Nowacki's family, friends prove the dream: Dude, he is always here
For me, it took four words.
When Steve Wagner walked up to the microphone and started speaking at the Heroes for Andy event on Saturday in Mentor, he said a few things you’d expect to hear from a friend who misses his good buddy.
The Erie, Pa., resident praised his hosts, as a good speaker does. He cracked a few jokes to soften the crowd.
But then he got serious as he laid out his call to action.
“This event is really our yearly reminder of what a big deal Andy was, and what he continues to be,” Wagner said as he looked to the parents of Lance Cpl. Andrew “Ace” Nowacki.
The U.S. Marine, who also served as a Grand River policeman, was killed Feb. 26, 2005, when a roadside bomb exploded in Babil Province, Iraq. Nowacki was in the lead vehicle escorting a convoy.
Denis and Sheila Nowacki were seated a few feet away, preparing to honor area residents for their heroism and award scholarships to young adults who plan careers in public services.
Then Wagner, who served in Iraq with Nowacki, began to discuss a dream he’d recently had.
“It was one of those dreams that just start in the middle,” he said. “You don’t know why or where you are, you just know you’re supposed to be there. The next thing I knew, Andy was standing next to me. And he looked at me just like he always did, looking only like he can. In that moment, I couldn’t comprehend it all. I struggled with the reality of knowing that he had died with the truth of the dream that he was right there. I remember it, and to this day I can see him.
“And, of course, being the smooth guy that I am, I started babbling like an idiot. How is it possible? I don’t understand. Where have you been? They told me that you died and that you’re gone. And I went on and on.
“Then after I was done, there was that moment of silence that happens in dreams. And then he looked at me, with his Andy smile, and he said, ‘Dude, I’m always here.’ ”
Oh, how true.
Nowacki lives on in the lives of the 20 young men and women who’ve received scholarships to attend a police academy or fire training and who’ve gone on to work in communities around us.
One of the newest members of that group is John Sweigert of Wickliffe.
A 2012 graduate of Wickliffe High School, Sweigert is in the criminal justice program at Lakeland Community College.
And Sweigert is hoping to jump start his professional law enforcement career. He’s begun speaking with military recruiters in hopes of becoming a military police officer.
“I’m not 100 percent sure on which branch yet,” Sweigert said at the May 4 dinner. “I want to be in the military because, I figure, if I can police in the military, I can police anywhere. It’s great for experience, and experience is the best thing you can come by these days. It’s not how much you know, it’s how much you can do.”
He said he probably will finish his degree at Lakeland first, which will put him at 20 years old. You must be 21 to serve as a police officer in Ohio.
“School is the traditional way,” Sweigert said. “The military is different, you get training and I can start right now, at age 19, or 20. I have to wait until I’m 21 to be a police officer.”
What does his mom, Jeanie, think of his military plans?
“Mom is proud that he even wants to do it, but Mom is like, you don’t want your baby to go in harm’s way,” she said. “And that’s selfish, but I want him home for holidays.”
John Sweigert spent a bit of time with a Marine recruiter from the Mentor office and made an appointment for a visit. It seems only fitting, considering Sweigert recieved a scholarship named after a United States Marine.
Sweigert is much like many of the scholarship winners, who get to know Nowacki’s story after they’re selected for the scholarship.
“It’s a very inspirational story for everyone. Everything I’ve seen about him, he seems like he was such a great person to be around. He was awesome.”
When you think about it, I shouldn’t be surprised by the lack of familiarity. Sweigert was 11 when Nowacki died.
That’s why Denis and Sheila Nowacki picked this route to ensure their son’s legacy was one of giving.
By rewarding those who choose to follow in Nowacki’s steps, they ensure his vision of safety and security is met.
“It’s amazing what the power of one has accomplished,” Sheila Nowacki told the crowd on hand Saturday. “Of course that one is our beloved Andy “Ace” Nowacki. He’s the common thread that keeps us all connected, keeps us coming back to support his scholarship year after year. Eight years ago, I said we were twice blessed by Andy. And little did I know just how blessed we are.”
The Nowackis will tell anyone that those who have won the scholarships are part of them now.
“I think that every one of the recipients of the Andy Nowacki Scholarship would be friends with Andy, hanging out with him and sharing good times, if that were possible,” She continued. “They are truly a part of the Nowacki family and they are all brothers and sisters to Andy. What a grand legacy.”
Steve Wagner was right when he pointed out how huge an impact Andy Nowacki has had on Northeast Ohio, even after his death.
A perfect example is Macedonia Patrolman Nick Szaibel, who received the scholarship in 2010.
Szaibel and a pair of his fellow Macedonia police officers responded to a house fire and combined to enter a home that was fully engulfed in flames and pulled out a resident who required a walker.
The heroism continues to march forward.
Three others received 2013 Andy Nowacki Scholarships this year: Erica Howell, Daniel Smith and Denayne Dixon.