Joseph A. Borkowski
Joseph A. Borkowski: A Brief Biographical Sketch
During the course of his 95-years, Joseph A. Borkowski dedicated his life to the preservation and fostering of interest in ethnic and local history. Because of his active involvement with numerous civic, religious, and fraternal groups – and especially because of his long tenure with the Boys Club of Western Pennsylvania – Joe literally became a Lawrenceville institution. Although he received many awards during his life, the greatest and probably most important monument to his memory was the naming of a game room in his honor at the Estelle S. Campbell Boys and Girls Club. Local resident and Chairman of the Estelle S. Campbell Boys and Girls Club Board of Directors, Ray Czachowski, served as principal organizer and master of ceremonies of the dedication program, which took place on October 14, 2004. I considered it to be a great honor to be one of the speakers at the event to pay tribute to the man, who helped foster my interest in local history. Other keynote speakers for the occasion were Mike Hepler, President of the Boys and Girls Club of Western Pennsylvania, and Joe’s son, Edward Borkowski, Assistant District Attorney for Allegheny County. The highlight of the evening was a surprise visit by actress Deidra Hall, who is best known for her roles on “Days of Our Lives” and “Our House.”
All of the speeches were brief and pointed. Joe was a modest man, and it is doubted that he would care very much for people pouring out a lot of sentimentality about him. As each speaker rose to the platform, it became obvious that Joe was respected and admired for his role as a mentor. This was the fourth time that I had the opportunity to pay tribute to Joe: the first time was in a brief biographical sketch that appeared in an issue of Historical Happenings, the newsletter of the Lawrenceville Historical Society; the second was presenting him with a community award when the former Boys and Girls Club was closing; and the third was when I delivered the sad news of his passing before a group of Catholic men at the Holy Name Society of Our Lady of the Angels First Day of Recollection on February 23, 2003.
At the dedicatory ceremonies for the dedication of the “Joe Borkowski Memorial Game Room,” I noted:
There are many people who exert a positive and profound influence on the lives of others. These people are not great reformers who set out to save the world. They are just ordinary people, who do ordinary things in an extra-ordinary way.
Joe Borkowski was one of those “ordinary guys,” who spent the bulk of his 95 years just doing a lot of thankless tasks because he knew that those tasks would never get done if he did not do them. He never looked for a pat on the back or a trophy; he was simply part of the confraternity of men of good will, who dedicate themselves to trying to make our community a better place.
I guess I was eight or nine years old when I first joined the old “Boys Club,” and that was my first encounter with Joe. As I grew older, I became fascinated with Joe because he was always in the newspapers, either writing letters or articles, or being interviewed for crusading for one historical project or another.
Few people realize that Joe was responsible for restoring the monument dedicated to the soldiers buried on the grounds of Foster Community Center; single-handedly saved Saint Stanislaus Kostka Roman Catholic Church from being bulldozed; was able to get numerous historical markers erected in Pittsburgh, Erie, Lancaster, and other cities; saved some of the stones from the demolished Allegheny Arsenal gatehouse; and was responsible for the erection of the historic tablet in Arsenal Park.
Joe was always busy with one project or another. If it was not historic preservation, then he was researching and writing historical articles, manuscripts, books and booklets. Over the years, I lost track of just how much Joe wrote, and so did he. For Joe it was not the last article that he wrote, but rather he found solace in the project on which he was currently working.
Here was a man who led by example. He encouraged the boys who would come to the club to study hard in school, read their bibles, and go to church on Sunday. Often he would ask us if we had our homework done before he let us into the game room.
A man of whirlwind energy, Joe was active with Polish-American fraternal societies, veteran groups, civic societies, historical organizations, and church groups.
I think that when we recall a man like Joe Borkowski, we cannot help be reminded of the words of the great philosopher William James, who more than a hundred years ago, wrote, “The great purpose of life is to spend it on something that outlasts us.”
Even to the end, Joe was a great crusader to make a positive impact on our neighborhood. He was 93 years old when on a frigid and icy day, he dragged a reporter from the Post Gazette across the 40th Street Bridge to call attention to the deplorable condition of the metal shields on the bridge. As a result of that article, the Boys Scouts and other interested parties refurbished the bridge; so today we can enjoy the bright colors of those great crests. So another of his projects came to fruition for our benefit. Unfortunately, Joe did not get a chance to see the restoration effort.
So it was only appropriate that when the Lawrenceville Historical Society produced its latest book this year, A Doughboy’s Tale and More Lawrenceville Stories, it was dedicated to Joseph Borkowski, who began the movement of studying Lawrenceville history.
