When you think of “living the American dream,” you wouldn’t necessarily associate the phrase with a rural physician of central New York. It would take a world war to alter the fate of his family, placing them among displaced persons on the USNS Gen. C.H. Muir that departed Bremerhaven, Germany and arrived nine days later at the port of New York on May 17, 1951. The passenger manifest at Ancestry.com shows Wolodymyr Prokopiw, his wife, Olga, their infant son and Wolodymyr’s 83 year-old mother all having the destination of 458 Grand St., New York. This manifest is for the family of “Doc Prok” of Weedsport.
After contacting Ellis Island, I received a reply from Mike Maring with the American Family Immigration History Center. He also reviewed the Ancestry record and shared that because this was a refugee ship, passengers would have been processed at Ellis, but there was no evidence that this family was detained due to illness, so they arrived in good health. Much of what is known about Doc’s background comes from a bio in The Citizen in 1988, as well as a short biography provided by the Ukrainian Medical Association of North America.
Wolodymyr (Walter) Prokopiw was born in 1906 in Austria, the child of Teodor and Dorotha Troutman Prokopiw. He received his education at the Jagiellonian University (founded 1364) at Krawkow, Poland. Upon completing his studies he opened a general practice in the town of Towmacz. Olga, his future wife, was teaching mathematics at a high school in Przemysl when they met in 1936. When German forces marched into Poland, the invading officers consulted Walter regarding infectious diseases and instructed him to open a hospital, a task that was no small undertaking. When the forces retreated, they took Walter and his son to a concentration camp, where Walter treated other prisoners.
While in the various camps, we know very little about Walter’s experiences. According to Walter, “they needed me as a doctor. There were so few doctors. Many who did not have the strength did not survive." Despite his status, harsh treatment was commonplace; he reported having been beaten several times, and his ribs were broken. What he did not discuss was having his eyes sewn open, something he briefly mentioned to his patients after the war. With the arrival of the American and English forces, they were taken to a displaced persons camp. It is not known how his wife and mother came to be boarded with him on the Muir bound to America in 1951.
Upon arriving in America, Walter served as a resident and admitting physician at St. Peter’s (where he interned), as well as Cumberland and Williamsburg hospitals in Brooklyn. Upon obtaining his state license in 1953, he moved to Ohio, where he interned at Williamsburg. After several years, he moved to Unadilla, N.Y. With the loss of Weedsport’s physicians Dr. Goodwin and Dr. Kempton, Walter came to Weedsport in 1960. The move allowed him to be closer to his son, who was attending college in New York City. Dr. Prok served as Weedsport’s school physician for many years and built a large general practice at Weedsport, with his wife handling the clerical aspects of the office. He was known to consult his reference books in front of his patient, kept his doors open after hours, and even made house calls — a bygone era in medicine.
I was overjoyed to discover that our local physician and his devoted wife left several endowments for scholarships to help the next generation of physicians. A review of his estate papers shows his insight included requesting that all taxes and fees be paid by the estate to eliminate burden to the recipient. His estate benefited the Shevchenko Scientific Society, the Ukrainian Free University, and the Ukrainian Medical Association of North America, which was the only organization to reply to my inquiry. UMANA received, after fees, $44,388 as part of the Dr. Walter and Olga Prokopiw Scholarship Endowment Fund. Their generous gift gave UMANA the ability to offer scholarships for the first time in its history. The scholarship is awarded to medical as well as dental students. Since it was established in 2006, the scholarships have been awarded to students from the states of Wisconsin, California, Illinois and New York, said Executive Director Dr. George Hrycelak.
Doc Prok was our family physician when I was a child. While his war experience leaves us wanting to know more, despite his hardships, this humble man continued to give back to humanity. Walter died in 2001 and is buried at the Holy Spirit Ukrainian Catholic Cemetery in Campbell Hall, N.Y.