Still Proudly Standing in the Shadow of Sarge

The importance of a father in the life of a boy and then a man– fifty years on.

I remember everything, every detail, every emotion, as if it happened an hour ago.

It was a warm beautiful morning on Saturday June 25, 1966 that my brother, Mike, and I were loading the old Pontiac Grand Prix for a trip with our parents to picnic and relax at Kensington Metro Park in Oakland County. A good time was on the horizon.

Mike, who was 20 and studying business administration at Wayne State, had invited his then-girlfriend to join us for some swimming, relaxing, grilling and telling family stories – mostly about Mike.

I was a very awkward 13 year old, displaying the simultaneous beginnings of acne and a newly-minted teenager’s attitude.  But, somehow I knew that Mom, Dad and Mike would help me find my way.

Suddenly, at 11 am, without a hint of warning, was stamped a moment that is frozen forever in my memory.  It was the agonizing cry of my mother.

“Something’s happened to dad!! Something bad!!”

Mike and I rushed in the house to my parent’s room, where we found dad cold and lifeless. He had apparently died in his sleep of a massive heart attack and never thrashed about nor woke up.  He was simply called home by the God that he worshiped and he didn’t have time to say goodbye.

I rushed into living room, called the Livonia Police Department, told them what happened and they were there almost instantly, followed by the ambulance for the required journey to St. Mary’s Hospital.  Then I comforted my mother and she, in-turn, comforted me, while Mike – as he was so skilled at doing – got down to the business of the next steps.  Insurance policies, funeral details and expenses, calls to my dad’s siblings – all handled by my big brother without a hint of emotion. Because even with the sudden death of a parent, the business of life must go on.

As word got around our neighborhood, my friends – like Jim Burgel, Gary Sikarski and Terry Giese – rode their bikes over to just be friends and tell me how sorry they were to hear about the death of my dad.  And I still vividly recall the sights and sounds of that evening as I climbed a rickety rope and wood ladder, sat in my old treehouse in the backyard and started to cry.  I was utterly broken.

The immediate days ahead were just a blur.  Meeting with the funeral director, making the arrangements with my dad’s lifelong friend, Monsignor Tom Beahan at Our Lady of Sorrows Parish, for dad’s funeral mass and ensuring that the St. Hedwig’s Cemetery would be his earthy body’s final resting place.

After the funeral, we all struggled to get back on our feet and continue on with our lives.  But, each of us – mom, Mike and I – eventually settled in that place that we humans call the new normal.

He was always “Sarge”

Walter Joseph Stypula was born in Detroit on June 10, 1909.  He was the oldest of seven children (one of whom passed in childhood) brought into this world by my paternal Grandparents, Joseph and Alexandria Stypula, who had emigrated from Poland.  He was baptized at St. Hedwig’s Catholic Church, down the street from his childhood home on Konkel Street, and spent his early years focused on obeying mom and dad, getting an education, and eventually attending then-Lawrence Technical College, where he received a degree in Industrial Design.

In that epicenter of Polonia on Detroit’s southwest side, every first-born male child, like my dad, was named Walter. I have no idea why. To avoid confusion, each was given a nickname.  And from that point forward, Walter was known as Sarge.  Nobody knows why he was given that name, but that moniker fit him like a finely tailored suit.

Sometime in his pre-teen years, Sarge contracted polio, which severely altered, but never limited, his ability to walk and participate in various physical activities.  I can close my eyes right now and hear his distinctive gate, having to drag his left foot behind him as he made forward proress,  He never once complained about his so-called disability, focusing instead on living life, honing his design and engineering skills, starting a few businesses (which were wiped out during the Depression), having fun with his friends and finding a bride.

A very gregarious and outgoing charmsicle, Sarge doggedly pursued and eventually won the heart of a sassy and pretty young lady named Jenny Grabowski, the daughter of my maternal grandparents, Stanley and Alexandria Grabowski, who had also emigrated from Poland and settled in a nearby neighborhood.  They married on October 14, 1940 and lived in the upstairs of dad’s childhood home for a year or two, before buying a tiny house out in the “country” in Livonia Township.

Mike arrived in the world in 1946 followed by my arrival in 1953.  Mike had the clear characteristics of dad’s side of the family.  Extroverted and social, he could work a room like the old man, and just like dad, he was good with numbers and staying on task.

