Over the Hill

Death overseas felt locally

A plane crashed in the fog last Saturday in Russia, killing many of Poland’s key national leaders. Many of us probably considered it tragic but remote. But a few North County people felt a personal loss.

They knew one of the victims — Poland’s first lady, Maria Kaczynska. They’d met her in July 2008, when they travelled to Poland as representatives of the Paso Robles Paderewski Festival.

It’s an annual festival celebrating the life of classical pianist Ignacy Jan Paderewski. In the late 1800s and early 1900s, he was as popular as a rock star is today. He was also the first prime minister of modern Poland and a part-time resident of Paso Robles. He owned two ranches in the Adelaida district.

He also owned an estate at Tarnow, Poland. It’s now the Paderewski Center for the promotion of classical music and culture. In 2008, the Paso Robles delegation visited Tarnow. The board members of the Paso Robles Paderewski Festival met with Tarnow officials to arrange for artistic exchanges and other cultural and commercial cooperation.

The Paso Robles folks also visited Warsaw and were given an opportunity to meet the president’s wife, Maria Kaczynska. The Associated Press described her as “an economist and translator … who put her work aside to support her husband.”

Frank Mecham, who was then Paso Robles’ mayor, described the meeting to me. (He is now chairman of the county Board of Supervisors.) He said officials at the presidential palace warned them that the first lady was a little shy, reserved and not talkative and so the visit might last only 10 minutes.

But it turned out she was “warm, charming and graceful,” he said, and the visit lasted about 45 minutes. He remembers her as petite and dressed “stylishly casual.” She invited everyone into a larger room for tea and spoke in fluent English.

She was also well informed. She knew Mecham was descended from one of this county’s early families (the Estradas.) She also knew that Joel Peterson, the festival board chairman, was the grandson of a founder of the festival, Virginia Peterson.

Mayor Mecham gave Kaczynska a clock from the people of Paso Robles, and Steve Cass presented wine from his winery. Paula O’Farrell photographed the event. This week, she said, “It made me tear to see these photos again.”

The organization’s next event is “A Toast to Paderewski,” to benefit students in its exchange program. It is set for April 24 at Pear Valley Winery, 4900 Union Road, Paso Robles. More information is available at www.paderewskifest.com.

Contact Phil Dirkx at phild2008@sbcglobal.net or 238-2372.