A jersey retirement ceremony at the high school level is a rarity, but so are men like 2007 Bartlett graduate Lenny Gulczynski.
His alma mater honored the late Pfc. Gulczynski on Thursday by retiring his No. 15 prior to the boys volleyball match against the Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy, a contest dominated by Lenny's 6-foot-5½ "little" brother, Mike, Jr.
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Himself a 6-5 middle hitter, Lenny Gulczynski was one of the top boys volleyball players to ever compete for Bartlett. The Carol Stream native also played football, but volleyball became his best sport once he discovered it as a high school freshman. Lenny went on to play club volleyball at Sports Performance and was proud to eventually earn an offer from a Division-II college in upstate New York, said his father, Mike, Sr.
However, Lenny didn't give college volleyball much more than a passing thought. He was already focused on a different path. Upon graduation he immediately followed in the family tradition and joined the Army, just like his father and his grandfather Leonard before him.
"It was something he wanted to do," Mike, Sr., said. "He was so proud to wear the uniform, so proud to wear the uniform. I was very proud of him and I know my father was very proud of him for carrying on the family tradition."
On June 7, 2007, Lenny began basic training at Fort Leonard Wood in Missouri, the same location where his father and grandfather went through basic.
In November of 2007, he was sent to Fort Lewis, Washington, where he joined the 610th Engineer Support Company, 14th Engineer Battalion, 55th Engineer Brigade. Lenny wanted to be an army engineer like his grandfather.
"I always told him about engineers and he took it to heart," Leonard Gulczynski said. "I said engineers is a good outfit: you build things, you blow them up and you replace. It's never dull."
Lenny was later deployed to Iraq, where he helped rebuild the country's postwar infrastructure. He was proud of the work. He told his father on the phone he wished people could see all the good things the Army engineers were doing. Unfortunately, he didn't get to see the project to completion.
Lenny was riding atop an Army Humvee in Baghdad on Sept. 17, 2008, when it collided head-on with a civilian vehicle. He was thrown from the Humvee and fatally injured. He died in the helicopter while being flown to the hospital.
Bartlett High has never forgotten Lenny. A memorial plaque with his picture owns a prominent place on a column at the school's main entrance. Alongside is a similar remembrance of Matthew Martinek, a Bartlett graduate killed in action in Afghanistan in 2009. Inside the school's gymnasium is another reminder: a mural of dogtags emblazoned with the initials and graduation years of both fallen soldiers.
Thursday's jersey retirement held special meaning because it was a reminder to the Gulczynski family that the Bartlett community will never forget a young man who lost his life while serving his country.
"It meant a lot to me because that number is very important," said Lenny's mother, Jackie Gulczynski. "He played with No. 15 and then my daughter Jacki, freshman year playing softball came home with 15 and said, 'Look what I got! I'm going to carry on the tradition.' And now Mike has carried on the tradition of 15. Fifteen at Bartlett High School means the Gulczynski kids, especially Lenny." "It is an honor to wear 15," said Mike, Jr., who will continue to sport the number. "I wear it because of him. He's my inspiration. He's why I do what I do. I wear it to make him proud."
No doubt Lenny Gulczynski would be proud of what his siblings have accomplished in recent years. Jacki starred in three sports at Bartlett and just completed her third season with the University of Wisconsin women's basketball team. She is a civil engineering major.
Mike, Jr. began playing volleyball as a 12-year old and has developed into an even stronger player than Lenny. Mike, Jr., committed last June to play volleyball at Loyola-Chicago, currently the top-ranked team in NCAA Division I.
But Thursday was all about remembering Lenny. In addition to the multiple family members on hand, the crowd was populated with supporters ranging from his former volleyball teammates to his sophomore-year homecoming date. Hugs were given liberally as those who loved Lenny came together to remember him while finding comfort in each other.
"It was great here today to see all the people who came out to support him and his family," said Mike, Sr. "All the students that he played with came. I thought that was a really nice thing.
"One of the things for us and for a lot of Gold Star families who have lost soldiers is that people will remember; Don't forget. This is really important for us that he is not forgotten."
Thanks to Thursday's gesture by Bartlett, Lenny will continue to be remembered for generations to come.