Whenever John Kopczynski contemplates the legendary star over Bethlehem, or sees one over a manger scene, he's transported back in time to 1945 and his encounter with the miracle of human kindness.
Kopczynski, 82, a nationally known inventor and chairman of North Tonawanda-based Ascension Industries, grew up with a confident spirit instilled in him early on by his skilled-technician father and by his mother, who was a charwoman, and later -- following her own star -- a delicatessen owner.
In his youth, Kopczynski had his buddies working for him, delivering newspapers around town, including The Buffalo Evening News. Today, he credits that early business enterprise as instrumental in developing the business acumen that has made him one of Niagara County's most successful industrialists.
Years later, after he left Rochester Institute of Technology on his way to a decorated career as a manufacturing engineer and holder of more than 80 patents, he believed there was nothing he couldn't do.
"I felt I could lick the world," Kopczynski said. "I had lots of confidence."
After World War II ended in Europe, Kopczynski, who at age 24 was chief tool engineer at Bell Aircraft's Quality Control Division, became chief manufacturing engineer at an Olean plant that was manufacturing rocket fuses.
T Things were going well ffor Kopczynski, his wife and 2-year-old son, Jack, when the family set out for Olean one cold winter evening after visiting in North Tonawanda. Twenty-five miles from their destination, the car's electrical system went dead.
"We were in the middle of nowhere" Kopczynski recalls. "It was the first time in my life I was ever really scared."
Although he dreaded the idea of leaving his wife and son alone in the broken-down car, he knew he had to search for help. After about 30 minutes of wandering the rural, snow-swept terrain, he spotted a light on a hilltop.
"I likened that light to a star," says Kopczynski
The light led to a farmer's home, and there he was greeted by a man perhaps twice his age, dressed in nightclothes. "This man, this complete stranger, got dressed, picked my family up and drove us to Olean. He asked for nothing in return. It left an impression on me," Kopczynski said.
That gesture of selflessness, of doing for one's "neighbor," marked a turning point in the North Tonawanda native's life. He knew he had to do something, to give back.
"We're told to love thy neighbor. A light lit up on that one," says Kopczynski, in recalling the generosity and concern of the stranger on the hill that night. "Obviously, that man was influenced by God. He was loving his neighbor by helping me."
That unforgettable gesture nearly 55 years ago has stayed with Kopczynski, as if it happened yesterday. And it formed the inspiration behind Kopczynski's long-standing help of Haitian children, a cause to which he continues to donate tens of thousands of dollars.
His largess has also long benefited the blind and sight-impaired, and among countless awards displayed in his Sweeney Street home is one from the Lions Club International Foundation -- from which he received a fellowship -- "for dedicated humanitarian services."
He also formed the Kopczynski Family Foundation, which continues today in perpetuating the generosity and heartfelt caring that have been central to Kopczynski's personal mission in life.
"We have done all this because we were so thankful for how that farmer helped us that night," explains Kopczynski, who points out the metaphor of the starlike light shining from the farmer's hilltop home. And even the young child swaddled in blankets, awaiting his father's return to the stranded vehicle.
Every Christmas, Kopczynski explains, when he sees pictures of the star over Bethlehem or over a stable, he visualizes that farmer's lone light in the darkness -- a beacon of hope and help against a coal-black January sky.
"God's family was right there in that farmer. And much of the scene of Bethlehem is actually re-enacted every day, in the small, quiet gestures people still do for one another."