Oleg Z. Zaleski
Lieutenant Colonel, United States Army
Senior Inspector, United States Customs Service
September 29, Oleg Z. Zaleski, an 18-year veteran with the U.S. Customs
Service, died of heart failure at the age of 80 at St. Josephís Hospital
in Atlanta, Georgia. Although few at Customs may be aware of it today,
Zaleski was single-handedly responsible for what is now one of our most
visible traditions: the continuous display of the United States flag at
our 24-hour ports of entry.
Zaleski entered Customs in 1961 as a Inspector at the Detroit port of entry, eventually attaining the rank of Senior Inspector. While on duty late one night, Zaleski, a first-generation Polish-American, noticed the empty flagpole, and it bothered him. "He was very patriotic," recalls Anita Weinraub, one of Zaleskiís two daughters. "He felt it was important that Americans returning home, as well as immigrants coming here for the first time, be able to see our flag on display, whatever the hour."
Never shy about standing up for what he thought was right, Zaleski made an official suggestion to change the policy, but it was turned down. In fact, his daughter recalls, he resubmitted his idea several times, and each time it was rejected. But Zaleskiís strong belief in the need to honor our countryís flag led him to continue his crusade. Eventually, in 1972, Zaleskiís suggestion was formally approved.
Whatís more, the recommendation caught the attention of the White House. To celebrate the change in policy, President Richard Nixon issued a Presidential Proclamation which read in part, "the flag of the United States of America shall hereafter be displayed at all times during the day and night, except when the weather is inclement, at United States Customs ports of entry which are continually open."
In a Flag Day ceremony at the Detroit-Canada Tunnel, Zaleski himself hoisted Old Glory, joined by Commissioner Vernon D. Acree and other dignitaries.
A talent for meeting the famous
While Zaleskiís role in changing Customsí policy is perhaps his most visible legacy today, it is not the only distinguishing aspect of his life. Zaleski also had a knack for being in the right place at the right time to meet some of the 20th centuryís most famous individuals.
In 1929, the nine-year old Zaleski attended the dedication of the Edison Illuminated Fountain in Detroit and, to get a better view, he hid beneath the grandstand. A policeman noticed him, and was hauling him away when several dignitaries invited the boy up onto the stage. That day, Oleg Zaleski shook hands with Thomas Edison, Henry Ford, and Harvey Firestone.
After graduating from high school in 1937, Zaleski joined the Army, where his leadership abilities led his superiors to recommend him for Officers Candidate School. During World War II, Zaleski served in the New Hebrides, Guadalcanal, Papua New Guinea, and the Philippines. One of his duties was to work with the USO, and on several occasions the young officer found himself dining with such stars as Bob Hope, Jack Benny, and others.
Zaleski remained in the military through the Korean conflict and retired in 1958 with the rank of Lieutenant Colonel. In 1961, Zaleski met a Customs employee who suggested he consider taking the U.S. Customs examination. Zaleski was soon wearing a new uniform, as a Customs inspector in the Detroit Port of Entry.
In the course of his Customs duties, Zaleskiís talent for being in the right place allowed him to meet and even become acquainted with yet more of the centuryís famous figures, including Henry Ford II and Lee Iacocca. For Anita Weinraub, the most memorable of these encounters was the time he met the Beatles when they visited Detroit in 1965.
Perseverance pays off
What compelled Zaleski in his crusade to change the Customs policy on nighttime flag display? Certainly his sense of honor and patriotism played a part. But in addition, Zaleski had another quality in abundance: perseverance.
Zaleskiís wife of 59 years, Helen Kulinski Zaleski, tells a story that illustrates the point. In 1932, Zaleskiís father, like millions of other Americans, was out of work. Acting on his own, young Zaleski walked into a local tool and die shop, somehow made it past the receptionist to the ownerís office, and began to explain his fatherís situation. The owner stopped him and offered a dollar to help his family. The forthright young boy politely responded that he didnít want the manís money ó he simply wanted him to give his father a job.
Not surprisingly for any who ever worked with him, Zaleskiís gambit succeeded: the owner hired his father on the spot, sight unseen.
In addition to his wife and daughters, Zaleski is survived by three grandchildren. Oleg Zaleski was buried with full military honors in Arlington National Cemetery.
Courtesy of the U.S. Customs Service
Posted: 27 October 2001 Updated: 31 May 2003
Updated: 6 September 2004