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Published: Saturday, 12/24/2011 - Updated: 3 years ago

Henry J. 'Jerry' Sawicki, Jr., 1930-2011: Adventurous developer was jazz lover


EDITOR'S NOTE: This version clarifies information on funeral services on memorial contributions.

Henry J. "Jerry" Sawicki, Jr., a longtime leader in Toledo-area real estate and an accomplished jazz saxophonist, died Wednesday in Naples, Fla. He was 81.

He died in hospice care because of complications from a stroke, relatives said.

The native Toledoan was born May 17, 1930. He was a Renaissance man and lived a life with enough adventure for several. He made a fortune in his business, recorded several jazz albums, forged many household metal items, served in real estate and in elected posts in development, and was an avid spear fisherman.

He crash-landed a plane, shipwrecked on a sandbar in the Bahamas, and led a band that played at President Harry Truman's inaugural parade.

And yet he loved simple things, son Jerry Sawicki III said, such as gardening or cooking for his family on Saturdays.

"When you blew all the smoke off him, he was a pretty simple person," he said. Mr. Sawicki's motto, the son said, was that success is when opportunity meets preparedness.

A man of modest beginnings who never graduated from college, he worked various jobs and played jazz for years until a chance meeting, in a nightclub, with real-estate developer John Whelan, who in 1953 hired him as a salesman.

He quickly showed the drive characteristic of his life, eventually starting his own business, Sawicki Realty, which he built into a major area development company.

The company built and sold thousands of homes and controlled thousands of apartments.

Mr. Sawicki forged numerous business partnerships and came to control, either personally or through partnerships, most elements of real estate deals, from lumber to finance to developing floor plans and excavation.

Many major real-estate developers in the area learned the trade from him; the training ground was once termed Sawicki real estate school.

Mr. Sawicki left active involvement in the company he built but found much to occupy himself.

He rekindled his love affair with jazz, which, as the second love of his life, had led him to his first: his wife, Lois, whom he married in 1950.

He started playing music while young and was gifted enough to earn a scholarship while at DeVilbiss High School to Valley Forge Military Academy in Pennsylvania.

He led its band at Mr. Truman's 1948 inauguration.

Mr. Sawicki played jazz throughout the area before his realty career, and he picked it up again after he retired.

He played with the Murphys and the Jimmy Cook group and once shared the stage with Dizzy Gillespie.

Business success allowed the pursuit of many hobbies.

He spearfished in the Bahamas, cooked Southern-style food, sailed boats, flew planes, and wove baskets in his old age.

Mr. Sawicki had a fearlessness about him, his son said.

In 1973, he was flying a single-engine plane over West Virginia with his wife when the engine quit.

He clipped a grove of trees and crashed into a field, but the pair walked away mostly unharmed.

Within days, he chartered a new plane home.

The 1981 murder of his brother, Pete, in Ottawa Hills was the only challenge in life from which he did not quickly rebound, his son said.

He struggled with the murder's aftermath for years, until he fell back on faith for comfort.

For a man with so many interests and involvement in varied public positions, he never kept a large social circle.

Al Hotchkiss, who got his start in real estate with Mr. Sawicki, called the man more a brother than a friend or colleague but said there was always an impenetrable fence around him.

He said Mr. Sawicki was as focused and driven a man as he had ever met, one who commanded respect as soon as he entered a room.

And yet, he remained a mystery to most.

"I guess a lot of great men are that way," Mr. Hotchkiss said.

Mr. Sawicki is survived by his wife, Lois Ann, daughters, Jana Sawicki, Jill Sawicki, and Lisa Holman, son, Jerry Sawicki III, sisters, Dixie Fritts and Cheri Tronrud, nine grandchildren, and nine great-grandchildren.

Visitation will be at the Coyle Funeral Home, 1770 S. Reynolds Rd., between 2 p.m. and 8 Tuesday. Funeral services are to be at 10:30 a.m. Wednesday at Trinity Lutheran Church, 4560 Glendale Ave.

The family suggests tributes to the music programs at Maumee Valley Country Day School or St. John's Jesuit High School.

Contact Nolan Rosenkrans at: nrosenkrans@theblade.com or 419-724-6086.

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