No joke: Polish social club reels from bitter feud
While calls for racial justice ring out across the country, in Vero, the scene of the simmering rage, name-calling, picketers and frequent police presence is not the African American community.
It’s at the Polish American Social Club.
In the last few months, a divide as deep as the Vistula River has pitted Pole against Pole – or at least, part-Pole. As membership rules are tightening, freebies for the hardest working volunteers are being done away with. Infractions like late dues or lapsed memberships are being used to toss people out or not let them renew.
Rumors are flying that each side is trying to take over the valuable eight-acre property along the northern stretch of U.S One, sell it and pocket the proceeds.
Innumerable flare-ups included one between two women – the club’s petite 55-year-old club manager and a short, stocky woman in her 70s with a heavy Polish accent described as “no-nonsense” by her supporters. The woman got so “in my face,” according to the manager, telling her to “get the hell out of here,” that on the advice of her attorney she now calls for a deputy whenever the “Polish people”– the faction opposing the current board – pull into the parking lot.
In another incident related by the lawyer, a 75-year-old man took a document and shoved it down another man’s pants, instructing him in cruder language to use it like toilet paper.
With both sides warring over canceled memberships and board firings, the old guard is demanding audits of the new guard’s books. They allege that the salary of the manager – $58,851 in 2013 or about half the club’s pre-expense revenue, according to the club’s 990 form – is only as high as it is because she is romantically involved with a board member.
The manager, Amalie Hennech, who is also the cook, defends her pay saying she works far more than 40 hours a week. “They think it stops when I’m not here, and I’m here sometimes until 3 in the morning,” she says. “But it doesn’t. I’m running around buying supplies. I go home at night and I’m booking bands on the computer.”
“We feel she’s close to $200,000,” says Tom Clark, a longtime member ousted for late dues and aligned with the old guard. He explains that wildly high number by saying members have no idea whether goods from Hennech’s shopping trips to Sam’s Club “land on the club’s doorstep and what lands on someone else’s doorstep.
“Basically the club is being run for the benefit of the woman in the kitchen,” says Clark, referring to Hennech.
“She’s saved this club,” says Frank Kowalik, Hennech’s love interest, putting his hand over hers. “It was going down the tank. Nobody was coming. Those guys that want memberships now, they never came. They haven’t come for years. Now we have all kinds of people coming here. Bingo, the Latin dances, it’s coming back alive again.”
It is those mostly elderly members who claim the Polish traditions once celebrated there are slowly going extinct.
Polka dances have been replaced by salsa dances; the pierogi and potato pancakes have been replaced with lasagna, meat loaf and chicken cordon bleu from Sam’s Club.
And worse: by-laws about lapsed memberships and late dues are being enforced with gusto, and violators are having to reapply – the Polish-American Club version of a poll tax, you might say.
The monthly newsletter still lists the free coffee with bingo, and there are pleas for participation: “YOU DON’T HAVE TO BE POLISH TO JOIN THIS CLUB,” reads a notice at the bottom.
And the club’s Facebook page shows fiery orange posters for “Twice as Hot Latin Night” dances. Those events are major money makers, Hennech says, drawing a largely Colombian crowd.
That, old timers say, is proof positive: The current board is trying to oust the Polish heritage contingent and sell the club to the Latin Americans.
Nothing could be further from the truth, says Kowalik. But he champions the club’s right to draw members regardless of their heritage.
“Does that sign outside say Polish Club? No, it says Polish-American. And we are all Americans.”
The “Spanish people,” as Hennech calls the salsa fans, are out-partying the “Polish people” – the old-timers who founded the club and are aging out of active social lives.
Apart from the income from Tuesday and Thursday morning bingo games, the club is struggling to make ends meet. Hennech is wracking her brains to get people in the door. The biggest recent event was a rave with 500 kids, a mosh pit and rotating rock bands.
“I love the polka dances, too. But the band costs $5,000 and nobody comes.”
“They’re kicking out the Polish people,” says Harry Klimas, the 96-year-old founder of the club who was at the center of a flurry of emails and messages pleading with media to cover the story. “We have a board that is anti-Polish.”
