Crtice iz povijesti Hrvata u Americi
U starovjekovnim vremenima heroji su bili slavljeni kao polubogovi, a umrijeti u borbi herojskom smrću bio je ulazak u slavu besmrtnika. Danas herojima smatramo ljude koji nesebično riskiraju i/ili polože svoj život za drugog, za bližnjega. A tko je moj bližnji? Sjetimo se one iz Novog zavjeta - svaki čovjek.
Istinsko junaštvo nije planirano, ono se događa u teškim životnim okolnostima. To su trenutci kad se iz neke misteriozne pobude pojavi ljubavi za druge, one u opasnosti i potrebi. Klica te ljubavi je u svima nama, ali su samo neki spremni riskirati sve, pa i život za druge.
Sva teška i bremenita vremena kroz ljudsku povijest imala su svoje junake i junakinje. Takvih muževa i žena je bilo i bit će, ali mnogi od njih su ostali i ostaju nezapaženi, a drugi opet zaboravljeni.
Ovdje ću podsjetiti na junaka i Hrvata u Chicagu koji je već odavno pao u zaborav, ali su Hrvati u ovom velegradu unatrag gotovo stotinu godina na njega bili itekako ponosni, a građani Chicaga bar za kratko vrijeme o njemu govorili, divili mu se i smatrali ga herojom svoga grada.
Čovjek, junak i Hrvat o kome je riječ bio je Vinko Gecan. Iz njegova života poznati su nam sljedeći podatci: Rođen je 5. travnja 1862. u mjestu Praputnjak, Primorsko-goranska županija, u obitelji od šestero braće i dvije sestre. Odslužio je mornaricu u Puli i zatim (1884.) krenuo u svijet, tražeći stabilnije uvjeta života. Došavši u Chicago radio je na polaganju tračnica na željezničkim prugama (Chicago Union Traction Company). Bio je to mukotrpan posao i život, ali ipak se radilo i ponešto zarađivalo. Nakon tri godine (1887.) Vinko se vratio u rodno mjesto i tokom kraćeg boravka isprosio je sebi zaručnicu. Nije on htio bračnog druga "po narudžbi", nego iz ljubavi. Prije povratka u Chicago Vinko se vjenčao s Uršulom Štiglić i svoju svadbu proslavio u rodnom mjestu u krugu svojih najbližih. Mlada Uršula je ostala u Praputnjaku i rodila mu sina Stjepana, a Vinko se za njih brinuo s velikom ljubavlju i požrtvovnosti iz daleke Amerike.
Poslodavci su vidjeli da je Vinko uzoran i odgovoran čovjek i radnik pa su ga stavili za predradnika, a kasnije i za generalnog predradnika skupini Hrvata i drugih emigranata koji su s njim radili. Žrtvovao se i pristojno naučio engleski, koliko je god mogao pomagao svojim sunarodnjacima i drugim radnicima, davao savjete i preporučivao ih za bolje poslove. Bio je to karakteran čovjek, cijenjen od radnika i poslodavaca. Godina 1890. bila je posebice radosna, jer obitelj je konačno bila na okupu; Uršula i Stjepan tada su stigli u Chicago.
Vinko je također bio djelatan u tadašnjoj hrvatske zajednice u Chicagu. Bili su to početci masovnijeg dolaska Hrvata u Ameriku i potrebe su bile velike, pa su se ljudi počeli udruživati da bi pomogli jedni drugima u teškim okolnostima i u tuđem svijetu. Vinko je bio među prvim članovima Hrvatskog dobrotvornog društva "Hrvat Primorac", koje je kasnije postalo odsjekom broj jedan Hrvatske zjednice u Illinois i odsjek 53 Narodne hrvatske zajednice (kasnije poznata kao Hrvatska bratska zajednica).
Ali Vinka Gecana je krasila duboka čovjekoljubivost koja je nadilazila ljubav za njegovu obitelj, ljude s kojima je radio, društva kojima je pripadao, a bila je jača i od ljubavi za vlastiti život. On se tri puta suočio sa smrću da bi spasio svog bližnjeg i, nažalost, treći put herojski dao život u spašavanju drugih. Jednog hladnog dana (1896.) Vinko je radio, odnosno predvodio radove oko postavljanja tračnica na jednom od mostova (North Avenue Bridge) preko rijeke Chicago koja teče kroz centar grada. Ljudi su zamjetili da je u rijeku pao neki dečkić. Kako je pao s velike visine probio je led na rijeci i nestao iz vida. Vinko nije čekao na policiju ili vatrogasce, na one koji su zaduženi spašavati građane u nevolji, nego je uskočio, u čizmama i zimskom kaputu, za šestogodišnjim djetetom i spasio mu život. Godine 1901. Vinko je ponovo stavio život na kocku kad je u blizini mjesta gdje je radio sa skupinom radnika počela gorjeti kuća, bolje rečeno sirotinjska kućica. Opet naš Vinko ne čeka, nego ulijeće u dim i oganj i nepoznatu ženu i dijete spašava, kako vele lokalne novine, od sigurne smrti.
