Love is a choice – Lenny Szczesniak

No one could meet Lenny Szczesniak and remain the same.

By Clare Zanzucchi

Love in action is how many describe Leonard Szczesniak’s life. It was his characteristic trait. Whether old or young, Christians, Muslims, Jews, of other faiths or no religious tradition, from all walks of life — many were touched by his humility and concrete care for others and were encouraged in their journey simply by the way he listened to them. He concluded his own earthly journey in Philadelphia on December 10. He was 76.

Lenny, or Len as he was also known, was one of the pioneers of the Focolare in the U.S. He discovered its charism in 1957 in Chicago, when a Scalabrinian priest in his parish, Fr. Joe Scopa, told the story of Focolare founder Chiara Lubich and her first followers to a group of young adults. Lenny was very much taken by it, and together with 35 others, including several young married couples, he began to live the spirituality of unity.

In 1964, he heard about the Focolare’s small town of Loppiano, near Florence, Italy, and shortly afterward left to go there, where he understood that God was calling him to marriage. Hoping to assist the Focolare in some way, he moved to Rome, where he worked for three years with Focolare’s cofounder Fr. Pasquale Foresi and Nuzzo Maria Grimaldi editing New City, the Focolare’s first English publication.

Returning to the U.S., he began work in New York. In 1972 he married Mary Moran, and together they began their family adventure, which would blossom over the years as they welcomed nine children (two of them adopted), into their lives. Meanwhile he was also pursuing a very successful career with Good Housekeeping magazine, where he was highly respected.

In a message to the Focolare community, President Maria Voce shared the following excerpts from Lenny’s spiritual experience and legacy. In 1977 he wrote to Chiara, “As I walked through Manhattan toward the station, it seemed as if everything around me didn’t exist anymore … Through all that I do — the simplest actions as well as the weightier ones — I want to go through the world giving back the love that Jesus has shown me and continues to show me.”

In June 1995, at the conclusion of a school of formation in the spirituality held in Italy, he wrote, “I am returning to the U.S. a different person. I want to be a ‘nothingness’ filled with God’s Love, so that I can see everything and everyone through his eyes.”

Within the Focolare, he lived out his vocation as a married focolarino in an exemplary way. In 1994, he with his family represented the U.S. at the international Celebration of the Family in St. Peter’s Square. With humility and patience he carried out leadership roles in the New Humanity Movement and in the local community in Philadelphia and Southern New Jersey. One of the many fruits is a vibrant group of Muslim friends who wish to put into practice the “pact” made by Chiara Lubich and Imam Warith Deen Mohammed in May 1997 at Malcolm Shabazz mosque in Harlem, New York. They too accompanied Lenny with their prayers and support during his illness.

— With Emilie Christy and Sarah Mundell

Perfection in love

Excerpts from the eulogy that Lenny’s children shared at his funeral celebration

By the Szczesniak children

The purpose of life is to seek perfection in love. This, in a nutshell, was Dad’s worldview — in every interaction. It didn’t matter if it was with a stranger, or a big client, or with a son or daughter. His priority was understanding and meeting that person’s needs, giving of himself unconditionally to build common ground. He did this in countless ways, both mundane and impressive, throughout his life. In perfecting love, as many of you know, Len Szczesniak was a very successful man.

Dad was born in Chicago in 1936 to hardworking parents. His mother worked in a supermarket, and his father was a butcher. Dad spent his early childhood on his grandparents’ farm in Lublin, Wisconsin. They cared for him, his older sister Genevieve and younger brother Bob. As a child, he enjoyed outdoor adventures on the farm, was an excellent speed skater and played ice hockey very well.

With his parents struggling to support their family, he interrupted his education at the age of fifteen to work full-time. As a sheet metal worker, he achieved journeyman status. With this intense work ethic, he quickly earned a high school diploma and then a college degree in psychology from the University of Loyola.

It was in college that he began to know the Focolare, and its message of love and commitment to building unity resonated deeply with him. We think that love and kindness came naturally to our father, but the spirituality of unity inspired him to cultivate them consciously in every aspect of his life, and to devote his life as a young man to the movement. Around 1972, he began working for Good Housekeeping magazine.

Integrity and character

Seeking perfection in love must have taken on a whole new meaning when Dad applied it to the corporate world. His humility, steadfast integrity and taste for the simple sometimes overshadowed the fact that he was actually a rather high-level executive in advertising sales and brand development for Good Housekeeping.

Dad was an enigma in his field. He used to tell us that he had never wanted to work in sales, but was urged to do so by his mentors at work, who must have seen his potential. He reluctantly signed on, no doubt to better provide for his family, in faith that as long as he was doing his best, with integrity and love for his colleagues, God would take care of the rest. Our father did not have a coercive bone in his body, yet he succeeded in a field where it is easy to rely upon manipulating the facts.

He became one of the most prized sales personnel his company had ever seen. A 1999 trade article highlighting his career posed the question: “How many salespeople have been handling their magazine’s No. 1 account — one of the world’s biggest advertisers … for two decades and counting … in a profession peopled largely by the young and mobile? The answer is one: Len Szczesniak of Good Housekeeping.”

