Melvin Theodore Rykiel, a retired radar specialist and World War II veteran, died of lung disease Saturday at his Mays Chapel Village home in Timonium. He was 96.
Born in Baltimore and raised on Fleet Street, he was the 11th of 12 children born to Walter Rykiel and his wife, Jozefa Rykiel. His parents immigrated as teens from Poland and met and married in Baltimore.
He attended Holy Rosary School and spent several years at Patterson Park High School.
His family owned and operated the Rykiel Bakery on the first floor of the house on 2110 Fleet St.
“My father was the son his parents selected to get up early in the morning and get a wood fire started in the oven in the backyard,” said Scott Rykiel, his son.
The family later closed the bakery and reopened as the Hi Step Inn, a pool hall and bar. Mr. Rykiel’s father died in an automobile accident.
“My father retained memories of the funeral and of how the bar was draped in black fabric,” his son said.
Mr. Rykiel left school and lied about his age to enlist in the Navy a few months short of his 18th birthday in 1943. He was initially assigned to the Bainbridge Naval Training Station in Cecil County.
Mr. Rykiel served on LST 545 based at Pearl Harbor and sailed throughout the Pacific. He made visits to Saipan and Tokyo.
“He was very proud of his service and in his later years wore his World War II cap wherever he went,” said his son.
After leaving the military he met and married Theresa Rostek, a Department of Defense supply store worker at Fort Meade. They later divorced.
He and a nephew opened a Sinclair filling station on Dorsey Road in Hanover.
“He grew tired of the operation and found he could get a job at Westinghouse at Linthicum. He ... never looked back,” said his son.
He became a Westinghouse quality control engineer and worked on various radar systems for DIVAD and the Gemini space program.
While at Westinghouse, he met his future wife, Aileen “Spanky” Hiltz, who performed at Baltimore Colts games at Memorial Stadium. A trained rider, she rode a white pony named Dixie when the team scored a touchdown and during other game events.
“He was a rare engineer at Westinghouse who didn’t have a college degree, which for him was a source of embarrassment, rather than the accomplishment it was,” his son said.
Westinghouse transferred Mr. Rykiel to Florida and he settled in Boca Raton in 1967. He returned to Baltimore in 1971 and retired from his radar work in 1984.
In 1991 Mr. Rykiel, who spoke fluent Polish, traveled to Poland to his Rykiel ancestors village of Zarzsyn. He found that the family were farmers and raised nutria. He saw they had no indoor plumbing and that the local railroad was powered by steam locomotives.
“He always knew how bad communism was for Poland. It was an eye-opener, how oppressive the Soviet Union was to the country,” said his son.
The Morning Sun Newsletter
Get your morning news in your e-mail inbox. Get all the top news and sports from the baltimoresun.com.
Mr. Rykiel researched his family’s origins and maintained a length family tree.
He was the last survivor among his siblings and took up the role as family patriarch.
“He mastered computers and was active on Facebook. And because he had all those birthdays from the family tree would occasionally send out anniversary and birthday greetings. Our cousins would marvel at Uncle Mel’s memory, which would give him a good laugh,” said his son.
A private service will be held at Crownsville Veterans Cemetery.
In addition to his son, survivors include his wife of 53 years, a sewing teacher and former Westinghouse worker; another son, Gary Rykiel of Potomac; a stepson, Joseph Hiltz of Tennessee; and two stepdaughters, Mary Patricia Klausing of Towson and Jacqueline Sollers of Abbottstown, Pennsylvania.; six grandchildren; and three great-grandchildren.