Horatio Alger novel. The son of Polish immigrants, he rose, seemingly overnight, from newspaper boy to one of the highest positions in Milwaukee government. Although part of his rise was attributable to fortunate timing, it was mostly due to hard, conscientious work and honesty. Those attributes kept him in office for 25 years, almost an eternity in politics. However, in the end, it was trying to live up to the "rags to riches" myth that may have been his undoing.
Louis Kotecki was from a family that was one of the earlier Polish families in Milwaukee. His parents, Albert Kotecki, and Barbara (Kurzawski) Kotecki were both from Koźmin. Whether they knew each other in Koźmin is not known because they were not married until July 14, 1872, when they were both living in Chicago. Reportedly, they only stayed in Chicago two years before moving to Milwaukee where Albert continued in his career as a tailor. (However, the census records for Louis Kotecki, born on July 8, 1880, consistently indicate that he was born in Illinois.)
Louis was one of twelve children born to Albert and Barbara. He was educated in Milwaukee, attending public and parochial schools and a private high school. He had an early drive to make something of himself. He started work at the age of 14 as a paperboy. At the age of 18, he enlisted into the Army and became a bugler during the Spanish-America War.
He began is political career in 1902 when he was elected as a Constable. In 1906, he was appointed as Justice of the Peace, a position which he held for the next six years.
The political climate in Milwaukee in 1912 was ideal for the advancement of an ambitious young man. The election of the Socialist Emil Seidel as mayor in 1910 had shocked the traditional parties, so much so that the Republics and Democrats came together to nominate a combined non-partisan slate of candidates. Louis Kotecki was lucky enough to chosen for the position of Comptroller, the city's chief financial officer. (In getting this nomination, he actually beat out his future father-in-law, Stephen Pozorski.) His ethnicity may have been a factor in being chosen for this position. For the 22 years preceding the 1912 election (beginning with Roman Czerwinski, Featured Profile #10) the post of Milwaukee City Comptroller had been almost constantly held by men of Polish extraction, so much so that the position became known as "the Polish Mayor." After the final polling, Kotecki's 43,506 votes won that election over the 29,701 garnered by the Socialist incumbent candidate, Carl P. Dietz.
Kotecki would not loose any of the next seven election. For the next, the next 21 years, he would serve Milwaukee as it's chief financial officer. To give you some perspective, during his time as Comptroller of Milwaukee, the country lived through the presidential terms of Taft, Wilson, Harding, Coolidge, and Hoover.
Through World War I, Women's Sufferage, Prohibition and the Roaring Twenties. Kotecki guided the Milwaukee finances earning a reputation as an efficient administrator who followed the rules and tried to put Milwaukee on a secure financial footing. According to the Milwaukee Journal, during Kotecki's tenure, many important laws effecting Milwaukee's financial condition were passed, including "the taxation readjustment law which placed the city on a cash basis in 1933: elimination of bond issues for city expenditures such as street paving, dredging and other recurring items; substitution of a direct tax when deemed advisable for any bond issue placed in the budget; levy of a tax to pay uncollected taxes, preventing an annual deficient from this cause, and the city amortization fund, designed to retire the city debt."
During this period, he also found time to woo and wed Harriet Pozorski and to father and nurture two daughters.
At the time of his election, Kotecki did not have any special education or experience with sophisticated financial dealings. However, he knew enough to employ competent subordinates and to let them do their jobs. One of these employees was William Wendt. Wendt had originally been appointed as a Clerk in the office in 1911 by Carl Dietz. His original appointment had been in violation of the civil service rules. But in the next year, he took the exam and easily passed. Kotecki made him chief clerk in 1914, and then appointed him Deputy Comptroller in 1919. They also became close friends.
Through Kotecki's wise financial management, Milwaukee was in reasonably good shape even when the Great Depression hit in 1929. Newspapers around the world praised Kotecki's management as proved by the fact that Milwaukee was still solvent when innumerable other cities were suffering severe financial distress.
However, the Great Depression wrecked havoc with Kotecki's personal finances - the Great Depression and the myth that had grown up about his rages to riches story. The problem was that people would come to him thinking that he was richer than he was. They would ask him to help them in their businesses, and Louis was loathe to turn them away. The end result was that when the Great Depression hit, Kotecki had much of his wealth tied up in community businesses. When those businesses failed, Kotecki lost all his investments. Worse, the people who had also lost money from those businesses came knocking on Kotecki's door, looking to have their losses made whole. Kotecki felt that, for the purposes of his reputation, he could not turn these people away, even if he was not legally responsible for the debt, so he did all he could to cover their losses as well.
He might have withstood all of this if his honesty and competency had not been called into question. In some years, the Milwaukee finances had been run so competently that the city's budget was actually in surplus. The common council directed the city treasurer, John I. Drew, to invest the surplus in federal bonds. All that was well in theory, but when the economy turned sour and money ran short, questions began to be raised. Why did John I. Drew do all his transactions through one bank, the Liberty State Bank? Why, when the city had to borrow money at 6% , did Mr Drews leave $160,000 on deposit at the Liberty State Bank when it was only earning 2 1/2%? As investigators dug deeper, they discovered even more troubling facts. Eventually, Drew, who had been the City Treasurer from 1916 to 1932, was indicted on embezzling $500,000 of the city funds. It was alleged that Drew conspired with Isaac J. Rosenberg, President of the Liberty State Bank, to skim money off the purchase of the bonds by making the bonds appear to have been more expensive then they actually were, and then pocketing the difference.