And it is equally appropriate that tonight, we honor Joe again by dedicating a tiny corner of God’s great and vast world to the memory of a man who served this community by doing so many ordinary tasks in such extra-ordinary ways.
Joe’s influence on people was probably best expressed by Len Rzoski, when he wrote in the dedication program:
The club doors opened and I provide my Club number to Bud Wesolek (another special Club mentor), went through the turnstyle, and raced up the stairs. As I was about to enter the room I suddenly was scared. What if I didn’t fit in? Would anybody pick on me? What if nobody wanted to play pool with me? I gathered up my courage and walked in to find a man wearing a white shirt and glasses reading THE PITTSBURGH PRESS. Somehow this man knew it was my first time. He put down the paper, peered over his glasses and said “Come in, how would you like to play a game of checkers?” During that game this kind man informed me that I could call him Joe and that he had two rules in his game room. Always be respectful of the Club and, most importantly, respectful of my fellow Club members. I went home that evening excited to tell my parents that I was one of the best checker players that Joe had ever seen. (I was pretty gullible back then.)
This brings me to today. I’m sure Joe would be embarrassed by all the attention he’ll receive posthumously today. He never seemed to be the kind of man who wanted to be the center of attention. Nevertheless, I wanted to do something to honor his memory, but what? Then it dawned on me that Joe himself had provided the answer some forty years ago, “Be respectful of The Club and most importantly your fellow man.” I hope I succeeded.
It has been more than two years since Joe’s passing and it has become apparent to a number of members of the Lawrenceville Historical Society that while everyone knew Joe Borkowski, very little exists to document his life, his many writings, and his other contributions toward historical preservation. Based on an obituary, written by Harry Tkach for the Post Gazette, Borkowski was born March 27, 1907, received his elementary education at Immaculate Heart of Mary School and Holy Family, graduated from Duquesne University with a bachelor’s degree in economics, and earned a master’s degree in history at the University of Pittsburgh. He was employed by the city of Pittsburgh for 27 years as an auditor-accountant, supervisor of the parking tax department, and manager of wage tax. He also worked for the Allegheny County controller’s office.
In his brief account of the life of Joseph Borkowski, Harry Tkach also noted that Joe was a World War II veteran, who served in the African and Italian campaigns. According to his son, Edward Borkowski, Joe raised money for Italian war orphans both during the war and after he returned to the states. The Tkach account also noted that in addition to be survived by his son, Edward, Joe was also survived by another son, Byron Kemmerling of Shaler; a daughter Lois Sovak of Penn Hills; four grandchildren; and six great-grandchildren.
Joe Borkowski was acknowledged as the “unofficial” Polish historian of Pittsburgh. Writer Jerry Vondas, who once interviewed Borkowski, was able to trace Joe’s interest in ethnic history to World War II when his officers noted his diligence as a researcher. They asked him to “research several of the military people and battles of the Civil War – especially those that had centered around Virginia. They also asked for a history of the early Virginia colonists.” Borkowski admitted to being surprised to find that there was a contingent of Polish artisans in the Jamestown colony in 1609. The Vondas’ article quoted Joe, “And these men, after voicing strong objections to being left out during a vote for the legislature, were given the right to vote. As far as I can surmise, they were the first ethnic group to be given the right to vote by the English colonists.
“The colonists didn’t want to offend them. The Poles were the primary manufacturers of soap, tar and pitch. They were also the glassmakers.”
In the interview with Vondas, Joe admitted that the discovery of the role of the Poles at Jamestown sparked his interest, and he was equally astonished to find plaques commemorating Casimir Pulaski, a Pole who led the colonial army against the British in the battle of Savannah and was killed in one of the charges against the British lines. “Our early history is laced with stories of Poles and their exploits, yet they were never given much credit in history books. It seems like all the early ethnic groups like the Irish and Germans were put down by American historians. Especially the German Catholics - they had a very difficult time in this area. The German Protestants also had their share of prejudice.”
In the role of Polish historian, Joe was instrumental in obtaining a number of historical markers and plaques. These included ones honoring Anthony Sadowski (Allegheny County Court House), Polish Volunteers in American Civil War (City Council Building), Marcella Sembrich (William Penn Hotel on the corner of Oliver Ave. and Strawberry Way), Polish Army Recruitment (97 S. 18th St., site of old Falcon Hall), Three Polish Army Chaplains (Immaculate Heart of Mary Church), Casimir Pulaski’s First Battle at Brandywine (marker on Highway #1 Chadd’s Ford), Pulaski’s Training and Recruitment Site (York, PA), Pulaski Banner Site (Bethlehem, PA), and Marie Sklodowska Curie (Graduate School, University of Pittsburgh, O’Hara St., Pittsburgh). The Polish prelate, Karol Cardinal Wojtyla, who would later become Pope John Paul II, dedicated the last plaque listed.
