BRISTOL - In 1962, Bernard Grabowski stopped on a whim at the Democratic Convention in Hartford. He wasn’t a delegate and didn’t have a ticket, but a man who was leaving gave him his. By the end of the evening, Grabowski was the party’s candidate to represent Connecticut as congressman-at-large. He was elected later that November.
Grabowski, who died Aug. 30 at the age of 96, was the only congressional representative Bristol ever produced.
According to The Bristol Press archives, there was tension in the air at the convention that night. Opposition to the incumbent, Frank Kowalski, threatened to divide the party. Then James P. Casey, a former mayor of Bristol, suggested Grabowski as an alternative. He pointed out that, as a Catholic of Polish descent, Grabowski brought ethnic and religious diversity to the platform.
Grabowski wasn’t a political novice. Casey knew him as a former member of the City Council from 1953 to 1955 and as judge of the municipal court 1955 to 1960.
“They needed a candidate,” Grabowski recalled years later. “I had been active in politics all along.”
Born in New Haven in 1923, he was the son of the late Felixa (Szydlowski) Grabowski and John Grabowski. When he was an infant, his family moved to Bristol.
“My dad lived in Bristol his whole life,” said his daughter, Diane Grabowski Barry. “I think they literally jetted him off to Bristol as soon as he was born. He grew up at St. Stanislaus Church and was a fixture of the community for his 96 years.”
He attended St. Stanislaus Parochial School, graduated from Bristol High School in 1941, and entered the U.S. Army where he fought in France during World War II and received a Purple Heart for injuries in battle. After returning home, he got a bachelor’s in business administration and a law degree from the University of Connecticut. He practiced law with the late Louis Hanrahan, who was his law partner and colleague throughout his career.
He married Anne Gorski and they had two daughters, Carol Grabowski, who now lives in Arlington, Mass., and Barry, who now lives in Medway, Mass.
Carol Grabowski was eight when her father was first elected.
“It was definitely a big deal in our lives,” she said. “It was also a big deal for Bristol. Photographers would come to the house. I can remember the night before he left for Congress to start his first term, a photographer for The Bristol Press took a picture of me handing my father a pair of pajamas to pack. I think he just wanted to have a family angle.”
“We continued to live in Bristol while he was in Washington, because my mother did not want to disrupt our schooling,” she said. “My mother and I would go visit him once or twice during the summer.”
Even when he was home, he was very busy, she said. “A lot of times on the weekends he’d have to be out campaigning or attending events. I think sometimes people don’t realize how much time it really takes when somebody is in that kind of position.”
He was in Congress during the John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson administrations. He recalled for The Bristol Press how Kennedy came to Waterbury to campaign for him and how he felt on hearing of Kennedy’s assassination.
“First of all, I couldn’t believe it,” Grabowski said. “Then I found out it was true. He had so much ambition and ability. Now we will never know what he could have accomplished during his two terms.”
Two years after first being elected, Grabowski’s seat was redefined as the Sixth Congressional District. He ran again and won, defeating his Republican opponent Thomas J. Meskill, who later became governor.
During his time in Congress, Grabowski served on the Banking Committee and supported the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and the establishment of Medicare in 1965.
Carol Grabowski said she remembers him talking about President Johnson and his Great Society programs, intended to eliminate poverty and racial injustice. “He was very much on board with all of that. He was also a very loyal Democrat, if the president wanted something he would go along with it,” she said.
One downside to that loyalty was he supported the Vietnam War, which turned out to play a big role in his defeat in 1966, she said.
“All this information has come out that the administration was not as frank as they should have been about what was going on in Vietnam,” she said. “The notion that the president would not tell 100 percent of the truth about something was just unheard of at the time.”
Grabowski lost to his old opponent Meskill. Robert F. Kennedy sent him a telegram expressing regret on learning of his defeat. “A lot of the photos and memorabilia we have are kind of amazing,” Carol Grabowski said.
Barry, who is eight years younger than her sister, said the family has photos of their father with Kennedy and Johnson, and also with other notables, such as former President Herbert Hoover and Madame Chiang Kai-shek, one of China’s most significant political figures.
“He never boasted about it but he loved that time,” she said. “It was a different time politically. People got along together, Democrats and Republicans together, and really partnered to make things happen.”
Barry said she and her sister recently watched a few of his television interviews from that time. “It was so interesting how relevant some of the topics were to today. One of his quotes was ‘we really have to have heart as a country, in terms of the immigrant population,’” she said.
After his time in Washington, D.C., Grabowski returned to his law practice and retained his interest in politics, serving on the Democratic Town Committee.
In a 2009 interview with The Bristol Press, when he was in his mid-80s, Grabowski credited his good health to his daily walks and with the fact that he would still get up every day and head for his law office above a small strip mall on Route 6.
“This job gives me the ability to meet with people,” he said. “I’m a people person. I get to talk and go to dinner with people. I wouldn’t have that if I sat at home.”
Councilor David Preleski knew Grabowski through St. Stanislaus Church. “He was a longtime member there, as was my family,” he said.
“He and I sat on a committee together,” Preleski said. “I was in my 20s, which would have put him probably in his 50s. St. Stan’s used to have a school, and through his efforts on the committee we probably kept the school open two or three years past what they thought we could, because of the financial constraints.”
Preleski said Grabowski also helped inspire him to get involved in local politics. “He was very involved in the Democratic party and he often gave us advice on political theory and handling people. He was a gracious man, a good family man, with a very positive attitude, just a really good guy,” he said.
“He was an icon in the Polish community, as a congressman, a politician, a businessperson,” Preleski added. “Back then Polish people went to Polish lawyers. Everybody knew him and revered him. He influenced a lot of people in positive ways, both in the legal profession and in politics. He set the bar for ethics and doing the right thing, so that’s probably what I’ll remember him most for.”
Susan Corica can be reached at 860-973-1802 or email@example.com.