Six weeks shy of his 12th birthday, young Ralph Bukiewicz was awakened by his mother’s sobbing. Accompanied by a police officer, she was holding a bag of her husband’s belongings from the ER. It was 6:30 a.m. on Jan. 25, 1972.
For as long as Ralph could remember, he and his older sister, Kathie, had been their parents’ eyes. Their mother, Virginia, was legally blind but somewhat independent. Their father, Alex, blind since birth, lived in total darkness. From the age of 5, Ralph had the responsibility of leading his dad everywhere by the arm and hand. This routine included walking five blocks every day to a bus stop at 4 p.m. to guide Alex home from work.
But Alex was on his own in the morning. At 5 a.m., he would leave for his job at a workshop for the blind in Milwaukee. Because there were few people on the street at that time, he could maneuver his own way to the bus stop. But on this day, while attempting to board, he climbed over an icy mound of snow, slipped backwards, hit his head on concrete, and died instantly.
When Ralph learned the news, though he was numb and grieving, he stoically went to school. He knew that his strict, no–nonsense father would have expected it.
LIFE’S BOOT CAMP
Even before Alex died, life had been difficult for the Bukiewicz family. They had the bare necessities, with few extras. Their home, next door to a chemical foundry, had train tracks running directly behind it. To supplement Alex’s income, the family needed food stamps. Ralph would use his second–hand bicycle and a red wagon to haul supplies when he and his mother went shopping. At critical times of the year, the family relied on the kindness of two women from The Salvation Army, Brigadier Eleanor Roup and her assistant, Ora Bilsky.
In spite of tough times, there were bright spots. The Salvation Army Wisconsin and Upper Michigan Division ran a camp for blind families at Army Lake Camp, so the Bukiewicz family spent a week in the country every summer for free. At Christmas, someone from The Salvation Army would drive Ralph and his sister to a big children’s party at the Milwaukee South Citadel Corps (church), where Santa would hand them a surprise gift.
Yet Ralph was resentful. As his parents’ “window to the world,” he always had to be on duty. And, compared to his friends, he had very little.
Before they married, Alex and Virginia talked about how they would raise their children. Alex, a Polish Catholic, agreed to let Virginia, a devout Lutheran, bring the kids up Lutheran. About the time his dad died, Ralph began catechism classes and was confirmed at age 14. He’s still impressed with the intense training he received in the Christian faith but says that to him, the training was at first all academic. He was much more interested in the newfound freedom he had acquired since his dad died.
Foreshadowing his later leadership abilities, Ralph became the ringleader of a merry band of juvenile delinquents. They would steal items from the local drugstore and sit on a train trestle, puffing away on “cancer sticks,” bragging about their exaggerated endeavors, and daring each other to do worse.
People who know Ralph, including his wife, Susan, often joke that if things had not changed, he’d be sitting in the slammer somewhere as a white–collar criminal, with an hourlong episode of “American Greed” broadcasting his exploits.
But Ralph’s life did suddenly take a turn for the better. He had started playing trumpet in school, and when Major Ray Wert of the Salvation Army’s South Citadel Corps heard about it, he visited Ralph and encouraged him to go to Band Camp at Army Lake that summer. Ralph was excited—all the more so when he heard some really cute girls were going too.
However, something kept gnawing at Ralph. Why did these people in those funny–looking uniforms care so much about him?
Then, just weeks before Band Camp, Ralph and his little gang of hooligans broke into one boy’s parents’ liquor cabinet. They got smashed and—dangerously—swam in the backyard pool. Ralph slept in his own vomit that night. When he awoke, he was disgusted with himself, especially because he had just been confirmed.
Though Ralph doesn’t remember what the speaker at camp said during the Sunday morning service weeks later, he says God spoke directly to his heart, and in a flash, his spiritual eyes opened. What he had learned in catechism about God’s grace through Christ and the answer as to why these people cared for him all came together. But unlike some other campers, he didn’t go to the mercy seat (altar). Instead, he slipped out of the pavilion and walked to the empty Sweet Shoppe to think. An officer friend followed. They prayed. Determined to turn from all wrongdoing, Ralph accepted Christ as the Lord of his life. That day the Sweet Shoppe counter, as a makeshift mercy seat, became hallowed ground for Ralph.
Forty years have passed since then, including 34 as a Salvation Army officer. Lt. Colonels Ralph and Susan Bukiewicz, married for 33 years, have never looked back. They thrive in and love their work. “When we signed our covenants [to become officers], we meant it!” Ralph says.
Today he and Susan, as leaders of the Metropolitan (Metro) Division in Chicago, oversee the Army’s work in 11 counties. This entails the spiritual leadership of 28 corps community centers, including the biggest Ray & Joan Kroc Center in the country, and administration of the largest private agency provider of direct social services in Chicagoland.
The division provides nearly 1.6 million meals annually—to the elderly through various programs, to homeless people residing in Salvation Army shelters, and to neighborhoods through 21 mobile feeding sites that operate throughout the city every day of the week. Also, Metro offers emergency housing and financial aid to families, counseling centers, a huge Correctional Services Department, a large Harbor Light complex to combat addictions, emergency disaster services, 70 service extension units in areas where there are no corps, and extensive human trafficking work that has become a model for the nation.
Of his wife, Ralph says, “She is an amazing gift from God who brings out the best in me.” Susan’s father was an alcoholic who was saved through the Harbor Light ministry. Both of her parents became officers, as did her four sisters.
‘Whether you want someone to tell the story of the living Lord or put a face on The Salvation Army, you get Ralph!’ —Major Debbie Sjogren
When Ralph was a child leading his father, he would paint the scenes ahead in vivid word pictures. Susan says of her husband, “Ralph’s outstanding communication skills came out of his need to describe the world to his parents.” Susan says that when he describes a scene from the Bible, such as Lazarus coming forth from the grave, “It’s as if the listener can ‘see’ it on film!”
Ralph’s kids, Jillian and Jonathan (now 30 and 27), called their dad the “analogy king” because he had a gift for explaining confusing concepts in a visual way. “He’s my hero!” Jillian says.
Ralph also has an interesting hobby. He’s into photography and graphic design and uses it, he says, “to communicate God’s love, forgiveness, and grace to a world that is often blind.”
After the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Ralph spent seven weeks as the Army’s public information officer at Ground Zero. Major Debbie Sjogren, who sent him there from the USA Central Territory, says, “Ralph made dramatic connections with the media. He’s the best friend of a microphone. Whether you want someone to tell the story of the living Lord or put a face on The Salvation Army, you get Ralph!”
Young Ralph felt cheated because he had to spend so much time being his parents’ eyes. But today he has a ministry because of those experiences. He reflects, “God’s grace specializes in reclamation. In Christ’s service, no experience, good or bad, is ever wasted.”
by Daryl Lach