Around the turn of the 20th century, a great wave of immigrants came into the United States, 20 million Europeans or more making the long journey to become Americans.
Among them was the Ogonowski family, who emigrated from Poland to make their home in Massachusetts’ Merrimack Valley, along the New Hampshire line.
The earliest members of the family received invaluable assistance from Yankee farmers, well acclimated to growing conditions in the harsh New England climate. Four generations later, the Ogonowski family still tilled the soil on their 150 acre “White Gate Farm” in Dracut, Massachusetts.
Graduating from UMass Lowell in 1972 with a degree in nuclear engineering, John Ogonowski joined the United States Air Force. During the war in Vietnam, the farmer-turned-pilot would ferry equipment from Charleston, South Carolina to Southeast Asia, sometimes returning with the bodies of the fallen aboard his C-141 transport aircraft.
Ogonowski left the Air Force with the rank of Captain, becoming a commercial pilot and joining American Airlines in 1978. There he met Margaret, a flight attendant, “Peggy” to her friends. The two would later marry, raising three daughters.
Twelve days a month, Ogonowski would leave the farm in his Captain’s uniform, flying jumbo jets out of Logan Airport. He’d always return to the land he loved.
Family farming is not what it used to be, as suburban development and subdivisions creep into what used to be open spaces. “When you plant a building on a field”, he would say, “it’s the last crop that will ever grow there”.
Ogonowski helped to create the Dracut Land Trust in 1998, working to conserve the town’s agricultural heritage. He worked to bring more people into farming, as well. The bumper sticker on his truck read “There is no farming without farmers”.
That was the year when the farm Service Agency in Westford came looking for open agricultural land, for Southeast Asian immigrants from Lowell.
It was a natural fit. Ogonowski felt a connection to these people, based on his time in Vietnam. He would help them, here putting up a shed, there getting a greenhouse in order or putting up irrigation. He would help these immigrants, just as those Yankee farmers of long ago, had helped his twice-great grandfather.
Cambodian farmers learned to grow their native vegetables in an unfamiliar climate. They would lease small plots, growing water spinach, lemon grass, pigweed, Asian basil, and Asian squash. There was taro and Laotian mint, coconut amaranth, pickling spices, pea tendrils and more. It was the food they grew up with, and they would sell it into nearby immigrant communities and to the high-end restaurants of Boston.
The program was a success. Ogonowski told The Boston Globe in 1999, “These guys are putting more care and attention into their one acre than most Yankee farmers put into their entire 100 acres.”
So it was that, with the fall harvest of 2001, Cambodian immigrants found themselves among the pumpkins and the hay of a New England farm, putting on a special lunch spread for visiting agricultural officials from Washington, DC. It was September 11.
By now you know that John Ogonowski was flying that day, Senior Captain on American Airlines flight 11. He was one of the first to die, murdered in his cockpit by Islamist terrorist Mohammed Atta and his accomplices.
It’s a new perspective on a now-familiar story, to think of the shock and the grief of those refugees from the killing fields of Pol Pot, on hearing the news that their friend and mentor had been hijacked and flown into the World Trade Center.
The White Gate Farm was closed for a week, but the Ogonowski family was determined that John’s dream would not die. Peg said it best: “This is what he was all about. He flew airplanes, he loved flying, and that provided all the money, but this is what he lived for. He was a very lucky man, he had both a vocation and an avocation and he loved them both.”
John Ogonowski had been working with the Land Trust to raise $760,000 to purchase a 34 acre farm in Dracut, previously slated to be developed into a golf course with housing. Federal funds were raised with help from two members of Congress. The “Captain John Ogonowski Memorial Preservation Farmland” project was dedicated in 2003, a living memorial to Captain John Ogonowski. The pilot, and the farmer.