Former Orchard Lake official died July 19 after complications from COVID-19
ORCHARD LAKE, Mich. — From Ford factory floors to the young men who emulated him at St. Mary’s Prep to executives and clergy who needed his counsel, Tony Koterba always inspired others.
His steady strength, confidence, and vision transformed boys into men, girls into women, and helped turn stubborn fat-heads into fathers and father figures. Each knew him to be a fighter and righteous leader.
Nearly five years after he left his post as Orchard Lake’s first and only “non-priest” to serve as vice-chancellor overseeing the Polish Seminary, high school, and Polish Mission, the core members of his leadership team still texted him regularly in a group text thread, counting on him to “chime in.”
But in June, his reassuring messages stopped as the fighter took on his final struggle against ventilators, weight loss, and surgeries. He died July 19 after a hard-fought battle against COVID-19 and related complications.
Friend and foe alike respected him, and all assembled to honor him and his family in his old stomping grounds of Livonia, Michigan.
Fighting evil and teaching all who knew him: A man for others
They remembered a man who was always on the move, ready to serve and lead simultaneously. He also took the extra moments to pick up even the tiniest piece of garbage or debris that might find its way onto a mostly spotless campus any time he walked across the more than 100-acre Orchard Lake complex.
Every time evil or anything out of order arose, he consistently fought to do the right thing.
He didn’t just go to Church and sit as many do: he stood in the back, held his Rosary in his hand, silently praying added extra prayers to complement the Mass going on around him. He got up every day reviewing a long list of people, both living and dead, that he prayed for by name, giving each special attention on their birthdays and the anniversaries of their deaths.
As St. Padre Pio said of the Rosary, “Bring me my weapon!” Tony fought hard, praying his prayers, but he also faced and told the truth to all power from priests to plant managers to police, calling them out if they were ever “lazy” or failing to do their duty.
In the days when Livonia was the whitest city in America with a population of more than 100,000 right next to Detroit, the largest majority-black city in the nation, he challenged and put a stop to police pulling over African Americans for “driving while black.”
The staunch conservative who listened to Rush Limbaugh regularly would later proudly adopt two black sons, who made their proud papa beam by telling others, “We’re Polish, just like our dad.” But, when he became a grandfather, his greatest joy was remembering his infant grandson recognized his Dziadzia the moment their eyes met.
How to have a meaningful life: Devote yourself to others
Koterba knew “the way to get meaning into your life is to devote yourself to others, devote yourself to the community around you, create something that gives you purpose and meaning,” Father Tim Whalen, the former Orchard Lake chancellor, recalled.
Whalen called Koterba “a man who truly loved to be around people and to share life and love with them at every opportunity, someone who truly lived his life to the fullest, a man of God. He was not just a nice guy. He was a leader. He was a servant leader who walked humbly with his God. Whether he was at Ford or Hollingsworth Logistics, you could always count on him to take care of his people.”
At Orchard Lake, Whalen said the first lay vice-chancellor chaired Founders Day and the Prep auction and doubled and tripled returns “because everyone loved to work with him.”
As a church usher, eucharistic minister, and president of Western Golf and Country Club (which he quickly rebuilt after the main buildings were leveled by fire in 2018), he was a great servant leader to family and friends.
“Do you believe this? Do you believe Tony’s real-life has not ended, just changed? That Tony’s real life is just beginning?” Whalen asked.
Whalen, a St. Mary’s Prep alumnus (class of 1970) like Koterba (class of 1968), recalled a classmate and high school wrestler who shared the experience of feeling a back broken and full of blood, falling into the darkness like someone turned the lights out.
Whalen recalled he “heard a voice say ‘it’s OK, it’s all right,’ and when he heard this voice, he felt an incredible feeling, like floating in peace. No concept of time. He just enjoyed floating. Then the voice said, ‘Not yet,’ and from that point, he would never be afraid to die or feel sorry for anyone who did die.”
Whalen said it was “almost like being back in the womb waiting to be born into new life. In the words of Jesus, ‘each one needs to be born again to eternal life.’ We are not here to mourn but to celebrate the rebirth of someone we loved and the beginning of a new and greater life.”
A personal example of the Koterba way
In 2018, following the Koterba method, we more than doubled attendance at a charity gala, but the staff was slammed as the massive crowd of more than 450 poured through the doors all at once.
As a guest, Tony was offered a seat of honor, but he and Kathy (the great lady who inspired him and his late wife Cathy to adopt two sons) quickly took over the check-in process and smoothly guided everyone to their seats.
There are fewer “Tony photos” than most would expect because he constantly volunteered to “be the bartender,” serving others, helping them all one-to-one, chasing the one lost sheep most in need rather than mingling or drawing attention an inordinate amount of attention to himself.
The Rev. Gregory Gibbons, the pastor of Lola Park Evangelical Lutheran Church, said, “He was one of those people who would give you a firm handshake, and he would talk to you.”
“He would talk with you, and he would have your attention,” Gibbons said. “He wasn’t playing with his phone looking for something else. No matter who you were, no matter what you needed, Tony would be there. All of us have been blessed by knowing Tony Koterba.”
Gibbons added, “You talk about Tuesdays with Morrie? I had Tuesdays with Tony. Tony was a man who when he said ‘I’ll pray for you?’ He did.”
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