Taking after my mother more than him, I was shy and reserved – introverted actually. But dad would have none of it with me.  And so that’s how I got to be known as Sarge’s Shadow, a nickname bestowed upon me by his friends (yeah, all the Walters) and one that stayed with me for all the years until dad’s death. He took me to every Catholic Parish, Knights of Columbus Hall and the West Side Dom Polski, just down the street from his childhood home, ‘cause “if you’re gonna be my shadow you need to know how to talk to the important people.”  And those were his friends.

Aside from his love of my mother and his two sons, he cherished friendships more than anything else.  He was truly the kind of friend a friend wants to have.

From an early age I adored my father and followed him everywhere – to church, to Boy Scout meetings (he was assistant Scout Master), to meetings of the U.S. Naval Sea Cadet Corp (where he served as a second Lieutenant) and to every church picnic.  He would frequently take me to work, usually at the vast auto assembly plants across Detroit, where he designed tooling and manufacturing systems for the “Big Three.”  We’d ride in his signature golf cart (yup, regular gas engine belching toxins into the air) and watch him adjust his Polio-ravaged body into all contortions to take a measurement (yup, he taught me to measure twice and cut once), and check the “fit” of a machine or a tool assembly.

From trips to the Jack David Electric Train Store on Grand River, east of Greenfield (he would always get me something from the American Flyer collection) to cross-town journeys to refill the collection of vending machines he serviced across the city, to Belle Isle with the family to relax, to the social clubs to have a few Stroh’s tall boys with his friends as I sipped Faygo Rock and Rye, dad took me everywhere.  He was my hero and my rock and I was his shadow.

He taught me how to repair things around the house – the lawnmower, the plumbing, electrical stuff and all manner of gadgets. He would cut the lawn on Saturdays with his prized riding mower – always wearing his trademark outfit of blue dress pants, a crisply ironed white shirt and sometimes even his favorite accessory, a red tie.  I’d give anything to find an old photo of that scene, because it was so quintessential Sarge.

A week before he died, he bought me a brand new bike – a black Schwinn – with hand brakes and three speeds (almost unheard of in that day).  When we got home he taught me how to take it apart and put it back together so I would be able to fix it when he was at work. But, the most most important and enduring lesson that he taught me was how to recognize and repair strained relationships and friendships – simply by extending a handshake and saying that he was truly sorry things had gotten off track.

Fifty years on . . .

And there is not a day that has passed – not a single one – when I do not think about him and wonder . . .  what if?  What if he had lived a few years longer?  Would I still be the same person I am today?  Would his always thoughtful guidance, backed up by his commanding presence, have kept me out of the trouble – in every sense of the word – that I got into following his death?  What if he had lived long enough to have experienced the joy of being a grandfather?  I know for a fact he would have beamed with pride to hold his first grandchild, our daughter, Rebecca, and his three others – Heather, Jennifer and Mike.

Every single part of me, from my personality, my mannerisms to my kibitzing sense of humor and my more gregarious approach to life, somehow revolve around the lessons I learned from him. He taught me so many, many things.  How to schmooze, how to look another straight in the eye, extend a firm hand shake and make them the center of your attention.  And he taught me the fine art of how to bullshit (he signed the application for my license to BS).

But, most importantly, he taught me how to be a man.  A gentle, thoughtful man, who deeply loves the woman he married and the children that we together brought forth into this world.

Fifty years on . . .

And I still fondly remember everything about my dad – Sarge – how he lived his life and how much he meant to me, my mom, my brother, his siblings and his friends.  As an enduring testament to his character and integrity, we spent weeks in July, 1966 sending out more than a thousand Thank You cards to people who paid their respects at the funeral home, got down on their knees for Rosary or attended his funeral at Our Lady of Sorrow Catholic Church in Farmington.

Fifty years on . . .

And I still express each and every day from the furthest reaches of my heart and depths of my soul, my gratitude – to you my father — that of all of the men in the world, you are the one that I still call Dad.

And someday, when God calls me home, I look forward to seeing you, mom and Mike on the quiet, peaceful streets of Jerusalem.



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Don Stypula is a 60+ year-old bone marrow cancer surviver who lives in Grand Rapids, Michigan with his wife, Janice. The father of two adult daughters, his 40+ years of experience in communications, public policy and legislative relations have given him valuable insight into how people from all walks of life interact with each other and solve problems together.

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