A Cultural Beacon
Passes On At 95
Chester “Chet” Schafer, a cultural beacon in Chicago’s Polish-American community, passed away on April 11, 2018, at the age of 95. He was a polka radio disc jockey and music producer, champion of Polish culture, and father of 13 children. He is believed to have one of the longest-running radio careers in the Chicago area and one of the longest-running polka radio shows in the country.
Chet Schafer was born Chester Aloysius Szafraniec in 1922 in Chicago to Polish immigrants. He grew up in Wicker Park. Schafer served in an administrative capacity during World War II. After completing his service, he took journalism and broadcasting classes at Northwestern University on the GI Bill.
Chet Schafer’s radio career spanned over 65 years. He got his start co-hosting a polka program with musician Li’l Wally Jagiello on Chicago station WCRW in 1950. In 1952, Schafer started his own “Polka Hit Parade” program on LaGrange station WTAQ, using the popular TV program “Your Hit Parade” as a model. In 1954 he expanded to another radio program on WTAQ, on which he held the first polka band popularity contest in the Chicagoland area. He received over 22,000 pieces of mail for this contest, which was featured in Reader’s Digest magazine. Schafer’s polka music has also been broadcast from Oak Park station WPNA before he found his long-term home on the airwaves at WCEV 1450 AM in 1986. The Sunday afternoon “Chet Schafer Show” was broadcast on WCEV until November 2017. Schafer was known as the “Dean of Chicagoland’s Polka Broadcasters.”
Schafer was the first in Chicago to produce live polka stage shows. These were variety shows which featured live bands, vocalists, dancing groups, and comedy skits. Schafer performed live broadcasts of his radio show at local polka dances and outdoor festivals. He also co-hosted the polka segment of the “Polonia Today” TV show in WCIU Channel 26 in the 1980s.
In addition to his radio activities, Schafer owned the Chicago Polkas recording label since 1952. He produced 10” 78 rpm records, 45s, 8-tracks, cassettes, LPs, and CDs by artists such as the Pala Brothers, the 47th Street Concertina Club, Li’l Richard, the Hi-Notes, and Staś Bulanda. He released over 100 albums. One of Chicago Polkas’ last recordings was an album of music composed by and for the Polish and American war hero Thaddeus Kosciuszko.
Schafer married Dolores Mendygral in 1950. They lived in the West Humbolt Park neighborhood and raised a family of thirteen children. The family occupied two adjacent houses on Walton Street for many years, and they were active members of St. Francis of Assisi parish. The family moved to the Mont Clare neighborhood in 1990 and became members of St. Priscilla parish.
Schafer spent many years working a day job as part-owner of Hollywood Press, a Wicker Park printing firm, with his brothers Tony and Frank.
In 2004, Chet and Dolores Schafer received the Polish Spirit Award from the Polish Museum of America; this was the same year that Dolores passed away. Chet Schafer married Geraldine Ryndak in 2010 at the age of 88. Geraldine passed away in 2013.
Throughout his life, Schafer was active in a number of community organizations, including the Polonus Philatelic Society, the International Polka Association (IPA), the Senior Polka Association (SPA), the Polish American Cultural Club, and the Polish Roman Catholic Union of America. He has written articles for such publications as Polka Guide, Polka World, and I.P.A. News. In 2012, Schafer donated a 1794 handwritten document by Polish military and American Revolutionary War hero Tadeusz Kosciuszko to the Polish Museum of America.
Schafer remained active with his radio show and recording label until his health declined in 2017. He passed away due to kidney disease. Schafer is survived by sister-in-law Barbara Szafraniec; children Alice Belmont, Jane Schafer Kramer, Judith Speer, Thomas Schafer, Therese Bird, Joseph Schafer, Susan Mleczko, Natalie Tu, Ann Geisert, Peter Schafer, Andrew Schafer, Pauline Schafer, and Emily Ruzich; 27 grandchildren; 5 great-grandchildren; and many other relatives and friends.
Chet Schafer was laid to rest in St. Adalbert Catholic Cemetery in Niles on April 21. In lieu of flowers, donations to the Polish Museum of America would be appreciated.
For more information, contact daughter Emily Ruzich
1209 Williamsport Drive, Unit 1
Westmont, IL 60559