Sunday, January 16, 2011

Unsung Heroes continued

This article is about a unique individual who undertook a most unlikely mission and, through hard work and determination, achieved what most would have thought impossible.   I’m speaking, of course, of our Minnesota Rusyn champion, Larry Goga.

Larry Goga
Larry was born in Minneapolis, Minnesota, the only child of Lawrence and Phyllis (Nietzel) Goga.  He grew up in a typical post-war American environment. He was an all- around athlete, lettering in baseball, basketball, football, and track at Patrick Henry High School.   Though he lived in a half-timbered house next to his paternal grandparents, he knew very little of their ethnic background.  While Larry recalls his grandfather spoke very little English, his grandmother spoke English well.  Yet, when neighbors and friends came over to visit, she spoke in a tongue that Larry took for Slovak.  Larry’s mother was of English and German ancestry, and the family followed her customs and traditions.

Following high school graduation in 1950, Larry worked for Minneapolis Honeywell until drafted into the U.S. Army in 1952.  After basic training he was sent to Korea as a rifleman. He was assigned to the 40th Infantry Division.  His division fought the Korean War in such memorable places as the Punch Bowl;  he celebrated his 21st birthday on Heartbreak Ridge.   When he finally returned to civilian life, he resumed his job at Honeywell.  After one year he enrolled in the University of Minnesota where he played freshman football and earned an A.A. degree.  Larry became one of  Minneapolis area law enforcement’s  most successful and respected interrogators. 

In 1979 while Larry and Karen were driving through the old neighborhood he pulled up in front of St. John’s Byzantine Catholic Church.   Father Joseph Fedyzak just happened to be coming down the steps.  Larry stopped the car and asked Fr. Joe “What kind of church is this?”   When Fr. Joe asked his name, and heard the reply “Larry Goga,” father said, “You belong here.  Your name is in our history base.”    Larry and Karen started attending the church, opening a new era in Larry’s life. 

During the church fall festival of 1979 a woman asked Larry his name.  When he told her, the woman,  Ann (Filyak) Hnath,  said to him “welcome home.”  Larry almost fell over he was so overcome with emotion.  “Your grandfather visited my father many times.”   That and similar incidents led him to eventually realize that he was Rusnak not Slovak.  

Larry and Karen
Larry was determined to learn about his grandfather, John Goga, who had passed away when he was 10 years old. Larry fondly remembers his big smile when he was returning from work.  “Hallo Lorry boy” he would call out, opening his pocket purse and giving Larry one penny as a treat; this he quickly transformed into candy.    Although the Goga family rarely talked of their ethnicity, Larry believed he was Slovak due to the various weddings he had attended over the years at a Slovak church. Being Chief Investigator for McLeod County, Minnesota, Larry set out on a mission to discover not only his paternal roots, but also who the Rusyns were.

He began looking for people who could help him find answers to his questions.  To his surprise, most of the parishioners at St. John’s seemed to be unaware of the church’s history or its ethnic background.   Although they did identify themselves as “Greek Catholics,” the word “Rusyn” seemed almost unheard of.   In 1981 Larry asked Fr. Joe if he could hold a meeting with whoever in the parish wished to learn about being Rusyn!  It was held on April 27, 1981.   Only nine people attended.  Larry, Fr. Joe and John Fatula had previously held a meeting discussing Rusyn identity.  They decided to form a group called  The Rusin Cultural Awareness Organization.  John Haluska joined St. John’s in 1982, and became very interested in working with them on the Rusyn question. He was an excellent writer and John Gera, who joined late in 1982, was able to read Cyrillic and translate the old church records. 

The next year Larry, John Haluska, and John Gera founded the Carpatho-Rusin Ethnic Association.  The Association was established for the purpose of preserving and promoting the heritage of Rusyn people.   They knew that to get noticed they needed to determine if there truly was legitimacy to the Rusyn identity.   Larry met with Keith Dyrud, a professor at a local college and sought his advice.  He also met with Minnesota Historical Society Secretary Russell Fridley to ask for support when the newly-created Rusin Association would seek funding.

Larry Goga
Larry’s dream was to prepare a traveling exhibit to tour the state, write a book about Minnesota’s Rusyn population, and sponsor a symposium about the Rusyn people.  With Secretary Fridley’s help, the trio  received a grant for preparing a book on the history of Rusins in Minnesota.  William Duly, a University of Minnesota student working on his master’s degree in anthropology, was selected for this work.  He was chosen because he had neither Rusyn roots nor any previous knowledge of  Rusyns.  This way he could generate an unbiased report on the subject.  Mr. Duly used the Rusyn identity question as his topic.   Shortly thereafter the Association was awarded a grant from the Minnesota Humanities Council.  

