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Ahern: Beverly history professor teaching in Poland

Dominic PacygChicago's Beverly community pictured home with family dog Molly during Christmas is recipient Fulbright Scholar fellowship is living Poluntil

Dominic Pacyga, of Chicago's Beverly community, pictured at home with the family dog, Molly, during Christmas, is a recipient of a Fulbright Scholar fellowship and is living in Poland until May. He is working there as a visiting scholar and lecturer at Jagiellonian University. | Supplied photo

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Updated: February 27, 2014 6:11AM



Here’s a little fact about the history books that Dominic Pacyga writes — he always tries to put either a picture or some mention of his family in all his books.

It has nothing to do with ego but speaks to the personal nature of his work. Much of what he shares about Chicago’s history involves his family, whether the focus is on Polish immigrants, factory workers or societal changes in the immigrant community.

Pacyga, who lives in the Beverly community of Chicago, has authored or co-authored six books about Chicago’s history. In fall 2015, his seventh book will be published, this one on the Chicago Stockyards.

And that’s not all. Pacyga was recently named a Fulbright Scholar, a prestigious recognition by the Fulbright Program, an international educational exchange program sponsored by the U.S. government. The award means Pacyga is now a visiting scholar at Jagiellonian University in Poland until May.

Pacyga is passionate about history, but his becoming a history professor and author is a far cry from the professional baseball player he planned to be when he was young. Baseball was his passion, but that interest fell by the wayside as he pursued academia.

He earned his undergraduate degree in 1971, earned his doctorate in 1981 and subsequently published his first book, “Chicago: A Historical Guide to the Neighborhoods.” He’s now on sabbatical from his professorship at Columbia College in Chicago to fulfill his Fulbright duties.

Pacyga has received the Oscar Halecki Award from the Polish American Historical Association, the Catholic Book Award and the Columbia College Award for Excellence in Teaching in 1999 and 2011. He also recently received the Haiman Award from the Polish American Historical Association, a lifetime achievement award for promoting knowledge about the Polish community.

Pacyga is often called upon by various media to work as a public historian, a role for which he’s well prepared.

“I’m happy with this,” he said. “I didn’t envision this, but I’m happy this happened the way it did.”

Pacyga grew up in Chicago’s Back of the Yards neighborhood, named for its proximity to the Union Stock Yards.

“The Back of the Yards had a diversity which I took for granted as a kid,” Pacyga said. “There were a lot of different languages spoken there, but the predominant language was Polish. When I went to De La Salle (Institute), there were non-ethnic people there who could not pronounce my last name. It was an eye-opening experience.”

Pacyga did his undergraduate and graduate work at the University of Illinois at Chicago and came to Columbia College to teach in the 1980s. While there, he became involved in the Southeast Chicago Historical Project, which aimed to create a history of that part of the city.

He helped collect about 5,000 photographs and “spoke at a lot of bingo nights” at various churches. Ultimately, the project’s collections helped form the James P. Fitzgibbons Memorial Museum, which is dedicated to the history of the Southeast Side.

At Jagiellonian University, Pacyga is a guest faculty member teaching American urban and working-class history. Although he’s fluent in Polish, his classes are given in English, which is appropriate for his students in the American Studies program.

“My students have a real curiosity about our history,” he said. “There are a lot of Poles in America, and a lot of Poles in Chicago. There is that perception, or maybe a popular view, of Chicago as a gangster town. I will give them an overview which they did not have.

“I don’t think the Polish students get the complexity of American society, they don’t get the big picture, but there is tremendous interest. I gave a talk on Detroit on a Friday night and 60 students showed up, so there is that interest.”

Pacyga’s wife, Kathy Alaimo, is a history professor, too, and is the dean at the College of Arts and Sciences at St. Xavier University in Chicago. In an email, she wrote of her support for her husband.

“Many years ago, more than 30, I won a grant from the government of France to conduct my dissertation research in Paris for a year,” Alaimo wrote. “We had just become engaged, and off I went to France. Ever since, I have tried my best to convince Dominic that he should do something similar through the Fulbright program for visiting scholars.

“It’s definitely a big adjustment to have Dominic away for such a length of time. Of course, he is my best friend, and so I do miss him very much. Fortunately, I love the work I do at SXU, and it keeps me very busy — in a good way.”

Alaimo said she plans to visit her husband in Krakow in March.

Pacyga loves the adventure of being in Poland but said he misses his family and other things as well.

“I miss cream of wheat,” he said. “I sometimes miss American television, too, and I seem to watch 1980s detective shows for free on YouTube. I do have friends there — other Fulbrighters are here too, but I still get lonely.”

In terms of overall impressions of Poland, Pacyga wonders whether Americans realize how Poland is today.

“Poles are disappointed in the relationship with the U.S. The golden American image has dissipated,” he said. “I think people here would be surprised at how prosperous Poland is. It is not a rich country, but the changes there are tremendous.”



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