Senator Richard Durbin's Memorial Tribute
US Senator Richard Durbin paid tribute to his friend, Balzekas Museum founder, Stanley Balzekas, Jr., on June 30, 2020
Read a transcript of Senator Durbin’s remarks in the Congressional Record: https://www.congress.gov/116/crec/2020/06/30/CREC-2020-06-30-pt1-PgS3980-5.pdf
Stanley Balzekas, Jr. Obituary
With heavy hearts, we announce that the founder and president of the Balzekas Museum of Lithuanian Culture, Stanley Balzekas, Jr., passed away peacefully of natural causes on June 18, 2020. His failing heart could no longer keep up with his zest for life.
With Stanley’s passing, Chicago has lost a visionary civic and cultural leader, an entrepreneur, and a most original native son; the United States, a decorated war hero from the thinning ranks of the ‘Greatest Generation’; and Lithuania, Stanley’s beloved ancestral homeland, a loyal advocate.
Stanley was larger-than-life, and in 95 years, lived more than most do in a lifetime. He experienced triumphs and tragedies that span the breadth of human experience. He traveled the world and moved as comfortably among presidents as he did among ordinary people. While he never forgot the past, he lived for the future. He dreamed big and accomplished most of what he set out to do. He was charismatic, curious, and sharp-witted. And he saved everything. He loved his family and friends.
Stanley was preceded in death by his parents, the late Emily (nee Gregoravicius-Gregorow) and Stanley Balzekas, Sr., and his beloved wife, the late Irene (nee Radvilas) Balzekas. He is survived by his sons, Stanley III (Sigita Bersenas) and Robert (Daiva Bidva); his daughter, Carole; his grandchildren, Irena, Stanley Vasaris IV, Matthew, Margaret, Lukas, and Eva, and many extended family members and friends in the United States and Lithuania.
Stanley was born on October 8, 1924, to Lithuanian immigrant parents, Emily and Stanley Balzekas, Sr., who founded Balzekas Motor Sales in 1919, one of the longest-operating car dealerships in the United States. As the only child of an automobile dealer, Stanley had privileges and opportunities uncharacteristic of most children raised during the Great Depression. Like his contemporaries, however, he never lost sight of his parents’ sacrifices and humble beginnings and understood the importance of working hard and saving for a rainy day.
After completing Morgan Park Military Academy in 1943, he joined the U.S. Army and was mustered into the 112th regiment of the 28th infantry division where he served with distinction. He would spend six months in combat before being captured by a Waffen SS unit north of Colmar, France, in February, 1945, by which point Stanley had landed in Normandy, fought through the bocage of the French countryside, and marched under the Arc de Triomphe. (His unit was chosen to mark the liberation of Paris with the now famous parade of U.S. soldiers down the Champs-Elysees). He participated in the bloody fighting in the Huertgen Forest and the Battle of the Bulge where he earned a Bronze Star. After his capture, he spent the remainder of the war in a Nazi POW camp.
He rarely spoke about his time in combat, but would often reflect on his experiences as a Prisoner of War: the suffering, eccentricities, and resilience of other prisoners and the hard lessons he learned then. During his months of captivity, he was degraded and malnourished, losing nearly half of his body weight. Standing in the freezing cold during roll call, even though his last name started with a “B”, as an American POW who would not divulge more than his name, rank, and serial number, he would be the last prisoner called. At home, his anguished parents were informed that their only son was missing in action. He was grateful to the International Red Cross for their concern for prisoners. Years later, at a Veterans Day presentation to middle schoolers, while other veterans recalled their battlefield victories, Stanley chose to share a practical takeaway from his imprisonment: how to survive starvation. “If you’re starving, and you get your bread ration, never eat more than half at a time,” he said. “Keep breaking the remainder of the bread in half, so you can make it last as long as possible.”
After the war, Stanley returned to Chicago to complete his B.S. and M.S. degrees at DePaul University and to take the reins of the family dealership. ln 1953 he wed lrene Radvilas and started a family. The young and energetic couple quickly immersed itself in American and Lithuanian civic and social causes. Concerned that Soviet-occupied Lithuania had disappeared from the map and eager to preserve and promote their Lithuanian heritage, Stanley and lrene rallied like-minded friends and volunteers to establish the Balzekas Museum of Lithuanian Culture on June 22, 1966.
In the last decades of the Cold War, Stanley became a persistent and vocal spokesman for Lithuania, educating anyone, from American school children to senators and congressmen, about Lithuania’s rich history and culture and the dismal plight of its people under Soviet rule. When the country regained its independence in 1991, the Museum took on a new role, facilitating and promoting scholars, artists, exhibits, genealogical research, and programs from Lithuania and the US, as well as hosting tours and exchanges between the two countries. Until his death, he was particularly honored and proud to serve the Republic of Lithuania as the Honorary Consul in Palm Beach, Florida.
Under Stanley’s stewardship and leadership, the Balzekas Museum has grown to become one of the largest ethnic museums in the country, an invaluable repository of Lithuanian books and artifacts as well as archival materials pertaining to the history of Lithuanian immigration to the United States and to Chicago. His curiosity and love of history made him well-suited to the task of running a Museum. The extensive and rapid growth of the Museum’s collections is a testament to Stanley’s ability to see historical significance in everything. “Even the smallest item, a well-worn handkerchief,” he once explained, “may be a donor’s precious heirloom and last connection to Lithuania.” Stanley spent many late nights in his corner office reading donors’ letters and writing personal thank you notes to members and contributors to the Museum’s mission.
