Robert S. Kowalski, Kowalski Heat Treat 1938-2021

It is with great regret that we mention the passing of Robert Kowalski, founder of Kowalski Heat Treat Company in Cleveland, Ohio, USA.

“Robert S. Kowalski, husband of 64 years, father of 18 children, businessman, metallurgist, submariner, photographer, fisherman, chef, teacher and dear friend to too many people to count, passed away early on Christmas morning. He left this world in his sleep, at his Florida home with his wife Carole, and his children nearby – bringing a peaceful ending to a most extraordinary life.

His passing was the coming home of an odyssey that lasted 83 years, spanned multiple continents, several states, hundreds of adventures big and small, and always centered on one thing: His family.

Born on May 11, 1938 in Cleveland, Ohio, to Frank and Camille Kowalski, Robert Kowalski was what you would call a “strong man” in a classic way. A large and imposing person in his prime, and gregarious always, his strength wasn’t purely physical – though that was true — but in his sense of purpose. His resolve. He had star quality. Heads turned when he entered a room not because of a booming voice or countenance, but in the subtle understanding that when everyone there was sized up, he’d emerge the leader. The captain of the ship. He knew it. He embraced it his whole life. Those who knew him knew it too.

A devout Roman Catholic, he’d bow his head every Sunday without fail at the aisle side of a pew filled end-to-end with his children, most observing his solemnity with sideways glances while they fidgeted.

Robert Kowalski was fond of boasting, frequently, passionately, unashamedly. But never about himself.  Always about his wife and children. His pride was unbridled, both in his large family, and in the gifts of each of his daughters and sons. Friends who knew him noted the way he’d pick each child out for praise. He boasted of his daughter who helped run the family business, then with her husband began her own. He boasted of his son who took over the family business and expanded it into a small empire. He boasted of his daughters who became nurses and physical and occupational therapists, a son who went to medical school, a son who started many business ventures, a son who was a pharmacist and devoted much of his adult life caring for his aging parents. He boasted that more than 50 of his children and grandchildren earned college degrees, something he did himself at night and on weekends.

From his marriage to Carole M. Stack in February 1958, Robert Kowalski might have gone on to be a Navy officer.  He was already among the most elite of sailors, piloting submarines. The U.S. Navy wanted him to lead, and offered him a spot in Officer Candidate School. He knew this would mean rarely seeing his wife, and declined. The lesson of this decision resonates with his sons and daughters to this day.

What he chose instead took courage. With an already large and growing family, a dream, and little more, he and his wife Carole leased a small building in what is now Cleveland’s Ohio City neighborhood, purchased industrial equipment from an aging cash register company, moved it in rental trucks, and single-handedly began a steel treating business that has survived nearly five decades. Drivers along Detroit Avenue toward downtown Cleveland have seen the Kowalski Heat Treating sign above the building all these many years. To start the business he bought supplies from a hardware store owned by his uncle. Family.

Robert Kowalski was fiercely patriotic and never owned anything but an American car. Those he bought later in life were always from his nephew’s auto dealership in Ohio. His brother’s son. Family. And yet Robert and Carole welcomed summer guests from North Korea, Switzerland and England to live with their young family in Ohio. They adopted a daughter from Korea, a daughter of Filipina descent, two African American sons. Family travel was often North and South of the U.S. borders.

Robert Kowalski was at heart a teacher. In completing two additions to the family house in Westlake, Ohio to accommodate a growing family, he taught his sons and daughters everything about building a house. From pouring concrete to plumbing, wiring, structural and fine woodwork —  he taught it all. He and Carole filled that house with books. Bags of books, from the local library.

He is survived by his wife Carole, 83, and by all of their children: Elizabeth, Cathy, Robert, Stephen, Lauren, Nancy, Daniel, Ellen, Matthew, Kerstin, Alexander, Timothy, Peter, Margret, Andrew, Susan and Dominic. He also is survived by 57 grandchildren and 24 great grandchildren.

Throughout his life, Robert Kowalski’s sense of wonder was equal parts insatiable and contagious. From skin diving for abalone in Hawaii, to caving in West Virginia when he was young; to a family trip throughout the West in a van he and his children modified for the purpose decades before anyone heard of the “van life,” when he was approaching early middle age; to fishing in far North Canada and Alaska, to taxi rides in Manhattan at frightening speeds in late-middle age; to returning to the West with his wife in older age, he relished excitement of new experiences and this never ceased. He recorded all of this through a love of photography, methodically documenting hundreds of thousands of photos of trips he took to wild places with his wife and family. He was meticulously cataloguing hundreds of photos for yet a new project in November of this year when he was hospitalized for heart failure.

On December 24, 2021 Robert S. Kowalski returned from the hospital to his home of 26 years in Marco Island, Florida, greeted by a room filled with his sons, daughters and their spouses and own children. On the lawn outside, dozens of white ibis gathered, as they do this time of year. In the waterway alongside the house, open-ocean fish surfaced. Fifty six minutes after midnight, as Christmas Day arrived, he drew his last breath, and gently moved on.

An extraordinary life. 

Funeral Mass Tues. Jan 4 at 10:30 a.m. at St. Raphael Church, 525 Dover Center Rd. Interment St. Joseph Cemetery. FRIENDS RECEIVED AT THE BERRY-McGREEVEY FUNERAL HOME, 26691 DETROIT RD. FROM 4-8 P.M. MONDAY.” 

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