When it came to knowledge of Bridgeport, Mary Witkowski was like the Swiss army knife of the city with many organizational assets in the tool box.
She helmed and advanced the Bridgeport History Center for decades helping patrons navigate and research various history collections, genealogy, stakeholders, leaders and businesses from the stacks of the Bridgeport Public Library.
Mary was the long-time companion of OIB friend, writer and illustrator Charlie Walsh. She passed away on Saturday.
From the Larson Funeral Home:
Mary K. Witkowski, 68, former Bridgeport City Historian and head archivist of the Historical Collections of the Bridgeport Public Library, died Saturday, April 22, 2023 at the Cambridge Health & Rehabilitation Center in Fairfield.
Born April 16, 1955 in Lincoln Park, MI, she received her bachelor’s degree in urban environmental geography from Western Michigan University and a master’s degree in library science from Wayne State University in Detroit.
A dedicated historian and genetic history researcher, over her 28-year career in Bridgeport, Mary aided countless library patrons in discovering their genetic roots, as well as reporters and academic researchers. She educated the public on the importance of local history, historic preservation and genealogy, with special emphasis on Bridgeport history.
Arriving in Bridgeport in the winter of 1987 to take the job of head archivist of the city’s Historical Collections, one of the largest in Connecticut, Mary found the collections, including many priceless historic items, to be in a chaotic state. She immediately set about the daunting task of reorganizing and indexing the collection, which occupied the better part of two floors of the library building. She renamed the library’s Historical Collections division the Bridgeport History Center. She was a founding member of the Bridgeport Community Historical Society and the Bridgeport Architectural Landmark League.
Among the patrons she helped with their inquiries was actor Beau Bridges, who starred as P.T. Barnum in a 1999 movie and who visited the History Center, where Mary shared some of her trove of material on Bridgeport’s most famous resident. One notable visitor to the city who was apparently not pleased was WNBC’s Gabe Pressman, who became irritated when Mary insisted on giving him a driving tour of Bridgeport’s gems when he had determined to do a negative story on the city.
She was always ready to help reporters doing stories about Bridgeport figures, such as Barnum or socialist mayor Jasper McLevy or aviation pioneer Gustave Whitehead, whose claim to have built and flown a powered aircraft in 1901, two years before the Wright brothers, she unfailingly supported.
She is survived by her mother, Maureen Hornig of Northville, MI; four sisters, Teresa Skye (David) of Pahrump, NV, Christine Witkowski of Port Townsend, WA, Susan Witkowski of Troy, MI, and Joan Rozelle (Bob) of Novi, MI; a brother, Michael Witkowski (Cheryl) of Romulus, MI; two nephews, Cody Witkowski and Billy Rozelle; and her longtime companion, Charles Walsh of Stratford, CT. She was predeceased by her stepfather, William Hornig, and her uncle, Pat Carroll.
Diagnosed with multiple sclerosis shortly before arriving in Bridgeport, Mary endured the daily vicissitudes of life as a person with disabilities, never letting it deter her from helping people or pursuing her goals. She fought doggedly for better access for people with disabilities. Along the way she made many friends among the patrons and staff of the library.
She was the author of three books on Bridgeport history, “Bridgeport at Work,” a pictorial history of the city’s robust industrial past; “Bridgeport On The Sound,” a pictorial maritime history of the city (with Bruce Williams); and “Scenes of America: Bridgeport” (also with Bruce Williams).
One of her favorite and most successful projects during her library career was the conception and organization of the Frisbee Festival, honoring Bridgeport’s famous Frisbee Pie Company and the company’s iconic pie tin, which is considered the inspiration for the Wham-O toy company’s Frisbee, one of the most successful and popular recreational sports items in American history. The festival, held in Seaside and Beardsley parks, featured events and games such as pie-eating contests, Frisbee golf and other activities.
At one point in her tenure as the head of the historical collections, an ill-conceived cost-cutting effort threatened to do away with Mary’s job. When the threat of her possible layoff became public, however, an immediate outcry from her many friends and patrons whom she had aided over the years, put a quick end to the idea.
On her retirement from the library in April 2015, then-Mayor Bill Finch proclaimed April 10 “Mary Witkowski Day” in Bridgeport.
A memorial gathering for Mary will be held at a date to be announced. For service detail updates or to sign her online guest registry, please visit www.LarsonFH.com