Borkowski was also instrumental in obtaining a plaque marking the 50th anniversary of the participation of American pilots in the Polish-Russian War. To obtain the markers, Borkowski, who served as Chairman of the Polish Historical Commission of the Central Council of Polish Organizations, researched and provided the necessary documentation. His writings included materials on Polish Pioneers of Pittsburgh; Anthony Sadowski; Christian Frederick Post; Marcella Sembrich; Madame Modrzejewska; Ignance Jan Paderewski’s first Pittsburgh Concert; Stanislaus Parzyk, the first Polish priest in Pittsburgh; Pittsburgh’s Part in the Formation of the Polish Army in France; History of St. Stanislaus Kostka Parish and Cemetery; Madame Marie Sklodowska Curie’s visit to Pittsburgh; History of Holy Family Parish; Colonial and Pre-Revolutionary Poles; and the Poles of Jamestown. It is unclear at this point how many of these pieces were published and how many were submitted as required source documents.
As President of the Central Council of the Polish Organizations, Borkowski served as Master of Ceremonies when the United States Post Office issued a stamp in 1966 commemorating a thousand years of Christianity in Poland. He also initiated the Polish Christian Millennium at the Civic Arena, which drew over 20,000 people.
Shortly after the Lawrenceville Historical Society was organized in 1982, one of its first acts of business was to name Joseph A. Borkowski as Honorary President because of his work as a pioneer historian in the field of local history. In 1955 Borkowski was involved with the restoration of the monument honoring the soldiers buried on the grounds of what is now the Foster Community Center. Then in 1962 he successfully convinced the Dolly Madison Chapter of the U.S. Daughters of the Veterans of 1812 and other parties to save the historic cast, which commemorated the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Allegheny Arsenal, and return the cast iron plaque to the grounds of Arsenal Park.
Joe and other civic-minded men also saved 35 of the historic stones from the demolished Allegheny Arsenal gatehouse, and moved them to Arsenal Park. Then on July 4, 1965, through Borkowski’s efforts a historic marker was erected on 40th Street to designate the site of the Allegheny Arsenal.
During the centennial of the Civil War, Joe Borkowski compiled a list of men under the command of the dreaded John Hunt Morgan, who were held prisoner at Western Penitentiary. (For more details about this episode in American history, go to the Lawrenceville Historical Society’s web site at
and read “Confederates in Pittsburgh,” which cites some of Borkowski’s material). He was also the first man to recognize the historical importance of Camp Wilkins, the first Civil War military camp of instruction in Western Pennsylvania, and his article on the subject, which appeared in the Western Pennsylvania Historical Magazine, remains one of the most definitive sources on the subject. Sources
Being a historian is not sometimes without controversy, and Joe found himself in a middle of a feud with Jack C. Rainey, the Allegheny County Director of Veterans Affairs, in May of 1962, after Rainey refused Borkowski’s request for thirty Confederate flags to be place on the graves of Confederate soldiers in Allegheny Cemetery and for the Confederate marker at West Park. Borkowski based his request on the fact that the idea of decorating soldiers’ graves originated in the Southern states. The battle for the flags soon spilled over into the newspapers. According to the Post Gazette, May 30, 1962, Rainey stated, “This is the North.” The article further reported, “Rainey flatly rejected the proposal and said the Confederate soldiers’ graves would be marked today with flags bearing stars and stripes and not stars and bars.
“Where bronze markers need replacing, Rainey added, they will bear the inscription GAR, standing for Grand Army of the Republic.”
Joe found allies for his cause. W. G. Brown of Brownsville, Pennsylvania, wrote a letter to the editor:
If the great county of Allegheny can’t afford Confederate flags and markers for those rebel dead, or won’t supply them, I suggest that Mr. Borkowski of the VFW Council get in touch with ANY county below the Mason-Dixon Line and I’m sure that they will be supplied.
Mr. Borkowski is evidently a veteran of a war himself, and as a veteran knows that ANY soldier has earned and is entitled to respect and honor in death. Those rebel dead on Northern soil evidently died far from home and probably as prisoners. . .they didn’t die for the Stars and Stripes…they died for the Stars and Bars, and they didn’t belong to the Grand Army of the Republic, and never could have, had they lived…using GAR markers for them is hardly fair to either them or their one-time enemies.
