Aug. 17, 1924 – Aug. 24, 2014
NIAGARA FALLS – John Prozeralik, owner of John’s Flaming Hearth restaurant and more than a dozen other local businesses, died Sunday in Mount St. Mary’s Hospital, Lewiston, after a short illness. He was 90.
Born in Nanticoke, Pa., he began working in the eighth grade to support his mother and nine brothers and sisters after his father died in a coal mining accident.
A standout baseball player as a teen, he played semi-pro ball in the Wyoming Valley League and was signed by the Brooklyn Dodgers as a catcher, but his baseball career was interrupted by World War II. He enlisted in the Army and was wounded in the South Pacific. He received the Bronze Star and the Purple Heart.
Returning from service, he came to Niagara Falls as a catcher with the Niagara Falls team in the Middle Atlantic League, playing under the name of John Prozer. He found work at DuPont as a bricklayer, played on the plant’s team and later worked in construction.
In 1954, Mr. Prozeralik bought Swiezy’s Grove on Military Road and received one of the first Small Business Administration loans in 1965 to expand it to 450 seats. His staff grew from five in 1962 to 112 in 1966. John’s Flaming Hearth featured its own bakery, butcher shop and laundry for all the linen tablecloths and napkins.
Noted for its steaks and its pumpkin ice cream pie, the restaurant became famous worldwide and attracted dignitaries and celebrities. Soviet Premier Alexei Kosygin visited in June 1967 following his summit meeting in Glassboro, N.J., with President Lyndon B. Johnson.
In the 1970s and 1980s, Mr. Prozeralik went on to operate several other businesses, including Frontier Beef, Compass Leasing, RKR Dial-A-Phone, the Hotel Niagara; the Quality Inn Intown, the United Office Building, Meadow Drive Apartments, Bison Electric, McCabe Electric, Harding’s Restaurant, five Stuckey’s restaurants and John’s Flaming Hearth in Lackawanna and the Engine House in Batavia.
He realized a longtime dream in 1982 with the establishment of Air Niagara, which provided low-price flights from Niagara Falls International Airport to Newark, N.J., in rainbow-colored jets. The company was sold a year later, and his other holdings diminished in the 1990s.
He closed his flagship restaurant in 2006 but helped open another short-lived restaurant across the street that used the name.
Known for his dedication to his work, friends said he rarely took time off and had a cot to sleep on in the kitchen of John’s Flaming Hearth.
In the 1980s, he won what was then the largest libel verdict in state history, an $18.5 million judgment against Capital Cities Communications, former owner of WKBW TV and radio, for broadcasts that erroneously said he had ties to organized crime. The judgment later was reduced on appeal.
He was named New York State Small Businessman of the Year in 1966 and received numerous other awards. He was to be honored Wednesday at a Spirit of Niagara Award dinner.
Gov. Hugh Carey appointed him to the State Board of Tourism in 1977. He was president and later board chairman of the Niagara Falls Pirates baseball team in the New York-Penn League.
Survivors include two brothers, Nicholas and Fred; and two sisters, Mary Koplun and Eva Shalayda.
A memorial service will be arranged.
– Dale Anderson