When I think of the qualities I look to emulate in other people, I think of hard work, selflessness, and the love of family. I consider these to be foundational qualities. I am blessed to have known many people throughout my life who possess these qualities, but one person in particular was my grandfather, Donald Svitak. Born and raised in Berwyn, Illinois, he graduated from Fenwick High School (later, my father would graduate there, too). He would go on to serve in WWII as a member of the U.S. Air Force before being honorably discharged. After the war, he received a Bachelor of Science degree from the Division of Special Services for War Veterans at the University of Illinois in 1948. In 1949, he married my grandmother, Becky, and they settled back in Riverside, Illinois. Seven kids later, my grandfather had started a successful Buick dealership in Berwyn, and he even served as president of the Chicago Automobile Dealers Association. Some of you in the area may remember the name Svitak Buick, which later became Castle Buick. He worked extremely hard to provide for his
growing family. Based on the stories I’ve heard from my father, he ran a tight ship.
I was the firstborn in my family; my grandparents were my first babysitters. My grandfather showed my siblings and me the same love and affection my dad had known as a kid. What I always appreciated, and still do, was that he treated us as adults. Other than my own parents, my sense of responsibility came from my grandfather. There was never a task or job that was too big, especially when it came to helping my family. Having left their mark in Chicago, my grandparents decided to follow my Uncle Don out to Fort Collins, Colorado, to retire. There, he regularly welcomed his seven kids and 17 grandchildren for visits throughout the year. He continued to beat me in golf well into his 70s, no matter how much further I could hit the ball off the tee. For his 80th birthday, the entire family made it out to Fort Collins for a celebration. Shortly after turning 85, and right before his 60th wedding anniversary, my grandfather passed away peacefully in his home.
Donald and Becky Svitak, 1988
The life and legacy my grandfather built is reflected now in his family. I am inspired by his service to his country, his dedication to his education and work, the countless sacrifices he made for his children, and the love he showed each member of his widespread family. He’s taught me to take advantage of life’s opportunities, many of which I have because of him. Most importantly, he’s taught me how to live and work for others. As my family continues to grow, I can think of no better source of inspiration than my grandfather.
THE DONINI SISTERS: PILLARS OF SUPPORT
The people who had the greatest impact on my life are the Donini sisters: Frances, Helen, and Kit (my mother). Their story, and how they lived by putting their sisters and family first, colored my world growing up and still blends into my family’s life today. My mom and her sisters were born to Italian- American immigrants in the 1920s. When my mom was only 9 months old, their father, Ubaldo, was killed. Her mother, Nellie, had no one to turn to and could not afford to keep her three daughters. She was forced to place them in an orphanage in southern Illinois, where they stayed for seven years. This orphanage does not bring back fond memories for the Donini sisters, but Fran, the oldest, remembers doing everything she could to keep them together during that time. When my grandma was able to provide for them, she brought them back home. Life was difficult as a single mom during the Depression; she worked long, hard hours, and her daughters were left alone with only one another’s company. Growing up with four sisters of my own, I remember my mom often telling us, “Be nice to each other, because at the end of the day, all you have is each other.” We would roll our
eyes at her, but to my mom and her sisters, it was the truth. They never had much growing up, but they had each other. As I grow older, I know now what strong support systems sisters can provide, and I am so grateful that I have them. My aunts, Fran and Helen, were both unique characters in the vein of an Anne Tyler novel. Fran never met a stranger and has more friends and “adopted” family members than anyone I know. It is inspiring how she enjoys being around people and making friends, even becoming lifelong friends with someone she sat next to on a plane. Helen was like a kid herself, always wanting to play games and laugh with us. We have great memories of watching Miss Universe pageants with her and making necklaces out of Doublemint gum wrappers. They both attended all of my sisters’ and my school programs, birthday parties, and holidays; the flashes of the instamatic cameras always let us know they were there. My mom was an unbelievable mother, especially in light of the fact that she didn’t really have a model to follow, as her own mom was unable to be with her when she was young. She was a person that did not need
material things; rather, she got joy from giving us a safe, loving, and fun home. She made our lives rich by giving us the Donini sisters. My sisters and I always knew that our true family extended beyond our immediate family to include my aunts’ families as well. A birthday celebration wasn’t quite complete until you saw the aunts’ cars pull into the driveway. That sense of “completeness” carries on to the next generation. My children are happiest when they are with all of their cousins, aunts, and uncles, most likely jammed into the smallest room of my mother’s house. Now that the matriarchs are in their 90s, I look at our big growing family and see their influence everywhere. I realize how lucky we are to have had them so long, and I am glad that they have been able to witness how their lives and love for each other have been emulated by generations of their family.
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