Thousands upon thousands of our Northern dead sleep on Southern soil, in spite of the fact that in Southern eyes they came as invaders and spoilers, there is no record of any Northern grave ever be violated or neglected by Southern citizens…quite the contrary in fact: it was these same defeated Southerners who began to care for Southern AND NORTHERN graves almost before the sound of the guns had died away…the GAR commander, Gen. Logan, borrowed the idea of Decoration Day FROM the Southern citizen.
As a veteran myself, and with a grandfather, a great-grandfather and three great uncles (two of the latter killed in action) who wore Blue in 1861, I am a bit ashamed that I live as close as I do to Pittsburgh…if Mr. Rainey represents Pittsburgh honor and chivalry.
The Richmond Times Dispatch also carried an editorial siding with Borkowski. There are countless examples in the South of the decoration of Union graves on Memorial Day with the stars and stripes. This tribute has been paid by the United Daughters of the Confederacy many times-in Virginia and North Carolina, to our certain knowledge.
Yet the head of County Veterans Affairs for Allegheny County, Pa., is so far behind the times that he insists on putting GAR markers over the graves of Confederate veterans!
It is comforting to reflect that Joseph Borkowski, Americanism chairman for the Veterans of Foreign Wars in Allegheny County, protested the decision, albeit without avail. He pointed out, among other things, that “the idea of decoration of soldiers’ graves originated in the Southern states.”
In an era when Arlington, the home of Robert E. Lee, has been turned into a national shrine, by vote of Congress, in a bill signed by a Republican President from Abilene, Kan., the attitude of Mr. John G. Rainey of Pittsburgh seems almost unbelievable.
So long before the issue of flying the Confederate flag was a source of national controversy, the battle of the flags was first waged in Lawrenceville in 1962.
Joe also attempted to organize a Lawrenceville Historical Association sometime in the late 1970’s or early 1980’s. However, there are no records to indicate that this organization was formally chartered. From personal recollections, there were one or two public meetings sponsored by the Lawrenceville Historical Association, so most likely this organization was severely limited in size and scope. However, it did provide a vehicle for Borkowski to push for historic preservation and community renewal projects; most notably the revitalization of Doughboy Square and the restoration of the Doughboy Monument at the junction of Penn Avenue and Butler Street.
Borkowski’s writings are scattered in various libraries and archives, and it is doubted that he ever bothered to catalog his works. The following constitutes a partial listing of his published writings:
o “Early Polish Pioneers In The City of Pittsburgh and Allegheny County” (1948)
o “The Lawrenceville Burial Ground and William B. Foster” (1955)
o “City of Pittsburgh’s Part in the Formation of the Polish Army – World War I 1917-1920” (1956)
o “Camp Wilkins: Military Post 1861,” Western Pennsylvania Historical Magazine, Vol. 45, September 1962.
o “Pittsburgh and John Morgan,” Pittsburgh Press, Sunday, July 31, 1963.
o “Selected Highlights of Poland’s History and of Polish American Historical Events,” Pittsburgh, PA: Polish Falcons of America, 1968.
o Historical Highlights and Sites of Lawrenceville Area (Comprising Present 2nd, 6th, 9th, and 10th Wards of the City of Pittsburgh), (1969).
o “The Role of Pittsburgh’s Polish Falcons in the Organization of the Polish Army in France,” (1972).
o The Poles of Erie (1972)
o “Prominent Polish Pioneers of the United States of America, 1770-1790” (1975)
o (With George Swetnam) “Our Military Heritage,” Bicentennial Commission of Pittsburgh, (1976)
o “Father Stanislaus Parzyk, C. P.,” (Booklet) Memorial Service and Dedication and Unveiling of the Plaque to Rev. Stanislaus Parzyk, Pittsburgh: Sponsored by the Passionist Congregation and the Polish Historical Commission of the Central Council of Polish Organizations, December 4, 1977.
o “History of the Central Council of Polish Organization in City of Pittsburgh, PA” (1980)
o Miscellaneous History of Lawrenceville (1989)
o “Holy Family Church 50 Years Ago, Fiftieth Anniversary of the Current Holy Family Church Building” Booklet, October 28, 1990.
o “200th Anniversary of the Polish Constitution,” Polish Day Anniversary Booklet at Kennywood (1991).
o “History of the Legion of Honor,” Sokol Polski, May 15, 1995.
In 1989 Joe was still active with many organizations, including the Polish National Alliance, Polish Roman Catholic Union, Polish Falcons of America, District IV (he served as secretary for this organization for 26 years), Legion of Honor Silver Medal of the Polish Falcons, American Legion, Boys Club of Western Pennsylvania, County Commander of the V.F.W. and the Chairman of the Americanism Committee of Allegheny County.
