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A.J. Lewandowski, N.U.'s Mr. All-Purpose

Monday, September 12, 2011

During World War II Americans were asked to help with the war effort in many many ways, often calling for skills that were outside their comfort zone, and even foreign to work that they had done in the past. In high schools across the country retired teachers were called back to service. Sometimes this was good, but sometimes those teachers had been retired too long and were beyond their capabilities.

At Plainview (Nebraska) High School, where I was a student, we had several older ladies who had served as teachers before they were married, but that had been years before. For the most part these ladies did a credible job, though the stress of making lesson plans and coping with teenagers after a long hiatus was stressful for them and I'm sure they were greatly relieved when they could again turn over those duties to younger teachers.

But there were some ladies that never should have been given a teacher's assignment. One of these ladies was a Miss H., a spinster lady who had been out of teaching for some time. Her field of expertise was business, and she handled several typing classes, short-hand, and one business ethics class. I only had her for typing. What none of us knew (I'm sure the School Board never knew when they hired her) was that Miss H. had a sleep disorder, some sort of sleep apnea. She would appear fine, but often, in the middle of a sentence she would doze off. She knew she had a problem because she didn't stand, but sat at her desk while she gave instructions.

Toward the end of the semester Miss H. announced that we would be having a 1-minute typing test, which would count for a high percentage of our grade. She gave us the sign to begin as she started her stop watch---and promptly fell asleep. Since there was no one to give us the sign to stop after one minute we all just kept typing. After maybe 5 minutes Miss H. opened her eyes, completely refreshed after her little nap, glanced at her stop watch and told us to stop.

I dare say, the typed words per minute of that "one minute" test that our class achieved that day have never been equaled at Plainview High (or anyplace else.)

It was not just in the high schools that people had to step up to get the job done during wartime. At the University of Nebraska John Champe, the Anthropology professor, was called upon to teach a number of Math classes. Math was not his main interest and he said that he must have been a rather boring instructor. One warm spring day he was putting some sort of theorem on the blackboard. When he turned around every member of his class was asleep. John folded his book and quietly left the room, leaving his class to enjoy their little nap. So it went throughout the University.

The athletic programs were especially hard hit by the war, especially at Nebraska, which did not have the Service connected programs that were common at some colleges. Many colleges and Universities curtailed their football and basketball programs, both because of the shortage of coaches and players, and also because of the difficulties associated with travel.

The University of Nebraska had one staff member who surely went beyond the call of duty in keeping the University functioning during World War II. His name A.J. "Lew" Lewandowski.

Lewandowski was a native of Chicago, having been born there in 1905. He enrolled at Nebraska in the late 20s and received his degree in 1931. At Nebraska Lewandowski was a member of some good football teams, under Coach Ernest Bearg. He also competed on the University's basketball team as well as the baseball team and the track team. He is one of only six to have lettered for the University of Nebraska in four sports.

Following graduation Lewandowski migrated to Montana, where he joined the coaching staff at the University of Montana, as assistant football coach and head basketball coach from 1932-1937. His record there was just so-so, and he left to return to the University of Nebraska in 1937. He became head basketball coach in 1937 until 1945. His overall record as a basketball coach was 81-125, not great, but acceptable in a "football school."

When World War II began, Lewandowski was asked to do more. The legendary football coach, Col. "Biff" Jones, who had taken his team to the Rose Bowl in January 1941, went back into the Army and Lewandowski was asked to help with the football team, in addition to his basketball duties. He did this without hesitation, becoming head coach for the football team in 1943-'44. His record as head football coach was 4-12 for the two years, not bad considering that his teams were made up entirely of Draft 4-Fs and 17- year-olds. In 1942, when the baseball coach left for the service, Lewandowski even became the head (and maybe only) Nebraska Baseball Coach.

Lewandowski would have been the first to acknowledge that he was not the greatest coach around. The important thing was that he was willing to take those jobs, thus keeping the programs alive during a difficult time for the University.

After the war, Lewandow-ski was able to give up his coaching positions at Nebraska, turning the football program over to George "Potsy" Clark in 1945, and the basketball program to Harry Good in 1946. But that did not end his involvement with the University.

Lewandowski continued to be an important cog in the Cornhusker Athletic Department until the 1960s. From '45 to '49, he was athletic director, manager of the athletic ticket office, and maintenance superintendent, responsible for arranging schedules, allotting tickets to the students and public (a position he held until almost the time of his death), and keeping up the Athletic Department buildings, including Memorial Stadium. Lewandowski oversaw quite a large permanent staff, and hired a lot of part-time workers, including students, ever intent on getting the most for the university at the lowest possible cost.

One summer, my roommate, Bob Stake, took a job in Maintenance in the Athletic Depart.

The job included a lot of clean-up, hauling materials to carpenters, on any number of projects -- plus painting.

One day Bob was called into Lewandowski's office. Lew handed him a bucket of paint and a paint brush and instructed him to paint the flag poles on top and at the very ends of the East and West Stadium. When you look at these flag poles from the ground they do not seem very tall, but up close these poles are very tall, very close to the end of the Stadium, and very high above the ground, where the wind always seems to blow a gale.

Bob went to the first flag pole. He was not sure how to complete the job alone, without a ladder, and a safety belt to keep from being blown off the stadium. He returned to the office for instructions.

Lewandowski greeted him at the office, not kindly, and quite bluntly told him that he should get back out there and paint those flag poles. He could figure out how.

With that Lewandowski's secretary spoke up, "Mr. Lewandowski, could I speak with you in your office?" The two left Bob waiting in the outer office, but Bob could hear their exchange.

"Mr. Lewandowski, you've got to make other arrangements to have those flag poles painted!" Lew objected, something to the effect that if those kids were going to get paid they sure as "heck" would work. The secretary let him sputter a bit more, then gave him her closing argument, "He really needs someone who knows what he is doing to help him. And (this was the clincher) that boy could be hurt, and if he was hurt his family could sue the university for millions of dollars!" That argument struck a chord in Lewandowski's accountant's soul.

When he returned, Lew said that on second thought Bob should probably help the crew who were putting the finishing touches on the weight room project. Bob was very relieved. (Note: Bob survived his summer job and eventually became a college professor. He furthered NU's athletic tradition a few years later while at NU, when he shepherded Tom Osborne through his doctoral program.)

-- Source: NU Athletics /football/A.J. Lewandowski


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Walt Sehnert
Days Gone By