Ali kad je Vinko po treći put riskirao život za druge i sam je poginuo. Glavne chicaške novine, Chicago Tribune, od 25. siječnja 1916. izvjestile su o teškoj nesreći koja se dogodila dan prije. Naime, prema zadnjim kolima tramvaja na Lawrence aveniji jurio je vlak u brzini od 40 milja (64 km). U blizini, na tračnicama, radio je Vinko sa skupinom radnika. Novine dalje izvješćuju: "Vincent Gecan, predradnik, vidio je nadolazeći vlak. Skočio je na stražnju platformu tramvaja i putnicima vikao da idu naprijed. Mnogi su to i učinili, ali Gecanova nastojanja da spasi njihov život stajala su ga vlastitiog života." Vinko je poginuo, a jednog od njegovih radnika ubio je komad metala od razbijenog tramvaja. Zahvaljujući Vinku poginuo je samo jedan od putnika. Isti članak spominje kako je Vinko spašavao živote i prije.
Vinko je pokopan 27. siječnja 1916. Sprovod je pošao iz Hrvatske katoličke crkve Sv. Jeronima na Princeton Ave. u Chicagu, a vodio ga je fra Leo Medić. Bio je to veličanstven ispraćaj na groblje Mt. Olivet. Čitamo da je predsjednik tvrtke za koju je tad radio (Chicago Surface Lines) u svom nagovoru među ostalim svjedočio da je Vinko imao "karakter od čistog dragulja." Na lijepom kamenom nadgrobnom spomeniku među ostalim, stoji uklesano: "Our Hero" (Naš heroj).
Mi Hrvati imamo puno heroja, ali ih olako zaboravljamo, čak i one živuće, kao što puno ne držimo ni do svoje nedavne i davne prošlosti. Zato ovdje podsjećam na čovjeka čije ime ne ćete naći u povijesnim knjigama i enciklopedijama, ali je bio heroj, dao je život za drugog, za one koje nije ni poznavao. Ima darova koji nas ništa ne stoje, ali dati život za drugoga je neprocjenjivo. Vinko je i danas "naš heroj" čije je ime utkano u život i povijest hrvatskog i američkog naroda.
Usput napominjem da je Vinkov sin Stjepan odrastao i (1914.) oženio Rosaliju Zielinski. Imali su troje djece: Floru (1914.), Vincenciju (1916.) i Vincenta (1920.). Što je sve bilo s njima i ostalim Vinkovim potomcima? Bog zna!
Ante Čuvalo - Chicago
Jottings from the History of Croatians in America
"Our Hero"In ancient times, heroes were honored as demigods, and for one to die a heroic death in battle was to enter into the immortal halls of fame. Today we consider a person to be a hero who unselfishly risks, or loses his life for another, for one’s neighbor. But who is my neighbor? Keep in mind the teaching from the New Testament - every man is my neighbor.
True heroism is not something that is planned; rather, it is something that takes place under difficult circumstances as presented by life. Heroic moments are those that for some mysterious urge within us surface out of love for others - those in danger or need. The seed for such love is found in all of us; however, only a few are prepared to risk all - even one's life for others. All difficult and weighty moments throughout human history produced their heroes and heroines. Such men and women lived in the past, live today, and will live into the future as well; however, many of them were left unnoticed, while others were totally forgotten.
At this juncture, I will remind us of a hero, a Croatian from Chicago who has long since fallen among the forgotten, yet, the Croatians in this metropolis nearly some one-hundred years ago were most proud of him. The citizens of Chicago - at least for a brief while - spoke of him, stood in awe of him, and considered him to be a true hero of his city.
The man, the hero, the Croatian of whom we speak was Vinko Gecan. We know the following facts about his life: He was born on the 5th of April, 1862 in a place called Praputnjak, in the Primorsko-goranska county of Croatia. His family consisted of six brothers and two sisters. He did his military service in the navy in Pula, and subsequently (1884) set out into the world seeking a more stable existence. Having arrived in Chicago, he took a job laying surface-lines tracks for the Chicago Union Traction Company. The job was toilsome and life was hard, but one at least made a bit of money. After three years in America, Vinko returned to his place of birth and after a brief period of time, he found himself engaged to be married. He did not want a life's partner "by mail order." He sought a mate for sake of love. Prior to his return to Chicago, Vinko married Uršula Štiglić, and celebrated his wedding feast in his native town surrounded by his closest friends and relatives. His young bride remained behind in her native Praputnjak, and gave birth to their son, Stephen. Vinko continued to look after her with great care and devotion from far-off America.
