As the former director of the Rochester Community House for 42 years, Mary Lee Kowalczyk is considered somewhat of a legend in the Rochester community, where she has deep family roots and planted a family of her own with her late husband, Walt Kowalczyk, who passed in November at 82 years old.
"We were students at Michigan State University, and he was very arrogant," she said. "He was a football player, and our seats were very close. He said 'You see that girl, I'm going to marry her.'
“I asked him for tickets to a game for my boyfriend. He said, 'No, but I'll take you out for coffee.' We've been married for 63 years."
In 1956, Walt helped his team win the Rose Bowl against UCLA. Two years later, he was drafted in the first round by the Philadelphia Eagles as the sixth overall pick. He was later traded to Detroit, but was picked up by the Dallas Cowboys before the couple was able to return home. When Walt was traded to the Oakland Raiders, Mary Lee bought the couple's home in Rochester, where they settled and had three sons after he retired in 1961.
Despite some obnoxious Oakland Raiders and foulmouthed Philadelphia Eagles fans she endured, Kowalczyk said she enjoyed the time Walt played in the NFL. But it was when they settled in Rochester that her own work really started.
"I was a paralegal for Chrysler part of the time, and then I started working on the Community House in 1968, when it was just a concept," she said.
As a member of the Rochester Junior Women's Club, Kowalczyk was part of a group of women who were looking for a meeting place that local service organizations could use. To start fundraising, she joined forces with Jane Allen and Nancy Bishop – mother of Congressman Mike Bishop – to enter a scrapbook contest on behalf of the club. The women won, using the $14,000 prize as seed money for what would become the Community House.
"I worked there until 1978. At that time, it was getting stressful. We had the Rochester unification vote – when the city became Rochester and Avon Township was becoming Rochester Hills," she said. "We also had some political football in getting approval to bring alcohol to our wedding parties at the Community House. Later that year, I had a heart attack."
Despite health problems, Kowalczyk later returned to the Community House, serving as director until her retirement earlier this year.
"The vision was always for a place for community members and other service organizations," she said. "We knew we had to have a place for family weddings, gatherings and service organizations to meet."
Among her most cherished projects at the Community House are the Community Kitchen, which is intended to provide help to local residents through a well-prepared dinner one Sunday a month; and Benny's Kitchen, a pet-care pantry. While the kitchen project has recently been placed on hiatus since the chef left the Community House, Kowalczyk said hopes the new director can spur new interest with volunteers in the community.
Although she said she is concerned about the future of the non-profit, she said she has to distance herself while still offering support.
"It's difficult," she said. "Maybe I know too much about the background, and that's hard. Some younger folks don't know the history and could care less. But, it is as with everything. It's a gem."
Photo: Laurie Tennent