Chapter 1: Family Background
15:43:49:28 - 15:46:26:10
Lisa: My name is Lisa Sonneborn, and I'm conducting an interview with Kate and David Fialkowski on June 25th, 2012 at Temple University. Also present is videographer Aggie Ebrahimi Bazaz, and Kate and David. Do I have both of your permission to begin your interview?
Kate: Um, are you ready? OK.
Lisa: We are going to start. Thanks. The first question is, I hope an easy one. I was wondering when and where each of you were born.
Kate: Um, so both of us are born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and David was born in March, 1962, and I was born in July, 1964, so we are two years apart.
Lisa: And can you tell me if you come from a big or small family?
Kate: We come from a very large family, don't we? We come from a family of originally 11 children.
Lisa: Can you tell me their names?
Kate: Barbara, Mary, Tony, Michael, Walter, Jimmy, Eileen, Joan, David, and Katy, and we left out our brother, John, who died as a baby.
Lisa: So, Kate and David, this is a question for either/or both of you. How would you describe what it's like being part of a big family?
Kate: How would you describe being part of a big family? It was chaos, wasn't it? So, I think there's a couple of things about being part of a big family. Our family was so large that we really didn't consider it one big family most of the time. We considered it three smaller families, so there were the older kids, who don't dig being called the older kids anymore. Barbara, Mary, Tony, Michael, and then there were a middle set of kids, Walter, Jimmy, Eileen, Joan, and then David and I. And when we were growing up, my mom would actually say her babies were the last ones at home, and the last ones at home actually included Walter, so it what Walter, David and I were the last kids at home, and everybody else had moved out.
15:46:26:10 - 15:48:26:09
Lisa: Can you tell me a little bit about your parents, maybe starting with their names?
Kate: Our parents were named Marion and Leona Fialkowski, and my father's family were Polish immigrants, and my mother's family had been here from the very beginning. They were trappers and watermen who were some of the first settlers in the country.
Lisa: You said "here." Where was here?
Kate: In the states, I mean. Settlers in America.
Lisa: In what part of the states was your mom from?
Kate: My mom was born in Crisfield, Maryland.
Lisa: Kate and David, can you describe your parents a little bit in terms of maybe what they looked like, what their voices sounded like? How would you describe them?
Kate: So, our parents were, you know, they've been gone for a long time, so our mom was about the same height that I am, and she had brown, wavy hair, and people used to remark on her giving personality, and how open she was and how caring she was for other people, and my dad, my dad seemed bigger than he was. He seemed taller than he was, and he had a very big personality, and his favorite thing to do was to tell jokes, so he used to read "Readers Digest" so he would have a whole selection of jokes for anybody who would call on the phone, or anybody who would stop by the house.
15:48:26:09 - 15:52:19:24
Lisa: Kate and David, your mom, Leona, was a important transformative figure I think in the disability movement as well as being a much loved parent and advocate. I wanted to talk with both of you today a little bit about her life and work.
Lisa: So, David and Kate, I wanted to ask a little bit about your mother's experience growing up in Crisfield. Sorry. Crisfield, Maryland. I know that she was, that generations of her family had lived there, and I wonder if you both could tell me a little bit about her experience, her family background, her cultural background.
Kate: Great. Yeah, so our mom was born in Crisfield, Maryland. It's a very small town, and it's a very southern town on the Chesapeake Bay, and so, our mother's family were really watermen in the small town. Watermen are people who live their life and make their living off of the water, essentially, and so the origins of her family were people who were trappers for example, other watermen, for example, and people who originally came over from France, you know, the French trappers that came into the country, and so they were some of the pioneers of the country, and actually, we have an Indian princess as part of our family, Princess Mehiliabelle who is our great, great, great, great, great-grandmother, five greats back, and so, it's sort of a really proud heritage that our family has of being able to live off of the land, to just take whatever is front of you and to be able to make something of it, and to be able to live from that, and I think an attribute of the that time was that the people who live like that also take care of each other very much, so it has all the attributes of a small town, but the difference is it's more pioneering than that, so it's a little more rugged.
15:52:41:21 - 15:54:05:05
Lisa: I was going to ask if your mom, David and Kate, was from a large family also?
Kate: My mom's family was really pretty small, so she only had one brother, and it was just the two of them in their family, and yes, and my father's family just had a couple of brothers in it. So both of them really came from fairly small families.
Lisa: Did she ever talk about the community that she grew up in?
Kate: She talked about it all the time.
Lisa: What did she say?