Outside of museum activities, over the years Stanley lent his tireless work ethic, leadership skills, and business acumen to numerous civic and cultural projects, committees, and institutions, including the Chicago Public Library Board, the lllinois State Museum Board, the Chicago Commission for Human Rights, Lithuanian-American Council, the Chicago-Vilnius Sister Cities Committee, and the Lithuanian Chamber of Commerce. He received numerous awards and distinctions for his service, including the Captive Nations Eisenhower Proclamation Medal, the Medal of Honor from the Daughters of the American Revolution, and the Order of Lincoln, the highest honor given by the state of Illinois. For merits to Lithuania, he was awarded the Order of the Grand Duke Gediminas, 3rd Degree, 1992; Grand Duke Gediminas, Commander’s Cross, 1996; Medal of Žygimantas Augustas, City of Vilnius, 2001; the Order of the Lithuanian Numismatist, 3rd Class, 2003; the Star of Lithuania’s Millenium, 2009; the Order for Merits to Lithuania, Grand Cross, 2016; and the Badge of Honor “For Merits of World Lithuanians to Lithuania”, 2020. An inductee of the National Lithuanian American Hall of Fame, 2018, he was twice awarded the Balzekas Museum Award of Excellence, most recently, on his 95th birthday last October. On the same occasion, he was inducted into and honored by the Lithuanian Royal Union of Nobility as a member of the House of Lubicz.
He was happiest meeting new people and reconnecting with old friends, and, in turn, many were drawn to his jovial demeanor and sense of humor. He insisted on documenting every occasion with photographs and enjoyed lending even the most informal snapshot mock gravitas by striking a hand-shake pose with other subjects. Mindful of the public relations potential of any picture, in group shots he often took center stage. “If you stand on the ends, the newspaper may crop you out of the shot,” he warned. He eagerly dispensed this tidbit and other life lessons he gleaned over the years.
The consummate host, over the years Stanley entertained countless guests at the Museum and at his apartment on the 87th floor of the Hancock Building. Here, foreign dignitaries could rub shoulders with regular Chicagoans, forging new and unexpected networks and ventures while taking in the spectacular sunset views of the city. As his health declined in recent months, Stanley spent most days seated at this very vantage point, overlooking the real-world map of familiar streets and landmarks that charted his own long life.
Refusing to retire, he found stimulation and purpose in his work and never ran out of ideas. One of his last initiatives was to turn a small vacant lot north of the Museum into a park he christened: “Love and Respect Park”. Its centerpiece is a young tree, a scion of the thousand-year-old “Stelmužė” Oak in Lithuania. Thanks to his vision and stewardship, Stanley’s legacy, too, will live on and thrive for years to come through his beloved Museum and family, and everyone whose lives he has touched.
Out of an abundance of caution, the funeral service and interment are private. When it is safe to do so, everyone who knew and loved Stanley will be invited to attend a celebration of his remarkable life, at which time they can raise a glass and join in Stanley’s signature toast: “To all the beautiful ladies at this table!”
In lieu of flowers, memorial contributions may be made in Stanley’s honor to the Balzekas Museum of Lithuanian Culture, 6500 S. Pulaski Rd., Chicago IL 60629, U.S.A. or through PayPal below:
Stanley R. Balzekas, Jr.
Stanley Balzekas, Jr. with Father, Stanley Balzekas, Sr.
Irene and Stanley Balzekas, Jr. with Ed Fischer, Editor of the Chicago Sun Times and Mrs. Fischer.
Stanley awards 1984 Plymouth Voyager to lucky fan at Comiskey Park
Stanley with Mayor Harold Washington
Former Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley administers an oath of office to Stanley Balzekas, Jr. for the Chicago Public Library Board of Trustees
Stanley Balzekas, Jr. receives the Order of Merits, Commander Cross, from Ambassador Rolandas Kriščiūnas and Consul General Marijus Gudynas, 2016
Mayor Jayne Byrne with Stanley Balzekas
At the opening reception for the “No Home To Go To” exhibit at the Lithuanian Embassy in Washington, D.C. From left to right:Chicago Honorary Consul for Estonia and “No Home” Exhibit Estonian Co-Chair, Dr. Siim Soot; From the Balzekas Museum, Exhibit co-curators, Karilė Vaitkutė and Rita Eirošiūtė Janz; Lithuanian Cultural Attache Pozerskis; Chief Curator, Irena Brokas Chambers; Museum President, Stanley Balzekas, Jr.; Stanley’s daughter-in-law and Balzekas Museum Board Member and exhibit , Sigita Bersenas Balzekas; Lithuanian to USA and Mexico Žygimantas Pavilionis; and Lithuanian Prime Minister Algirdas Butkevičius
Stanley Balzekas, Jr.
Stanley Balzekas speaking at the No Home To Go To exhibition opening at the United Nations in 2016
Stanley Sr., Emily, and Stanley, Jr.
Stanley Balzekas, Jr. with his sons, Robert (left) and Stan III, and daughter, Carole (center).
In lieu of flowers, memorial contributions to the Balzekas Museum of Lithuanian Culture would be greatly appreciated:
Balzekas Museum of Lithuanian Culture
6500 S. Pulaski Rd.
Chicago, IL 60521
Ačiū / Thank you