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Published: Sunday, 9/21/2003

Family looks for answers to union official's suicide

BY GEORGE J. TANBER
BLADE STAFF WRITER
Pam Szczcpanski, 56, and son Todd, hold a photo of Robert Dolve. She has spent years asking for the full story behind her father's death. Todd, 31, joined her five years ago. Pam Szczcpanski, 56, and son Todd, hold a photo of Robert Dolve. She has spent years asking for the full story behind her father's death. Todd, 31, joined her five years ago.
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On a Sunday afternoon in May, 1962, Robert Dolve, a United Auto Workers organizer at Willys Overland, killed himself with his shotgun in a Bedford Township home he shared with his girlfriend.

Or so a Michigan State Police report says. His daughter, Pam Dolve Szczcpanski of Toledo, is not so sure.

As a young woman, Mrs. Szczcpanski was told by friends of her father's not to pry. Now 56, she has spent years trying to prove otherwise. Her son, Todd Szczcpanski, 31, joined her quest five years ago.

However, archival records from the Michigan State Police recently obtained by The Blade have shed more light on the death of Mr. Dolve, the man who was an associate of controversial UAW labor leader Richard Gosser. In the police report, Bettie Mockbee, Mr. Dolve's girlfriend, said Mr. Dolve told her he was depressed because he had leukemia - an illness he apparently shielded from his family.

The Szczcpanskis always believed it was Mr. Dolve's mysterious union activities that had consumed his life and were somehow responsible for his death at 37. Despite the information revealed in the police report, they still do.

“To me, the report raises questions,” said Todd Szczcpanski, who will ask state police to reopen the case.

Recently, the Szczcpanskis sat in Mrs. Szczcpanski's southwest Toledo home surrounded by the remnants of Robert Dolve's life. There was a single album of pictures, a 2-by-3-inch box holding a ring of keys and his military identity tags, and a wallet containing his wedding band and UAW membership card.

“Not much, is it?” Mrs. Szczcpanski said.

Her father grew up on Pinewood Avenue and joined the Air Force in 1943. After he left the service, Mr. Dolve married his childhood friend, Beatrice Szubachowski. Pam, their only child, was born in 1947.

Soon after, Mr. Dolve was hired as a line mechanic at Willys. Mrs. Szczcpanski said her parents' relationship deteriorated after he became active in the UAW. Mr. Dolve, a reserved man who liked to drink, had begun working with Gosser, who directed the area UAW unit, Local 12, and was a key figure in the national office.

Gosser was jailed for armed robbery in the 1920s. Although he championed worker causes, Gosser was widely criticized for his heavy-handed organizing tactics and alleged illicit activities, including the theft of Willys parts.

“The Toledo Police Department investigated many of the rumors and found that stuff was going out the door [at Willys]. At the time, only people on the lesser end of it were ever caught,” retired police detective Gene Fodor said.

Gosser traveled with bodyguards who served as his enforcers, Mr. Fodor said. Mrs. Szczcpanski recalled the group visiting the Dolves' Indiana Avenue apartment in the early 1950s.

“We need you,” Gosser told her father. He did not return home for several days, not an unusual occurrence. Eventually, Mrs. Szczcpanski and her mother left Mr. Dolve and moved into Mrs. Dolve's parents' home on Hamilton Street.

“Bob helped get the white-collar employees in [to the union]. That might be why Gosser visited his home,” said William Borden, 81, a former national UAW official.

Her parents remained estranged, but Mrs. Szczcpanski said she always met her father every Monday at 11 a.m. during recess from Trinity school at Sabin's Caf on Hamilton. Of her father, she said: “To me, he was Superman. I have no bad memories of [him].”

In 1957, Mr. Dolve moved into the upstairs apartment of the Bedford Township farm house he shared with Ms. Mockbee, also a Willys employee.

That's where he died in 1962. Circumstances surrounding the death quickly raised questions among some family members.

The funeral director handling Mr. Dolve's body, Kenneth Van Wormer of Boyer-Van Wormer on Secor Road, declined to let Mr. Dolve's family identify the body, Mrs. Szczcpanski said. That would be contrary to normal practice, according to other funeral directors.

Mr. Van Wormer, 52, killed himself with a shotgun in the mortuary in 1964. He suffered from depression, his family said.

The Szczcpanskis said they have often wondered if there was any connection between the deaths of Mr. Van Wormer, Thomas Gray, a Local 12 Willys unit official, and Mr. Dolve.

