Not all of our relatives in previous generations married and had children. However, my parents were very reticent, and I do not remember them ever talking about gender or sexual orientation.
As I matured, I started to understand that my father’s mother’s brother and my mother’s brother were “lifelong bachelors.” When I wondered why none of my father’s father’s three sisters ever married, I was assured that one of them had once been engaged to a neighbor, who died at a young age.
While there may be many reasons my great-aunts remained single, I now suspect that Great-Uncle Barney and Uncle Chet were gay.
Bernard “Barney” Szczepański
Bernard Szczepański, the son of Marcin Szczepański and Anna Kalinowska, was born on 7 Aug 1892 in Buffalo and baptized 8 Aug 1892 at St. Stanislaus RC Church in Buffalo, Erie, New York. He moved with his parents to a farm in Bennington, Wyoming, New York at the turn of the century. He was called Barney.
He served in the United States Navy in World War I from 19 Feb 1915 to 19 Feb 1919. He was assigned to the U.S.S. Delaware.
The pictures of Barney in what my Uncle Ben Maciejewski called his “salad days” were taken with men. His reputation was of a gregarious fellow, well-liked, but not romantically involved with any women.
I remember my dad trying to distinguish that while Barney worked on a farm, he was not a “married” farmer. My father told me that Barney would come to the city of Buffalo to celebrate his birthday each August for several days with friends. In his later years, Barney worked for the town of Bennington.
Barney Szczepanski died on 25 Sep 1957 at the age of 65 at St. Jerome Hospital in Batavia, Genesee, New York, and was buried at Sacred Heart of Jesus RC Cemetery in Bennington, Wyoming, New York.
Czesław Jan / Chester John “Chet” Skrok
Czesław Jan SKROK, the son of Jan Skrok and Agnieszka Kapuścińska, was born on 25 Sep 1919 in Buffalo, Erie, New York.
Before his first birthday, his parents took Czesław and his older sister Helena to Poland. They arrived on 20 Sep 1920 in Liverpool, Lancashire, England on the ship Kaiserin Auguste Victoria. His father returned to the United States 2 February 1923. His mother, with three small children (Tadeusz was born 11 February 1923 in Sosnowiec, Poland) sailed from Danzig on the S. S. Lituania on 18 July 1923 and arrived in New York 1 August 1923.
Czesław was also known as Chester John “Chet” Skrok.
Chester was only 16 years old when his father Jan Skrok died 15 May 1936. In the middle of the great depression, work was hard to come by, so he enrolled in the Civilian Conservation Corps. He was sent to the Dalton Wells CCC Camp #234 in Moab, Grand, Utah. He was paid about $30 a month, and about $25 was sent to his mom in Buffalo to support the family. He registered for the World War II draft on 16 October 1940.
Chester J. Skrok served in the United States Army in WWII. He enlisted on 11 Feb 1941 in Buffalo, Erie, New York and was released from the military on 26 Jun 1945. He served in Africa and Europe, where he was wounded in May 1945. He returned from the war a disabled veteran. Shrapnel was still exiting his body when he was in his sixties.
He completed his high school education on 25 Jun 1946 at Hutchinson Evening (East) High School in Buffalo, Erie, New York, and enrolled in college.
As a child I thought Uncle Chet always looked good. He was very smart. He was always bringing over interesting toys and puzzles to play with us. With my Uncle Ted, I remember him putting together a bench seat for my sister and me. Chet was there when I got my first trike, and I am pretty sure he is the one who brought me a pedal car. I spent hours trying to figure out angles turning the wheel and pedaling back and forth.
He acquired a reel to reel tape player and brought it over to our house. He signed me up for several monthly enrichment offerings, including a butterfly collection that I found exquisite. Alas, my sister and I were too young to properly appreciate it. He once gave me a broken mechanical clock that I was allowed to take apart myself! I remember hiding in the closet so my younger sister Donna would not wreck it as I slowly dismantled the gears and levers. My sister Macy remembers Chet bringing over challenging puzzles and games.
Chet was dapper. As a young woman at family weddings, he would take me on the dance floor and try to teach me to dance. I was not good, but he was fun.
