Frederick M. Kalisz Jr., as a former mayor of New Bedford, may have been the best known New Bedford victim of COVID-19. But there was a side to Fred Kalisz known only to his family and close friends. And that guy was a devoted father, hard worker and all-around kind-hearted person.
“I couldn’t have asked for anything more,” said his 23-year-old son Rick, who grew up as sort of a first-son of New Bedford for the first eight years of his life.
His dad was not one of those politicians for whom family came second.
Rick said Fred took him along across the city while he was the city’s chief executive. Especially to fires.
As a young kid, he was crazy about firefighting, and he said his father would load him in the car and off they would go to the scenes, provided it was in a reasonable hour. The first responder seed took root in Rick, and he is now an EMT at Boston Children’s Hospital and studying to be a paramedic.
On another trip, Rick said his father brought him to meet the late U.S. Sen. Edward M. Kennedy at the latter’s Washington home. He recalled Kennedy getting down and playing with him as a 3-year-old.
“He brought me everywhere.”
When Rick played Little League baseball at the Whaling City League, Fred became a coach, scoreboard keeper and worked behind the scenes for the league. Later he videotaped every one of Rick’s high school football games at Bishop Stang.
George Leontire, one of Fred Kalisz’s closest friends and his first city solicitor, said he talked to the former mayor every week and it was clear to him how important family was to him. “I swear there was never a time when he had a conversation when he didn’t tell me something about Ricky,” he said.
Leontire’s father owned a drug store across the street from the Kalisz family home in the North End, and he said Fred would come in as a youth. He remembered the former mayor as a serious kid but one who also had a dry sense of humor.
“He was easy to talk to. You could talk about anything to him,” he said.
Rick also remembered his father’s mischievous wit, talking about the time he posed with his head in a shark’s mouth at an amusement park or in a Santa hat with Christmas lights around his neck holding his new puppy.
After his father passed, Rick said he and Leontire shared some of the stories with local media to show the personal side of Fred Kalisz. “We tried to really show what he was as a man. How he genuinely cared about everyone and anyone,” he said.
Kalisz was just down-to-earth in a way that a lot of politicians are not, Leontire said. “He was just a very good guy in a world where a lot of times there aren’t a lot of good guys.”
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Kalisz’s battle with COVID-19 was a short one that ended suddenly.
He had experienced mild symptoms one week in mid-January, but his doctors advised him to be admitted to the hospital on Saturday because his oxygen levels were low. Early the next week he had felt better, and on Tuesday night was scheduled to be discharged the next day. But things turned rapidly worse and Rick received a 5:30 a.m call Wednesday that his father had gone into cardiac arrest.
Fred Kalisz died from COVID-19 complications on Jan. 27, 2021. He was 63 years old.
Former City Councilor Jane Gonsalves, a close ally of the former mayor on the council, recalled him as a real policy wonk, and a dedicated mayor who laid the groundwork for much of the economic development in the city that came after him.
“I thought Fred was a really good mayor,” she said, describing him as a man who sincerely was not afraid to do important work that would not win headlines.
“He loved that job and he loved the city more than anyone I’ve ever known,” she said.
Rick noted that after his father left the mayorship he was proud he had pursued and achieved a doctorate. He had a love of teaching that began when he taught college government classes just after he was mayor. After he died, his students overwhelmed his family with stories about how good a teacher he was, Rick said. He didn’t lecture so much as tell stories about his experiences in politics and government.
“His students really cared about him, and he cared about his students,” he said.
Post mayorship, Kalisz worked as the executive director of Parents Alliance for Catholic Education, a post in which he was known to bring leftover conference refreshments to a homeless shelter. He later went on to serve as the register for the New Bedford Registry of Deeds.
For himself, Rick says he knows how hard his father worked for him and a dream he has had of him becoming a doctor.
“He would always say he was going to work until he was 90 so I could go to medical school,” Rick said.
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