By Gediminas Indreika.
West of Alytus, between the Aniškis forest and Luksnėnu lake, lies the village of Kurnėnai. In the 1880s Laurynas (Laurent) Radziukynas trekked 8 kilometers daily to the nearest school in Miroslavas, a hardship that would leave an indelible impression in the boy’s mind. In 1934, as a successful entrepreneur in Chicago, Radziukynas gave back to his native village. He would sponsor the establishment of a modern American-style elementary school in Kurnėnai. He would ensure that the children of Kurnėnai could get an education without enduring what he had in his youth.
Laurynas V. Radziukynas was born in Kurnėnai on April 22, 1881 to Ieva Kriaučiūnaitė and Vincas Radziukynas, a family of peasant farmers. Since Laurynas was a good student, his uncle Juozas convinced his parents to send him to a high school in Alytus. From there he enrolled in the Warsaw Institute of Technology, receiving a degree in Chemical Engineering. After graduating he worked at the Lowicz Chemical works in Warsaw.
In 1904 Radziukynas emigrated to the United States, settling in Chicago. He did not socialize very much; instead of entertainment he spent his evenings at the public library studying technical subjects. Around 1909 he got a position as chemist and superintendent at the Sandoval Zinc Co. in Sandoval, IL. Radziukynas invented an economical way to produce zinc chloride by recycling the byproducts of galvanized metal. Zinc chloride was utilized by the railroad industry to prevent railroad ties from rotting. The Sandoval Zinc Co. was the first company to mass produce this compound. In 1913 he met Dr. Jonas Basanavičius, who was fundraising in Chicago for the Lithuanian Sciences Society (Lietuvių Mokslo draugija) in Vilnius. He contributed $100 to the society.
Around the World in 60 Months
In 1915 Radziukynas noticed a classified ad in a mining trade journal, seeking a metallurgist for the Arthur McGee Co. in Cleveland. The company had subcontracted with a British company – the Russo-Asiatic Co. Limited, to build hopper cars for the coal and zinc mining industry in Russia. He interviewed at the company’s offices in
London. He was offered lucrative wages and an opportunity to utilize his Russian language skills in the position of chief metallurgist. He travelled to St. Petersburg in August 1915. From there he continued to Omsk, Russia to work as manager of a lead-zinc mine east of the Ural Mountains.
It is not known if Radziukynas visited Lithuania during the final days of the War. Bolshevik forces took over Omsk in 1919. It is probable that due to hostile Bolshevik terror activity in Russia he took the Trans-Siberian Railway to Manchuria. According to his son Andrew, in 1920 he left Russia, travelled across China and visited Shanghai. In November 1921 Laurent crossed the Pacific Ocean on the vessel Fushimi Maru, arriving in Seattle, WA on December 16. He settled in Chicago and married Elena Petrulis, an earlier immigrant from Lithuania, in 1922.
The Power of Ancient Incense
In 1922 Radziukynas found employment at the Hindu Incense Mfg. Co. in Chicago, which was on the verge of bankruptcy. Noting his expertise in chemistry, the Indian owners offered him a laboratory research position. Radziukynas developed a new method of treating charcoal and a pressure molding process to produce incense cones.
Within one year Radziukynas purchased the Hindu Incense Co. from the bank and became its president. The company contracted with S.S. Kresge Co. (the predecessor of K Mart) to sell the Rama brand of incense cones exclusively at their stores. The company also manufactured incense burners. The company prospered and expanded its licensed brands of incense Rani, Rajah and Mystic to be sold at Woolworth’s and other five and dime stores. The Hindu Incense Co. used hundreds of pounds of frankincense every year in the manufacture of its product. Frankincense resin, better known by its botanical name olibanum, has a straw yellow color, slightly more opaque than amber. It was valued by ancient peoples for use in embalming as well as for altar offerings.
While the majority of the company’s clientele purchased incense to add an exotic aromatic ambience to their homes, others were buying it for more practical reasons such as healing and attracting love. A Hindu Incense advertisement in the magazine Modern Screen stated: “The alluring fragrance of Rajah Hindu incense adds an air of charm to your personality and surroundings…
Try it today and be delighted.” The most popular fragrances were sandalwood, apple blossom, wisteria, jasmine and pine. Radziukynas designed and received a patent for a cardboard incense box, his name on the patent was listed as “Laurent Radkus.”
In 1929 Radziukynas became an American citizen, and changed his last name to Radkins. He purchased a single-family house in the Chatham neighborhood on the South side of Chicago. His wife Helen was employed as a registered nurse at Cook County Hospital. They raised two sons, Laurent Jr. and Andrew Radkins. Laurent Jr. became a doctor of medicine.
The Legendary Kurnėnai School
When the Great Depression hit the United States in the 1930s, Radziukynas visited Lithuania. He learned that there still was no elementary school in his native village. He promised to finance the construction of a modern school in Kurnėnai, utilizing materials manufactured in the United States and shipped to Lithuania. He hired American architect Frank Medziukas to design a unique building, one that would incorporate radiator heating with water sourced from an artesian well on the site. Radziukynas submitted the blueprints (drawn in English) and a Lithuanian summary of them to the Alytus municipality for approval.
