Friday, January 02, 2009

An Austin Legend passes

Feel like an active, community oriented/interested person? You just think you are. A fellow lion Willie Kocurek passed away yesterday. I met and talked to him a few times through Lions but I certainly couldn’t call him anything more than an acquaintance.

Just some snippets from today’s Austin American Statesman:

Willie Kocurek, a former Austin school board president, merchant and bow-tie-wearing pitchman recognized as a tireless civic advocate, died Thursday of natural causes at the Westminster Manor retirement home. He was 98.

Kocurek, who had an elementary school in Southwest Austin named for him in 1986, was known for his gracious personality and can-do spirit. He spent his life advocating for a variety of causes, including care for the elderly and education. He was a perpetual student, entering law school at age 67 and starting a practice at age 70.

"He didn't stick to one theme and one passion," said Joyce Lauck, executive director of Austin Groups for the Elderly, which Kocurek co-founded in 1986 to provide resources to seniors. "Underlying all of it was care and concern and making the community better."
Kocurek remained vigorous throughout most of his life, also working as a banker into his 90s.
His slogans "Where there's a Willie, there's a way" and "You don't need money, just a little bit a month," as well as hand-drawn Mr. K. newspaper ads, led him to be called one of the most visible and often-quoted men in town.
A newer generation of Austinites knew him on the airwaves as a promoter of education.
"He knew everybody and everybody knew Willie; he was friendly to everybody," said one of Kocurek's grandchildren, Dr. Jeffrey Kocurek, an Austin urologist. "I have patients come into my office every day saying 'I met your grandfather. Your grandfather gave me credit when no one else would."

Kocurek served on the Austin school board from 1946 to 1954, the last four years as board president. In recent decades he offered his quasi-celebrity to the Austin school district as an advocate for school bond referendums, appearing on television to urge Austinites to approve the measures at the polls.

Eventually, he bought that service station and expanded it from a place that sold gas and lube jobs to what became the Willie Kocurek Co. Kocurek also began wearing a leather bow tie.
"The reason it was leather was oil could be wiped off," he recalled once. That evolved into red cloth bow ties sewn by his wife Maurine, an Austin native whom he married in 1934.
Indeed, Kocurek enrolled at the University of Texas School of Law in 1977. He had gone to law school in 1943, but his work schedule and service in the U.S. Navy during World World II interrupted his studies.

In the 1980s, Kocurek chaired the Austin school district's Forming the Future long-range planning project, which involved 14,000 Austinites developing goals and building plans for the district. From that came a $210 million bond issue that voters passed overwhelmingly in 1983.
He later chaired an $80 million bond election drive for the school district in 1986.
J.P. Kirksey, past president of the Austin Founders Lions Club, a group Kocurek belonged to since 1939, once told the American-Statesman: "He gave an unselfish sharing of himself."

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