CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- On Oct. 6, he turns 90. Last April, he had open-heart surgery -- five bypasses. But Nick Winowich remains as animated and cheerful as ever. That engaging, signature smile hasn't faltered.
A Pittsburgh native and a veteran of the Battle of the Bulge, he directed the Kanawha County Public Library for 30 years, added seven branches and satellite school libraries, and monitored the transition from card catalogues to computers, among other accomplishments.
A dedicated track and field official and devoted community volunteer, he held top positions in state and regional library organizations, the Job Corps and Sunrise, and worked for years with Manna Meals and Covenant House. He still volunteers every Tuesday at CAMC Memorial Hospital.
Letters on his license plate reflect his first and abiding love: BOOKS. He should write one. A newspaper column can't hold all the colorful anecdotes about his life.
"I grew up in Pittsburgh, a first-generation American. My father immigrated from Serbia, or Yugoslavia, in 1914 and my mother in 1920. In 1927, they became U.S. citizens.
"The first three years of my life, my only language was Serbian. About age 4, I hit the streets where I met other first-generation Americans and we learned English that way.
"Almost every Saturday, they had a children's story hour at the library branch. I would always be there. I loved story hours and books. I read a lot of cowboy books.
"I ran track in school. My Serbian-Russian-Ukrainian friends would have killed me on a football field. At basketball and baseball, I was a turkey. So I ran track and earned a letter.
"My dad started off as a coal miner and became a laborer in the steel mill. We had money. Life was relatively inexpensive then. For example, I couldn't get a job after high school, but managed to hook up with a magazine subscription firm. I would clear $35 to $40 a week, big money. I gave this money to my mother and she would always cry.
"There was a giant apartment building. I went in and met a young, attractive woman, and she called about 18 or 19 friends, and they all bought subscriptions. I was rich!
"On Monday morning, on the chalk board was a message: 'Winowich, come see me. The manager.' I thought he was going to pat me on the back. Instead, he said, 'What the hell were you doing in that cathouse?'
"Then I got drafted into the Army. I got to England shortly after D-Day. About the middle of August, I hit Normandy. It was still a mess. I was a corporal by then. I went over as a replacement, a radio operator and gunner. I had that keyboard right on my thigh. They decided I made a better radio operator than gunner, so I became exclusively a radio operator.
"I was in Bastogne with the 4th Army Division, Third Army. We broke the German lines and entered Bastogne and chased the guys away. We met guys from the 101st Airborne and also units of the 9th and 10th Armored Division. They don't get any recognition for being there. We were all hugging. Twenty minutes later, they said, 'Hey, Mack, you better watch your ass or you will get shot.'
"I was never so miserable in my life than in Bastogne. I was cold, scared, hungry and thirsty and had no sleep. I was glad to get the hell out of there.
"About 10 years ago, Natalie and I took an Elderhostel trip on the waterways of Holland and Belgium. When we got to Bruges in Belgium, I looked at the map and saw that Bastogne wasn't far away.
"I went to City Hall. I told a young woman who spoke English that I had been there during the Battle of the Bulge. She asked for my name and address. She said that for everyone who fought in Bastogne and returned, they were going to plant a tree in their honor, and my name and address would be on the bronze plaque on that tree. We haven't been able to go back, but I assume it was done.
"We liberated the Ohrdruf concentration camp in Germany. Cadavers were stacked maybe 15 feet high and a couple hundred yards long. I had photographs of all that. It was horrible.
"We almost killed the survivors with kindness. We gave them the GI food in cans and cardboard boxes. The division commander said anyone caught feeding them would be court-martialed. They had to have a special diet. All you saw was a bag of dirty, stinking clothes on a skeleton.
"A friend who spoke German was talking to a gentleman, the burgermeister, or mayor. I asked the burgermeister, 'Were you aware of this? Did you see any signs of it?' He said no, no to everything. The next day, my friend called me over and told me the mayor had committed suicide.