Although Kotecki was not implicated in the alleged scheme, he came under fire for not discovering it sooner. In vain, Kotecki argued that the city treasurer was an independent elected position, and that the city comptroller was not responsible for its oversight. He also argued that when the investigation began, it was his office that supplied much of the information to implicate Drews. These arguments did not persuade the grand jury and Kotecki was indicted for criminal malfeasance in failing to properly supervise the treasurer. Kotecki was arrested on March 6, 1933.
Although released on bail, Kotecki fell into his own, personal great depression. Not only were creditors hounding his every minute, but he felt keenly the loss or respect in the community and the damage to his reputation caused by the indictment. Moreover, the grand jury testimony of Wendt was perceived by Kotecki as being a stab in the back.
Saturday, July 8, 1933, was Kotecki's 53rd birthday. On previous birthdays, he had been surrounded by well-wishers and admirers. That day, he spent alone in his office, surrounded by his bills and his black thoughts. It must have seemed to Kotecki that there was only one way to relieve his mental distress.
Three days later he took action. In the middle of the afternoon on July 11th, Wendt was in his office. He had just picked up the phone to take a call when he noticed Kotecki in the room. Although Wendt did not see it, Kotecki raised the .38 caliber pistol in his hand and fired, striking Wendt in the head. Kotecki then turned and headed back to his own office. Before he got there, he had already put the gun to his own head and fired.
Although Wendt's wound was serious, he would recover and go on to become Comptroller. Kotecki did not die instantly. He lingered, unconscious, until the next morning when he died with his wife and children in attendance.
Investigators at the scene found several bills on Kotecki's desk. These were just a small sampling of the many bills that had hounded Kotecki over the last several months, if not years. One of the bills on Kotecki's desk was a chilling indication of how bad things had become for him. It was from the city waterworks department for the incredibly small amount of $1.76. Nevertheless, stamped on the bill was the dire warning:
Final notice - if not paid on or before July 7, your water will be turned off.
The indictment against Kotecki was cancelled within hours of his death. His widow, Harriet (Porzorski) Kotecki pushed hard for the trial of John Drews because she was sure the facts brought forward in that trial would prove her husband innocent. However, it was not to be. John Drews had been in frail health for some time; he had actually been arrested while in the hospital. His trial was repeatedly postponed because of his ill health. He eventually died of a heart attack in July, 1934 without ever having been brought to trial.
In October, 1934, a group of people gathered in Kosciuszko Park to unveil a plague commemorating the life of Louis M. Kotecki. Among them were city officials, relatives, and friends. Rev. Waclaw Kruszka gave a fitting tribute for the fallen man when he said,
Louis Kotecki may not have been a saint, but neither was he a criminal.
Therefore, we do not dishonor him as a criminal nor honor him as a saint,
but we do honor him as a good and faithful servant of the people.
Relation to Nearest Featured Profile: Michael Domachowski (Featured Profile #3) and Joseph Domachowski, (Featured Profile #5): No near relationship.
Path From Nearest Featured Profile: Michael and Joseph Domachowski > sister, Frances (Domachowski) [Grosz] Jagodzinski > second husband, John Jagodzinski (1) > mother, Rosalia (Sromalla) [Rybarczyk] Jagodzinksi > first husband, Paul Rybarczyk > brother, Franciscus Rybarczyk > son, Michael Rybarczyk > daughter, Angeline (Rybarczyk) Kotecki > husband, Adam Kotecki > brother, Louis M. Kotecki
"Career Men Prominent in the Services of the City," Milwaukee Journal, April 7, 1935, p. 7
"City Treasurer of Milwaukee in Larceny Charge," The Gettysburg Times, February 18, 1933, p. 3.
Conrad, Will C., Wilson, Kathleen, and Wilson, Dale, "Putting Public Good Above Party Label," an excerpt of their book, The Milwaukee Journal: the First Eighty Years," as published in the Milwaukee Journal on September 10, 1966, p. 6.
"Drew Owned Liberty Bank Stock in 1926," Milwaukee Sentinel, April 8, 1930, p. 12.
"Funeral Thursday for Mrs. Pozorski," Milwaukee Journal, September 30, 1930, p. 4
"John I. Drew is Dead After Heart Attack," Milwaukee Journal, July 18, 1934, p. 1
"Honor Kotecki with Plague," Milwaukee Sentinel, October 15, 1934, p. 5
"Kotecki Balks at Being 'Goat'", Milwaukee Journal, January 26, 1933, p.5
"Kotecki Called Too Generous," Milwaukee Journal, July 12, 1933, p. 2
"Kotecki Dead; Wendt Rallies Slightly," Milwaukee Journal, July 12, 1933, p.1
"Kotecki is Dying After Shooting Wendt, Self," Milwaukee Sentinel, July 12, 1933, p.1
"Kotecki, Wendt Shot in City Hall," Milwaukee Journal, July 11, 1933, p.1
"Life! - - - Death," Milwaukee Journal, July 12, 1933, p. 2
"Mrs. Kotecki Offers Protest," Milwaukee Journal, January 23, 1936, p. 13.