The Polka King of the Nation

Two things in the long, happy life of August Stanislawski still make his face light up and broaden his gentle smile into a great, big grin. One is his wife—he beams from ear to ear when she walks into the room with a kind of happy devotion reserved for the incurably romantic. The second is his music—he plays the accordion and concertina with a kind of gusto and joy reserved for the young; or, at least, young-at-heart.

At 73, “Stan,” as he is known to his friends and to his fans across the United States, is troubled by heart problems, but manages to enjoy the quality of his life. He and Marion, his bride for 39 years, have raised 10 children and traveled to more than 43 states, Canada and Mexico, leading a merry band of polka-playing musicians.

“Music has always been in my life,” Stan says, describing his childhood on a dairy farm in tiny Rosholt, Wisconsin. “My father played the violin, concertina and drums.” He doesn’t concentrate on the hard times, and the twice-daily milking chores. “My four brothers and four sisters and I had to do the milking,” he says, “Every day, by hand, at 5:00 am and 5:00 pm.” He was the oldest of nine children, and as the oldest son, was deferred from military service.

“My grandparents came to America in 1854, and I was born in the house they built on the farm,” Stan recalls. “My parents ran the dairy business, and later, changed to a potato crop.” The Stanislawkis came originally from Poland, and you can hear a Wisconsin accent today as Stan speaks. “I tell a lot of Polish jokes,” he says with a chuckle. Marion’s family hails from Czechoslovakia. “We are a big hit in the Texas towns with Polish and Czech heritage,” he says, naming West, New Braunfels, Fredericksburg, Kovalski, Ennis.

He learned to play the concertina at home, but when Stan was in the fourth grade, he was taught by a nun with a famous musician in her family. “I began taking lessons from Sister Mary De Sales,” Stan says, “who was Liberace’s aunt.” He remembers admiring Sister De Sales’s talent. “She played all kinds of instruments including electric guitar, violin and accordion,” he says. “She taught music in a lot of small towns in the Midwest, and gave me lessons on Saturdays.”

Stan was young when he first hit the road as a musician, and he says he most enjoyed playing in small towns. “We loved playing in Las Vegas and New York and Los Angeles,” he says, “but the audiences in the small towns are so enthusiastic. They are up on their feet and dancing right away. That’s very encouraging for a musician.” He entered musical competitions along the way, and one contest—in Amarillo—garnered him the title of “Polka King of the Nation.” Stan says he will never forget that day—for two reasons. “It was wonderful to win and to beat out performers in rock and roll, country music, everything. That title is very special to me.” He also remembers that he won the title during the Cuban Missile Crisis in October, 1962. “I was supposed to perform, but the concert had to be cancelled,” he says.

Stan and Marion met when she attended one of his shows in Dallas. “She was 18 and I was 36,” he says with a grin. “We got along great and were married after four days.” Marion joined the show. “She was great with the audiences and has a lot of comedic talent,” he says. “We were like Sonny and Cher—I was the straight man.”  Marion laughs, “He’s normally up shaking his tail feather,” she says of Stan’s love for the stage, performance and his cherished music.

“What I liked to do that wasn’t being done very much was to take a popular song—the most popular songs of the day—and rearrange them to a polka beat,” he says. He explains that polka has a one-two beat, “oom-pah,” where, by contrast, a waltz has a one-two-three beat. “Everyone can dance to a polka beat,” Stan says. “We always motivated our audiences to dance. Dancing and laughing, which go hand-in-hand.”

August Stanislawski is the father of 10 children. “My first wife, Connie Mager, and I had six kids. She was, and is, a wonderful mother.” He calls them out by name. “Catherine, August, Jr., Carlotta, Charlene, Sylvester and Raymond.” Marion gave him four more children: Brenda Lee, Martha Ann, Michelle and Mary Agnes. Stan is proud of each one, and the Stanislawkis enjoy a big, blended family. “We have 60 grandchildren as well,” he says proudly.

As much as he enjoys the audience members in small towns, he admits it was a thrill to meet some celebrities during his tours. “I met Liberace, of course,” he says, “and the governors of Wisconsin and Texas.” He points proudly to a letter of commendation from Dolph Briscoe, Jr. “I met one Miss Wisconsin,” he says, with a wink toward his wife, “and a lot of mayors, plus one senator.”

Stan takes out the accordion and plays for his small audience in the living room, including his nurse, Susan Hand, RN, from CardioVascular Home Care. He doesn’t seem to think about it, touching the instrument’s keyboard instantly, and pumping the bellows as he plays. “Purple,” he says, noting the purple silk fabric peeking out from between the bellows pleats. “Purple is Marion’s favorite color.” Once again, the broad smile returns to his face.

Along the way, Stan also acquired the title, “Aristocrat of the Accordion.” When you see him play, you’ll understand. He is devoted to music, his family, his heritage. He stops playing for a minute to ask, “Do you want to know the secret to a happy marriage?” Everyone nods. “The secret is never say I, me, or mine. Always say we, us, and ours.” He leans his chin against the accordion again, with a twinkle in his eye. Happy, lively music fills the room again—just as it seems to fill August Stanislawski’s heart.

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