Over the years, the Association engaged in many activities.  It participated in the local Festival of Nations, hosted symposia and workshops, published newsletters, and provided a forum for those who were interested in their Rusyn heritage.  It also established an annual dinner honoring the Rusyn patriot, Alexander Duchnovich.  This tradition is being carried on to this day.  The Rusin Association will host its 25th Annual Duchnovich Day Celebration on Saturday, February 5, 2011. 

On November 17, 1988, John Haluska was invited to give a presentation at St. Mary’s Orthodox Cathedral.   The Very Reverend Vladimir Lecko, with whom Larry had been working, felt that since the roots of St. Mary’s extend to the region where Rusyns live, that John’s talk would be central to their story.   St. Mary’s had just finished its centennial celebration and because of that the parishioners had become aware of  their community’s history.  John pointed out that the parishes of St. John’s and St. Mary’s were both Rusyn when they were established.  This was a monumental achievement by the Rusin Association since most parishioners at St. Mary’s thought themselves to be of Russian (Moscovite) descent. 

Larry worked ceaselessly.  To anyone who would lend him an ear, he would talk about preserving and promoting the heritage of “our people.”    One more grant was awarded and Larry continued to inform not only the parishioners of St. John’s and St. Mary’s but also the general public about Rusyns.   The Association would participate in or promote ethnic events and provide information on Rusyns.   Through Larry’s inquires he had learned about the works of Robert Magocsi, Jerry Jumba, and John Righetti. Larry began to seek them out for his quest for information. The objective of the Association was not only to tell the story of the Rusyns for the Rusyns but to share it with the rest of Minnesota. 

Larry strongly felt that the story of “our people” deserved to be shared with all.  Later the Association, under Larry’s leadership, became influential not only in Minnesota but also in Eastern Europe.  After the fall of communism, the Association helped Eastern European Rusyns financially.

Ten years later when the Carpatho-Rusyn Society incorporated, we used the Minnesota by-laws as the basis for our by-laws and cited that organization as the standard of excellence.  

Larry was ahead of his time.  As Fr. Fedyzak stated at one of the symposia, being a priest in Minnesota was like being sent to a penal colony.  The Rusyns of Minnesota were far removed from the rest of the Rusyn communities concentrated in Pennsylvania and New Jersey.  Logic would have suggested that the Minnesota Rusyn community would have quickly disappeared into the great Midwestern prairie.  Yet, it was thanks to this one person, LARRY GOGA, that the Rusin Association of Minnesota has become an example of how to run a successful organization.  And he showed us what one individual can achieve.

Concurrently with his term in office with the Rusin Association, Larry since 1991 served as the first President of the Minnesota Korean War Veterans’ Association.  Here he labored tirelessly to create a monument dedicated to the state’s Korean War veterans.  It was unveiled in July 1998.

After 17 years of hard work and unprecedented success, Larry stepped down as Rusin Association president. Larry now lives in Cokato, Minnesota with his beautiful wife Karen who has worked along side him all these years.   Even though her background is Finnish, she has selflessly helped Larry prepare Rusyn dishes for festivals, dinners, workshops and so on.   Their home has been open to countless Rusyn guests over the years who have enjoyed their company and comradeship.
Larry and Karen Goga

Although Larry was very successful in spreading the word about Rusyns, he has not able to find more information about his grandfather and still is investigating.   So if you have any information on the name Goga and or know about his grandfather or grandmother, please contact him at

Thank you Larry.  As you once told me “old soldiers never die, they just fade away.”  In our hearts you’ll never fade away.   You are an inspiration and example to us of what one individual can achieve when he really puts his mind to it.  Your contribution to enriching our Rusyn culture has been priceless.

(Written by:  Maryann Sivak,


Andy Rebich said...

excellant article! thanks so much Maryann for writing it and larry for all your work too.
Binghamton NY

Anonymous said...

my father is carpatho-rusyn and discusses very little of life in europe before arriving in Canada at age 7. He is now 87. Such a void in my life to try to understand.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the great article on Mr. Goga and his inspiring hard work. I am reminded fondly of my father and great-uncles and their enthusiasm for our culture and traditions.

John from PA