28-year CT firefighter, South Pacific WWII veteran John Cyrulik dies at 104
One of the oldest WWII veterans in Connecticut died in his sleep last week in Middletown, taking with him more than 100 years’ worth of memories starting when Main Street was a dirt road.
John Cyrulik Sr., a 28-year firefighter who dropped out of ninth grade at 16 to help his mother support their family of 11 children, and later fought in the South Pacific, passed away Jan. 13, shortly after his 104th birthday.
He married his late wife, Lottie (Wladyslawa) Cyrulik, in 1949. They had four children. She died in 1996.
Cyrulik served in the fire service from 1952 to 1980, and his brother Frank also was a firefighter who later became chief of the department.
He was buried with military honors at the State Veterans Cemetery Wednesday, with a procession from Biega’s Funeral Home to St. Mary’s Church and then the cemetery.
In his time as a firefighter he drove a 1930 Tiller truck, which operators steered from the back of the vehicle, Chief Jay Woron said. Cyrulik’s daughter-in-law Leslie Cyrulik said the truck’s tires were very thin, so it could not be driven long distances since they would heat up quickly.
So the truck was relegated to putting out fires on Main Street, she added.
“He had no formal training. He learned on the job,” which was common at the time, she said. “They would go to fires not knowing how to put it out. They would just wing it,” his daughter-in-law said, chuckling at the thought.
“The regular firefighters took the newbies in and taught them what to do,” she added.
Personnel lined up in front of the Main Street station Wednesday clad in their coats and helmets with the apparatus all lit up, Woron said.
“They were at attention,” Leslie Cyrulik said. “It was amazing. Everyone on Main Street stopped and looked,” and police stopped traffic to allow the procession to proceed.
In 1942, at 23, John Cyrulik was drafted, and spent the next 44 months in the 135th Artillery, Battalion C Division of the 37th Ohio Infantry Division. They served in Fiji, Philippine Islands, Guadalcanal, Bougainville, Aparri, and Luzon. He was discharged in 1945.
His earliest memories were of horse-drawn carriages, a common mode of transportation at the time.
He was a jovial and mirthful man who often had people in stitches listening to his jokes and stories, his daughter-in-law said. His family attributed his view of life and hearty diet of liver and root vegetables to his longevity.
He also loved food. Leslie Cyrulik’s husband, Tony, the centenarian’s son, is 6-foot-2, while John Cyrulik was 5-foot-3. The family would marvel at his appetite for being such a small man, his daughter-in-law said.
“The guy could eat circles around any man,” she pointed out. “We would sit there at Thanksgiving. Everyone would have one plateful, and dad would be going back for seconds, sometimes thirds. “Where is he putting that?” she’d ask.
“As he’s taking the last bite of turkey and stuffing, he looked at me and said, ‘you’ve got the pie ready?’”
The Cyruliks were poor growing up, and sometimes only ate bread and milk. “That’s all they could afford,” Leslie Cyrulik said. He’d often talk about eating chickens’ and pigs’ feet. “They’d add vinegar and suck on the bone to get marrow out.
“I knew him for 32 years,” she continued. “I never saw the guy angry or sad. He enjoyed life for what it had to offer.”
Her father-in-law would tell his stories over and again, she added: “He was a good talker.”
She was tickled every time people would ask how he was feeling in his later years. He would say, “if I can move my elbows outward and don’t touch wood, it’s a good day.”
He was a very religious man who would watch Mass on television usually three hours a day, and attended Mass at St. Mary of Czestochowa Catholic Church weekly.
He’d help members of the Ladies Guild make pierogies, she added. The centenarian would make the coffee, Leslie Cyrulik noted, as he insisted the way he prepared it was superior.
At his 100th party, many learned he had never graduated from high school. Back then, his daughter-in-law explained, with their parents’ permission, students could get a waiver to work.
He made 15 cents a day pulling weeds, cutting grass for 30 cents, she said.
She contacted the Board of Education and the superintendent at the time researched the exact diploma handed out in 1936 — which, back then, was 2 feet by 30 inches — and presented it in a frame, to John Cyrulik’s surprise.
Lt. Gov. Susan Bysiewicz was invited to Cyrulik’s birthday parties since he turned 101. She also attended his 104th. The family kept his celebration hidden from the patriarch in his later years, his daughter-in-law explained.
Firefighters named the driveway to their rear parking lot Cyrulik Way in his honor, Woron noted, as he used to work at the Cross Street station.
At the funeral service, Bysiewicz pulled his daughter-in-law aside and asked jokingly “how are you going to top this celebration?”
She recalled Cyrulik telling her at his last party that he planned on living until 105. She remembered he was “very, very sharp” and had a firm handshake.
Only 2,810 WWII veterans in Connecticut are living, she pointed out. In all, 16 million people served during the war. As of 2022, about 167,000 were still alive. “Every day, sadly, we lose them,” Bysiewicz noted.
There was “one degree of separation” between Cyrulik and her aunt Rose, who was best friends with one of his sisters, she said.
Leslie Cyrulik compiled his life story into a bound book intended for his great-grandchild Samantha.
“I see Samantha learning and enjoying life at her now young age of five, and hope her curiosity for life will continue as she grows up,” John Cyrulik wrote to her. “If I could give her just one piece of advice to help her with her future life, it would be to go to school and learn as much as you can and always be sure to read, read, read!”
He had all his faculties until he died. “We’re so lucky we had him and his own mind until the end,” Leslie Cyrulik said.
Shortly before his death, he fell and spent a week in the hospital. Unfortunately, she added, his legs became weak from inaction, so he was transferred to rehab for a couple of weeks.
In the early morning of Jan. 13, the nurse told his daughter-in-law, he was in bed with his boots on. He asked to have his shoes taken off because he was hot, Leslie Cyrulik said.
“He was laughing and telling jokes,” she said. “A half-hour later, he was gone.”
She considers him a “true Middletown treasure.”
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