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OWAA Legend Doc Kowalski

By Jack Kerins

Doctor Julius M. Kowalski. He’s my hero — you don’t forget the man who saved your life.

Doc was a living legend in OWAA long before many of today’s outdoor writers were even born. Some of our younger members have never had the privilege of meeting him. Since 1995, he has been confined, diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease.

This OWAA legend was born and reared in Milwaukee and graduated with a degree in chemistry from the University of Wisconsin at Madison. He taught bacteriology at the University of Chicago and subsequently graduated from the University of Illinois College of Medicine.

It could not have been a worse time for a young physician to hang out his shingle and begin his practice. The era of the Great Depression was just beginning. Like the majority of Americans, he had to supplement his meager income by any means possible.

Doc was lucky though and found employment with a dairy company in Chicago delivering milk in a horse-drawn wagon. Operating a business in those troubled times meant watching expenses and the company soon found it had to cut back. Being the youngest employee, Doc was given the choice of being dismissed or accepting a lower paying position. He chose the latter.

For the next several months he shoveled manure and cleaned out the company’s stables. Eventually his labor status was upgraded when he was hired to drive a hook-and-ladder wagon for the Chicago Fire Department.

But, he had a wife and two children to support and found his income still needed an extra boost from somewhere. Unbelievably, Doc found just what he needed — a spot on the starting lineup of the Chicago Bears Football Team for $35 per game.

“This was back before Chicago had a stadium,” Doc said. “We marked off an open field and the fans stood along the sidelines and both ends. Toward the end of the game one of the Bears’ substitutes passed the hat through the crowd and that’s where our little pay came from.”

When the Depression finally began to fade and prosperity was getting a foothold once again, Doc returned to his career in medicine. But then another blow: World War II. So, in 1943, Doc Kowalski entered the United States Army Air Force as a flight surgeon assigned to the Alaskan Air Command. It is recorded that during this time he became the first physician to go to the North Pole.

Following his military service, in 1949 he began his practice of family medicine in Princeton, IL. During that time he was instrumental in organizing the University College of Medicine in Peoria, IL, where he later taught for 25 years. For excellence in his teaching career, the University of Illinois Board of Regents bestowed upon him the title of professor emeritus.

For seven years Doc served as the assistant editor of the Illinois State Medical Society Journal, a publication issued to every medical school and library across the nation. Also, for five years he was a committee member of the Illinois State Medical Society on environmental health and a charter fellow at the American College of Sports Medicine.

Doc joined OWAA in 1954 and became medical consultant, as he also was for the Association of Great Lakes Outdoor Writers (AGLOW), of which he was president in 1967.

Considering all of his years of service to these two organizations, it would be difficult to ascertain how many cuts and bruises he tended, how many fish hooks he removed, how many cases of poison ivy and insect bites he soothed, how many hangover pills he dispensed and how many tetanus shots he has given — all at no cost to any of us.

Now a personal note: At the 1985 AGLOW conference in Marquette, MI, it was Doctor Kowlaski’s presence and professional expertise that saved my life during a sudden coronary. If it were not for Doc, I would not be here today.

Incidentally, when I was recouping in the hospital in Marquette one of the resident physicians came to my room and said, “You must be some kind of an important guy. Who was that doctor that brought you in here after he stabilized the urgency of your condition? Before he would let any of us work on you, he sat us down at a table and demanded information as to our credentials and qualifications in treating cardiovascular diseases.”

That’s the way Doc is, and how dedicated he has been to everyone in OWAA and AGLOW. I remember asking him once if he would be able to make it to a midwinter board meeting in Chicago.

“Jack,” he replied, “I’d crawl bare-assed naked through five miles of broken glass to make it to any OWAA or AGLOW meeting.”

We were concerned about him when he was late arriving at the 1995 AGLOW Conference in Cadiz, KY. Later, we were stunned to learn he had become disorientated and lost; the state police found him somewhere in Missouri.

Doc has since been confined to a nursing home in Lincoln, NE. His daughter lives nearby and during the OWAA conference in Sioux Falls I called her to check on his condition. Sandy did us one better by driving him over to spend a couple of hours with his old friends.

The old boy looked pretty much the same, remembering several of us and carrying on a steady conversation. However, Sandy told me that on the way home he couldn’t remember being there or talking to anyone.

For many of us old codgers, the legend of Doc Kowalski deserves an honored shelf in the archives of both OWAA and AGLOW.

Outdoor writer and photographer Jack Kerins has been a member of OWAA since 1966.

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