Podolske playground, Sussex Village Park
During the Sussex Lions Daze Festival in 1992, the lower playground of Sussex Village Park was named for a family important to both Sussex and the park. The Podolske family was well-known in Sussex from 1915 until the late 1980s when the members moved away.
The Sussex Park Board recognized the contribution of the extended Podolske family and authorized the lower playground to be named the "Podolske Playground, George, Ray, Isabelle Podolske." A historical marker and naming sign was put up courtesy of the Sussex VFW, Auxiliary and the Sussex Lions Club. It has been moved slightly over the years, and today it is on a playground fence facing the entrance to the south. The remaining Podolske family members who formerly called Sussex home gathered for the dedication of the marker in July 1992.
When Isabelle Podolske died in 1983, there was a discussion by the Sussex Park Board during one of its monthly meetings to consider naming the Village Park lower playground after her. The idea was forgotten until former park board leader Terri Bernhardt remembered the extended conversation and contacted current members of the board to reconsider, so there would be some way to honor the Podolske family for their contributions to the community and the park. Bernhardt's memory was jogged by the Nov. 25, 1991, death of Isabelle's husband, Ray.
At the recent Sussex Lions Daze celebration, many children played on the lower park toy complex just off Weaver Drive, between the softball field and the upper park open-air Lions shelter building. The kids were attracted to the estimated $70,000 worth of playground equipment that fills the semi-fence-protected area, also heavily shaded by massive trees. At one time, this area was the edge of a big swamp that covered what is the lighted diamond, central field and adjacent lower parking lot today.
The park, once 78 acres, was purchased in 1958 by the Village of Sussex for about $37,000 and slowly became a major park for Sussex. The development was initially on the northern part around the "kettle" and then the hardball field. In 1974-75, many organizations such as the Lions and Jaycees and softball enthusiasts organized to build a lighted softball diamond using a lot of volunteer labor and equipment. At first, the field was only 275 feet from the home plate to the snow fence. However, in later developments it was pushed out to a 10-foot chain link fence at a near uniform 300 feet.
With the development of the softball field with lights, there was a need to have a playground close enough so that children and parents could see each other. Oftentimes, the playground is the central hub of activity for kids attending Lions Daze, while parents sit on nearby benches or park tables to recharge their batteries.
George Podolske was born in 1892, moved to Sussex in 1915, and married his wife Laura in 1916. Their son, Ray, was born in 1917, and he married Isabelle Benson, a girl from across Main Street, in 1945. Their four children became part of the fabric of Sussex as they grew up. Their son Larry, the last remaining child, is the director of the current Sussex baseball club that shepherds the local Sussex Cardinals Land O' Lakes baseball team, even though he does not live here.
The following history of the Podolske family outlines why they were so important to the Sussex community and particularly the park.
George Podolske (1892-1976) came to Sussex in 1915 to do tin work at the new Malsch Furniture Store on Main Street. A short time later he started a tin shop and hardware store across from the Main Street School. It became a fixture in the community, operating for 51 years (1915-1966).
George was a charter member of the Sussex Fire Department, serving for 33 years. He was the second chief, elected first in 1923 then again for a second term in 1928.
The very same group that started the fire department in 1924 petitioned to combine and incorporate the adjacent villages of Sussex and Templeton as the Village of Sussex. George was one of the prime movers behind this, and one of the 16 incorporation signers. He proceeded to serve for many years on the Sussex Village Board as a trustee.
He was also a prominent half-century member of the local Ashlar Lodge. In 1939 he was one of the founding members of the Sussex Lions Club and served as its second president (1940-41). In his declining years, he was a charted member of the Sussex Golden Agers who evolved into the Sussex/Lisbon Senior Citizen Club, serving as its first president.
Raymond Podolske (1917-1991) was the son of George Podolske. He was born and raised in Sussex, attending Sussex's Main Street grade and high school before finally graduating from Waukesha High School in 1935.
During World War II, he was in the U.S. Army Air Force as an officer, flying as a navigator of a B-17 bomber. His plane was shot down over Germany, and he became a prisoner of war for 18 months. He married a local girl, Isabelle Benson, on July 18, 1945, only weeks after he was let out of the German prisoner of war stockade.
After returning to Sussex, he took up his life work as a plumber at his father's Podolske Hardware Store. He helped found the Sussex Horne-Mudlitz VFW Post 6377 in 1946, and he is considered one of the three founding members. He continued to be a member for 45 years.
Ray joined the Sussex Fire Department and was a member for 29 years, serving as secretary-treasurer for over a decade. He was elected to several terms as village trustee, besides serving on untold various village committees and boards. In February 1958, he was chairman of the Sussex Public Works Committee.
Ray made the suggestion that the village think of purchasing a centrally-located, fairly large piece of land for a park. This suggestion was acted on by the board, under then-president Roy Stier. In August 1958, the Kufalk-Marsden-Moyes 78-acre farm was purchased for the Sussex Village Park for the sum of $36,088.17, with Podolske one of the seven voting for the expenditure. It was a unanimous board decision, despite a petition signed by more than 200 people opposed to the park purchase.
In his declining years, Ray served as the village building inspector before he retired.
Isabelle Podolske (1922-1983), the wife of Ray, came to the Sussex community with the influx of Swedish stone cutters during the late 1920s. Motherless, the little Isabelle Benson was cared for by her father until his death at an early age. Her landlord Shirley Morgan took her in as her daughter. She lived across the street from her future husband, in a home where the Associated Bank is today. She lived from Red Cross letter to Red Cross letter when her boyfriend Ray was captured in late 1943. Soon after his release from the German POW camp, Isabelle and Ray were married and had four children: Elaine, Larry, Ralph and Janet.
Isabelle was extremely active in the local community, being a perennial volunteer. She served for many years on the Sussex Park & Recreation board, rising to the rank of president. She is credited with starting many of the current programs that are part of the annual activities in the parks.
She became involved locally and at the state level in the American Red Cross, helping form the Gray Ladies school nursing program at Maple Avenue School.
In 1951, she was a co-founding member of the Sussex VFW Auxiliary, serving as president for three years.
At the time of her sudden death, she was the Sussex area representative on the State Department on Aging.
Ray and Isabelle are buried in St. Alban's Cemetery, and the Sussex Lions, VFW and VFW Auxiliary paid for the marker sign.
All four children graduated from Hamilton High School, with Elaine and Larry participating in the very first classes. Elaine was an outstanding student. Janet was part of the 1979 Hamilton class that sent a team to the state basketball tournament, with Janet being a prominent member of the group. Earlier she had been a key original and longtime member of the nationally famous Sussex Robinettes Drum and Bugle Baton Corp.
Today the only Podolske left with Sussex ties is Larry, who is a director for the Sussex Baseball Club's Land O' Lakes team. A few years ago his son, David, was an outstanding main pitcher and league all-star for the Sussex team until an injury sidelined him.