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Poland honors UCCS English professor

September 3, 2014
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Longtime UCCS professor Tom Napierkowski was honored with the Knight's Cross of the Order of Merit, given by the Republic of Poland. He was honored for his work on early immigration literature. Thursday, August 14, 2014. (The Gazette/Jerilee Bennett)

"Dad would be proud."

As he stood on stage during an academic conference in Warsaw, Poland, over the summer, Tom Napierkowski's thoughts turned to the man who cultivated his appreciation of his Polish-American culture and heritage: his late father.

Those were the first words that came to mind while he accepted a prestigious award from the Polish government, and then, this:

"He'd probably give me a pat on the shoulder and say, 'Good job.' "

Napierkowski, in his 42nd year of teaching in the English department at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs, received the surprise award in recognition of his contributions to his family's homeland, primarily for his Polish-American and Slavic research and teaching of early immigrant literature.

The personable and humble professor said he was a bit embarrassed but highly honored by the fuss.

He was awarded the Knights Cross of the Order of Merit of the Republic of Poland, a diplomatic order given to foreigners who have rendered great service to the country. The public ceremony with high-ranking government officials included being pinned with a medal of appreciation and accepting documentation signed by Bronislaw Komorowski, president of the Republic of Poland.

Scholars from 16 countries presented 210 papers during the conference, and Napierkowski was one of eight selected for the recognition.

"It was an additional honor that I was included with people for whose work I have the greatest respect and who are internationally known," Napierkowski said recently.

On campus, he's the expert on Chaucer and other medievalists and on the history of the English language.

Napierkowski is committed to teaching and devoted to students, said longtime colleague Allen Schoffstall, an organic chemist and UCCS professor.

"He's an outstanding instructor and as a scholar has traveled all over, studying early immigrant literature," Schoffstall said. "He's a person you'd like to have as your friend."

Napierkowski, 71, grew up in a blue-collar neighborhood on the south side of Chicago, where many immigrant families lived. His grandparents were born in Poland and continued to speak their native language in this country, and his father taught him to "not forget the old country."

After he earned a bachelor's degree from the University of Wisconsin nearly 50 years ago, Napierkowski received a scholarship to do graduate work in literature at the University of Colorado.

He had intended to study American literature. But, he said, "I couldn't find myself in American literature."

As Napierkowski struggled with locating the voice of the immigrant in prose and poetry, Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, and school officials realized there were no courses in African-American literature at CU.

"The department said to a few of us from inner cities, 'Would you be interested in teaching African-American literature?' I said, 'Yes.' "

He began to find writings by African-Americans for students to read and analyze and also looked for hidden literary treasures from Polish-Americans and other immigrant communities in the United States. He was pleasantly surprised with the richness of the work.

"It needs to not only be discovered but also preserved and evaluated," he said. "It tells us a lot about the wonderful achievements and shortcomings of the immigrant experience in America."

When he came to teach at UCCS in 1972, he asked the administration if he could research immigrant literature.

"There were a lot of places that stuck to more traditional scholarly literary lines of research that would have rejected that whole notion as not responsible research," he said.

But UCCS' leadership supported him wholeheartedly.

"They said, 'Run with it.' "

The result: a plethora of research articles, papers and reviews on early immigrant literature, including presentations at many international conferences, such as this summer's Fifth World Congress of Polish Studies at the University of Warsaw.

The paper Napierkowski presented revolved around this year marking the 100th anniversary of the start of World War I and the 75th anniversary of the onset of World War II, as well as the 95th anniversary of the re-establishment of Poland as independent, the 25th anniversary of free elections after the fall of Communism in Poland and the 15th anniversary of Poland's admission to NATO.

His paper analyzed American attitudes toward World War I and World War II through five novels that trace adolescent boys, including a Polish immigrant, who in 1918 enlisted in the U.S. Army to fight in Europe.

Napierkowski has become a "valued and important member of the UCCS and Colorado Springs communities," UCCS Chancellor Pam Shockley-Zalabak said.

"For more than 40 years, professor Napierkowski has shared his passions for the literature of American immigrants, and for teaching, with students and his faculty peers," she said. "His recognition by the Polish government shines brightly upon him."

Napierkowski's response: "It's all been a labor of love."

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