Kate: So, Crisfield, Maryland, was first of all a lot of people are related, so if you go back and you look at the census, most of the people came from a place called Byrdtowne, so a lot of the landowners' name was Byrd, and you know, that's how it was in the south at that time, that there be one big landowner, and then there would be a lot of people who would be working the land or in the community, and so the whole town would be named for that person, and then a majority of the people in the town, of course, would be related because they would all come together and live together, and their family would come into the same area. And so, a majority of the town were aunt's, uncle's, grandparents, cousins, you know, and some remote affiliation.
15:54:05:05 - 15:55:25:21
Lisa: David and Kate, when your mom grew up, wait the Depression era, and I wonder if growing up in the Depression shaped your mother's personality in any way?
Kate: Absolutely. I think everybody who grew up in the Depression had it shape their personality. I think that the attributes of that though were not just about being in the Depression, but like I said, some of it's from being a pioneer, so don't you think those attributes went together of just making the most of whatever you have, right? And so, being part of the Depression, there were some people in the town who had agriculture, and so, if they had lettuce or something from the earth, then they would bring it in and share it with some people. My grandfather was a waterman, and so that part of the family would be able to bring goose in or fish or oysters or crab or whatever to the table, so everybody would participate together, especially since so many people were part of the same family.
15:55:25:21 - 15:56:24:03
Lisa: David and Kate, I wonder if faith was an important part of your mother's upbringing?
Kate: I guess what she always said was really that it was more matter of faith than a matter of religion, and so, religion is really something that is created by men, and faith is something that's created by God, and so it really was a large part of her background to be very faithful, but also to be part of the community.
15:56:24:04 - 15:58:15:26
Lisa: So, David and Kate, I wondered if you could tell me about where your mom went to school.
Kate: I really can't. [Laughs]
Lisa: Did she go to school?
Kate: Yeah. It's interesting, because I think that Crisfield had a high school, probably Crisfield High School. Our conclusion is that it was Crisfield High School. [Laughter]
Lisa: But she's a high school graduate?
Kate: Yeah. Part of it is that during those years, a couple of different things were happening, so the country was coming out of a Depression, and also, World War II, right? And so, all of this, schools and everything are kinds of interrupted during that time, and so, things weren't operating the way that they operate now. You know, because kids would take a break, or part of the class would leave, and the one story that she told me was that they used to rotate in schools so they have A and B classes, and so, for the agricultural season, so kids would roll in different parts of the year and roll out different parts of the year so that they could work around agricultural schedules and things like that. So, it's not linear like it is today, ninth grade, tenth grade, 11th grade. There was some 9 (a), some 9 (b), something like that.
15:58:15:26 - 16:00:27:13
Lisa: You mentioned World War II. Your mother played a role.
Kate: Yeah. My mother was in the women's air corps from Dover Air Force base, and the women at Dover Air Force base flew B-29 bombers. They worked in the manufacturing plants to build them, and some of the women were also ferry pilots and took the planes on missions for refueling and different trips on the planes. So it was a pretty rare group of women who did that, and in fact, it's almost impossible to figure out who the women are because it was except a small group of women. It started out as something that wasn't official, so it wasn't officially documented, and all of the records were destroyed at Dover Air Force base, and so there's actually a group of women whose history in the war is unknown because they have lack of records, but they have photographs. So, it's kind of an odd little situation. But it's easy to imagine my mother up in an airplane and flying an airplane.
Lisa: How did your parents meet?
Kate: Our parents met at a USO party.
Lisa: And what was your father's role in the military?
Kate: He was in the army, so and one of the things that my father did in the military is he was part of the military police, and um, as a member of the military police, they had individuals who were in the internment camps, and he was responsible for watching some of the prisoners in the internment camps, so that's a pretty unusual thing. They flew people back from Europe here to the United States and then kept them in internment camps here.
16:00:27:13 - 16:02:58:18
Lisa: When did your parents marry, David and Kate, and where did they settle?
Kate: Our parents married around the mid-1940s, and they settled in Philadelphia about two blocks away from my father's family.
Kate: Our father was a Catholic, a staunch Catholic, Polish Catholic.
Lisa: And what were your parents like with each other, do you recall?
Kate: Do you remember mom and dad in the house? So, our parents were very loving together. You know, I think that I should just interject that our recollections as the youngest children are completely different than our brothers and sisters. So I just want to put the caveat out there for any of my brothers and sisters who might watch the videotape that these are not necessarily the recollections of the entire family. So, as we were growing up, a lot of kids had already left the house, right? So that's sort of a whole different scenario than a house full of ten kids rushing around. And so, whether we were growing up, my oldest sister, Barbara, was in college, and she was a poet and a writer, so she would send some of her poetry back, and our parents would read her poetry out loud, our read newspapers out loud. There was a lot of reading out loud in the house, so the morning would start with cups of coffee, and our parents reading newspapers or reading articles, or reading poetry out loud, and then, during the day on the weekend, we watched a lot of Lawrence Welk, and when the Lawrence Welk hour was on, my mom and dad would waltz in the middle of the living room to the music of Lawrence Welk.
