A newsmaker you should know: Mt. Lebanon man celebrates Slovak heritage

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As the son of Slovak immigrants, Joseph T. Senko grew up in a Slovak/Polish neighborhood in Oakland, where native languages were spoken and ethnic traditions were a way of life.

Easter brunch consisted of ham, kielbasa, a bread called paska and egg cheese, or sirek, from a priest-blessed basket. On Christmas Eve, supper was sauerkraut soup with mushrooms and dough balls with butter and cottage cheese.

Mr. Senko's immersion in his heritage over the years led to his being appointed in 1997 as honorary consul of the Slovak Republic for Pennsylvania. He also founded the nonprofit Western Pennsylvania Slovak Cultural Association.

For his efforts, he has received the highest award the Slovak government bestows upon foreigners. On Feb. 1, he and his wife, Albina, traveled to the Slovak Embassy in Washington, D.C., where he was presented with the Medal of the President of the Slovak Republic.

The recognition was for "extraordinary merit in the development of friendly relations with the Slovak Republic and the promoting of the name of Slovakia throughout the world."

"I was very honored as not too many in the U.S. receive this," Mr. Senko, 77, said. Mrs. Senko, who speaks fluent Slovak, often helps him with his volunteer work.

The couple met in 1952 as teens at a Slovak wedding that Mr. Senko had "crashed" in the Lasek banquet hall near his Oakland home.

"He looked like a 'cool cat' with his long hair and peg pants, and my dad said to stay away from him," Mrs. Senko recalled.

As a girl in Czechoslovakia during World War II, the fair-haired child, wearing her First Holy Communion dress, was chosen to present a bouquet of flowers to Adolf Hitler to welcome him to her village while he was on his way to Poland.

"I was deathly afraid," she said, even though she received an approving tap on the head fromHitler.

As newlyweds, and for the next 12 years, the Senkos lived on the second floor of Mr. Senko's family's home on Bates Street, where they eagerly embraced their Slovak heritage in raising their children.

In 1967, Mr. Senko, who owned his own certified public accounting firm, Joseph T. Senko & Associates, moved with his wife, children and widowed mother to Mt. Lebanon.

As honorary consul, Mr. Senko helps Slovaks with problems, such as an expired passport or legal situations, and conducts tours of Slovakia, for which he pays his own expenses.

He also arranges visits of foreign dignitaries, such as the 2008 trip to Pittsburgh of Slovakian President Ivan Gasparovic and his 50-person entourage.

"It's my job," Mr. Senko said, "and I like it."

Most Slovaks today live in the independent Slovakia, which resulted -- as did the Czech Republic -- from the dissolution of Czechoslovakia on Jan. 1, 1993.

The Pittsburgh area is home to 105,525 Slovaks, making it the most populous city in the world of people of Slovak heritage outside of Slovakia.

As founder and executive director of the Western Pennsylvania Slovak Cultural Association, Mr. Senko coordinates with his wife the free Slovak Heritage series held monthly at Mt. Lebanon Public Library.

The next session will be March 4 and is titled "Slovakia Today vs. Slovakia of Our Ancestors."

Mr. Senko edits the association newsletter, plans special events such as Slovak wine tastings and cooking demonstrations, administers a scholarship program for enrollment at Comenius University in Slovakia and more.

He also is chairman and treasurer of the nonprofit, Virginia-based Friends of Slovakia, which promotes friendship and understanding between Slovakia and the United States The organization sponsors scholarships, receptions for Slovak dignitaries and artistic and cultural events.

Asked what motivates him, Mr. Senko points to his upbringing by his parents, John and Mary Senko.

"I just feel obligated, as it is my heritage," he said. "My family would be very proud."

For information on Slovak culture: www.PAslovakconsulate.org. For information on tours of Slovakia conducted by Mr. Senko or about Slovak educational programs: jtsenko@aol.com or 412-956-6000.

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Margaret Smykla, freelance writer: suburbanliving@post-gazette.com.


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