Over the years, Joe also received a number of awards, citations, and commendations from the American Pilots Association, V.F.W. Man of the Year, Allegheny County Bi-Centennial Heinz Foundation Medal, Arsenal Board of Trade Man of the Year, Polish Army Citation, Community Serve Award from the Boys and Girls Club of Western Pennsylvania, and the Service Award from the Catholic Diocesan Holy Name Union.
In the last few years of his life, Joe lamented that he was no longer able to research. In a personal conversation, he expressed disappointment that he was not able to institute a local historical society. He tried but at the time there was little interest in such a venture; so he took consolation in the fact that others were able to achieve such a goal – that being the creation of the Lawrenceville Historical Society. One might add that Joe probably never saw himself in the role as the one who created the awareness of our heritage, and by his writings and activism established a firm foundation for others to build upon. His last endeavor or crusade for the restoration of the plaques on the Washington Crossing Bridge cemented his place as the greatest of the warriors in the battle for historic preservation.
Shortly before death, I sensed that Joe realized his days were numbered. When I asked him if I could cite some of his materials in a project on which I was working, Joe replied, “You don’t need my permission. Use anything of mine that you want.” It was obvious that Joe simply wanted to keep alive the work that he started, and he was glad to see that there was a whole society dedicated to doing just that.
The news of Joe’s passing reached a small group of men on Saturday, February 22, 2003, as they just finished setting up for the following day’s luncheon for Our Lady of the Angels Holy Name Society’s day of recollection. Suddenly the festive day turned as frigid as the icy winds that were whipping outside of Saint Mary’s lyceum. The following day, the sad announcement was made prior to the lunch, a brief tribute was paid in Joe’s honor, and the assembly of about eighty men joined together in praying a traditional Catholic prayer for the repose of his soul. Yet a brief tribute hardly does justice to the memory of a man who dedicated so many years in service to the community – but great people do not look for accolades; they simply see a job that needs to be done, and they go out and do it.
At the dedication of Joseph A. Borkowski Game Room in the Boys and Girls Club, actress Deidra Hall said it best when she acknowledged after listening to the speeches that she did not know Joe, but those who did should count themselves lucky.
Indeed, we were all lucky!
Jerry Vondas, “He Digs Up Polish Roots,” The Pittsburgh Press, March 28, 1981.
“No Confederate Flags For Rebels Buried Here,” Post Gazette, May 30, 1962.
Fifty-Eighth Annual Polish American Day Booklet, August 1, 1989.
Estelle S. Campbell Boys and Girls Club Joe Borkowski Memorial Game Room Dedication (program booklet), October 14, 2004.
Letter from Joseph A. Borkowski, Chairman, Americanism Committee Arsenal Post, #897 V.F.W. to Jack C. Rainey, Director, Veterans Affairs, County of Allegheny, May 24, 1962.
Harry Tkach, “Obituary: Joseph A. Borkowski / Lawrenceville Historian,” Post Gazette, February 24, 2003.
W. G. Brown, “Rebs Buried Here Deserve Own Flag,” Letter to the Editor, Post Gazette, undated article in Carnegie Library, Fisk Street.
George S. Swetnam, “The Camp We Forgot,” Pittsburgh Press, September 16, 1962.
“As Others See It: It Happened in 1962,” Reprinted in Post Gazette, June 22, 1962, from Richmond Times Dispatch, June 17, 1962.
Sylvia Sachs, “Doughboy Square to be Rejuvenated,” (undated article in Carnegie Library, Fisk Street.
Collins Foster (1826-1864)
Born on July 4, 1826, while the country celebrated its 50th anniversary of independence, Stephen Foster has become Lawrenceville’s most famous native son. He was the son of William Barclay Foster, founder of Lawrenceville and Eliza Tomlinson. Foster’s parents moved to Allegheny City (now Pittsburgh’s North Side) when Stephen was very small.
He developed a love for music at a very tender age of about three or four, and from that point forward there was no stopping him. Foster is considered by many to be the world’s foremost composer, and is the only person to have written two state songs – “My Old Kentucky Home” (Kentucky) and “Swannee River” (Florida). A third song “Oh! Susanna” was considered by the state of California as being their state song, but it was rejected.
Today he is considered the founder of “Pop Music” and his works are played throughout the world. There are many books written on Stephen Foster and the University of Pittsburgh maintains the Stephen Foster Memorial Center in his honor. It is located in the Oakland section of Pittsburgh close to the Cathedral of Learning.