Dyngus Day in South Bend
It’s 11:00AM and the corner of Ford and Warren is astir. “POTUS Pete” tees, Mayor Luecke glad-hands, scribbling journalists, a scrapyard’s worth of bumper stickers—all animated by the constant peal of polka music. It’s Dyngus Day in South Bend.
Dyngus Day, known as "Smigus-dyngus” in the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary and Ukraine, is a celebration held on Easter Monday in Polish-American communities across the country where a bottle of beer and a plate of kielbasa, noodles, potatoes, and sauerkraut is the cuisine du jour.
We’re outside the West Side Democratic and Civic Club, a historic South Bend organization where the holiday assumes a decidedly political flair. That political flair runneth over today – we’re two weeks from contested mayoral primary election and just eight days into Mayor Pete’s nascent presidential campaign.
Once inside, the Dyngusing crowd shows a strong preference for two spots: the bar and the kitchen. Early Monday morning Mayor Pete and a number of the mayoral candidates were on hand to first sign the kielbasa order from Jaworski’s Market and then get to cooking the few-hundred-some pounds of meat.
These 1968, 1970, and 1993 Tribune photographs are hard evidence – South Bend has been practicing this meal for a long time:
The club has hosted a number of famous politicos over the past century, including Bobby Kennedy during his 1968 presidential campaign and Bill and Chelsea Clinton campaigning for Hillary in 2008.
In an April 1968 piece, South Bend Tribune writer Thomas Jewell recounts Kennedy’s unforgettable visit:
“Sing us of Dyngus!” The West Side cried.
Bobby Kennedy did just exactly that. And he wowed ‘em out there.
The traditional Polish holiday, Dyngus Day, probably never was celebrated as it was Monday when this Irish political who wants to be president hit town.
Senator Kennedy wooed those Polish-American voters on the West Side with a touch of an Irishman’s blarney:
He talked Polish to them. He sang a Polish song. He ate kielbasa (Polis sausage) with them. He praised Polish patriots and their heritage of freedom. He even introduced his Polish brother-in-law, a real prince he called “Stash.”
And the crowds around the West Side Civic & Democratic Club, a bastion of Polish Americans who vote Democratic, loved it.
And in case an Irishman’s presence at the Polish holiday strikes as odd, consider Irish attorney Ed Doran’s quote in an April 1956 Tribune article answering why “he and other Irishers choose to take part in the Dyngus doings”:
We don’t object when the poles help us celebrate St. Patrick’s Day, and they don’t object when we help them celebrate Dyngus.
After some whooping and a “POTUS”-laden introduction by West Side Democratic and Civic Club President Timothy Hudak, Mayor Pete took the stage for his eighth and final time as Mayor of South Bend. In between raucous cheers and chants, he delivered a meaningful word to the democrats:
What’s so great about this tradition is that it has touched national politics in so many ways. Presidential candidates from Bobby Kennedy on through, coming through our community, know that coming out on the day after Easter in fellowship to get to know voters one-on-one is politics at its finest.
One of the reasons I want the people who come with me to Iowa and New Hampshire to come to Dyngus Day is because, in so many ways, South Bend is our message.
This is the story of a city that changed its future, changed its trajectory, and we did it through honesty and we did it through decency. We didn’t go around promising we could turn back the clock. I didn’t go around saying only I could fix it, and of course the people of South Bend taught me a thing or two the hard way and that’s alright.
We grew together, we shaped one another, we shaped this city. And now, I don’t think anybody can disagree when I say to those outside and those right here at home: South Bend is back!
So let the rest of the country learn from our city’s story.
Let the rest of the country learn that just because we can’t rewind doesn’t mean that we turn our back on a great heritage in manufacturing or traditional work ethic or the way a community is built around diversity with newcomers, immigrants: those who just got here, those who were brought here, and those who were here all along.
Let them learn from a community that knows how to look dead in the eye of the things it hasn’t fixed yet, from the need for better economic growth to the need to conquer racial disparities, but knows that each passing day we can make it better than the day before.
Let them learn that greatness lives in the everyday and there is no good politics that revolves around the world ‘again.’
These are our stories. The stories that built this city, and the stories that are building its new chapter.
And it is emotional for me, in my eighth year out of eight as Mayor to stand before you like this.
I remember coming up here nine years ago to let you know I was running for state treasurer and to ask for you support, and you were there for me. I came here asking you to trust me with the future of our city, and you were there for me. When I went away to war, you welcomed me home as a son. When I shared some of the most vulnerable, private facts about my life, you welcomed me and put your arm around me as a brother.
And now there’s a conversation going on around what’s next – what’s next in our city? And the virtue of today is you can look your candidates in the eye and ask them what we’re going to do.
This Earth day – ask them what they’re going to do to make sure we’re a more sustainable city going forward.
Ask your candidates to show you they have the hearts of servants. Ask them what they believe in, ask them what they care about, and ask them what they’ve done.
That’s what this is all about. Grabbing our politicians, not through all the different ways, the social media and television airwaves, but one-on-one, getting to know each other.
That sense of encounter. That’s what makes cities great, that people encounter each other. And that’s what makes politics great at its finest.
It’s getting warm in here! If there’s one thing that I’ve learned across many Dyngus Days it’s that this is not a venue for long speeches.
So as I come to conclusion, let me first of all ask you to support our great civic organizations like the West Side Democratic and Civic Club. I think Tim sold me my fourth or fifth lifetime membership by now, but we haven’t got Chasten lined up – you’re next!
I’m going to need your support going forward - can I count on you to help tell the real story about our city?
Then I can’t go wrong.
And the only other thing I want you to know is no matter how many high tables I find myself at or interesting places from coast to coast, thanks to you, South Bend will always, always be home.
The West Side Democratic & Civic Club relies on dues-paying members to continue serving our community as a home for heritage, encounter, and democracy. To contribute, find the club on Facebook and consider joining as a one-year, ten-year, or lifetime member.
Thank you Timothy Hudak, Ricky Herbst, and countless other volunteers for your contribution to South Bend through the club. You represent politics and community at its finest.