For 45 Years, Late Radio Host Kept Polish Culture And Music Alive In Rutland

Sep 2, 2016

Many people in Rutland are debating what impact new refugees would have on the city. But immigrants from Italy, Ireland and Eastern Europe have already left indelible marks on the city.

In West Rutland, the Polish community has been especially vibrant. And a long-running radio show hosted by the late Joseph Chrusciel helped keep the music and culture of that community alive for decades.

Chrusciel, better known as "Uncle Joe" to his listeners, was a Sunday morning fixture for those who grew up in Rutland after World War II.

"A good snowy Sunday morning to all of you. The time is six minutes past the hour of nine and it's time for everyone's favorite Sunday morning program, The Polish Hour," Chrusciel says in an old recording, his voice leading into an upbeat polka – one of hundreds from his record collection.

For an hour every Sunday morning from 1948 to 1993, Chrusciel played polkas and waltzes, promoted Bonnie's Beauty Shop, T&T Tractor and other local businesses, and chatted up listeners in a mix of English and Polish.

"There was only one Sunday that my dad missed," says Mary Nemeth, Chrusciel's daughter.

"And that was for my sister's wedding, which was in Maryland. Because he did the show live. He was never going to tape it; he was going to do it live," adds Nemeth, smiling.

"I started helping him at 10 years old in 1965, which is kind of weird," Nemeth admits. "But I would watch him. I would watch him on the radio with all the dials and turntables and I just learned it and I wanted to be the DJ when he wasn't there – but he was always there."

West Rutland native Mary Reczek remembers the radio show well.

"In the 1950s and '60s, life was more calm and more tranquil. There was a certainty. You knew every Sunday you'd be listening to Uncle Joe," Reczek says.

"In the 1950s and '60s, life was more calm and more tranquil. There was a certainty. You knew every Sunday you'd be listening to Uncle Joe." - Mary Reczek, West Rutland

Reczek was born in West Rutland in 1944.

"I would hazard to say that everybody in town had the show on at 10 o'clock in the morning," she says.

Reczek says growing up Polish in West Rutland, you focused on three things: Saint Stanislaus Kostka Catholic Church (the Polish community's congregation), the local school and one's family. 

"And families were big back then. Joe Chrusciel was a first cousin of my mother's," she says with a laugh.

Mary Reczek stands in her backyard in West Rutland. Reczek lives in the house that her grandfather, who immigrated from Poland, bought a century ago.
Credit Nina Keck / VPR

Reczek says her grandparents came to America from Poland and worked hard to integrate. But she says like many in West Rutland, they held on to their music, foods and customs.

"It was all pervasive, the Polish culture," Reczek says. "We spoke Polish, and this neighborhood in particular was pretty much all Polish as well."

Nemeth says her grandparents also came to America from Poland and like many new immigrants, she says her grandfathers worked in the marble industry. Her father's radio show was a side gig – Chrusciel too worked in the marble industry, and also handled maintenance for the Polish church and school.

She admits that's probably why her dad sounded more like a repairman than a radio host. But people loved him and the show, Nemeth says, which she helped him produce for almost 18 years.

She never asked him how it all started, but says back in the 1930s and '40s, Chrusciel began collecting records and would play them at local dances.

"He just had this love for the Polish music," Nemeth says. "He didn't dance, never danced. But he had this love for the Polish music and people."

"He just had this love for the Polish music. He didn't dance, never danced. But he had this love for the Polish music and people." - Mary Nemeth, Joe Chrusciel's daughter

After World War II, she says her dad went from deejaying Polish dances to playing polkas on the radio – first at WHWB, then at WSYB in Rutland.

"He had a theme song. It was 'The Dream Polka.' And then he had like three 'Happy Birthday' songs ...

"The first one was by Frank Duvall and his orchestra, and it was this 'Hap, hap, happy birthday' thing and 'If you live to be 103,' and today people are living to be 103," Nemeth says, laughing.

"And I remember that record wearing out and him saying, 'I don't know if I want to throw this away but it wore out,'" she adds.

Reczek nods. "Everybody in town knew it was your birthday because Joe announced it on The Polish Hour," she says.

Mary Nemeth, left, helped her father Joe Chrusciel, right, produce his radio show for nearly 18 years. She says she began helping him with the show when she was 10 years old.
Credit Courtesy of Mary Nemeth

Adds Nemeth, "He had a couple anniversary songs. One was a waltz, 'Oh How We Danced.' And I would just cringe and think 'Really? Again?'"

But she says every week they'd get so many letters from listeners. "People would send us requests from everywhere, [including] Fort Ticonderoga. Wherever that radio signal went they would send us requests."

"And we had records," says Nemeth. "We probably had 900 LPs and 1,000 78 records, those big heavy ones, and probably just as many 45s. And we used to lug them to the radio station every week," she says smiling and rolling her eyes.

In the second half of the 20th century, West Rutland had other immigrant communities. There were Irish, French and Swedish families. A local Italian radio hour also aired in Rutland on Sundays.

But Reczek says that hour of polka music every week was a cultural touchstone.

"I think Uncle Joe's contribution to Polish culture was definitely significant, immense," Reczek says. "Because it was something that held the town together, held the Polish culture together."

"I think Uncle Joe's contribution to Polish culture was definitely significant, immense – because it was something that held the town together, held the Polish culture together." - Mary Reczek

And while listeners loved the music and personal greetings, they also got a kick out of Uncle Joe's playful signoff. Every week he end the show by saying "Bye-bye, honey."

"We used to ask him, 'Who's this honey?' We never knew. He took it to the grave. We had some ideas," says Nemeth, smiling. "I don't think it was my mom. My gut tells me this might have been a sweetheart in high school."

Nemeth says her dad used that mysterious tag line for the last time in 1993 – 45 years after he started.

Joe Chrusciel passed away in 1997. He was 72 years old.