Henry Swiderski, Sr., was born in a small town in Poland, immigrated to the United States when he was 25, and lived the remainder of his life in the Chicago area. He passed away peacefully on Tuesday, January 4, 2022, at his home in Skokie, Illinois, after battling cancer for many years.
Henry was born in a small town in the Pomorze region of Poland, to Valeria and Bruno Swiderski. Henry is preceded in death by his parents, sister Halina (Frank) Hoyner and brother George (Slava) Swiderski. He leaves behind sister Henia (Witold) Pruszynowska and brother Casimir (Zofia) Swiderski. He is survived by his wife, Margaret Swiderski, and four children: Irene (Patrick) Murphy, Christine Swiderski, Anne (Dan) Behrens, and Henry (Cindy) Swiderski. Henry was blessed with eight grandchildren: Lance (Sarah), Drew (Jennifer), Wade and Grant Behrens; Alexa Murphy; and Ryan, Collin and Connor Swiderski. Henry was also blessed with three great-grandchildren, Dillon, Arya and Lilah, and 13 nephews and nieces.
Typical of rural life in Poland, Henry’s early years were spent helping to care for the animals, orchards and vegetable plots on the family’s farm, and attending a one-room schoolhouse a few kilometers away. He learned to fish and hunt to supplement the family’s meager resources. The time he spent in the forests sparked a lifetime love of nature and aspirations to become either a forest ranger or an estate caretaker like his father.
Those dreams were shattered when the Nazis marched into his homeland and stripped his family of all they had. After being conscripted into the German army at 16 years old, surviving a train transit during the bombing of Berlin, and being sent to fight in France, Henry was able to escape and eventually join the Polish Army in Italy under British Command. One month before the war ended, he was wounded in a land mine explosion in southern Italy, requiring hospitalization and 8 months of rehabilitation. He received medals for Service in the Polish Army and for the campaigns he fought in with British, Italian and Carpathian forces, and was awarded the Wounded Star in the Italian Campaign. After the war ended, Henry became one of thousands of Polish soldiers who took advantage of an Allied Forces resettlement program in England. Seeking to be self-sufficient, he enrolled in four years of vocational training at the Tailoring & Cutting School in London, receiving a diploma upon graduation and the skills to earn a living on his own.
In 1951, Henry set sail for the US, eventually settling in the Chicago area and landing a tailoring job with Fashion Clothing Co. in the Chicago Loop. While working full time, Henry enrolled in the Wells High School adult education program to pursue the high school diploma denied him by the war, and after four years, was elected speaker of his graduating class. Once Henry met his five-year residency requirement, he proudly became a US citizen. In the years that followed, he worked tirelessly to earn the money to become a sponsor for his parents and siblings so that they too could come to America and escape the dismal economic conditions in communist Poland.
In his career as a Master Tailor/Fitter, Henry worked for only two men’s clothing stores: Rothschilds and Baskin. Understanding the strength of numbers and teamwork early on, Henry joined the Amalgamated Clothing Workers Union, Local 39. He quickly moved up into leadership positions, and in 1962, Henry was elected President of Local 5, a position he would hold for 30 years. In service to the Labor movement, Henry took on a 6-month union-organizing assignment in California and attended many work-related CE courses and seminars. He sought to advance his education and understanding of labor issues by attending night school at Roosevelt University in Chicago for four years, earning the equivalent of an Associate degree. After he retired from his tailoring job but was still active in the ACWU, Henry would become one of twelve seniors nationwide honored with the first annual Silver Seniors award for outstanding leadership and service on behalf of the Union.
Henry was very active in the Polish version of Friends of Scouting, serving on the executive board and organizing fundraisers, one of which was the fateful dance at which he met Margaret and fell in love. In 1957, Henry and Margaret married, and in 1963, when the Chicago apartment became too small for their growing family, they moved to a snug little house in Skokie, Illinois. Over the years, they were blessed with four children, and with hard work and careful money management, gradually saw their American dream come to fruition. Henry loved to explore new places. Every summer he would travel the country with the family wedged in amongst the camping gear in the trusty Chevy Impala. The most ambitious trek was to Yellowstone, the Grand Tetons, Glacier NP and Banff/Jasper in Canada, an adventure in bear country and why cars need power steering and a spare tire that no one will ever forget.
Henry was very much a Renaissance Man. He enjoyed ballroom dancing (he met his wife at a dance!), playing accordion and harmonica, and listening to classical music, but he could also change the oil on a car, fix things when they broke, and tell stories of the Old Country by the campfire. He was obsessive about jigsaw puzzles, loved to play chess, and was quite skilled at bridge and other card games. He was a creative and undeterred do-it-yourself-er, often letting dinners go cold and waking the house with the sound of hammering after hours. His sour cream and sugar-laden potato pancakes, when he decided to make them, never had leftovers. Extended family gatherings were not to be missed, and he remained close with his brothers and sisters and their families his entire life.
After his retirement, Henry travelled the world with Margaret. Together they toured countries in Europe, the Caribbean, Central and South America, many US states on the East and West coasts, and Alaska. When not travelling, he would spend his time working on home improvement projects, helping out his neighbors, fishing with friends on Lake Michigan, tending his herb and vegetable garden, and going to his grandkids’ many dance, music, sporting and school events. Henry will be lovingly remembered as a resourceful, resilient, family-oriented man who selflessly and tirelessly gave of himself to benefit both the ones he loved and many others who just needed a hand.
“Do what you can, with what you have, where you are.”
– Theodore Roosevelt (1858-1919)
Memorial Gathering, Saturday, February 5, 2022, from 2 p.m. until time of Memorial Service, 3 p.m., at HABEN Funeral Home & Crematory, 8057 Niles Center Rd., Skokie.
[Please note: In compliance with CDC, State, and local COVID guidelines, face masks are mandatory indoors regardless of vaccination status.]
In lieu of flowers, contributions may be made in Henry’s name to the Chicago Botanic Garden, 1000 Lake Cook Rd., Glencoe, IL, 60022 (chicagobotanic.org) or the American Cancer Society, P.O. Box 22718, Oklahoma City, OK, 73123 (cancer.org).
Funeral info: 847.673.6111.