STAMFORD – If, on the surface, George Ducanic seemed tough, it was because he had never-ending work to do.
There were children who had no toys at Christmas, veterans who couldn’t pay the rent, homeowners without heat in the winter, and families with not enough food.
Ducanic, who will be buried July 29, a month before his 89th birthday, was determined to help as many of them as he could.
Now his friends are remembering some of the thousands of good works Ducanic did for the people of Stamford over many decades.
“George was the commander,” said Jenny Reinoso-Castellano, who was a volunteer with the Tarzia Foundation when she met Ducanic about four years ago, after it was discovered that some toys were left over from a holiday party for needy kids.
Reinoso-Castellano said she was told to call Ducanic, a Navy veteran who ran the Stamford chapter of the Marine Corps’ Toys for Tots program for 30 years.
“I asked George if I should drive the boxes to Toys for Tots in New Haven. He said no, we have a distribution center here in Stamford, on Pacific Street,” Reinoso-Castellano said. “I drove over there and saw all these older veterans there working. George was sitting at a desk. He said, ‘I want to talk to you. Do you mean to tell me that you’ve been sending toys to New Haven when we need them here?’ I said, ‘I don’t know the protocol. I just helped with the party.’ But I felt bad, so I said, ‘If you need anything next year, give me a call.’”
For Ducanic, commander of American Legion Post 3, the official sponsor of the Stamford Toys for Tots, the hardest part of each annual drive was finding someone to donate space for the collected toys. So, the following year, he contacted Reinoso-Castellano.
She helped him find space that year, and the year after that, and the year after that, Reinoso-Castellano said. She saw what was under the gruff exterior, and Ducanic became the grandfather she never had, she said.
“When my mother died, he hugged me and said ‘Jenny, remember, we’re only passing through.’ He gave me a lot of comfort,” Reinoso-Castellano said.
To Tom Finn Jr., an Army veteran of Operation Desert Storm and the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, Ducanic was “a great, great mentor.” Finn has taken over Ducanic’s longtime command of American Legion Post 3.
“When I was sitting down with him and learning, I was able to see the reason he did it. In the military, you have to focus on what has to be done and who you have to help. You put your head down and keep moving forward. When you get out of the military, you continue to think that way,” Finn said.
“I’m nervous about stepping into shoes that I will never be able to fill,” he said. “He showed me the ins and outs of the (Veterans Administration) system and how so many service people are unable to navigate it to get the help they need, sometimes desperately.”
Ducanic was good at helping people because “he didn’t sit back,” Finn said.
“He would say, ‘Sometimes the needy won’t find us; so we have to find them.’ He would go to shelters and churches and ask if people needed help,” Finn said. “If he read about a tragedy in the newspaper, he would say, ‘Find out what they need.’”
Former Mayor Michael Pavia, who nominated Ducanic for an American Red Cross Community Heroes of Connecticut award he received in 2013, said Ducanic’s knack for helping people was remarkable.
“I remember once in the middle of winter a woman in Waterside had her boiler go down. George heard about it and he was able to get a boiler and a couple of plumbers over there. She had her heat back on that night. I don’t know how he did it,” Pavia said.
“George had that compassion and that compulsion to help people. He was always trying to get assistance to perform some task that some person absolutely needed and couldn’t do on their own,” Pavia said. “He never looked for anything for himself. He was kind and compassionate. With that combination, he was able to get a lot done for people.”
Chris Munger, a former Marine Corps captain who served in Vietnam, agreed with Pavia – he never understood how Ducanic was able to do what he did.
“He would take care of veterans who didn’t have a pension or were otherwise in need. He would get money and food their way, don’t ask me how,” Munger said. “He was just an outstanding person – tough, but with a heart of gold.”
The Marine Corps’ Toys for Tots Foundation has started a new program to help foster children by giving them backpacks containing blankets and other things they can own for themselves as they move from home to home, said Munger, who has taken over the Stamford Toys for Tots program for Ducanic. He wants to open a Stamford foster children program in Ducanic’s name, Munger said.
“George had been doing a version of it, through the churches, for years,” Munger said.
Billy Pace lives in an apartment in the same building where Ducanic lived. Pace said he became a Toys for Tots volunteer at Ducanic’s urging.
“If George was delivering toys and saw the family also needed food and clothes, he would make sure they got that, too,” Pace said.
Ducanic was a service officer for the American Legion, putting himself in position to help fellow veterans, Pace said.
“He would go through the Soldiers, Sailors and Marines Fund to get veterans help paying their rent. He would help them fill out the paperwork and substantiate a claim for disability, which a lot of veterans don’t know how to do,” Pace said.
Ducanic also helped run and coach the American Legion youth baseball league, which plays in Scalzi Park. Pace worked with the league, too.
“When kids couldn’t pay the fee, George would put in the money for them,” Pace said. “He was just a giving person. Once you got to know him, you had to love him.”
But knowing Ducanic wasn’t easy, because he didn’t talk about himself, according to his friends.
Munger said Ducanic served on a Navy destroyer and an ammunition ship during the Korean conflict.
Finn said Ducanic has two nieces who live out of town, but had no children and never married.
Finn said he and Reinoso-Castellano cleared Ducanic’s apartment after his July 15 death.
“He didn’t have much money, but what he had, he gave to charities,” Finn said. “He wrote $25 checks to any organization that asked.”
Reinoso-Castello said she found a novel Ducanic had written as well as poems, including one that appears to be about a lost love. She also learned that he enjoyed golf and hit a hole-in-one when he was 79.
“He struggled the last few years. He had chest pain and then heart surgery,” Reinoso-Castellano said. “He was having all these medical appointments but he wouldn’t talk about it. He would say, ‘Oh, you know, I have to wait to see the VA doctor.’”
Pace said Ducanic got dizzy one day earlier this month and fell.
“At the hospital they took tests and found pancreatic cancer. About a week later, he was gone,” Pace said.
There will be a funeral Mass at 10 a.m. July 29 at Sacred Heart Church on Schuyler Avenue in Stamford. Afterward, there will be a military service outside the church.
“All George wanted was an American flag on his casket,” Reinoso-Castellano said.
Finn said Ducanic told him he was happy with his life.
“A lot of what he did, the community will never know,” Finn said.
“He was very determined, and he did everything with a warm heart,” Reinoso-Castellano said. “That is his legacy.”