History mystery … just who was Walter Kiwanis?

Kiwanians in Detroit take care of an orphaned boy and start Kiwanis down a new path of service to children.

Research, story and illustrations by Curtis Billue

Every organization has an origin story. Kiwanis is no different.

Founded by Allen Simpson Browne in Detroit 1914, Kiwanis began as a fraternal club for business, with Joseph G. Prance, a successful tailor, as the first member. Meetings were held for men to discuss business. 

About four years later, Kiwanis would switch its focus from a businessmen’s club to a service club specifically dedicated to children in need. And the story of how it happened would become Kiwanis legend.

It started with a Polish child who had been abandoned by his father and “adopted” by the Detroit No. 1 Kiwanis Club. They called him “Walter Kiwanis.” They took care of Walter, clothed and fed him, treated him as if he were their own child.

The tale of Walter Kiwanis would then be told, forgotten and rediscovered over the decades. 

But who was Walter Kiwanis, and what really happened to him? And did a club’s generosity really refocus the entire organization?

Immigrating to America
Władyslaw “Walter” Nalaski was born on Christmas Day 1909, in Płonsk, Russia. (Poland wouldn’t regain independence until 1918, when it became a republic after 123 years of being partitioned between Russia, Prussia and Austria.)

His parents, Wiktorya “Victoria” Olszewska Nalaski and Franciszek “Francis” Nalaski, also known as Franz or Franc, also had two other children, Steve and Marie.

On March 17, 1910, Franz Nalaski arrived at Ellis Island on the ship Frederick the Great, from the German port of Bremen, according to Liberty Ellis Foundation records. He then made his home at 690 Frederick Street in Detroit, Michigan.

In the early 20th century, Polish immigrant life in America was difficult —  because of the language barrier, cost of living, living conditions and the number of immigrants seeking work.

“Many peasants in Poland migrated from partitioned Poland in hopes of land and opportunity,” says Dominic Pacyga, professor emeritus of history at Columbia College Chicago, “only to live in slum dorms, often without running water, with entire families living in one room.”

This was the case for Walter’s family. His case file from the Children’s Aid Society of Detroit tells part of the story: “Walter’s father came over from Poland alone, leaving his wife and three children, whom he promised to send for later. They did not hear from him, so the wife decided to bring the oldest child, ‘Władyslaw’ (Walter), with her, leaving the other two children with her mother.”

With her 3-year-old in tow, Victoria began the long, arduous journey to New York to find her husband. They arrived on the S.S. Amerika on January 30, 1913.

“There were three waves of economic migrations from 1850 to 1920,” says Pacyga, “and during that time it would take a family 10 days to two weeks to get from their village to Hamburg, Germany, then take a steamer to New York and finally a train to Chicago.” 

Victoria never made it to Detroit. Instead, she fell in love with Frankciszek “Frank” Malkowski from Płonsk and started a new life in Chicago. Soon after, they had their first child, Edward.

She lived with Malkowski for two years and, according to the Children’s Aid Society of Detroit, “when Walter’s father learned of this, he kidnapped Walter and brought him to Detroit.”

A few years later, Walter would be abandoned.

What would cause a father to leave his son? Was it the hardships of working and raising a son by himself? Was it the news that his former wife had remarried and had a second child, Sabina, with her new husband? Or was it a patriotic calling to fight for Polish independence in World War I?

Details are few, but the following facts are known: Francis lost his wife to another man and lost contact with his children Steve and Marie in Płonsk during a time of war. We also know that Francis enlisted for the draft on national registration day, September 12, 1918. 

Whatever his father’s reasons, little Władyslaw found himself orphaned on the streets of Detroit.

Adopting Walter
In “The Kiwanis Legacy,” a Kiwanis history book by Chuck Jonak, the author writes: “Perhaps the most famous early service project of all unfolded in the city where Kiwanis was born.”

That’s where the Detroit No. 1 club hosted a speaker along with a special 8-year-old guest.

“George R. Bedinger, general secretary of the Children’s Aid Society, addressed the club at Hotel Statler,” reported the Detroit Free Press on October 9, 1918. “He told of the many activities of the society, its purpose, and what it has accomplished in Detroit.

“The club voted to adopt a boy Walter, in care of the society, by subscribing a fund for his maintenance. Walter was in attendance at the meeting and was presented with a Kiwanis emblem and also made an honorary member.”

According to Jonak, the Detroit Kiwanis club was looking for a project to help an underprivileged child. When they learned of Władyslaw’s case, they found a foster home for him, intending him to live there with an elderly couple. And the club members would make sure “Walter” had everything he needed.

“Every member was rushing around trying to see who would have the opportunity of buying the lad a new overcoat, a new suit or a toy,” boasted the club’s president, Don Johnston. “He was the ward of Kiwanis. He was our son, Walter Kiwanis, and we were proud of him.

