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Slovakia to Wisconsin, Soviets to Walker: Ivan Vanek has seen a lot
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Ivan Vanek: 'This was my dream. Wisconsin fascinates me more than any other state.'
Ivan Vanek: 'This was my dream. Wisconsin fascinates me more than any other state.'
Credit:Teddy Nykiel

Ivan Vanek stood among a crowd of hundreds on the evening of June 5, awaiting the results of the election to recall Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker.

Like many anxious Walker opponents who gathered on the Capitol Square that night, Vanek had protested the budget repair bill and like many, he cried when it was announced that Walker had won yet another gubernatorial race.

"Mr. Walker, he did not win," Vanek says. "His $30 million investors won. That's money winning, and that's wrong."

Yet as he stood among the throng of people holding signs, chanting and singing, Vanek's mind wandered 44 years into the past as he reminisced on his days protesting against the Soviets in his home country of Slovakia.

Coming to America

In 1968, the Soviet Union and members of the Warsaw Pact invaded Czechoslovakia. Vanek, then 25, helped organize peaceful marches in the streets to support the efforts of Alexander Dub?ek, the Czechoslovakian leader, to reform the Communist regime. But by March 1969, the situation hadn't improved.

"I said, 'I'd better leave,'" Vanek says.

Vanek, his first wife, Maria, and their 18-month-old son (also named Ivan) came to the U.S. in July after spending a few months in Austria. They spoke no English, had little money and carried just one suitcase for the three of them.

The family arrived in Chicago and Vanek immediately started playing for the Slovak Athletic Association's club soccer team. He met a man from his hometown who helped him find his first American job on July 20, 1969 -- the day Neil Armstrong stepped foot on the moon.

"I never will forget that," Vanek says.

He started work the very next day, working the night shift while his wife worked the day shift so they wouldn't have to put their son in daycare.

"I was a very fresh immigrant, I needed every penny," Vanek says.

Vanek briefly worked at a coal company and then spent 21 years working for the maintenance department of Oak Park Village. In 1997, he moved to Wisconsin after spending years vacationing in the Dells and taking long weekends off to ski. He had dreamed of living here one day and now lives on Madison's west side.

Vanek bought his first American car in 1970 -- a new Ford Maverick, which he paid for in cash. He is proud to say that he has since purchased 15 American-made cars, all in cash.

"I always told myself, 'If I want something, I have to have the money for it,'" he says.

50-50

In our three-hour conversation, Vanek spends the majority of the time griping about the government, political parties and corporate America.

He sits on the edge of his seat, leaning toward me with his eyebrows furrowed. He fervently repeats, "That is wrong," in reference to unemployment, women's rights issues, the current health care system and foreign affairs, among myriad other social and political issues.

"Immigrants built up this country and all of the sudden, we are not worth anything to the business people," he says. "We want some recognition."

Vanek clarifies that he is not jealous of the rich, he just believes everyone should be given a fair chance. He believes employees should be treated "like family," and thinks they deserve better pay and benefits.

"I am giving my time, my blood, my sweat, and I work for them -- I dedicate myself," he says.

I bring up what I see as Vanek's seemingly cynical, negative attitude towards politics and the U.S.

"I don't need to talk about what's good," Vanek says. "I know we have lots of good here. I'd say 50-50."

He says a country that is 50% good and 50% bad is "a crisis" and says we should strive for "75-25."

"I know no country in the world can have 100% good," he says.

A dual identity

Now seven years retired, Vanek enjoys life. He belongs to a hunting club and has bowled 36-week seasons each year since 1980. He is a stamp collector, a coin collector and a fan of Badger hockey, basketball and tennis. He is also an avid Elvis Presley fan, claiming he even met "the king" when he was in Las Vegas many years ago. His favorite song is "Love Me Tender."

This July, Vanek will celebrate his 43rd anniversary living in the U.S. and he is proud of it. He considers himself both an American and a Slovak.

"I am home everywhere," he says. "I like people, I like talking with people, I don't see differences."

Despite his dissatisfaction with the local political scene, Vanek says he still likes Wisconsin, "no doubt about it."

"This was my dream," Vanek says. "Wisconsin fascinates me more than any other state. The second one is Florida. I like Florida. I go there every year."

Unlike 43 years ago, Vanek has no plans to leave, even though he is angry about Walker's victory. He plans to die in this country.

"I have my blood here," he says. "My son, my three grandchildren, my wife. That's the reason why I love it."

Although Vanek's son Ivan was raised in the U.S., Slovak was his first language. He started kindergarten in an American school without knowing English, but picked it up quickly. Vanek and his son still speak solely in Slovak.

"Our nationality, we should preserve that, not blend it," Vanek says. "If you are going to blend everything it will disappear."

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