When Robert “BobKat” Nowak took a job as athletic director at the Town Boys Club in Riverside in 1969, his intent was to work for a year maybe two before chasing his dream of becoming a high school fitness instructor.
But it didn’t take long for this lanky young man with the tough-love approach to strike a chord with his young charges, and what started as a temporary job evolved into a lifelong passion.
Today he is 66, and brimming with an energy as mighty as the Niagara River that flows across the street from his current clubhouse on Riverdale Avenue, one of two locations where Nowak has worked during a career that spans 45 years.
On a day set aside to honor fathers, it might be appropriate to recognize a man who has been a father figure to thousands of children needing everything from shoes to bus fare to a father’s stern but loving guidance. Nowak has been all of that to many children who often did not have a father or a father who was not often present.
“There are a lot of kids whose fathers were not around,” said alum Daryle Piotrowski of North Tonawanda. “Bob might be the one male adult in their lives. You’d think his patience would run out at some point, and it just does not.”
Club kids do not forget. A steady pipeline feeds the Town Boys & Girls Club but on the other end, there is a long line of alumni eager to acknowledge the man who guided them through some tough early times.
Nowak spent 28 years as director of the club at Shaffer Village Apartments, a low-income housing project. It was there that people began to take notice of this man whose sharp eyes looked out for kids that needed guidance, attention and sometimes some tough love, too.
“Bob always kept me on the straight and narrow,” said David Baer, the youngest of eight children in a family that lived in public housing in Riverside. “He would take us snowmobiling, hunting. He tried to get us involved in the outdoors. That’s what people don’t know; Bob wasn’t just the club director, he was a father to a lot of us kids.”
Some of those influences made lasting impressions. Baer, now 43, lives in the rural community of Concord, a long way from the Riverside public housing project.
Like many fathers who care for their children, Nowak made sure his club kids experienced the social milestones that define young lives. When his club kids could not afford to attend the prom, Nowak made sure they did.
“He paid for a limo or he paid for a dress or gave us money to rent a tuxedo,” Baer recalled. “Bob would make agreements with the kids: If they stayed in school and did their homework he would reward them.”
That respect and devotion stayed with the kids as they grew older, for both boys and girls.
When one club girl grew into a young woman and was about to be married, she asked Nowak to walk her down the aisle. His response was immediate.
“First of all, it’s an honor because of the circumstances she had at home with the relationship with her father,” Nowak recalled. “He used to whack her around. It was so bad, she would not even consider asking him. She asked me.”
Club kids range in age from 6 to 17. The attendance at Nowak’s Town Clubhouse has grown steadily. Last year, 805 youngsters took advantage of the academic, recreation and nutrition programs offered. This year, Nowak expects more than 1,000 kids to attend his sprawling club.
Nowak’s philosophy may be a little old school.
“You have to be stern but you have to be forgiving because a lot of places just throw the kids out,” Nowak said sitting in his clubhouse office on Riverdale. “I ask, ‘Throw them out to where?’ If they had super-duper moms and dads or homes, I’d say: ‘Get out for the day.’
“But there’s nowhere for many of them to go, so I make them clean, mop. They hate it. I make them sit in the corner. They hate that, too. Then I tell them their option: Either do what I say or they’re out. They’ll sit. This is their home. They don’t want to be thrown out.”
Nowak has an easy way with his kids. He said he loves each of the 220 boys and girls who every weekday take advantage of the same programs that over the years have enriched thousands of Western New York youth.
“The kids here depend on me,” Nowak said, stopping the conversation to answer a question from a persistent 6-year-old who wanted to go outside and play. “If they need something, I give it to them – money, bus fare – whatever it takes.”
Nowak rarely refuses a request. A widower for nearly 30 years, he spends at least eight hours a day at the clubhouse, commuting from his home in Cheektowaga. He never remarried, he explained, but he is engaged.
“I fish. I hunt. I love life,” he said. “I need a partner – always did – for the cabin, the boat. It’s nice to have somebody. I’m used to having people around.”
He said his daughter Nicole, who is 41, and granddaughter Kathleen live in the area and visit him often at the clubhouse. Spending so much time with youth, Nowak maintained, influenced how he deals with adults.
“I have a tendency to tell people what to do,” he admitted. “I found out at age 50 I needed a switch to turn this job off. I used to take kids home with me. You do that today, you get arrested. The rules have changed. These kids hug me everyday. They need it today just like all my other kids.”
Nowak is now working with a third generation of youth and his Town Boys & Girls Club serves more teens per capita than any other Boys & Girls Club in New York State, said Robert O’Brocta, director of operations for the Northtowns Boys & Girls Clubs.
He doesn’t do it alone, and he gives a lot of credit to his staff and alumni.
“Say I need something right now – plumber, electrician, hitman – you name it, I got it,” Nowak said. “If I called them now, they’d be here. I keep track of them on Facebook. I just met with someone I raised here. He’s a vice president at a real estate company. He gave us a ton of games, whatever we need. They never forget where they grew up. And if they do forget, I remind them.”
Piotrowski doesn’t need a reminder.
Each year, the 46-year-old alum runs a golf tournament in memory of his brother, and the proceeds – from $2,500 to $3,000 – are donated to the club.
“Bob has a way of making everyone feel like they belong,” said Piotrowski, who recalled Nowak’s unwavering ability to motivate youth.
“If we were out of line, he’d put us on the stairs. Forty years later, he still sends kids to the stairs,” Piotrowski said. “Then he’d ask: ‘Did you learn your lesson yet. Are you going to be good?’”
Sometimes kids get into fights. Nowak’s remedy?
A trip to the “mat room.”
“If two kids were getting into a scuffle, they were sent to the ‘mat room,’ a padded room in the club,” said Scott Henderson, 50. “Bob would put both boys in boxing gloves, and that was it. As soon as a punch was landed or a kid took a knee, the fight was over. We all knew the rules.”
The “talking stick” was another tool Nowak used to ensure order. He used it when addressing a group.
“Those who held the talking stick could talk,” said John Dehn Jr. “It’s how Bob controlled a large group of kids.”
Dehn, who is 49, grew up in the Schaffer Village projects, where the kids were a challenge to control.
“You did what you had to do to gain respect,” Dehn recalled. “You had to earn your way in, but when BobKat was around, everyone was equal. He was your friend. He was your father, and he ran a tight ship.”
Nowak also tried to break through to some of the more difficult kids.
“My specialty was the hard nuts,” Nowak acknowledged. “I just seem to have a way with the older kids.”
Today’s teens present a different kind of challenge, Nowak noted.
“There are good kids, believe me,” he said. “But have kids gotten better than they were 30, 40 years ago? No. They’re more disrespectful, nasty. Plus, look what we are competing with: Nintendo, PlayStation, cellphones. To entertain these kids, you better be better than the phone.”
As a neighborhood, Riverside has also taken a turn for the worse, Nowak believed.
“There are drug dealers on every corner – Tonawanda, Ontario,” he said. “The embarrassing part is, I know them all because they came through here over the years. They’re polite to me. They love me but they’re dealers. Is it dangerous here by the river? Absolutely. I tell my friends who still live here – some of the older ones – be careful.”
Among club directors, Nowak is legendary, according to O’Brocta.
“It’s rare for someone to last that long because of the energy level required for that job,” O’Brocta said. “As much as he can be old-school, he is a nurturer when he has to be. He’s the only guy who has been around that long. It almost seems like his energy level is picking up as he grows older. I don’t see him even thinking of retirement, he just loves what he’s doing so much. The kids keep him going.”