BEDFORD-STUYVESANT (PIX11) -- With NBA All-Star Week being held in New York, and hosted in part by Barclays Center and its official broadcast station, PIX11 News, stories involving NBA stars are center stage right now. This story, however, even though it involves two marquee NBA names with strong ties to New York (Channing Frye and Tobias Harris) it has on center stage a role model of a much different sort. He's a role model the basketball stars look up to.
Lt. Col. John Mulzac was a Tuskegee Airman, one of the first African American officers of the FDNY, and a major Bedford-Stuyvesant landlord, who saw his community through its hardest times. He also was the grandfather of both Frye and Harris, who are cousins, who both come from New York, and now play on the Orlando Magic together. They cite Col. Mulzac as being one of their greatest inspirations. He passed away on January 29th, at the age of 91.
"I know where he's at," Frye told PIX11 News after the funeral of the man he and many in the neighborhood called Daddy John. "I know he's talking."
At a funeral service last Friday, and at a wake the night before, many people lovingly pointed out that Col. Mulzac was "very fond of a microphone." He'd been proud to tell the story of how he'd served in the 332nd Fighter Group of the U.S. Army Air Corps, better known as the Tuskegee Airmen. They were the approximately 1,000 men who were the first African American combat pilots and crew members in history.
300 survivors and widows of the World War II fighting unit, including Mulzac, were awarded the Congressional Gold Medal by President George W. Bush in 2007. He went on to pilot planes for the military during the Korean War and the Vietnam War, as a U.S. Air Force reservist, but that was only one of his multiple careers.
"91 years is mighty precious," said Marcia Meinerth, 68, Mulzac's eldest daughter. "I celebrate the memories."
Col. Mulzac created many of them in his nine decades of life, as the presence of a full honor guard, twin bagpipers and a bugler from the FDNY at his funeral indicated. After Mulzac rose through the ranks of the Air Force, he then began a career in the fire department, becoming one of very few people anywhere to bear dual officer ranks. Over 20 years in the fire department, he rose to the rank of lieutenant, along with his rank as lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Air Force Reserves.
That was the late 1960's, when Mulzac was eligible to retire from the FDNY. He did, and began the next phase of a noteworthy career, holding positions in the federal Dept. of Transportation, as a sky marshal and a customs inspector. However, one position mattered more than all of them.
"You look at how many family he has," said his grandson, NBA star Channing Frye. "To have an impact on all of them is testament to what a presence he was."
Also a testament, Frye has pointed out, is his own life. Frye was born in White Plains, and is a former New York Knick. He's led two other teams to the NBA playoffs, the Phoenix Suns and the Portland Trailblazers. He credits his grandfather's inspiration for helping him come as far as he has.
"I appreciate the opportunity to do what I do," he said in an interview with PIX11 News, "and to do it with a family member who was here today [at the funeral]."
Frye, 31, now plays for the Orlando Magic, on which he is a starter, along with his cousin, Tobias Harris, 22. Both have said that their Daddy John has been a significant guide and mentor to them, as well as to the rest of their large extended family.
"He's had a good life," Meinerth told PIX11 News. "And he's had a good wife."
Meinerth was referring to her mother, Beatrice Mulzac, 88. Over the course of their marriage of seven decades, she and her husband raised 8 children, and have 22 grandchildren, and 8 great-grandchildren. Most of them were on hand at the family's home church, St. Philip's Episcopal, in Bed-Stuy, for the funeral last Friday.
As for Col. Mulzac himself, he made his last significant on camera appearance a few weeks before his death. Over the years, he's been interviewed by a variety a variety of news outlets, including NBA TV, NPR and BBC.
But never was he as able to be as candid as he was with his own granddaughter, Shayla Mulzac, in an interview he did for her for a graduate school communications class. The interview, done next to his Christmas tree during this past holiday season, was prophetic about the war hero's fate.
"There's so much more to say about myself," he said in the interview, titled "My Legacy," which his granddaughter posted on YouTube, "but we don't have that much time," he added.
He not only was the patriarch of a large family, he was also a key member of his community. As the owner of more than a dozen buildings and lots in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Mulzac helped to sustain his community, taking it from being one of the most crime-ridden and dangerous in the city, to a 66 percent reduction in major crime over two decades, and to its real estate revival now.
One clear representation of the uniqueness with which he raised his large family is that three of his sons were official beekeepers for the city during their teen years. It was documented in Boys Life magazine in 1979. The article also pointed out that the whole family joined in the effort.
His family was as unique as he was, and now they say that John Mulzac's inspiration lives on through the family's three living generations and beyond.
"I feel him more in his absence than in his presence," his daughter Karen Mulzac-Frye said. "I feel his spirit bigger and and stronger now that he is gone."
Mulzac-Frye, an Emmy Award-winning television producer, said that she is inspired to tell her father's life story in video or film. She's the mother of Channing Frye, who told PIX11 News that the spirit of the man who accomplished so much remains with him and his cousin Tobias Harris on the court, and always.
"His whole presence inspired," Channing said in an interview at the back of the church where he and his family had lain to rest the man who had given so much to them through the life he'd led. They said that anyone can benefit from the example Lt. Col. John Mulzac provided, by appreciating some of his messages of encouragement.
"Keep a lightness about life," said Meinerth, his eldest daughter, recalling what her father had taught her and her family. "A lightheartedness."
"Push boundaries," said Frye, who'd been the first college senior selected in the 2005 NBA draft, and the eighth overall. "And not conform to what others think of you. Be the best you."
"He always said," Mulzac-Frye told PIX11 News, "pick up your sticks and keep moving. Don't let anybody stop you."