The longtime UI staff member’s gregarious brand of humor is even more inspiring when you hear the story behind it.
If you ever park in Lot 33 near the Dental Science Building, you know Jerry Slezak. He’s the guy in the cashier’s booth who welcomes you with a wave, whose Hawaiian shirts take the chill off a winter morning, who spouts a stream of well-worn jokes, and who’s been known to accept stamps or even soda cans when you’re short on cash.
“If I can take a second to make someone smile or laugh, maybe they’ll pass it on,” says Slezak, who’s worked at The University of Iowa nearly 40 years and and in fall 2007 earned the University’s Outstanding Staff Award. His outlook on life and work is impressive in its own right, but even more striking once you hear the story behind it.
An Iowa City native and son of longtime UI staff members, Slezak was drafted into the U.S. Marines in 1965 at age 19, joining the first waves of ground troops dispatched to Vietnam. His service there was short—within two months, he’d taken a gunshot wound that required amputating his left leg below the knee.
Slezak spent months at Great Lakes Naval Hospital in Illinois, then returned home to build a life. He got married, took his first University job repairing parking meters, and grappled with the challenge of losing a leg. By the early 1970s, he had welcomed his first daughter, Angela. But that’s only the beginning of the story.
It was just a normal day. Slezak was cutting the lawn on his riding mower, while Angie, by then nearly three, played on the swings a hundred feet away. Suddenly Slezak saw a flash of movement. He veered, but the mower hit the adjacent fence and bucked. Angie, who’d come running at him across the yard, slipped underneath.
“I don’t remember pain, but I recall riding in the ambulance to the hospital and asking my mom for a drink of water,” says Angela today. Her left leg was gravely injured and eventually would be amputated above the knee—she’d grow up wearing a prosthesis like her dad’s.
“As a little girl, it never seemed to bother her,” Slezak says of his daughter’s ability to adapt. “For me, as an adult, it was different.” Slezak had dealt with the physical aspects of his injury, but he remained self-conscious, keeping his leg hidden whenever he could.
Angie wouldn’t have that—she wanted to live like any other kid, and she wanted her dad by her side. “She helped me overcome my fear,” Slezak says. More than that, she taught him to find humor where he hadn’t always been able.
“We’d go to the beach at the Coralville Reservoir,” Slezak recalls, “sit down on our towels, pop our legs off, and hop in the water. We’d come out hand in hand, and she’d yell, ‘Sharks!’ We sure got people’s attention.”
|Jerry Slezak and grandson Blake.
Angela credits her dad with showing her how to live with a prosthesis and serving as an all-around inspiration to her and her three sisters, Laura, Katie, and Melissa, not to mention her young sons. The tragedy of one summer day turned into a rallying point, a chance for a father and daughter to forge a unique, unexpected bond.
But that’s not the end of the story.
Motivated by her experience, Angela decided to pursue a career in prosthetics and orthotics. She met her husband, Brandon Courtade, in school, and even though they’ve since moved to Florida, they remain her dad’s prosthetic team. Late last year, they outfitted him with a new leg.
“If things hadn’t happened as they did, I wouldn’t be able to help my dad and my other patients,” Angela says. “I would never have met my husband, and we wouldn’t have our three wonderful children. I think God has a plan for us, and I’m very happy to be part of that plan.”
As for her dad, he and his wife Mary beam when they talk of their girls and their grandsons, and Jerry Slezak tells his story with a trace of surprise, like he can’t quite believe it’s all happened to him. He wears shorts all the time these days, greeting folks, making change, cracking jokes.
Now you know why the man is smiling.
Story by Lin Larson; Portrait by Tom Jorgensen
March 3, 2008