When asked to explain his sales philosophy, our Dad tells readers he simply tries to “help folks do a better job at what they are doing.” He continues, “When your approach is just to get the business, it contaminates the process.”

Though his work made him part of a high-powered corporate world, complete with the occasional parties attended by social elites, Dad was never very impressed. He did not value material wealth, and he treated everyone he met with respect, in the spirit of love, no matter how low or high on the corporate or social ladder they happened to be.

At one event, he noticed an older woman in the corner of the room, sitting away from the other guests. She looked lonely, and so, despite having many friends and colleagues in the room, he chose to sit with her, to help her feel welcome. He only found out the next day at work that he had been hobnobbing with one of the guests of honor, Academy Award-winner
Jessica Tandy.

For our dad, being frugal seemed natural, not a sacrifice or chore. His wardrobe only included work clothes, old work clothes now perfect for everyday-wear, and even older work clothes now perfect for painting and mowing the lawn. In fact, he cared so little for material things that when we thought about each of us keeping something “special” of his as a memento, there wasn’t much to choose from: a watch, a few plastic combs and some handkerchiefs. Truly, the only possession our Dad cherished was his professional grade carpet cleaner, beloved for its many years of service protecting his carpet from kids and dogs. Cleaning the rugs was one of his favorite Saturday morning activities.

Nine children

No one benefitted more from Len’s quest for “perfection in love” than his children, though he gave himself fully to every person he met. There are nine of us, yet he showered each of us with individual and constant affection. “You’re my best,” he used to tell us — all of us — one after another. “Isn’t this baby the most beautiful? The smartest one yet!” he would say about each successive child or grandchild born.

In our house, “love” had nothing to do with fairy-tale princesses. Love was something you did. We fought and bickered like most siblings would, but our dad did not scold or punish us. Instead, he would challenge us: “Who will be the first to love?” This tactic sometimes led to a battle of wills, but in the end we understood the message: in our house, loving one another was our primary responsibility. It came before anything else.

In our father’s life, it always did. As he would tell us, “You don’t have to like everyone, but you do have to love them.” This lesson, that love is an action, was one of Dad’s greatest gifts to us.

Another lesson: love is a choice made each and every day. The most concrete example of it was the grueling schedule he kept, commuting to Manhattan from Philadelphia for over 30 years. Each morning, he woke up at 4:30am and took Amtrak to arrive at Good Housekeeping by 8am. His work was demanding, and he needed to get that early start in order to be able to leave by 5pm or 6pm and get home around 7:30pm. Evening activities included spinning us around until we were too dizzy to beg for more, challenging us to a game of Uno or chess, perhaps straightening up the disaster we had created in the living room, before telling us stories as he put us to bed. He was out of the house for about fourteen hours every weekday, but none of us ever had the sense that he wasn’t around.

Dad was skilled at and committed to resolving conflict, and building unity between parties once divided. He was never above an apology, even if only for losing his temper or getting frustrated. Of course, his good nature prevented him from committing any serious offense. He taught us that it’s never too late, or too early, to start again.

Suffering with love

When Dad’s dementia was diagnosed, his deficits were still small, and he completely understood the implications. He bravely confronted cognitive and physical decline, loss of independence, and the possibility of no longer recognizing loved ones. Of course, he never complained. His strategy was to live in the present, without fear of his future, and with faith in God who is Love. He felt the pain of slow decline, and we were devastated at the thought of his suffering.

In the first few days after Dad’s diagnosis, we tried to put on cheerful, hopeful faces … for his sake, we thought. We tried not to dwell on his illness, never to cause him to think about it, though he surely was doing so anyway. Dad saw right through this and began to feel like we were treating him differently, as though he were sick and weak. He protested loudly. Through the course of his illness, as we more and more felt the need to coddle and protect him, his demand was to respect his independence and love him as we always had before.

His illness began to make language more and more difficult. One day, Maria asked him to give us some words of wisdom that we could pack away for when we needed him and he was no longer with us. With great effort — he had lost much of his fluency — he gave this wisdom: “The meaning of life, the essence of our human experience, is to know deep suffering and to choose to face it with love.” She asked him, “Dad, what about people with wonderful lives? They won’t experience the meaning of life?” Smiling at her naiveté, he told us, “Everyone suffers deeply at some point in life.”

We are sure that these last few years challenged Dad to a new level. He hardly needed much to be happy in life. His only wish was to contribute to those around him, always in the spirit of love. Yet his illness robbed him of the ability to do even simple household chores. In the last few months, when Dad struggled mightily with speech and confusion, he never failed to sense a break in unity around him, especially with our mom. He’d tell her, “I’m sorry,” if he thought he was frustrating her, after repeating a question for the 11th time. As for mom, she never failed to reassure him. And her constant presence was, in his final weeks, our father’s peace.

Today, Dad, we are facing our own great struggle: the pain of losing you. We promise to answer this challenge, as you have taught us, with love and faith. Within each of us remains your legacy. We promise to cherish this gift. We promise to love as you taught us, without conditions, without expectations. Thank you, Dad. We love you.

Reprinted with permission from Living City Magazine – Feb 2013.