A family's heritage helps shape its future
by Cindy Davis Meixel, writer/video editor. Photos by the author, except as credited.
At the age of 12, Andrew Klimek was told he needed to learn a trade in order to survive.
It was 1944, and Klimek was an orphan ensconced among a circle of blacksmiths in a Polish refugee camp in Africa. Four years earlier, he and his family had been forced from their home in eastern Poland following its Soviet invasion during World War II. Along with thousands of other Poles, they were exiled to a forced-labor camp in Siberia. Two years later, with the Soviet shift to the Allied forces, Klimek was among the fortunate few who were liberated and sent south, traveling through Uzbekistan and Persia (Iran) en route to British colonial Africa. Along the way, his parents perished; one of his four sisters died after arriving in Siberia.
The young boy reached the Port of Durban in South Africa and was transferred to Tengeru, Tanganyika (Tanzania). It was there that Klimek began working with metal, forming the steel rims from tires into curved swords, learning how to sharpen steel and shape handles.
Today, another Andrew Klimek is continuing the craft of his grandfather. Anvils, hammers, chisels and hacksaws have been replaced by electric discharge machining and precision cutting to eight-billionths of an inch (or 0.002 microns).
"The one thing my grandfather always said was that education was the most important thing you can have."
In the Machining Technologies Center on the campus of Pennsylvania College of Technology, the younger Andrew inspects his work before starting the spark erosion process in a wire-cut EDM machine. High-frequency electrical discharges cut a computer-programmed shape, the excess material melting away with each spark. The rapid action has been described as "the world's smallest and fastest lightning storm."
Keenly aware of the pain of the past and the brilliant possibilities in his future, Andrew is attentive to opportunities.
"The one thing my grandfather always said was that education was the most important thing you can have. It's something no one can take away from you. They can take away everything; they can take away your paper diploma, but you will still have all the knowledge," said the 20-year-old manufacturing engineering technology junior from Cherry Hill, N.J. "I've always been taught: effort in, reward out. It's pretty incredible how much you can achieve with the effort you put in. I'm taking as much advantage as I can now of my education and this college, the labs, the technology."
His grandfather always dreamed of attending college, but never could. Still, he shaped his future with self-sufficient grit and a steely work ethic. After four years of metalsmith training and regular schooling in Tenguru, he arrived in England at the age of 17 to join a surviving sister. In the streets of a Northhamptonshire village, Klimek sat outside a trade school operated by other Polish refugees and begged for admittance. He had no money to pay for classes, but persistently assured the teachers he had the skills needed, and they eventually opened the doors.
During his time in England, Klimek met his future wife, Genevieve, who had also survived Siberia, lost family members and was transported to refugee camps in Africa. After marrying in 1953, the young couple departed for the U.S. a year later, meeting up with sisters in Passaic, N.J., and Philadelphia.
For 26 years, Klimek worked in a metal shop in northeastern Philadelphia. When he wasn't working, he regularly sought training to upgrade his skills and earn certifications. For the remainder of his career, he worked as the lead welder – a first-class mechanic welder – at Drexel University. In addition to making repairs to campus facilities, he assisted engineering faculty and students by welding their projects. He retired five years ago at the age of 77.
On Labor Day weekend last year, the elder Klimek set foot in Penn College's manufacturing labs and was astonished by what he saw.
The unusual, last-minute request for a Sunday tour on a holiday weekend was received and granted by Andrew's instructor, Tom Livingstone, associate professor of machine tool technology and automated manufacturing. Via a phone call from his student, Livingstone learned that the Klimek family was traveling nearby; he only knew cursory details of his student's grandparents.
When the elder Klimek stepped into the Penn College labs, he was in awe at what he perceived to be manufacturing equipment that stretched "the length of football fields."
"When he walked into the shop, he was stunned and speechless," said Richard A. Klimek, father of young Andrew and son of the elder. (Richard spoke on behalf of his father, who was unable to be interviewed over the phone due to hearing difficulties.) "He knew a lot of the equipment and what it could do. He kept saying, 'I wish we'd had this when I was working, I wish we'd had that.' For days after that, it's all I heard about.
