There was an unmistakable wince on Toledo bluesman Patrick Lewandowski s face when the holiday film classic, It s a Wonderful Life, was innocently mentioned midway through a two-hour interview.
We were in the midst of a friendly chat at a conference table inside the grand old Bell & Beckwith building on North Erie Street in downtown Toledo, the place that his family s firm, Lewandowski Engineers, made into its new headquarters in 1996.
However, any comparisons to Jimmy Stewart s George Bailey character cause Lewandowski to react like someone forced to suck on a lemon. He is a guy who, like the fictional George Bailey, had hopes and dreams of seeing the world, only to be drawn back home by a series of pressing matters.
"Oh gawd," Lewandowski, 53, said with a cringe, half chortling as he slunk down in his chair. "That s why I never watch that movie."
His wife, Mary Pat McCarthy, later said that she could have predicted that response. But she said the comparison is "100 percent true."
Actually, Lewandowski was more successful in venturing outside of Toledo than the gangly Jimmy Stewart character was in leaving his hometown of Bedford Falls.
About 15 to 20 years ago, Lewandowski was playing up to seven gigs a week and was on a blues circuit that took him throughout the Midwest and as far away as Nova Scotia, Los Angeles, and Tijuana, Mexico.
He drew a strong following, becoming a favorite at outdoor festivals and nightclubs while winning various guitar competitions and whetting his appetite for life on the road.
One of his fans felt so strongly about him that he claimed to have driven miles to hand-deliver a tape of his to B.B. King, Lewandowski said.
"I don t know if he actually got it," Lewandowski said. "But that s what he told me."
John Rockwood, a long-time Toledo musician, said he has no doubt he ll see Lewandowski on local stages years from now, still demonstrating his commitment to the music.
"He s like the cornerstone, the piston," Rockwood said. "He s a mainstay. He s a constant."
By many accounts, Lewandowski gave up his shot at making the big time to come back to Toledo at the request of his brother, Matthew, who now owns Lewandowski Engineers.
When their late father, John, was ailing in the early 1990s, Lewandowski s heart told him it was time to settle down and devote more time to the family business with Matthew. Pat, who began working at the firm at the tender age of 6, is now a survey crew chief.
Established in 1916 by Pat s grandfather, Louis Lewandowski, and great-grandfather, Michael Lewandowski, the engineering firm isn t a savings and loan like the one featured in It s a Wonderful Life.
But it is one of Toledo s enduring family-run institutions.
And, despite its success, it has stood up for the little man. Pat s father was reputedly known around town as "St. John" years ago, when local officials wondered if Cherry Street should be rezoned for unfettered commercial development. Lewandowski s father, who didn t want to see people displaced, argued that some of the city s fabric would be lost.
Pat s mother, Ruth, ran into a string of health problems not long after his father died in 1995. As if the business wasn t enough to keep Pat in town, there was the need to help her out. She died last November.
Lewandowski said he s happy with the decision he made.
"What it made me do was make me work harder at my music," Pat said. "I like the musician I ve become."
From his outstanding live shows to self-produced compact discs that include "Shades of Grace" and "2 Big Guitars: Live at Mickey Finn s," Lewandowski has been a bread-and-butter act of the local blues scene for years.
His latest CD is a collection of Irish songs called "Paddy Lie Back," and you may never find someone with a Polish name doing such good Irish music.
Lewandowski laughs at the thought, noting he has Irish in his blood. His mother and a grandmother are Irish. So is the woman he s been married to for 20 years now. "There s Irish women all over the place in my family," he said.
Springsteen of Toledo
Patrick Lewandowski is, in short, Real Toledo.
He s tough, gritty, tender, generous and forgiving.
He s street-savvy, self-taught, and self-sufficient.
He s the kind of guy, according to his wife, who does New York Times crossword puzzles in 10 minutes and has read countless books about Gen. George Custer, Lewis and Clark, and expeditions to the North and South Poles.
But he s also the kind of guy who could never stick with school.
Lewandowski attended the University of Toledo, Bowling Green State University, and Owens Community College at various junctures, majoring at in anything from English to forestry to engineering to music.
Nothing kept his attention.
"It just interfered with what I wanted to do," he said. "I d have dropped out of kindergarten if I could have gotten away with it."
