The love story of Mary Louise Ernest and Joseph Mikolajczak continues and gets stronger, every time the 73-year-old man tells the story of the first time she called him in 1962, or about his favorite meal of Polish sausage, beans and home fries she made for him, or their special handshake.
Although Marylou died April 4, three months after her 68th birthday, Mikolajczak went through with his plan of showing his love for her by purchasing a billboard along the Niagara Thruway. But instead of marking their golden wedding anniversary, the digital billboard pays homage to the 68 years of her life as well as their marriage in St. Patrick’s Catholic Church at Seneca and Emslie streets.
The billboard, which says “Marylou Mick Happy 50th Anniversary 1944-2013 I will love you forever – Joe,” flashes for about 10 seconds, then rotates back about 40 seconds later. It has two photos of her, and is located between the Seneca and Clinton streets exits on southbound I-190.
Mikolajczak’s friends always called him Joe Mick, and when he married his wife, she became Marylou Mick. They lived in the Valley after buying a home there in 1970.
Mikolajczak has driven that stretch of 55 mph road every day for two weeks, pulling over to look at the billboard.
“I look at it four to five times, then I pull out,” he said. “This is not about me. It was my way of making her happy.”
He planned the surprise for her about two years ago. She had surgery seven years ago, and had declined since then. The last time Marylou went to the hospital, Mikolajczak told her about his plans for their 50th anniversary.
“She turned around looked at me and told me I was nuts,” he recalled.
The couple knew one another growing up, but each was going with someone else in 1962 when she called him on the telephone at Frank’s Tavern at the corner of Minton and Smith streets. He got a lot of ribbing from his buddies, but soon the two were inseparable. They married a year and a half later, and had four children
He did shift work at the mills, and she worked days at Seneca Warehouse, running cutting machines for jewelry cases. Later she quit her job and he took as much overtime as he could to make ends meet.
They talked throughout their married life, and he credits her with “putting up with someone as moody as me.” Each of their fathers ran off when they were children, but despite that, or perhaps because of it, they were determined to have a loving home.
“You gotta work at it,” he said, “and she was well worth working at it. She was a woman who gave of herself before she thought of herself.”
Their love story has gone around the world via the Internet after Channel 2 featured the billboard in a newscast and it was picked up by the Huffington Post.
“I say good for her,” Mikolajczak said. “If 500,000 see it, and if 10 remember Marylou Mick, I’ll be happy for her.”
Mikolajczak has done a lot of talking about his wife since the billboard went up, but her death still feels “like my heart got ripped out,” he said.
The sign will come down Sunday. Mikolajczak had planned to drive his wife along the Thruway and pull off to the side of the road to show it to her.
“If she was alive today and saw that sign, she wouldn’t say anything,” he said, “but I’d be eating sausage and beans for a week.”