03 March 2013

Ann Betz Walko—Carpatho-Rusyn Poet and Playwright

 Ann Betz Walko

March 6, 1908 - Feb. 10, 2013

Ann Walko In Memorium 2013
By Jerry Jumba

I first met Ann Walko in 2002 at the Andy Warhol Museum (a part of Pittsburgh's Carnegie Museum system) when she was 92 years young. The Carpatho-Rusyn Society Vice President Maryann Horchar Sivak found Ann Walko and booked her for a presentation at the annual Rusyn Event at the museum.  Ann was to give an interactive lecture and interview on her recently published book Eternal Memory (Vičnaja Pamjať in the Rusyn language) at the well-attended event.

I sang and played several American Carpatho-Rusyn Songs from the industrial era in Western Pennsylvania as a warm up for her presentation, then introduced her and interviewed her with a full-capacity crowd in the library. The seed of the purpose of that presentation effort around her book "Eternal Memory" has produced great results.

The follow-up work to research her stories and songs went forward to become a tremendous recall of her life experiences and some salty peppery commentary as an educational catalyst from 12 years of interviews of Ann Walko's life as the first generation born here in the Wall-Wilmerding-Trafford area. Several interviews included the merited life of her husband John Walko.

 My visits to Ann Walko to learn and share songs and plays and hear her memories began on June 1, 2002.  In subsequent years, her theatrical production Women's Lib was presented in 2003 and she also sang a short concert of Carpatho-Rusyns songs in 2005 with a six-piece orchestra of excellent folk art musicians. Based on 12 years of interviews, we are publishing a book called Ann Walko - Songs and Hymns Remembered (working title) with over 100 songs and hymns. Her commentary on the song and hymn texts illuminates and gives character to the value of family and community life in the first half of the 20th-century industrial era in Wall and Wilmerding. Her words also provide an educational and sociological contrast to the life and times of this 21st century.

After Ann Walko got her GED diploma, she took classes at the University of Pittsburgh and was told she needed to study a second language. She said she would study English and take writing classes because English was her second language. Studying under Dr. Peter Oresick, she went on to receive numerous writing awards. 

Ann lived a tri-cultural-paradigm kind of life of American, Carpatho-Rusyn and East Slovak community interaction and outreach, a life of merit and distinction in which she touched thousands of people's lives. There is a cultural awareness growth happening because the artistry of folk songs is an expressive communal catalyst for participation and social bonding.  I integrated a number of her Rusyn songs with translation into numerous Carpatho-Rusyn sing-alongs at many Carpatho-Rusyn Society events. I added her Rusyn hymns with translations to the authentic Carpatho-Rus’ Chant repertoire that I teach. The impact is the growth of appreciation and interest in singing these expressive songs. The same is true where I added a number of her East Slovak songs to Slovak events and sing-alongs for the Western Pennsylvania Slovak Cultural Association.  In 2009, Ann collaborated with Darina Protivnak, David Protivnak and me to write a joyful ending to the classic Rusyn song “červena ruža”.  This American-Rusyn creativity has been applauded by Rusyns in America and Europe. 

Our research work was featured on Pittsburgh's Educational Public Television station WQED's "On Q" and was first broadcast in December 2008 and throughout 2009 and 2010. It placed in the top five features and was repeated on numerous WQED TV broadcasts.  Over 200 people showed up for her 100th birthday party at the Westinghouse Castle in 2008.  WQED film-maker Pierina Morelli was there and began to film an amazing scenario. I asked Ann, "Did you go to school with any of these people?  How is it that you have over 200 friends here?" She said, "To have a friend you have to be a friend. I guess I was friendlier than I remember."

There were two Pennsylvania Council on the Arts grants to help us in 2005 and 2006.  In 2008, I received a national grant from the Austin, Texas-based Fund for Folk Culture Grant Award, an artist-support program. The grant, underwritten by The Ford Foundation with additional support from The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, provides funds to individual folk and traditional artists to pursue opportunities that will help them grow artistically and professionally, to better connect with their cultural communities and to develop new audiences for their work.  Our grant’s focus was to help the authentic Carpatho-Rus' Liturgical Chant research move forward into a best practice curriculum and inspire participation.