Above all, Lewandowski plays from the heart and gives to those in need.
"His persona is like the Bruce Springsteen of Toledo," observes a friend, Ken Leslie, who organized the Homeless Awareness Project s Tent City events between 1990 and 2000 to draw attention to the region s homelessness.
Lewandowski not only played at every Tent City event free of charge, of course but he also donated time to book other musicians. He and Leslie were the only two people there for every minute of every event.
"He s truly one of the great people of Toledo," Leslie said.
Joining him at many of his countless benefits has been fellow guitarist Bob May, who has played with Lewandowski for 19 years.
May said a lot of the empathy comes naturally because they are more joy than they are jobs. "We like to play music," May explained. "To do it and help somebody out now and then, it doesn t hurt us to do it."
Unlike many blues musicians, Lewandowski didn t come from an impoverished background.
He has had what many people would consider to be a comfortable life, being raised in the Old West End during its heyday by well-to-do parents and sent off to the private St. John s Jesuit High School.
He said that playing in Old West End garage bands during the 1960s gave him the confidence of being a live performer. His dream was to follow the footsteps of his idols, who include Jimmy Page, Eric Clapton, John Mayall, Chuck Berry, B.B. King, T. Bone Walker and Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown.
A lot of his motivation seems to come from how Pat and his siblings were raised by their parents and how the previous generation raised them.
When their father, John, died in June of 1995 at the age of 73, Lewandowski told the obituary writer that he just thought of his father as a great guy. He didn t dwell on his father s numerous accomplishments, which included engineering projects at the Toledo Zoo and several area college campuses, serving on countless boards, and being a lieutenant commander in the Navy who served in both World War II and the Korean conflict.
Neither did Matthew. He said at the time that his father was proud of employing several University of Toledo engineering students who went on to successful careers because he "felt like he was building people, not just concrete."
Their mother, Ruth, was a nurse who was active in countless organizations and fund-raisers, from the American Red Cross to the local recreation board. She did anything from policy advice to making dolls for sick children.
In 1969, she took Matthew and the boys sister, Cathy, to St. Lucia, an island in the Atlantic Ocean off Venezuela so all three could work as volunteers at a 100-bed hospital.
That same year, Ruth Lewandowski said in an article she wrote for The Blade how she was inspired by her own mother during her youth. She said her mother had fed hungry laborers who had been exploited in Panama and fought to help California farmer workers get decent housing.
That kind of empathy apparently was passed along through the generations and became a fixture in the Lewandowski home on Robinwood in the Old West End.
Pat recalled how the family would, during his youth, take in foster babies that the Catholic diocese was in the process of placing in homes. He said he found out just recently that his parents had quietly paid for funerals of some children who came from poor families.
"It was the way we were raised," Lewandowski said. "My brothers and my sisters have always done volunteer work. To refuse is contrary to the way I was raised."
Helping the homeless
Lewandowski isn t affiliated with a group or a cause. Much of his work goes unnoticed, whether it s handing someone a buck on the street or bringing toothbrushes and other supplies over to the Mildred Bayer Clinic for personal grooming kits it distributes. On Friday afternoons, he s part of an informal group that distributes food to the needy in the downtown area.
He s done everything from raising money for the Jerry Lewis Muscular Distrophy Association telethon to playing at benefits for Vietnam War veterans. He s appeared on "Christmas Toledo," a collection of songs from local artists that came out several years ago to raise money for homeless programs and "Blues for the Children," a 1999 disc produced by the Black Swamp Blues Society to help raise money for the Autism Society of Northwest Ohio.
The Tent City audiences are among his most memorable.
"These homeless people who other people generally ignore on a regular basis turned out to be the best audience I ve ever had," Lewandowski said. "If you ve got the talent and you ve got the time, why wouldn t you do it?"
His wife, who is five years younger than Pat, was a high school friend of his sister. Mary Pat McCarthy said she first was enamored by Pat s guitar playing. Then, she said she was impressed by his "Old World manners" that include holding doors open for people and standing up when elderly people enter a room.
She said she knows Pat is pleased by how his life has turned out.
No regrets. No looking back.
"He s passed up plenty of chances to play in bigger cities," she said. "He s happy doing what he does. He doesn t feel like he s missed the boat on anything."
Contact Tom Henry at email@example.com or 419-724-6079.