Klimas, a West Virginia native who went to Polish-language primary school and Polish Catholic high school, had a tool and dye business here and made parts for Piper Aircraft. He and some friends of Polish heritage here began having gatherings in the early 1980s at the Knights of Columbus Hall on Oslo Road.
By 1983, the club, formally chartered, started looking for land to build a permanent home of its own. Klimas scouted out a nine-acre parcel on U.S. One. The price was $120,000. The club raised a down payment of $35,000 and with a generous loan from a Vero couple, they bought it. Klimas and others worked on the building, raising money as needed.
The club moved in in 1984. From the beginning, membership was limited to people of Polish descent, or with spouses of Polish descent.
At the club’s 25th anniversary in 2006, it boasted 750 members. Klimas claims at one point in the mid-‘90s it was twice that. Today, it stands at 100 regular members, and 225 associate members, according to Gloria Fleming. Between bingo, dinners and dances, revenues were about half-a-million in 2013.
Klimas believes there are no other club founders living.
“I’m the last of the Mohicans,” he says.
Tall and terse, Klimas claims the board is discriminating against Polish people and discouraging them from coming.
“The person in the kitchen is working together with one board member doing everything they can to intimidate people,” says Klimas. “First thing: she doesn’t serve Polish food. She likes to go to Sam’s and buy ‘heat-it-up.’ We’ve been losing a lot of people because of that.”
In addition, his grievances include the lack of a Christmas party last year. The Mother’s Day breakfast is no more. And the Easter traditions, a huge deal in Polish culture, is history. “We used to get the food blessed by the priest,” he says of his childhood. “My mother used to take it in baskets covered with a white cloth, and the priest would sprinkle it with holy water.”
Despite his current position on club management, Klimas holds a special place in members’ hearts. “I love him,” says Kowalik, patting his heart. “We go way back.”
Kowalik appeared startled to hear Klimas had been tossed out for late dues, according to the club’s attorney. Told that Clark wanted to be able to throw Klimas a birthday party for his 97th in September, Kowalik and Hennech both said he certainly could.
The letter from West Palm Beach attorney Lynne Hampton told Klimas his membership had been forfeited due to late payment of dues, noting that he hadn’t been coming to meetings regularly and was “verbally inciting members to take action against the board,” a violation of the club’s objectives as stated in the bylaws.
Further, Hampton cited rumors that Klimas and others were looking to take control of the club, sell it and “pocket the proceeds.”
“It’s a very ludicrous accusation,” said Clark.
“If we wanted to do it, we couldn’t,” says Klimas, his white cane resting on the kitchen table of his south Vero home. “We’re an Uncle Sam non-profit 501(c). You know what I mean?”
By most accounts, the problems began in March when Gloria Fleming, a board member, took over a meeting as chair – she says at the behest of the vice-president who couldn’t be there. Others said she had no right to take over, that there couldn’t be a meeting because there weren’t enough members present to form a quorum. Tempers flared, and the board asked her to step down. She has hired an attorney with $1,400 raised from club members.
Meanwhile, Fleming, a realtor, has other concerns.
“I looked over the by-laws before the meeting and saw that we are supposed to have an internal audit quarterly,” says Fleming. “For more than two years, there were no audits at all.”
Sunday, as a test of the club’s intentions to promote Polish culture, the dissenting members organized a picket of the club’s meeting. They recruited a group of Polish-American residents they happened to run into having a picnic in Riverside Park one day.
“We submitted 20 new members – some of them even speak Polish – and we’re waiting to see what they’re doing with that,” says Clark. “We suspect they aren’t going to accept them.”
Other members have handed over their dues, he says, and their checks have not been cashed.
“It’s the biggest Polish joke, it really is,” says Clark. “It’s a travesty for a soon-to-be 97-year-old man to have to go through this.”
Klimas, meanwhile, pats his pocket where he keeps his rosary. “You better believe it,” he says. Asked what outcome he prays for, he says, “I ask the good Lord to keep things smooth.”
But the good Lord may have other plans for Klimas. “This only started because we had enough,” he says assertively. “If we walk away, we’re stupid.”