JOHNSTOWN — Johnstown native William Michael Pollak, who passed away July 15, left a lasting memory in the area he grew up, friends and officials said.
Pollak, who was 87, was also known as Fox, Prof, Panda, Coach, Curator and Mayor, according to his obituary, and his legacy will be his philanthropic, educational and civil service work.
Pollak graduated from the high school in 1953 — a football and basketball player, and track runner. He went on to St. Lawrence University in Canton for a year, before entering the U.S. Army for two, then returning to his studies closer to home at the University at Albany, where he eventually received both his bachelor’s and master’s degrees.
Then came his tenure as a social studies teacher in Cobleskill, where he lived with his wife Winifred and daughter Susan, before heading home to Johnstown in 1964, where he continued teaching social studies then served in public office as mayor and a member of the Fulton County Board of Supervisors
He spent 32 years molding young minds at his alma mater. And many area residents and officials still recall sitting in his class, including current Johnstown school board President David D’Amore who remembers his old teacher planning trips to New York City.
“It really was an eye-opening experience and ended up kind of being the trigger point for my own fascination with New York City and cities in general,” D’Amore said. “As an architect, that had a formative influence on my career choice.”
Pollak was also very well-known for what he deemed “brain food” — reading material like magazines and newspapers, D’Amore said.
“Anything to read that might educate yourself about an issue,” D’Amore said.
He recalled moving back to the city around 20 years ago, at which point Pollak began stopping by the house with some “brain food.”
Current Johnstown Mayor Amy Praught also had Pollak as a teacher and he would become a mentor, as a previous mayor elected in 1997. Praught recalled how Pollak instilled in her a love for newspapers.
“When I worked for the chamber of commerce, and when I joined the council back in 2019, he would always make sure I got stacks of newspapers and magazines and he would call it brain food,” she said. “He would always say, ‘Don’t forget to read your brain food, that’s how you learn things.’”
Praught also said Pollak was a mayor of the people.
“He always wanted a clean and beautiful city and he always worked hard for that for the residents of the city,” she said. “He’s a wonderful man.”
Local real estate agent and Johnstown alum Bradley Yerdon called Pollak a go-getter.
“When he was mayor, he wouldn’t sit back and do the bare minimum, he was out on the streets picking litter up,” he said. “He went way above and beyond what most people would do no matter what position he was in.”
Although Yerdon didn’t have Pollak as a teacher, he said Pollak was just the kind of person you came to know living in Johnstown. He said he and Pollak talked a lot on the phone. He said Pollak kept a list of people’s names on a piece of a cardboard box next to the recliner in the nursing home he was in and would call people to ask them how they were doing or if they needed anything.
“He was bigger than life,” Yerdon said. “I’ve never seen somebody care so much about their community and trying to help others advance.”
That’s how Fulton County Administrative Officer Jon Stead remembered him, too.
“He was known as a strong advocate for any issue he believed in,” Stead said. “He certainly wasn’t afraid to speak his mind.”
That passion lasted beyond his three terms on the Board of Supervisors, Stead said, remembering how Pollak would call him up to express his feelings on how the county was handling things or pass along newspapers so people could stay up on current events.
“He was really a voice of the people,” Stead said.
Pollak was instrumental in getting the Johnstown School Museum in the White House Building at Knox Field, and was a visionary for showcasing the district, according to his obituary.
The museum was recently renamed in his honor.
“I think it’s going to be a lasting mark of his legacy for generations to come,” D’Amore said.
But his philanthropic work didn’t end there, as Pollak was known for donating to many community organizations.
“He always put his money where his mouth was,” D’Amore said. “He was not shy about that and he expected everybody to do the same.”
Pollak is survived by his children Susan (William) Kowalski, Dana & Gail Grove (in law), William & Anne Grove (in law), step grandchildren James and Michael Hayner, along with his nieces and nephews. He was predeceased by Winifred, who died in 2021, his son Michael in 2009 and his daughter-in-law Leslie in 2016.
Services for Pollak will be next Thursday, July 27 at 5 p.m. at the First Presbyterian Church, 37 South Market St., Visitation for family and friends will be held prior to services, starting at 3 p.m.
In lieu of flowers, donations are encouraged to the Johnstown Public Library or to the organization you prefer, according to his obituary.
Reporter Shenandoah Briere can be reached at [email protected]. Follow her on Twitter @ByBriere.