Finally, 88-year-old Rosemary Ondeck could resist no longer. She stood up, linked hands with Providence Place staffer Mary Donna Chehovich and danced to the tunes she’s enjoyed for decades.
“Are you tired? Chehovich asked a few minutes later.
“No! Ondeck told her emphatically.
Stanky smiled as he watched the infectious energy, this polka magic, take hold.
For 70 of his 79 years he’s been a part of it, creating cheerful, peppy music that makes toes tap, hands clap, and feet dance.
“My father told me, “If you learn 10 songs on the accordion, you’ll never starve.’ So I learned 20, he said with a gentle laugh.
Well-known throughout the region as leader of the band Stanky and the Coal Miners, the musician – whose given name is John Stankovic – is a lifelong resident of Nanticoke.
That city’s tidy little Hanover section is where he started – at age 9 – to play for audiences, sometimes by himself; sometimes with local band leader Guy Ambrose.
As a student in his early teens, he formed a polka-playing trio called the Tip Toppers. About nine years later, in 1959, he started Stanky and the Coal Miners, choosing the name as tribute to anthracite workers like his father.
Playing for birthday parties and wedding celebrations in private homes was just the start.
Eventually Stanky would play all over the world. During one busy week in September 2000 his band played a USO show in South Korea, the Bloomsburg Fair in Pennsylvania and a venue in Switzerland. “Three continents in one week, he said.
There were performances at the Waldorf-Astoria in New York City, at the National Folk Festival in Butte, Montana, and at so many weddings and church picnics they would be difficult to count.
Crazy, but rewarding, is how Stanky’s wife, Dottie, describes his long career. “We met so many wonderful people, she said. “We made so many good friends.
Dottie Stankovic, who served several terms as Luzerne County’s Register of Wills before she retired in 2013, married the band leader in 1962. They had met at the Citizens Club in Nanticoke, where Stanky was playing the night Dottie showed up for a Halloween party dressed as Pocahontas.
Laughing, Stanky remembers how he hesitated to tell this young woman who was “so pretty about his day job as a “rag man who drove an old vehicle up and down the streets, blowing a horn so people would bring him their junk and he could recycle it.
It turned out, she didn’t mind; she eventually went along for the ride and blew a horn herself.
Stanky’s self-published autobiography, “Apples, Peaches, Pumpkin Pie, The Story of Stanky and the Coal Miners, tells lots of Dottie stories. There was the time, before they were married, when he was sick and she walked about four miles from her house in Ashley to his home in Nanticoke to bring him medicine.
There was the time after they were married when he forgot to take his accordion on a gig. She found it at home and, since cell phones hadn’t yet been invented, called the radio station to which she suspected he’d be listening on the car radio and persuaded the announcer to broadcast her message. Stanky heard it, turned around and went back for the accordion.
Traveling with the band provided Stanky with fascinating stories, from a bus that burst into flames to the 5-pound wheel of cheese that came in handy because it was the only food they had to eat during a blizzard. Then there were the times the group played aboard airplanes in flight.
“I would get the captain’s permission first, Stanky said. “We loved it and the people loved it.
Long-time fan Shirley Shaw, 79, of Scranton, said traveling with Stanky’s groups was a treat.
“Every trip he ever took to Ireland, or to the Passion Play in Germany, my husband and I went along, she said. “It was fantastic. We loved it all.
Stanky believes he might not have traveled so extensively if not for one snowy night when his six-piece band played at the Knights of Columbus Hall in Luzerne for an audience of “maybe four people.
He told his musicians they should play as well for a small group as for a huge one, and they impressed one of the audience members, local travel agent Barry Tenenbaum, so much he asked “How would you guys like to go on cruises?
More than 150 cruises would follow, giving Stanky a chance to see places as far-flung as Alaska and the Panama Canal.
But after suffering a stroke about five years ago, Stanky sticks closer to home. He still has about three gigs a week, mostly at retirement communities or nursing facilities, and while he might strike up his accordion in his house on Espy Street, he’s more likely in public to sing the polkas while his buddy Eddie Derwin plays the accordion.
That’s how the duo performed at Providence Place last week, where 92-year-old Betty Kaylor got to her feet and danced, supported by two staff members, and 88-year-old Tommy Yankus sang along with just about every number, whether it was in English or Polish.
After the concert, resident Florence Yodzio, 89, told Stanky she remembered hearing him play at Knoebels Amusement Park in Elysburg, and she happily translated some polka lyrics from Polish to English. “That one means “I’m like a young man, a warrior going onto the battlefield,’ she told a reporter.
Stanky may have added a few younger folks to his fan base during the Providence Place event, too. One fresh-faced staff member asked him to pose with her while her co-worker snapped a photo.
Their take on the one-hour, afternoon concert? “Awesome!”
*Original article posted on timesleader.com – view it here.