This song and sociological study had significant heaven-blessed public and civic philanthropic funding support from the empathetic cultural resource specialists Julie Malinich Throckmorten Meunier and Dolores Dyan- -two fine souls from the Rivers of Steel Foundation in Homestead who connected us with the two Pennsylvania grantees, Pennsylvania Institute of Cultural Partnerships in Harrisburg and the Fund For Folk Culture. Without their financial support, this research and publishing work could not go forward.

In 2011, we began the final editing to shore up the parameters of the Ann Walko - Songs and Hymns Remembered book and finished near the end of 2012. This was a careful and tedious process because of the sorting of the numerous Carpatho-Rusyn dialects and East Slovak dialects of the texts and melody variants as well as the various translations. When we were stuck with a difficult translation, Ann always quoted somebody from long ago who said, "Translation is odious." She squinted every time she spoke the quote, in a sonorous, slow-motion extended pronunciation.  In this time of the final edit review, we remained enthusiastic, participatory and focused. 

 In these later years when Ann stayed home, she remained focused and committed in the joy of work as a labor of love. Her home was the precious environment where history came alive in her memory and helped to provide continuous inspiration for her editing and commentary work. There was the fear that if she left that environment, as she did two years ago after breaking a hip in a fall, that she would begin to lose the environmental context of her memories. In the last year of her life, I continued to work with Ann in her home in order to complete as quickly as is possible this magnificent outreach of human experience articulated with character, spirit and dignity.

 Ann's influences were about hospitality and the soulful kindness she experienced in her neighborhood and at her church in Wall and with her parents and their boarding house for railroad workers. She heard the boarders sing and tell stories before the time of the telephone and radio and became a conversationalist and a dancer.

Ann chanted the Carpatho-Rus' liturgical chant at Holy Trinity Byzantine Catholic Church in Wall.  And it happened that for a number of years the cantor, Professor John Ribnicky, lived as a boarder in the Walko house. The Carpatho-Rusyn chant and hymns I learned from Ann were lit up with her commentary rich from memories experienced at the Divine Liturgy and the social fabric of church life. She contributed knowledge that added to the chant cultural and educational stewardship sustainability and development. This is an important aspect of my work; talking with her helped to elucidate the progression of the historical story of Carpatho-Rus' prayer life nurtured in the American Byzantine Catholic Church. Sometimes excellent prayer can be like spiritual lightning to wake up a soul or quietly fill it up with super-charged inspiration. How a living vocalized prayer culture is learned, earned and realized is worthy of study in order to incorporate the best practices of chant education and to achieve its inspirational purpose to live in the fullness of earning and sharing God’s love every day.

Ann taught catechism to many grade levels, wrote catechetical plays and had fashion shows. In the early 1960s, she wrote a serious comedy, Ženska Šljeboda  (Svoboda)  or phonetically Zhenska Shljeboda which translates to Woman’s Liberation or Women’s Lib.  It received thunderous applause from a packed house in the church hall.

Ann’s keen observations and comments based on them stem from good memories which are critical to nurturing the cultural development and preservation that we treasure in a community--live to earn the spiritual victories by sharing the love of God in circulation. So I treasure that almost indescribable level of empathy that sees how the good we do in life always matters. Ann Walko thought this way, too. There is always something to learn. The good acts of living always add up internally in one's very own soul.

At the conclusion of the Carpatho-Rusyn Byzantine Catholic and Orthodox Church funerals at the final resting place, we chant "Vičnaja Pamjať " which translates as "Eternal Memory".  It is about being attentive to the constancy of the eternal presence of God's love. It became the title of her book, Eternal Memory. 
 The Ann Walko legacy shows the cultural continuity and sustainability that faced the educational and cultural challenges in her life time.  She made a life time of exceptional effort as a culture builder with a mind for civic service and church service.  In addition, she pointed out the precious value of collaboration by building a family with her dear husband John, her immediate and extended family and her neighbors who experienced the eternal nurturing value of hospitality in community life. She has personified the goodness of hospitality and community life in her actions and writings which might be best summed up by what Ann Walko writes on the title page of her books, plays, and poetry, “To________  Written with joy, with pleasure shared, Ann Walko".

 To see Ann Betz Walko's obituary, click on the link below:

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