A rtist, musician, composer, inventor, professor, scientist — it’s difficult to define Dr. Jacek Dutkiewicz, senior research fellow for Georgia-Pacific’s operations in Memphis and since 2008 president of the Polish-American Society in Memphis. Born in Poland “several years ago,” as Dutkiewicz says, his education and career have taken him to universities throughout his native country, to Zaire, then to the United States, where he taught at the University of Washington. Along the way he has filed dozens of patents, published some 200 articles, and written two books about paper manufacturing and technology. A job offer from the Kimberly-Clark Corporation took him to the company headquarters in Wisconsin, and from there he came to Memphis, where he has lived with his wife, Halina, since 1998. He talks about his native country, this year’s salute to Poland by the Memphis in May International Festival, and misconceptions many Americans have about the Polish people.
First of all, let me say that you have one of the most impressive resumes of anyone I’ve ever interviewed.
Thank you. I enjoy research. I earned a master of science degree and then two doctoral degrees in engineering from Lodz Institute of Technology. The president of Poland has also presented me with the “Professor” title, the highest academic degree my country offers.
Does the rest of your family share your enthusiasm for science and education?
Oh yes. Halina — my perfect wife, my inspiration, my motivation, my great love, with whom I have spent 42 years — also earned a master’s degree. In fact, that’s how we met, while attending school. Our son, Radek, is married and both he and wife Laurie are successful medical doctors living in Oregon. Our daughter, Magda, is a senior market research manager and lives in Nashville with her husband, Victor, an IT engineer.
Before coming to the U.S., you spent some time in Africa.
As a young boy, I always wanted to visit Africa, and I got a job offer to teach in Zaire. For several years I was director of the chemical engineering department at the University of Lubumbashi.
What eventually brought you to the U.S.?
I received an invitation from the University of Washington, but Poland was still a closed country, so my family had to stay behind. But I fell in love with this country. A few years later, the Kimberly-Clark Corporation heard about my research [in paper making] and offered me a position. By this time Poland had become more open, and I had spent my life in academia and I wanted a chance to work in the real world. We spent six years in Neenah, Wisconsin, but grew tired of the weather there.
Is Wisconsin weather that much different from Poland’s?
Poland gets cold, but you still have four distinct seasons. In Wisconsin, you have a short summer and a long winter.
So you found your way to Memphis.
I liked Memphis because I knew it was a center for musicians. I had reached a point in my life where I had to decide to be a scientist, or a musician. My wife convinced me that a scientist would let me see my family more [laughs].
Let’s talk about the Polish community in Memphis.
It’s a close community, but not a very large one. Perhaps 150 Polish families live here. But what many people don’t understand is how large Polish communities are in other cities. More Poles are living in Chicago than actually live in Warsaw. And if you go to Walgreens, you’ll see they now offer prescriptions in seven different languages, and one of those is Polish. So that says something, when Polish is considered one of the seven most common languages in the world.
When was the Polish-American Society of Memphis formed?
A fellow Pole, Len Jankowski, began the society in 1978. It was mainly formed of doctors, engineers, scientists, and others who had come to this country after the war. Younger people came later. (For more information: pasofmemphis.com)
But it wasn’t very active for a while.
No. By the time we arrived [in Memphis] membership had declined. I was elected president in 2008 and have tried to attract new members. At present, we have 80 members and are growing.
What is the purpose of the society?
We try to remind people of the rich traditions of Poland. In 2006, my wife founded the Nicolas Copernicus School of Polish Culture and Language. We have classes at the Bert Ferguson Community Center in Cordova, teaching language and arts. And we also hold special events. In Poland, Christmas Eve is the biggest event of the year, so we try to have a traditional Polish Christmas Eve, with dinner, children putting on plays, and other activities.
How else do the Polish people get involved in the local community?
We are a big part of the Germantown International Festival, usually held in August. It’s a wonderful experience, featuring some 30 ethnic groups. And we are all friends with the other cultural groups. It just shows that friends can be made easily if you’re not affected by politics.
Any other Polish events on the calendar?
Usually in September, we will hold a celebration we call “Farewell to the Summer.” And we have various holidays throughout the year. May 3rd is Polish Constitution Day. Not many people realize that Poland has the second oldest constitution in the world, drafted in 1793 and second only to the U.S. .
And this year Memphis in May is saluting your country.
Yes, even though it took them 39 years to do so [laughs]. That is actually a large honor. The Polish Embassy has declared Memphis in May the most important event promoting Poland in the United States this year. The calendar of events includes the Cracovia Danza Court Ballet, screenings of Polish movies, artworks, music. A cooking team called the Polska Porkers is taking part in the barbecue contest.
What else do you do to enhance Polish-American relationships?
We had a role in developing the curriculum guide that is given to schoolteachers, as part of Memphis in May’s educational materials about the honored country. I am also a member of the Advisory Council of the U.S. Embassy. We meet twice a year, and discuss changes we’d like to see. Did you know, for instance, that Poland is one of the few countries in the European Union that still requires a visa to come to the U.S.?
What would you like Americans to know about Poland?
I don’t think many realize the important role Poles have played in the world. The musician Chopin, the astronomer Copernicus, the scientist Marie Curie — all came from Poland. People think Curie was French, but her maiden name was Sklowdoska. Two U.S. generals in the Revolutionary War — Casimir Pulaski and Thadeus Kosciuszko — were Polish. They both have cities named after them here, but Americans don’t pronounce the name the way Poles do [laughs].