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Mokena man finds a father figure in 90-year-old Joliet veteran

JOLIET – A chance meeting at a Starbucks in Joliet nine years ago fostered a father-son bond between two former strangers.

Albert Gencur, 90, of Joliet, and Tom Grotovsky, 55, of Mokena, consider each other family.

“What do I like about him?” Gencur said about Grotovsky. “Everything.” And he held up two thumbs.

In 2013, Grotovsky arranged for Gencur to participate in Honor Flight Chicago. And on March 8, Grotovsky, who’s now Gencur’s caregiver, hosted a 90th birthday party for Gencur at Sunny Hill Nursing Home in Joliet, where Gencur lives.

“He’s been a real friend to me. I look up to him as a mentor,” said Grotovsky, owner of Great American Bagel in Joliet. “He has been my mentor and confidante on a lot of things.”

But the smiles on Gencur’s face as the guests filed in paled to the enjoyment Grotovsky received by making the festivities happen. He referred to Chapter 6 in the Old Testament’s Book of Sirach, which says, “faithful friends are a sturdy shelter; whoever finds one finds a treasure.”

“That’s how I’ve felt about Albert ever since I’ve met him,” Grotovsky said. “He’s been with me through thick and thin. Through my trials and errors in life, and in business and in relationships, he’s mentored me and given me encouragement, and told me to keep praying, and told me God is going to reward me. He [God] has already rewarded me by giving me a friend like Albert.”

Grotovsky said he was reading a newspaper and finishing his coffee at a Starbucks on Jefferson Street nine years ago when Gencur came in. The shop was full, so Grotovsky motioned for Gencur to sit at his table.

He learned Gencur served in the U.S. Navy and was stationed in the South Pacific from 1944 to 1945, and that Gencur worked out at Inwood Athletic Club five days a week.

He learned Gencur earned a degree in sales and advertising in 1965 from Ohio State University and moved to Joliet, near Gencur’s steel mill accounts.

“I had another cup of coffee and we chatted and laughed,” Grotovsky said. “We’ve been friends ever since.”

Grotovsky learned Gencur outlived his wife and two sons; his only living relative is a nephew in Ohio. Both Grotovsky’s parents are deceased. His only son, Zachary Grotovsky, lives out of state.

“I think my relationship with my son became stronger because of the mentoring Albert gave me,” Grotovsky said. “Look what Albert has suffered in life: losing two sons and losing his wife. But he continues to thank the Lord for what he had.”

Grotovsky invited people to Gencur’s party through Facebook. Anyone could attend, whether they knew him or simply wanted to honor a veteran. No gifts – their presence was sufficient.

Among the guests were Tom and Michelle Budzinski of Joliet. They’ve known Gencur for years, Michelle said.

“I enjoy seeing Albert,” Michelle said. “He’s a good Christian man, kind to others. He makes me feel good when I see him.”

Therese Diaz Lopez of Joliet, another guest, appreciates Gencur’s Christ-like attitude to everyone he meets.

“Even if anyone says something negative, he turns it around and makes it positive,” Lopez.

Joliet photographer Bob Campbell was there, too. Campbell said when he first met Gencur, he realized he’d actually met Gencur 50 years ago. Gencur used to ride his bike in Campbell’s neighborhood.

“He’s a cool guy,” Campbell said. “He served his country so nicely and he’s got a great sense of humor.”

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