Vinko's employers quickly saw that he was an exemplary and responsible man and worker, and, as a result, they promoted him to the rank of assistant-foreman and later as foreman in charge of a group of Croatian and other emigrant laborers. He made sacrifices and soon learned English quite proficiently. He did what he could to help his own Croatian workers as well as others. He offered them good advice and recommended their promotion to better jobs. He was truly a man of character who was respected by his fellow workers as well as by his employers. The year of 1890 was one of especial joy for him inasmuch as his family was finally gathered together: Uršula and his son Stephen arrived in Chicago.
Vinko was also quite active in the Croatian Community in Chicago. This was a time of massive immigration of Croatians to America. The social needs were therefore great, and men soon began to organize so as to help one another overcome the difficult circumstances of their life in a foreign land. Vinko was among the organizing members of the society known as "Hrvat Primorac," [Croats from the Croatian Littoral], which later became Lodge One of the Croatian Union of Illinois, that is, Lodge 53 of the Narodna Hrvatska Zajednica [Croatian National Union], which later came to be known as Hrvatska Bratska Zajednica, [The Croatian Fraternal Union].
Meanwhile, a deep humanitarian impulse was evident in Vinko Gecan - one that even transcended his deep love for his family, for his fellow laborers, or even the society that he belonged to - a love that was even greater than the love for his own life. He faced death three times in his life so that he might save his neighbor. Sadly, the third time that he faced death; he heroically gave up his own life while saving that of others.
One cold day in 1896, Vinko oversaw the work being done to replace the surface-line tracks over the North Avenue Bridge crossing the North Branch of the Chicago River. A child had somehow fallen into the North Branch. Having fallen from a great height, he broke the river ice below and disappeared from view. Vinko did not wait for the police or firemen rescue squads to arriv - instead, he jumped into the water with his coat and boots still on and saved the six-year old child. Once again in 1901, Vinko placed his life at risk. A near-by house to the site he was working at that day caught on fire - better said, a poor man’s house. Once again, our Vinko did not wait for help to arrive. He sprung into action. He entered the house through thick smoke and fire and saved a woman and child from certain death as was later stated in the daily newspapers of the time.
Vinko's third encounter with the risk of his life unfortunately did not have a happy ending: he lost his own life saving that of others. The Chicago Tribune, dated 25th of January, 1916 ran a story telling of the awful tragedy which took place the day before. The passenger train operated by the Chicago, Milwaukee, and St. Paul railroad line was fast approaching the crossing at Lawrence Avenue at a speed of 40 miles per hour. Vinko and his fellow workers were re-building the surface line track nearby. The Tribune goes on to say: "…the train bearing down at 40 miles an hour…caught the rear end of the streetcar. Parts of the car were thrown fifty feet. A gang of fifteen laborers was repairing the Lawrence Avenue track and four of these were hurt by the flying wreckage." The Tribune report goes on to speak of our Croatian hero, Vinko Gecan, as follows: "Vincent Gecan, foreman, saw the approaching train. He jumped on the rear platform of the streetcar and urged the passengers to go forward. Most of them did so, but Gecan's efforts to save their lives cost him his own life. Gecan had saved lives in Chicago before. He jumped from the North Avenue Bridge over the north fork of the Chicago River in 1896 to save a 6 year old boy who had fallen trough the ties. He landed on the ice floe and broke through it, with an overcoat on him, but he brought the boy to safety. Fifteen years ago, he rescued a woman from burning to death."
Vinko tragically, but heroically died out of love for his fellow man. Thanks to Vinko's unselfish act of heroism, only one passenger on the streetcar died.
Vinko was buried on the 27th of January, 1916. His funeral Mass was said in St. Jerome Croatian Catholic Church on 28th and Princeton Avenue, in Chicago. The celebrant of the Mass was the Franciscan Father, Leon Medić. The funeral cortčge leading to Mount Olivet Cemetery was impressive by any standards. We read that the President of the Chicago Surface Lines [later to become The Chicago Transit Authority], spoke eloquently of Vinko saying that he was "a gem of a man." On the impressive monument placed on his grave, the phrase "Our Hero" is inscribed into the granite stone as a lasting remembrance of Vinko Gecan’s humanitarian love for his fellow man.
We Croatians have a long list of heroes in our past; however, we seem to forget them all too easily - even those who are still alive among us - in the same manner that we do not seem to regard our recent, much less, our past history. This is why I herein remember a man whose name we will not find in history books or bibliographic encyclopedias. Nonetheless, he was a real hero who gave his life so that others might live - for those that he did not even know. There are gifts we give that ultimately cost us nothing; however, to give one's life for others is an incalculably heroic and priceless gift. Despite all, Vinko Gecan, even today, is "Our Hero" - one whose name is woven into the historical fabric of our Croatian and American people.
As an aside, I mention that Vinko's son, Stephen, grew to manhood and married Rosalie Zielinski in 1914. They had three children: Flora (1914), Vincentia (1916), and Vincent (1920). What became of them and their progeny? It seems, God alone knows.
Ante Čuvalo - Chicago