Mr. Gray, also 52, was found dead by Mr. Borden in his Luna Pier cottage in 1959 after a day of bird hunting. The Monroe County sheriff's department determined the death was of natural causes. Mr. Gray's wife, Hazel Gray, 94, of Trilby said her husband had a bad heart. The Grays were close friends with Gosser and his wife.

But Mrs. Gray said when she started asking questions after her husband's death, a Gosser enforcer - she couldn't remember who - confronted her. “He told me for my own good I should stay clear and not ask questions, or I would end up on the bottom of the lake,” she said.

Mrs. Gray said she always worried her husband was headed for trouble because of his involvement with Gosser. “I thank God nightly he died before he got messed up in it.”

A federal investigation that led to the imprisonment of Gosser and two of his associates in 1963 on income-tax evasion charges only strengthened Mrs. Szczcpanski's belief that foul play may have been involved in her father's death.

In 1967, Pam, then only recently married, joined the Toledo Health & Retiree Center, a clinic founded by Gosser for Local 12 members and where a number of his allies worked.

“As soon as I got there, I started asking questions,” Mrs. Szczcpanski said. Within two months her boss, pharmacy director Floyd Krieghoff, confronted her. “He told me to stop asking questions. And he said that the only person who knows what happened to my father is [Gosser enforcer] Arnie Shenofsky, and that he would take it to his grave.”

The center's union steward, Aaron Mahan, later told her that her father had called the night before his death and said he wanted to leave Gosser. They arranged to meet that night, but Mr. Mahan said Mr. Dolve never showed, said Mrs. Szczcpanski, who quit her job soon after.

Mr. Mahan has since passed away. Steve Yeary, a Monroe County sheriff's department deputy who looked into the case at the request of the Szczcpanskis, said he interviewed Mr. Krieghoff, who did not recall talking to Mrs. Szczcpanski about Mr. Shenofsky. Mr. Krieghoff died last year.

Mr. Shenofsky, 88, who once was arrested for striking a union rival in the face with a bottle, lives in a West Toledo seniors complex and has suffered two strokes. In an interview, Mr. Shenofsky said after viewing a picture of Mr. Dolve that he does not remember the man.

After her son joined Mrs. Szczcpanski's quest in 1998, the two made a startling discovery: Monroe County Coroner Harold Maurice, a mortician at Farnham Funeral Home in Temperance, did not perform an autopsy on Mr. Dolve. Three different times of death are listed in the late Mr. Maurice's records that the Szczcpanskis did find, including the death and funeral certificates, further fueling their doubts.

Ms. Mockbee died of cancer in 1999. Immediately after Mr. Dolve's death, she had asked her sister, Shirley LaBo of Lambertville, to clean the room where the shooting occurred. Mrs. LaBo said she did.

“He was a real nice guy and a lot different than her,” said Mrs. LaBo, who had a strained relationship with her more flamboyant sister. She said her sister told her that Mr. Dolve had frequent appointments with his physician, the late Dr. Herman Honeck.

In the state police report, Ms. Mockbee told investigators that Mr. Dolve had been drinking whiskey and beer that Sunday morning. While she was in the kitchen, she said, he must have retrieved his shotgun from his bedroom closet and shot himself between the eyes.

Landlord David Schneider, working on his truck, heard the shot at 12:50 p.m. Ms. Mockbee ran outside and told him that Mr. Dolve had shot himself. Mr. Schneider called police.

In a police interview, Guy Seymour, Mr. Dolve's boss at Willys, described Mr. Dolve as “an odd ball” and a “loner” who never talked about his problems. He said Mr. Dolve was in trouble for leaving the office every Monday morning to meet with his doctor and then skipping work.

Though pleased the official police report has been found, Mrs. Szczcpanski remains curious.

Her father showed no signs of illness in the weeks preceding his death, she noted. During the time every Monday that Mr. Dolve's boss and others thought he was supposed to be with his doctor, Mrs. Szczcpanski said he was with her at Sabin's. There, they often spotted Dr. Honeck, whose office was nearby.

“I believe probably more that the suicide happened than he had leukemia,” she said.

Her son said he wants state police to investigate because, “the ID of the body and the cause of death are still question marks.”

Mrs. Szczcpanski's mother, Beatrice Balusic of Maumee, has not talked about her husband with any family member in the 41 years since his death, which has pained her daughter.

In a brief phone interview with The Blade, Mrs. Balusic said she was not aware that Mr. Dolve was sick and declined to discuss him. She said she knew her daughter was not satisfied with the official account of her husband's death.

“She'll probably never be [satisfied],” she said.



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