Fast Cars, Kind Heart

Just mention "Porsche" in the South Bay, and you're sure to conjure up fond memories of Vasek Polak. More importantly, though, are a few other words worthy of this gentleman - generosity, kindness, compassion and dedication.

The Vasek and Anna Maria Polak Charitable Foundation strives to ensure Polak's generosity continues, even though he died several years ago. Most recently, the Foundation pledged $2 million to Torrance Memorial Medical Center. This money was used to benefit the Vasek and Anna Maria Polak Breast Diagnostic Center to continue the fight against cancer.

Polak knew a thing or two about fighting for his life. Born in Prague, Czechoslovakia, he was a member of the Czech anti-fascist underground during World War II. Polak was wounded in the Prague uprising on May 5, 1945 when a bullet struck him in the shoulder and then penetrated his lung as he attempted to save the life of a wounded friend. Also, as the occupying Germans were fleeing Prague, Polak and other freedom fighters are credited with deactivating dynamite charges that were placed by the Germans to destroy the famous Charles Bridge.

Born Vaclav Polakova on Sept. 11, 1914, Polak left Prague in 1948 when the secret police showed up at his motorcycle repair shop to arrest him. He fled through the back door of the shop moments after his first wife, Jindriska, had warned him about the secret police visit to his home with a phone call asking when he would be home for lunch. That was the danger signal the couple had agreed upon because Polak never went home for lunch.

Penniless, he was forced to leave his wife and children behind. With the help of friends, he traveled 35 miles to the West German border, beginning a journey that eventually would bring him to Southern California.

After leaving a German refugee camp and working in Munich heading the motor pool for the Red Cross and the American Consulate, Polak came to New York. He worked as a Porsche repair specialist, paying $25 a month to sleep in an equipment room next to a volleyball court in a Czech community center. "I had more showers than any immigrant in New York," Polak told The Prague Post, a Czech publication, in 1995.

In 1958, Polak drove a beat-up Volkswagen bus towing a Karmann Ghia sports car across the country, arriving in the South Bay with $3,000 in savings - seed money for a business. Through his motorcycle racing and car motor business in Europe, Polak befriended Dr. Ferry Porsche, who offered Polak his own sports car dealership in 1959. His Hermosa Beach business was the first in the nation to deal exclusively in Porsches.

By 1973, the dealership grew to include Audi, BMW and Saab. Polak later acquired Subaru and Volkswagen franchises. In 1995, his outlets earned gross revenues of $51 million.

During their years of separation, Polak always sent money home to his wife and two children, even though he was told that communist authorities intercepted and pocketed the hard currency. He never gave up hope of getting his family out of Czechoslovakia.

As a result of the Prague Spring in 1968, his wife and then grown son and daughter came to the United States. By then, however, his daughter had fallen in love with her instructor in machinist training school and wanted to return to Czechoslovakia. Unfortunately, the years of separation changed the relationship between Polak and his wife. They divorced within a couple of years.

In 1983, Polak married Anna Maria Littlejohn, a Czech-born widow of an American pilot. The two met when he repaired her Cadillac.

Polak's 39 years of business success made it possible for him to create a legacy of healthcare excellence through his support of the Torrance Memorial Breast Diagnostic Center.

Anna Maria Polak died in 1993, and Polak donated $1.7 million in cash and property to the Breast Diagnostic Center. His friend Dr. Porsche also made a substantial contribution to the center. Almost 150 people were on hand to witness the dedication of the facility in 1994 when it was renamed the Vasek and Anna Maria Polak Breast Diagnostic Center.

Polak died in 1997 at age 82. A month before his death, he crashed the Porsche 911 Turbo S (billed as the most powerful in Porsche's turbo line at that time) he was driving at speeds of more than 110 miles per hour on the German Autobahn. He was traveling from Prague where he was exploring the idea of establishing a breast diagnostic center in his native Czech Republic. Polak broke both arms and legs in the accident, but allegedly suffered no internal injuries and was expected to make a full recovery.

After his condition stabilized, Polak insisted on returning to Southern California to continue his treatment at Torrance Memorial Medical Center. Unfortunately, his wish went unfulfilled, as he died on April 17, 1997 en route to the medical center. The cabin of the Lear jet on which he was traveling had been converted into an intensive care unit. It had landed in Great Falls, Montana for refueling when Polak suddenly went into cardiac arrest and died.

Polak was eternally grateful for the opportunities America gave him. In a 1978 Daily Breeze article, he spoke of his rags-to-riches success and his affection for his adopted homeland.

"Many people ask why I don't leave and take my success with me back to Europe," it was reported that Polak said. "I tell them that the U.S. gave me my freedom and success. I'll keep my money here and die here in gratitude."

Thanks to the Vasek and Anna Maria Polak Charitable Foundation, Polak's dream of giving back to the community he loved will continue for many years to come. For more information on mammography or any of the other services offered at the Vasek and Anna Maria Polak Breast Diagnostic Center, please call 310-517-4709.

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