By Palmer Hasty
Special to the Brooklyn Daily Eagle
He started high school back in 1941 at Abraham Lincoln HS in Brooklyn. It wasn't until 71 years after leaving school in 1942 that Brooklyn native Jack Koolik received his Honorary High School Diploma from Darnell-Cookman Middle/High School in Jacksonville, Florida.
One might ask; What took so long?
Well, Koolik's 71-year detour started when he left Abraham Lincoln after his sophomore year to join the Army Air Corps (now the Air Force).
He went on to fight with Gen. George C. Patton's 5th Army in WWII. His job during the strategically successful invasion of Sicily was to identify low flying enemy planes trying to evade U.S. radar over the Mediterranean beaches. Koolik received several medals for his service, including the World War II Victory Medal and the American Service Medal.
His daughter, Bonnie Sandler, who also grew up in Brooklyn, teaches math at Darnell-Cookman. When she found out about a program created by the Florida Legislature in 2013 that would allow veterans who had to leave school during the war to be awarded their high school diplomas, she thought it would be the perfect opportunity for Koolik. Sandler convinced her school to honor her father at the June 2014 Darnell-Cookman graduation ceremony.
Sandler considered it a once in a lifetime opportunity to proudly present her father with his high school diploma. As reported by the local TV station News4Jax, when presenting her father with his diploma Sandler said, "Your commitment to our country and your service in combat is a model for us all...we thank you for serving our country so courageously... congratulations.”
On receiving his diploma, Koolik told News4Jax, "I feel proud to be an American. I left high school to go to war to help keep the country at peace. This is a wonderful thing my kids have done for me."
Koolik is now 90 years old and lives in the Garden River Nursing Home in Jacksonville, Florida. He has to use a walker and sometimes an electric wheel chair to get around, while Bonnie checks in on him several times a week. She says that he is still lucid, and like a lot of men his age, he is still feisty with a great sense of humor.
In a recent conference call interview with the Brooklyn Eagle, Bonnie joined our conversation with Koolik because her father's hearing has deteriorated over the years.
Do you feel smarter now that you have your diploma after so many years?
"Absolutely, it's a great feeling. It was very exciting for me. I was in the newspaper and the local TV station came."
How does it feel to be 90 years old?
"I can't believe it. When I was growing up the life expectancy of the males in my family was only 65. I'm fortunate…I walked around a lot until a couple of years ago when I started getting dizzy, so now I have to use a walker and sometimes an electric wheel chair."
What was your childhood like in Brooklyn?
"I played a lot of ball in the streets. Stickball, handball, all that stuff. We did a lot of swimming over at Coney Island. My father was a Russian immigrant. I remember he used to work in the basement all the time. He was a tinsmith, he built the metal linings for the wooden ice boxes people used before refrigerators were widespread. Eventually I learned to play racquetball. I could play racquetball well enough to play with the young guys until I was 80."
So you got married soon after you returned from the war?
"Yeah. I lost my wife about six years ago. We were married for 59 years. I met her at a block party. We used to have Victory Dances throughout Brooklyn. That's where I met her, dancing at a party. She lived in Brighton Beach."
What kind of jobs did you do?
"I had a family to bring up, and jobs were uncertain. I worked in the silk screen business primarily, but sometimes that got real slow. So I got myself a driver's license and I drove a cab in Manhattan. With the driver's license I was also able to drive a milk truck part-time for my cousin. That's when they delivered milk door-to-door in the glass bottles. The bakers, the bread people, the vegetable people and us, the milk people, we all used electric trucks then. I don't know why they don't use the electric trucks now...maybe they'll go back to it one day."
When Koolik returned to Brooklyn after the war in 1945, he lived in his parents’ two-family house (where he was born) at 1917 East Ninth St., between avenues S and T, just a couple of miles from Coney Island.
Bonnie would sometimes join in the interview conversation with some of her own memories when the Koolik's lived in Sheepshead Bay. She was born in 1951 and went to PS 194 and Marine Jr. High School. After graduating from Sheepshead Bay HS she went on to earn a degree in math education from Brooklyn College.
She moved to Florida when she was 22 and has been teaching math ever since. In 1989 she convinced her father at age 55 to go into semi-retirement, move to Jacksonville and work part-time for her husband's Gulf Produce business.
She said a fond memory of hers was when she was about ten years old. During the winter months she and her friends would go the Herman Dolgon Playground where they had a "concrete field" that the parks department would fill with water so it would freeze and the kids could ice skate.
"It's of course just my opinion, but I think growing up then was a better childhood, a better time. All the street games we learned playing outside all the time, and we all had that strong neighborhood bond. I'm partial of course, but I just think we had a simpler and healthier childhood in many ways than kids do today with all the video games and internet stuff."
(She laughed) "As a very young child I learned to fish because dad didn't have any boys, and it was a family thing, so he'd take me and my two sisters with him and teach us all how to fish."
Bonnie said that life for her aging father at the Jacksonville nursing home isn't easy but that he's still active, taking exercise classes and painting landscapes.
And speaking of being feisty, she told the story of when the nurse once asked Koolik what he wanted on the license plate of his new electric wheel chair, and without hesitation he told the nurse, "pain in the ass".
Bonnie laughed: "So now my father rides around the nursing home in his electric wheel chair with the license plate that reads P.I.T.A."