"Dad said that when he saw the shop, he knew it was a great program and that Andrew was in the right place, and he would get the practice and training he needed. He said he wished he would've had a school like Penn College when he was starting out and mentioned that, when he was in his metalsmith training program in Africa, if he got a couple of hours on an ancient milling machine in one month's time, that was a lot."
Livingstone likewise enjoyed the tour with the Klimek family, especially the elder Andrew's reactions to the facilities as well as hearing the family's heart-wrenching yet triumphant tale.
"He was absolutely delighted to see his grandson fulfilling his dream and marveled at the equipment he was learning to operate," Livingstone said. The longtime college faculty member added: "Their story is astonishing to me, and to have his grandson here as one of my students is an honor I feel I don't deserve. When we parted, I felt stunned and honored to have met such people."
Prior to bringing his grandfather to campus, Andrew regularly toted home class projects to get the elder's assessment.
"When young Andrew brings home one of his creations from Penn College, it's so cool to see the two Andrews discussing it, admiring it, critiquing it, et cetera," Richard said. "The two of them have this thing going on, this bonding. They are like two peas in a pod when it comes to metal."
Another unifying bond is the family's dedication to its Polish heritage. Although born in the U.S., Andrew's first language was Polish; he didn't learn English until he began kindergarten. And when most kids were watching cartoons on Saturdays, Andrew and his two younger siblings were attending a Polish language school. The family is active in the Polish Intercollegiate Club's folk-dance group – known by its Polish initials P.K.M. – which is an integral part of the cultural activities of the Polish community in the Philadelphia area. Andrew also helped construct a broadcasting studio for a Polish-American radio program.
Similar to the circle of support that his grandparents experienced with nonfamily members during their early years, Andrew says his family's Polish community friends have been a great source of comfort and belonging.
"It's so fantastic because there is a definite sense of closeness. We've become each other's families," he said. "If you need help with something, you know who will help. You don't have to double-think things. Everything is so simple and clear. I guess we figure so much has already happened that it can't be worse than that from here on."
The student regularly visits Poland with his family. His mother, Dorothy, was born there, and it's where many of her family still reside.
Because of his family's history and a father who has used his degree in history and political science to work in social service agencies assisting the older generations, Andrew feels he has gained a unique awareness of his culture and a deep appreciation and respect for his elders. He also believes he's inherited a "World War II work ethic and motivation."
It's a drive that was honed at an early age by participating in Boy Scouts, where he channeled his love of tinkering and building. Whether designing a unique way to motorize his Pinewood Derby car or expanding his Eagle Scout project to intricately hardscape the gardens at his Catholic church, Richard says his son often takes the extra step to be creative and conscientious in his craft – attributes modeled after his grandfather. In addition to getting the job done and done right, the elder Andrew Klimek often advocates for "quality of workmanship."
Elaborating on the principle, Richard explained, "If you're going to do something, do it right. I don't want to use the word 'perfection,' but don't just 'schlep' your way through it. Do it right and be proud of your work."
For the Fall 2014 semester, Andrew looks forward to adding a welding class to his repertoire and to working with the mini-Baja crew, producing a competitive off-road vehicle with the Penn College chapter of the Society of Manufacturing Engineers.
He says he feels at home at Penn College and enjoys the campus camaraderie.
"It's informal, casual in the shop. It's fun coming here every day. Everybody jokes here and there. It's not always serious all the time," he said. "But the way I've seen it, if you have the eagerness to learn something, if you show you're mature, the faculty go out of their way to help you."
Andrew's father says his son felt a connection to Penn College on their first visit.
"When we visited the campus, we were there all of 15 minutes when Andrew turned to me and said, 'This is it, Dad,'" Richard said. "It's so great to see him in his element."
Another circle of support begins to take shape. ■