Ray and Michelle Novak
Ray J. Novak – February 11, 1924 – November 16, 2015
Michelle E. Novak – March 27, 1933 – September 5, 2016
“Let us think of education as the means of developing our greatest abilities, because in each of us there is a private hope and dream which, fulfilled, can be translated into benefit for everyone and greater strength for our nation.” – President John F. Kennedy
Our parents, Ray and Michelle Novak, were part of what Tom Brokaw called “The Greatest Generation.” Dad was born in Omaha, Nebraska in 1924 to immigrant parents from Poland. He grew up in a small house in South Omaha in the shadow of the stockyards and meat packing plants. He was the youngest of seven children and the only one to earn a high school diploma. His siblings left school so they could get jobs to support the family in the hopes that one day their “Baby Brother” could graduate from high school, go to college, and become successful in whatever vocation he chose. Aside from his oldest sister, Sophie, he was the only Novak to leave Omaha and settle outside of Nebraska.
Mom was born in Brooklyn, New York in 1933 to immigrant parents from Italy and Puerto Rico. She grew up in a “cold water, walk-up flat” in New York City near the East River. Our Grandfather, a New York City police officer, died when Mom was ten years old. At 13, she was diagnosed with tuberculosis and was hospitalized repeatedly at Bellevue Hospital in NYC for treatment. When she turned 16, she was “sponsored” by her physician to move to Denver, Colorado and receive treatment at National Jewish Hospital. Doctors removed her right lung telling her that the TB had also spread to her left lung and they could do nothing else for her. She was told she had 6 months to live and responded by telling her doctor, “I will outlive you and all of your children.” Mom did survive the TB, graduated from high school, and remained in Denver for the sunshine and blue skies.
The United States entered World War II after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. When Dad graduated from South Omaha High School, he enlisted in the United States Navy. He traveled to the Naval Training Center for basic training at Camp Farragut in Bayview, Idaho. While in basic training, Mrs. Eleanor Roosevelt visited the camp to offer inspiration, support, and encouragement to the newly minted sailors. This impressed the South Omaha boy. Dad was stationed at Alameda Air Station in California and eventually on the Johnson Atoll in the South Pacific. He recalled the movement of the American naval fleet as it sailed toward Japan to end the war. He told us he was captivated by the largesse of the American armada. But, it was also an ominous time because he believed that this signaled a momentous shift in the trajectory of WWII.
The war ended, Dad returned home from the Navy and began working at a GM Parts Company in Omaha. While there, he was tagged to travel the country in an 18-wheeler stopping at state fairs and other events to display the new engines GM and Chevrolet designed. This was the beginning of a 35-year career with Chevrolet Motor Division in which he traveled the western region as a District Manager.
Mom attended the University of Denver, eventually leaving to attend the Parks School of Business, where she earned a Secretarial and Bookkeeping Certificate. Her career lasted until she was 82 when she found she could no longer work.
Mom and Dad met in Denver, Colorado and were married in 1968. They celebrated life with four children. Dad was transferred to Rapid City, South Dakota in 1970 so the family moved to the Black Hills. The flood hit Rapid City and destroyed our home on Sheridan Lake Road. Living across the street from Story Book Island, they did not know that Rapid Creek was directly behind the park. They thought the creek was further down the block and did not evacuate to higher ground. When they realized they needed to leave, they discovered they could not because the four-wheel drive pickup they were going to use to evacuate was floating up the corner light pole. With Rob and Michelle in tow (Lisa was working at A&W that night) they went to the attic with a camping lantern. Dad kicked out the sides of the attic walls so he could signal for help. The National Guard rescued them at 3:30 in the morning. They rebuilt after the flood and continued to raise their children in Rapid City.
The humble origins of our parents instilled in them hard-fought grit. They believed and lived the idea that education was the great equalizer. They frequently told us that we had a great life and we should go to school and “become something.” Education was important for them –so important that they sacrificed so all four of their children could attend Catholic Schools. They strongly believed in Catholic education and served in various volunteer roles for the schools. Dad was on the Home School Association at St. Martin’s and Mom served on the Perpetual Help School Board. In the early 1980’s, Mom was one of the founders of Mayfest and both parents continued as volunteers in the ensuing years.
We are offering this Tuition Grant as a memorial to our parents. Without their strength, sacrifice, determination, and commitment to education, we would not have the lives we live today. We would like to honor them by paving the way for others who need assistance to receive it. No one should be denied an excellent education because they cannot afford it. Rather, they should receive quality education so they can grow to their potential and serve others with the compassion, sacrifice, and commitment that our parents showed. Peace be with you all!