YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio (MyValleyTributes) – Bernice Koczwara (Rogan) was born on September 13, 1931 and died on Wednesday, May 24, 2023 at the age of 91.
She considered herself to be the “11th of 10 children” born to Florian and Agnes Kapucienska Koczwara, her mother’s “surprise” at age 47.
Berni, as she was known, was the epitome of compassion and generosity. She dedicated her life not only to being good but doing good, a cross between Mrs. Santa Claus and Mother Teresa. If Salvation Army bell-ringers were shivering in the cold, she brought them hot chocolate. If road workers were sweltering in the heat, she brought them a cooler of ice cold water. Local fire and police departments knew her as the “Donut Lady”.
It was said of her that no-one loved their family more. She visited family members each day after work with fruit, pizza, or groceries in hand to make sure they were happy and lacking nothing. If she bought herself a snowblower or weed trimmer, everyone got one. If she saw that someone could use a new refrigerator or new roof, she would find ways to finance it.
Berni helped her family to remain close by hosting Sunday dinners and family picnics, with traditional foods and plenty of leftovers. On Saturdays she would drive her brothers to the mall for lunch and people-watching. Special events like New Year’s Eve sleepovers were greatly enjoyed not only by her grand-nieces and -nephews but also their grandfathers.
Life was challenging for Bernice’s large family in the inner city. Her mother, Agnes, made it work by cleaning houses, fixing and selling properties, sewing her daughters’ dresses from potato sack muslin, growing fruits and vegetables, baking bread, making wine, owning a cow, selling duck eggs to restaurants and raising chickens, which Berni considered her personal pets. One favorite who used to greet her after school every day became supper, after which time Bernice refused ever to eat poultry or even eggs.
Having six brothers to protect her, Berni was pretty fearless. She liked to tight-rope walk the second-floor porch railing. After careering down steep Alpine Street on a rusty sled, she slid right into Poland Avenue traffic, resulting in six stitches on her head. When a group of neighborhood kids taunted her for stuttering, she leaped from the topmost step of the porch to tackle them and afterward became their best friend.
With her brothers off to war in WWII, Berni lost her protection and worried about their survival. Thomas was in the lead ship at Normandy. Frank was an MP in occupied Italy. Mike was an advance communications officer in the Pacific. Stanley drove a munitions truck there and attended the Japanese surrender. Also, her brother Tony had been away at CCC Camp. So Berni’s favorite photo was of her brothers in uniform after they all arrived home safely.
Berni’s life seemed a series of tragedies. Soon after the war, her mother developed cancer and died at the age of 63. Her father died nine months later at the age of 67. Then Berni unexpectedly became a mother figure to her niece, Carol. Also, city of Youngstown declared that their entire neighborhood was to be demolished to make room for a sewage disposal plant. So her close-knit family had to disperse, the brothers helping to build each others’ houses and sister, Stepheny, becoming a nurse.
Berni took courses at Youngstown College and started her career as a secretary at Scholl Choffin, Travelers Insurance and Manchester Bennett (“couldn’t read my own shorthand”). At Ohio Edison, she met her future husband Edward Rogan, with whom she helped design their future home and garden. Unfortunately, after ten years, he died of a stroke.
With an apparently insurmountable amount of bills to pay, Berni joined the 3,200 applicants at the newly-opening GM Lordstown fabrication plant, and became their first female employee. Some workers expressed their dismay at her “taking away a man’s job”. But she was awarded for her contributing ideas, and eventually won them over with her sweetness and sweet cookies that she baked for special events.
Berni’s 33-year career there came to a screeching halt after a severe car accident on her way to work. She had so much metal putting her back together that her neighbor called her “Bionic Woman”. The extra-long titanium implant replacing her left leg bones from hip to ankle was only one of three in the entire country.
One of the only areas not affected was her right arm. The blow to the back of her head must have awakened a genius in Berni for oil painting on large canvases. Her first work, inspired by memories of Williamsburg, was accepted by the Butler Museum of American Art for their juried area artists competitions, as were other works for three subsequent years.
After the age of 72, she painted 53 oils, most of local historic buildings or on consignment, all of Victorian winter scenes including her signature horse and sleigh. For the next 17 years Berni made prints of her works and sold them as matted prints or cards at Butler’s Fine Arts and Crafts Holiday shows.
When she retired from painting due to failing sight, she donated her remaining inventory to church functions, the Poland Historical Society, and the residents and staff of Canfield Place Assisted Living, where she resided for the last year of her life due to Alzheimers.
Berni was a person of varied interests and abilities. She obtained a real estate license along with her sister Stepheny. They purchased a lot on Market St. to eventually have a carryout sandwich business before her sister developed lymphatic cancer. She loved to travel throughout the eastern United States. Her three European trips were mostly of Eastern Europe and Rome, the highlight being a limited audience with Pope John Paul II.
Berni has had so much loss in her life that she became what she called a “family historian”. Others referred to her as a “curator of all things family”. Nothing was allowed to be thrown away: trunks of linens from her mom’s original ship crossing, all manner of print media, cards, letters, receipts, tools, furniture, even a pile of bricks from her original house on Cypress Street. Her house was elegantly maintained but don’t look in the basement, attics, closets or drawers. They are all stuffed with photos, histories and treasures that her family is left to curate.
Now that we know that total love and generosity is possible, Berni’s remaining family and friends have the challenging task of attempting to emulate her. These include her brother Frank’s wife, Anne, Carol and all the other nieces and nephews and their children that she has “adopted” and cared for all these years.
Her spirit will be joining those of her mother, Agnes; father, Florian and siblings, Mike, Joe, Tony, Stanley, Tom, Stepheny and Frank. The precious Julie, Mary and Johnny, aged 2, 4, and 6, died in the flu epidemic of 1918-1919.
Bernice’s funeral arrangements were at St. Patrick’s Church on Tuesday, May 30, 2023 Her Celebration of Life was conducted afterward in the form of a Berni-style fun family picnic. Peace at last.
Arrangements were handled by the Kubina-Yuhasz-Wasko Funeral Home.
A television tribute will air Sunday, June 4, at the following approximate times: 8:58 a.m. on FOX and 9:58 p.m. on MyYTV. Video will be posted here the day of airing.