramck in a second floor 5-room flat by a mid-wife”. His mother, Sophia Stella Okonski nee’ Szczesniak immigrated from Poland when she was 18. His father, Stanley Frank Okonski was born in Grand Rapids Michigan. Ray was their only child. He attended Queen of Apostles Grade School and Cass Technical High School. In his spare time in high school he became an Eagle Scout.

Ray is fond of telling how in high school he lettered in swimming and track and had his goals set on achieving similar recognition at the University of Michigan. However as he laughingly says: “ I was counseled to better spend my time working toward degrees in engineering and business”. Ray’s experience is a good example of his flexibility in problem solving and goal achievement which he utilizes to this day. He is also a great example of how enthusiasm, education and sharing one’s life experiences is a motivator to all of us.

Conclusion

The Hamtramck Polish Day Parade will be held this year on Monday September 4, 2017. Come and see the parade which begins at 1:30pm at the corner of Joseph Campau and Holbrook. This event is sponsored by the Polish American Congress – Michigan Division whose president is Anna Bankowski. The chair of the Parade Committee is Judge John M. Chmura. The PAC and the Parade committee put in a great deal of work to celebrate our Polish heritage in a wonderful joyful manner and in a way that brings memories of when Polish was the language you would hear spoken most often on the streets of Hamtramck.
Come to the parade and do take the opportunity to greet Ray. He would very much enjoy that! He may even have a magic trick to show you. After all, for Ray Okonski, “magic is the spice of life”.
“Ray thank you for all you have done and continue to do to keep Polonia vibrant! Sto Lat” -From Alicja Karlic, Editor and Publisher of The Polish Weekly, Frank J. Dmuchowski, Assistant Editor, Mike Szymanski, Columnist and the entire staff.

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