Radziukynas initially contributed 160,000 litai ($8,000) for the construction of the school plus the cost of shipping. The ground-breaking took place in the spring of 1934. The materials – windows, doors, desks, lighting fixtures, blackboards, plumbing, toilets, radiators etc., were all packed into containers and shipped from New York to the port of Klaipėda. Upon arrival the materials were loaded on rail cars and shipped to Alytus. From there the cargo was moved on horse-drawn flatbed trucks to Kurnėnai. The clay-tile roof and bricks were manufactured in Lithuania.
The architecture of the Kurnėnai school evoked a Danish-style structure. Nestled in a wooded area, the locals said that it resembles a church. The tower concealed a utilitarian water tank. On the facade of the tower was a ceramic Vytis mosaic designed by the artist Vytautas Brazdžius. A sailboat-shaped weather vane, a metaphor of Radziukynas’ voyages, topped off the tower.
A wind turbine powered generating station was constructed on the school grounds. Water from an artesian well was pumped to the reservoir located in the tower. The construction of the school was delayed because it took longer than expected to drill the 100 meter depth to reach the aquifer. Surprisingly, the H2O in the aquifer was not ordinary water, but mineral water! The construction was done by skilled local men from Balkūnai. Alytus engineer Stasys Taškūnas supervised the construction.
The Grand Opening
The Kurnėnai school consisted of two large classrooms on the first floor, a library and bathrooms. The second floor contained two additional classrooms, dormitories for teachers, a kitchen and a dining room. A gymnasium with shiny hardwood floors and a buffet lunchroom was located on the lower level or basement. The school opened in September, 1936 with a five grade curriculum. There were 51 students enrolled the charter year. The school principal, Motiejus Ražanskas, was a botanist who landscaped the campus with trees and gardens. The geography teacher was Vincas Kairys.
The Radziukynas family visited Lithuania in the summer of 1936. Algis Taškūnas, who was 7 years old at the time, recalls that Radziukynas drove an American car and offered rides to the children of Kurnėnai. Algis played with his peers Laurent Jr. and Andrew Radkins, who were visiting Lithuania the first time and were having fun, enjoying the beauty of the Birštonas resort.
The Kurnėnai School in the Soviet Period
During the Soviet occupation the Kurnėnai school became a seven grade primary school. In 1968 it employed nine teachers. Antanina Urmanavičienė was the principal. A small nature museum exhibiting stuffed animals and birds was founded by science teacher Aldona Miliuvienė on the campus. Professor Elena Špokienė recalls: “Scientific news, educational materials and the displays were in harmony at the museum. My wish is that the museum would be enriched with more wonderful exhibits.”
The teachers were not permitted to talk about Radziukynas or the history of the school to their students. The Vytis, which had once adorned the tower, was covered with a layer of stucco. In 1986, the local Communist party comittee permitted a 50th anniversary ceremony of the school on the condition that the name of L. Radziukynas not be mentioned. But they could not suppress the legend of the school’s history. The poet Jurgis Kunčinas composed verses about Kurnėnai; one line stated: “Who will be able to thank you, dear Radziukynas, for the brilliant light that shines on us, through time and through the bloody wounds of the War?” After Lithuania’s independence was restored in 1990, the school was named in honor of Radziukynas.
The Closing and a Vision to Revive the School
The Kurnėnai school closed in 2008 due to low enrollment. Having endured two periods of foreign occupation, the school was now deteriorating physically and was abandoned. Dr. Margarita Janušonienė, the inspector of the Alytus county Department of Cultural Heritage sites, entered the Kurnėnai school on the register of National Cultural Heritage sites. Among the nearby cultural heritage sites is the homestead of the artist Antanas Zmuidzinavičius, who was a friend of the Radziukynas family. His brother Peter Zmuidzinavičius was married to Laurent’s sister Felicia Radziukynas.
Dr. Liutauras Nekrošius, professor of Architecture at Vilnius University, is researching Lithuanian-built parochial schools in the United States. He is intrigued about the lack of data about Frank Medziukas, the architect of the Kurnėnai school, and why his work in the United States is not documented. A society of friends of the Kurnėnai school has been organized in Lithuania. It has a Facebook page and is spearheading a campaign to restore and revive the Kurnėnai school as a trade school or an adult education center. In 2018 the restoration work on the school has begun.
John Radkins, the grandson of the school’s sponsor, and his wife Angie, now residing in Florida, visited Lithuania in 2018. The couple toured the village of Kurnėnai and received an emotional hero’s welcome at an event held at the school on July 10. The mayor of Alytus, A. Vrubliauskas, thanked John Radkins for his grandfather’s historic gift to his native village. He stated that he hopes the Radziukynas school will become a cultural and historic tourist attraction. The mayor presented him with a medal commemorating the 100th anniversary of Lithuania’s independence. Former principal Antanina Urmanavičienė hugged John and Angie Radkins, thanking them for visiting the village of their ancestry. John Radkins brought his grandfather’s cane and presented it to Kurnėnai as a token of remembrance.
Laurynas Radziukynas – Laurent Radkins, passed away in Fort Myers, Florida in 1966. Helen Radkins died in 1969 and was layed to rest next to her husband. In 1962 their son Andrew became president of the Hindu Incense Co. He changed the company’s name to Genieco, to reflect a more diverse clientele. The company still operates at 200 N. Laflin St. in Chicago, however, it is no longer owned by the Radkins family, as it was acquired by a Japanese corporation.
I would like to thank Angie and John Radkins for providing a photograph and answering biographical questions about their ancestor Radziukynas. I acknowledge the help of the Lithuanian Research and Studies Center for sources on the Kurnėnai school.