Schools, City Offices Closed as State Holiday Honors Pulaski : It's a Great Day for the Polish--but Mostly in Chicago

Times Staff Writer

"Good morning, Chicago!" the radio announcer said cheerily. "It's a cloudy Monday morning. March 3rd. And it's . . . Casimir Pulaski Day! "

The announcement caused more than a few people to wake up a bit confused Monday morning. But it was no joke. The public schools were closed. So were city offices and some banks.

It was indeed Casimir Pulaski Day, a new state holiday.

No state had ever set aside a holiday honoring the Polish-born general in the American Revolutionary Army whose accomplishments are usually summed up in a sentence or two in American history books. Pulaski died, at age 31, in the siege of Savannah in 1779.

Never in Illinois

When the state honored him on Monday, more than one resident asked: "Casimir who?" The confusion was understandable. Pulaski never laid eyes on Illinois.

But Chicago's Polish community of nearly 1 million, the largest outside of Warsaw, knew who he was. They joyfully saluted their ancestor's birthday (which actually is today) with oom-pah-pah music and vodka toasts. After all, it had taken state Sen. LeRoy Walter Lemke 13 years to get the Legislature to put the holiday on the books.

The town of Mount Pulaski, a community of 1,700 in central Illinois named for the general, celebrated with a Polish sausage dinner at the American Legion Hall and raffled off a Chevrolet van in his honor. Mount Polaski has few, if any, Polish-American residents, but it has been celebrating his birthday for years.

While they are always ready for Pulaski Day in Mount Pulaski, the holiday caught people in much of the rest of the state by surprise. Teachers were reminded of the new holiday two weeks ago, spurring quick history lessons in many schools.

'Prominent Citizen'

The officials of one Chicago school would have done well to attend such a session. They notified parents of the holiday, incorrectly describing Pulaski as "a prominent citizen of our city."

While not yet a household name in Illinois, Pulaski is well-known on Chicago's Near Northwest Side, where signs above tidy storefronts are still written in Polish and women in long dresses and babushkas lug shopping bags past silver-haired men who debate the issues of the day in their native language.

Pulaski "typifies our kind of people, people who came here to work in the steel mills of Illinois," says Lemke, the Democratic state senator who sponsored the legislation. The holiday "teaches our young to recognize the historical contributions of people from foreign countries."

Forced to Flee

Born to nobility on March 4, 1748, Pulaski took part in an uprising against King Stanislav II in 1769 and was forced to flee Poland after his brothers and father were killed in the failed attempt.

He made his way eventually to France, where Benjamin Franklin recruited him for the Revolutionary War effort. George Washington welcomed him, and Pulaski joined officers from France, Prussia and Germany to fight the British.

His efforts were considered valiant, but largely unsuccessful. He organized and led a cavalry corps, losing several battles before he was fatally wounded. He died two days later aboard the Wasp in Savannah Harbor.

Not Liked by All

Not everyone in Illinois liked the idea of Pulaski Day.

"Personally, I think it's ridiculous," said Christine Packard, an ad agency worker in Chicago. "I mean, there's no Ben Franklin holiday. You don't just go and give everyone a holiday."

"Frankly, it's an aggravation," said Ken Cuclich, a management consultant from suburban Chicago. "I've got two kids in school and I had to make arrangements to have them watched today."

Jennifer Strahorn, a high school junior, was relaxing at home in Winnetka on the new day off while her parents spent the holiday, like most workers in Illinois, at work.

Part of her school's history lesson on Pulaski included a primer telling how he earned an official holiday in the first place. It was a lesson in Illinois politics, rather than American history.

"Some northern representatives were going to vote for something the downstate representatives wanted if the downstate representatives gave all the public schools off for Pulaski Day," she explained.

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