Tampa airport chaplain provides a calming voice

Retired USF professor turned deacon soothes, prays and jokes
Published December 21 2018

TAMPA — Deacon Joe Krzanowski is in his busy season, not just at Most Holy Redeemer Catholic Church, where he is assigned, but at Tampa International Airport, where he volunteers five hours a week, giving directions, offering words of assurance, a groan-inducing joke or two, and regularly, a promise of prayer.

Krzanowski, 78, professor emeritus in the department of molecular pharmacology and physiology at the University of South Florida’s Morsani College of Medicine, is an airport chaplain.

He started his rounds on one recent day on the main terminal’s third floor. It’s where the chapel is tucked away, near Gate F. Inside, an artwork of backlit textured glass draws the eye across from the entrance. Books of the world’s religions and folded prayer rugs share a bookshelf. The “Traveler’s Prayer” is printed on wallet-sized cards. There’s a box of tissues.

That day, Krzanowski chatted with a police officer, greeted a young woman on her way to visit family in Morocco, added names to a growing prayer list and chatted with baggage handlers, ticket counter staff and rental car employees. He knows many by name.

Majid “Jimmy” Hamidi at the Currency Exchange was pleased to see the chaplain.

“I’m not even Christian, but I believe in God and this gentleman right here,” he said. “That’s why I always ask him to put me on his prayer list.”

Forty-five minutes into his rounds, the prayer list Krzanowski was compiling on a small note pad was already three pages long. At the third-floor information desk, Valerie Holt said he fulfills an essential function. “He provides a much-needed service to our passengers,” she said. “You see all emotional levels at the airport, happiness to sad.”

That morning, Krzanowski would encounter his first challenge one floor down, near the Travelers Aid office. A worried-looking woman sat next to a sleeping child whose feet barely extended beyond the edge of a large ottoman. The chaplain leaned in and conversed with her quietly.

It was a complicated story she later shared with the Tampa Bay Times. It involved a missed Frontier flight at Orlando International Airport and a fruitless dash by rental car to Tampa to catch another plane that would take them home to Buffalo. She said she and her son, who had come to Florida with his team for a football tournament, were now stranded in Tampa.

Krzanowski gave her a small bag of snacks from Travelers Aid and slipped her some of his own money so she and her son could eat. He promised to check back, and did, returning several times during his hours-long trek across the gleaming, renovated airport.

Krzanowski is one of 12 chaplains serving people of all faiths and backgrounds at TIA. He vividly remembers there being no chaplaincy at the airport when his 35-year-old brother, Ed, a pediatrician, his wife, Karen, 34, and children, David, 4, and Christine, 2, perished in an Air Florida plane that was heading to Tampa in 1982. Krzanowski was at the airport waiting for them to arrive when he heard the tragic news from a TV reporter.

It’s one of the reasons he accepted the assignment from the Catholic Diocese of St. Petersburg — which covers the Tampa Bay area — in 2011.

“I just saw a need and that I could be of service to people,” said Krzanowski, who with Patricia, his wife of 55 years, have two daughters and four grandchildren. He sits on the board of directors for the National Conference of Catholic Airport Chaplains and three years ago, joined other Catholic airport chaplains from around the world for a meeting in Rome with Pope Francis and the Pontifical Council for Migrants and Itinerants. Krzanowski is also a member of the International Association of Civil Aviation Chaplains.

The TIA ministry got its start in 1998, when a Baptist minister, the late Rev. Shields “Corky” Moore, founded the Tampa Interfaith Airport Chaplaincy. About 12 years ago, Moore and his wife, Susan, asked Cliff Barteaux, 68, a Catholic layman, to take over as executive chaplain.

Besides its 12 chaplains, another dozen are retired and on call, “in case there is a disaster,” Barteaux said.

The current team is predominantly Christian. The late Imam Mohammad Sultan Abu Hasaan, a well-known Tampa Bay area Muslim leader, had been with the group for about 15 years.

“He was doing rounds until he had his first bout of cancer,” Barteaux said.

Barteaux is clear about what makes a good chaplain. “The ability to listen,” he said.

“We call it a ministry of presence,” said Krzanowski said. “We are there for people, not to try to evangelize, sometimes, just to listen. Many people are stressed with their jobs. Some people are traveling for fun, but others are traveling for family emergencies, so it’s always good to have someone to talk to.”

The chaplaincy program provides gifts of baby blankets for airport workers with newborns, makes hospital visits to employees and their family members and attends funeral services. They’ve also officiated at some.

Krzanowski, who was recruited by USF in 1971 to help start its medical school, volunteers on Mondays, usually arriving at the airport around 8 or 8:30.

“Sometimes I start with the ticket counters, sometimes I start with the baggage handlers. I always try to get over to the car rental agencies before 10. They will be very, very busy between 10 o’clock and 1,” he said, adding that his rounds also include the airport shops, USO office, TSA workers, customs and police.

“I walk for about five hours,” he said. “Sometimes I’ll say, ‘How are you doing?’ I know many of them, and I’ll ask, ‘Is everything going well?’”

He’ll hear about medical tests and because they know of his background, is often asked to explain why they’re being done or what the results might mean.

“A lot of people just need some support, and sometimes, I will go up to someone and just sit and talk for a little bit,” he said.

Evelyn Pratcher, the upset Buffalo passenger, told him that he appeared by her side after she told herself that God would take care of things.

“The boss does good work,” Krzanowski said, pointing heavenward.

Contact Waveney Ann Moore at wmoore@tampabay.com or (727) 892-2283. Follow @wmooretimes.

Advertisement