St. Petersburg Times
Special report
Video report
  • For their own good
    Fifty years ago, they were screwed-up kids sent to the Florida School for Boys to be straightened out. But now they are screwed-up men, scarred by the whippings they endured. Read the story and see a video and portrait gallery.
  • More video reports
Multimedia report
Print Email this storyEmail story Comment Letter to the editor
Fill out this form to email this article to a friend
Your name Your email
Friend's name Friend's email
Your message

This proper English lady never owned jeans, sweats

By Stephanie Hayes, Times staff writer
Published March 6, 2008

Freda Kowalski made the easy move from England to the U.S. after WWII with her American soldier husband. Mrs. Kowalski, 83, died Monday of cancer.
[Family photo]

SEMINOLE -- Freda Kowalski was a petite firecracker, 100 pounds, a faint English accent. Each morning, she did her hair and makeup, even if she had no plans to leave home.

She never owned jeans or sweatpants. Never drove. She bought tennis shoes once, when she thought she might go walking with her lady friends. But it never happened.

She made delicious lemon merengue pie. Come 6 p.m., her table always bore perfect place settings. She loved her children and her husband, a quiet, sweet man named Louis.

It was World War II when they met. He was an American solider, she was a member of the British Women's Land Army. He took her to a restaurant for the first time in her life.

Mrs. Kowalski lived in an English town rife with danger. She couldn't leave home without a gas mask. The sewing factory where she worked was bombed. Moving to America was an easy choice.

In Pennsylvania, the couple had two children. Mrs. Kowalski taught her daughter to tap dance in the kitchen. She took the kids camping and read them Uncle Wiggily books.

The couple eventually retired to Seminole. She dreamed of having dinner at "that big pink building," the Don CeSar Beach Resort and Spa.

But in 1995, Mr. Kowalski started getting confused, forgetting to put the car in park. As the Alzheimer's worsened, his wife realized there were things she didn't know. How to manage a checkbook. How to handle complicated paperwork.

It was time to evolve.

Carol Lemieux, a neighbor in the couple's mobile home park, helped. Lemieux, 61, drove the couple to the doctor, to Publix. She'd sit on a bench with Mr. Kowalski while his wife shopped. He'd ask, "Where's the lady?"

Mrs. Kowalski became her husband's boldest defender. She fed him and spoke up if nursing home service was subpar. She became powerful. And after five years with the disease, he died.

As a widow, Mrs. Kowalski kept busy with bingo. She and Lemieux shopped every weekend, armed with coupons. They laughed in the aisles like sisters. On her 80th birthday, Mrs. Kowalski finally had dinner at "that big pink building."

Then, when she faced lung cancer, Lemieux packed picnic baskets. They went to the hospital for chemotherapy and lunch.

The cancer spread to her brain, and a few months ago, she went to Erie, Pa., to be with her family. She didn't always know who the get-well cards were from, but she giggled each time one arrived.

Mrs. Kowalski died Monday. She was 83.

Stephanie Hayes can be reached at or (727) 893-8857.


Freda Kowalski

  • Born: April 20, 1924.
  • Died: March 3, 2008.
  • Survivors: son, Louis Jack Kowalski and wife Nancy; daughter, Christine Ruvelo and husband Joe; grandchildren, Tammy Leigh Wright, Sharie Lynn Argeny and husband Trevor, Jami Ann D'Angelo and husband Mike, and Brian Ruvelo; great-grandchildren, Sarah, Scott, Marissa, Rachel and Hayley.

[Last modified March 5, 2008, 22:06:04]

Share your thoughts on this story

[an error occurred while processing this directive]
Subscribe to the Times
Click here for daily delivery
of the St. Petersburg Times.

Email Newsletters