“Whenever we had a father and son meeting, Walter was right there and we just naturally outdid ourselves,” Johnston said. “We loved him and there is no doubt about how he felt. His mother was proud of him and proud of what the club was doing for him.”

This remarkable level of service motivated some of the club’s members to do even more — at a moment when Kiwanis as a whole was suffering an identity crisis.

In fact, the Detroit club wasn’t the only one wrestling with the direction that founder Allan Simpson Browne had established for Kiwanis. While Browne wanted it to be strictly a business club with social benefits, others were growing restless.

“Behind the scenes, and prior to the convention, men were maneuvering,” writes Jonak. “Three Kiwanians — displeased with the ‘We Trade’ motto and Browne’s perceived stranglehold on the organization — considered a proposal to abandon Kiwanis.”

With Kiwanis still in its infancy, Joe Prance, Roe Fulkerson and O. Samuel Cummings were building momentum to craft guiding principles for the organization.

“Our code of ethics, our ideals and purposes, have already been expressed in service,” said Cummings, then the international secretary of Kiwanis. 

“Every member was rushing around trying to see who would have the opportunity of buying the lad a new overcoat, a new suit or a toy. He was the ward of Kiwanis. He was our son, Walter Kiwanis, and we were proud of him.”

“Let every Kiwanian who is interested in the development of the spirit of Kiwanis put his conception into writing and send the article to me,” he wrote in the December 1918 issue of the Kiwanis Torch, “and get such wealth of material together that we can sift out a most adequate statement of Kiwanis principles and purposes.”

Many members believed the principles of fair dealing, service, civic pride and the “golden rule” should extend far beyond matters such as business and gaining members. For them, selfless acts of service for the betterment of the community was precisely the direction that clubs lacked. One Kiwanis magazine stated frankly that the Kiwanis club is all about service: “To realize more fully that I live not for myself, but for others.”

Walter’s story embodied this expression. 

After Walter’s mother married Malkowski, she petitioned the Illinois Children’s Home and Aid Society to regain custody of Walter. 

“A thorough investigation of the ability of the stepfather to provide a suitable home for the boy seemed satisfactory,” says Jonak, “but the aid society told her it needed to contact the Kiwanis club to obtain its opinion on the matter.” 

The club approved. Indeed they were pleased that Walter would be reunited with his mother. For the Detroit Kiwanians to have cared for Walter in the meantime, Johnston said, had been “the best thing that ever happened to the club.” 

Now they had a new direction. Walter had helped build a vision not only for the club, but also for Kiwanis: to help underprivileged children in the community enjoy a better life. 

The fates of Walter and his family

According to Kiwanis accounts, Walter went to school and became a lawyer on the west coast of the United States. But further investigation seems to prove that untrue. 

A 1930 U.S. Census record from Chicago states that Walter had not sought higher education. At age 20, he lived with his stepfather, mother and all of his siblings. He was listed as a machinist for an electric company, as was his brother Steve (who had eventually made it to the U.S. with his sister Marie). 

On August 11, 1934, Walter married Adeline Sobolenski. By the early 1940s, he had a house of his own and three children, Ralph, Roberta and William. He had also switched professions and became a cabinetmaker. 

Good fortune arrived again for Walter at the end of 1942, when he petitioned for naturalization and became a U.S. citizen. 

Walter’s biological father was not so lucky.

Having cut ties with his former family, Francis Nalaski made his way back to Poland. At the age of 60, he suffered the fate of many Polish citizens during World War II: On October 16, 1942, under the Nazi-controlled State Criminal Police in Konigsberg, Franz Nalaski was executed by guillotine.

As Walter’s birth father’s chapter closed, so too did Walter’s. He had one more daughter, Sandra, but then died at the age of 40. His wife lived until she was 81.

During Kiwanis’ early years, there were a few examples of club generosity for orphans and widows of World War I. But none captured the imagination the way Walter’s story did. 

In the end, it reminded clubs of the true potential of Kiwanis, inspired a movement to help poor and orphaned kids and symbolized a turning point for an organization struggling with its identity and purpose. 

So much of Kiwanis’ mission of serving the children of the world had begun with one abandoned boy: Walter “Kiwanis.”

This story originally appeared in the December 2020 issue of Kiwanis magazine.

2 thoughts on “History mystery … just who was Walter Kiwanis?

Add yours

  1. I had never heard this story. It pulls at your Heartstrings. Yes that is what Kiwanis is all about and I am proud to be a Kiwanian


  2. Our Kiwanian heart always shows its great commitment to community service, we face adversities and restrictions of various kinds, always with courage, creativity and that internal flame that fuels the passion for volunteering. Remarkable .


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