16:02:58:18 - 16:05:14:07
Lisa: Kate and David, what kind of work did your father do?
Kate: So, our father was -- he did a number of different jobs. He was a -- he did some construction work. He worked in a bar. He had multiple jobs at the same time to be able to make ends meet, and he worked at Peter & Paul Candy Company for a while was a factory worker, and Peter & Paul did layoffs, and our father then got hired at a company called William H. Rorer, that is the pharmaceutical company that makes Maalox, so his work was really very varied, and the most important part of it really was having enough work to do to be able to make ends meet to be able to feed a lot of kids.
Lisa: Actually, Kate, you told me something which I thought was very lovely when we spoke before. You mentioned your father's work at W.H. Rorer.
Lisa: But he had a special letter of reference that I believe that helped him to get his job.
Kate: Yeah. Yeah, my mother is the reason that, um -- our mother is the reason -- this is a lot harder, isn't it? So, our mother is the reason that our father got a job at William H. Rorer, because she wrote a letter of reference, and in her letter of reference, she said to the supervisor that they would never meet a man who would be as tenacious or work as long as hard or be as true as Marion Fialkowski. I don't think that most people would have a letter of reference from their wife today, but it worked. [Laughs]
Lisa: So your mother, I think, from our previous conversation -- and David I'm sorry. I should say my previous conversation with your sister Kate, she told me a bit about your family, but your mother was known for fighting inequity in the neighborhoods wherever she saw it, and I'm wondering if you could tell me a bit about how she was regarded just in the community, her own neighborhood, if you can remember.
Kate: Yeah, our mother was certainly was the person that everyone would go to if they needed anything in the community. And I mean that a little differently. Our mother was -- she was also the person who would look for things that weren't right in the community, and so, she would notice that there's a problem, and then she would try to solve the problem. So it worked both ways. Sometimes people would come and say, I don't know what to do, but the reason they found out about that was because she was already doing things, you know, so she had established a reputation that if you want something done, go see Leona, and she would do things herself. She'd advocate for other people. She would give people information so that they could do the advocating on their own behalf, and she was a rabble-rouser, so for example, we have this one story, [Interstate] 95 was directly behind the house that we grew up in, and they had the traffic would come off the Bridge Street exit, and our street, James Street, ran towards the exit, and they redirected the street so that the traffic would come off of the highway and come down our street, and our street would basically be an off-ramp. And so there were lots of problems, because there were little kids in the neighborhood, and my mother collected all of the parents and got everybody together, and (To David) we all sat out there, didn't we? Well, you know, it's a lot for all the Fialkowski's to sit out in the street, because we could block the street ourselves, and all of the neighbors came out.
Everybody had their little lawn chairs and blocked the entire street, and the news crew came down, and you know, the police cars came down, and it was quite a big obstruction, and it stopped traffic during rush hour, and it was a pretty big deal. So, our mother really understood how to, through the years, she really learned how to work the system, and what could make an impact, and if the biggest impact could come from a single person speaking, then a single person would go to speak. But if it really took an entire community to ban together to redirect the flow of traffic, that's what she would do.
Kate: Literally, and she did a number of other things in the neighborhood. Our mother was also responsible - on the [Interstate] 95, you know, we are sort of jumping around in time, but the 95, when they were cleaning it, they decided to do sandblasting on the side of 95, so lead paint and debris was coming off, and so my mom made sure that all of the houses got tested so that they could see if there was lead poisoning in the children in the neighborhood, and 15 kids were tested, and seven of the 15 children had lead poisoning, so she was able to do something about it and to remediate it, essentially immediately.
More Interview Chapters
- YOU ARE HERE: Family Background
- Walter and David Fialkowski, and Leona's Early Advocacy
- Raising Children with Disabilities in the Absence of Supports
- Leona's Early Advocacy, Longfellow School, Evolution of Education in PA
- Inclusion in Public Schools
- Walter at Woodhaven
- Leona and Work for Pennhurst Special Master, Walter in Community, Leona Resigns from Woodhaven Board
- Walter's Death, Finding a Path for David
- Marion's Death, Leona's Continued Advocacy, Planning for David's Future
- Kate's Advocacy, Leona's Legacy
- ADDITIONAL MATERIAL: Home Movie Footage - Longfellow School, 1968, Bridesburg, PA, by Leona Fialkowski
About David and Kate Fialkowski
Born: Philadelphia, PA. David: 1962. Kate: 1964.
Kate: Executive Director, ARC of Maryland.
Leona Fialkowski, Community Living, Employment, Civil Rights, Longfellow School, Pennhurst, Right to Education, Siblings, Woodhaven