History Lesson: Plaque Highlights Significance Of Palooka Comic Strip
HANOVER TWP. — The Home Builders Association of Northeastern Pennsylvania partnered with retired Wilkes-Barre jeweler Max Bartikowsky to place a cast bronze plaque on the Joe Palooka monument on Route 309 in Hanover Twp.
The plaque, unveiled at a ceremony Wednesday, explains the historical significance of the comic strip hero.
Created by the late Ham Fisher in Wilkes-Barre, the world heavyweight boxing champion Joe Palooka comic strip was syndicated in more than 900 newspapers for 50 years from 1930 to 1984.
Bartikowsky grew up on South Franklin Street in Wilkes-Barre near the Fisher family residence. He was the inspiration for the comic strip character named “Little Max” who was featured in numerous Palooka comic adventures.
Bartikowsky, 87, who now lives in Forty Fort, said he frequently dressed up in this father’s shoes and hat as a young boy, a sight that Fisher noticed and adapted to “Little Max” in the cartoon strip.
Fisher often had Palooka return home to Wilkes-Barre in the comic strip storyline where he would interact with local personalities and produce positive national publicity for the Northeast Pennsylvania region.
“He was a friend of the family’s,” Bartikowsky said. “He lived in New York in his later years and every time he would come in to Wilkes-Barre, he would come to the old homestead because that’s where he grew up. He grew up in Wilkes-Barre too.”
On Wednesday, Bartikowsky brought a “Little Max” doll to the ceremony. The toy dolls were manufactured when the comic strip was popular and are now antiques.
He said a former customer gave him the doll at his store Bartikowsky Jewelers, a landmark business that was in downtown Wilkes-Barre for 125 years.
“He found it in his attic at home and he knew it had a connection to me so he gave it to me,” Bartikowsky said.
In the comic strip, “Little Max” was portrayed as a shoe shine boy. Bartikowsky said he didn’t actually shine shoes, but that was part of the character.
The plaque highlights that Fisher supported the war effort during World War II by having Palooka enlist in the Army after which he engaged the enemy through the comic strip and inspired many citizens to enlist or buy war bonds. Fisher’s efforts were commended by U.S. Presidents Franklin D. Roosevelt and Harry S. Truman.
In 1949, the Wilkes-Barre Junior Chamber of Commerce commissioned a cast bronze plaque to mark the naming of the “Joe Palooka Mountain” in recognition of the positive regional image created by Fisher’s comic strip. It was located a short distance from the present monument but was stolen and never recovered.
In 1976, local men Sam Greenberg, David DeCosmo, Fred Ney and the late John Cicero, launched a fund raising drive to replace the monument which was successful. Last year, the Home Builders Association undertook the task of repairing the monument and improving the site.
Ney led the effort to get the bronze plaque and came to Bartikowsky for help.
The plaque cost nearly $1,400, Bartikowsky said. He said the monument is an important part of the “valley with a heart.”
“It was a community effort. Luckily, I was able to participate,” Bartikowsky said. “I’m retired and I was able to help.”
In March, the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission announced Fisher was one of 16 subjects approved for state historical markers.
Don Casterline, director emeritus of the Home Builders Association, said the association decided to put up the plaque instead because the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission wanted to dictate where the marker would be placed and it would not be by the monument.
The commission also planned to write what would be on the marker and association members said they didn’t like the wording.
Dave Balent, president of the Home Builders Association, said the effort to place the bronze plaque on the monument was the “final touch” needed to explain Palooka’s significance to the local community so Fisher’s creation would not get lost in the passing of time.
Throughout the years, Balent recalled the Wyoming Valley has lost many of its historic sites such as the Old Fell House that once stood at South Washington and East Northampton streets in Wilkes-Barre.
The Old Fell House, the place where Judge Jesse Fell successfully burned anthracite coal on an open grate, was demolished in 1986.
“We’re here to preserve the monument,” Balent said. “The Home Builders Association of NEPA and members have taken the task of restoring and improving the site in the hope that the future generations will see the value of our history and continue to preserve it.”
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