I suspect that Chet was one of the reasons that I grew up knowing I would go to college. Although my father earned his GED in the military, neither of my parents had graduated from high school. They sent my sisters and me to parochial grammar school, and then to Catholic college preparatory high schools. As a student at Cornell University, Chet sent me an encouraging note with $100 in it. I was so appreciative! When I was a young mother, he correctly identified me as a matron. I was mildly offended, but later acknowledged how apt his description was.
Chet lived with and took care of my grandmother at 209 Stanton Street in Buffalo. He was a tutor for young children in his neighborhood. But, I later learned from my parents, he was being shaken down by thugs who would extort him for money. My mother was alerted by the bank about suspicious withdrawals, but my uncle insisted everything was fine.
Looking back, too much of his life was spent in the closet. I never knew if he had any long-term relationships, although I knew he had friends.
At the end, he was a victim of his own secrets. While he had been invited both to my parents’ and his Solowski cousins’ house for Thanksgiving dinner in 1992, he declined both invitations. He led each family to believe he was dining with the other, so neither was expecting to hear from him. He died at home two days after Thanksgiving, 28 Nov 1992, when he was 73 years old. His cremains were interred alongside his mother in the Resurrection Section of St. Stanislaus Cemetery in Cheektowaga, Erie, New York.
Years ago, at a family reunion, my cousin’s wife bragged that she herself did not know anyone who was gay or lesbian. While I doubted that was true, I could understand that her family, friends, and acquaintances were wise enough to not share that information with someone so hateful.
Today, I am happy to report, things have changed. Now able to be “out,” several of our gay and lesbian relatives have married their life partners. Some may be raising families. At least one family member by marriage has transitioned gender. The youngest generation is less rigid and more gender fluid, both in who they are and to whom they are attracted.
While it may be too late for Barney, Chet, and our other Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans, or Queer closeted relatives, I am glad that our family and society have matured to where we accept and love our openly LGBTQ relatives, as well as those still figuring it all out.
Updated April 2021 to include Chester’s CCC information.
- St. Stanislaus Bishop & Martyr RC Church, Buffalo, New York, Church records, FHL microfilm, Family History Library, Salt Lake City, Utah, Baptism Register, Book III, page 240.
- 1900 Federal Census, New York, population schedule, Bennington Township (eastern part), Wyoming, New York, United States, enumeration district (ED) 117, Martin Szczepanski; digital images, Twelfth Census of the United States (online : accessed July 2017); National Archives and Records Administration, 1900. T623.
- “United States Department of Veterans Affairs,” database online, (online : accessed 9 November 2019), Bernard Szczepanski.
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- Barney Szczepanski, Attica News, Attica, New York, 26 September 1957.
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- Barney Szczepanski, Batavia Daily News, Batavia, New York, September 1957, page 4.
- Sacred Heart of Jesus RC Cemetery (Bennington, New York), gravestones and record cards, . visit July 1992.
- New York State, Department of Health, Vital Records Index, Birth, Certificate Number: 65967, Czeslaw J. Skrok, 25 September 1919, Albany, New York.
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- “UK, Incoming Passenger Lists, 1878-1960,” digital images, Ancestry.com (http://ancestry.com : accessed 14 December 2015), Agnieszka Skrok.
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- 1930 Federal Census, New York, population schedule, Buffalo, New York, enumeration district (ED) 65, Household ID: 358, ; digital images,(online : accessed ); Fifteenth Census of the United States.
- Social Security Administration, “U.S. Social Security Death Index,” database, Social Security Applications and Claims (online : accessed 15 August 2015), Chester J. Skrok, 122107236, November 1937.
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- Sixth Service Call to Draw 8000 Men In New York State, Buffalo Evening News, Buffalo, New York, 11 February 1941, page 16, column 2.
- Chester J. Skrok, Buffalo Courier Express, Buffalo, New York, 15 May 1945, page 18 column 2.
- Buffalo Evening News, 15 May 1945.
- Buffalo Courier Express, 23 June 1946.
- St. Stanislaus RC Cemetery (Cheektowaga, New York), gravestones and record cards.
- National Archives, “World War II Draft Registration Cards,” database, Ancestry.com (www.ancestry.com : accessed 8 April 2021), Chester John Skrok.