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Louie, Louie

I was talking to attorney Mark Hankin, a partner at Hankin & Mazel, about “Papa Louie,” one of Hankin’s clients. I don’t remember exactly how Louie got in touch with me – a lot comes across my desk every day – but the man intrigued me. Louie, in broken English, was pitching his life story to me, something along the lines of My Autobiography: From Handyman to Board President.

Was he a self-promoting egoist? Or was he, as he claimed, a hard-working superintendent who graduated to the role of board president of his co-op? Curious, I called him up. Certainly, he didn’t seem like Elmer Gantry – more like Latka on Taxi. He was effusive when I identified myself, bubbling over with emotions (although I later discovered that Louie was a very emotional man). “So, Tom, what do you think about Papa Louie?”

His full name is Louis Kaytsa, and he was clearly excited as he described, in his fractured English, his life among the Hungarian minority living in the town of Oradea in Romania. He didn’t dwell on his job as an engineer, only mentioning it as a jumping-off point to tell me about his arrival in America in 1987. “I fled the Communists,” he explained, meaning the brutal regime of dictator Nicolae Ceausescu. Coming to New York City was a big switch for the small-town immigrant; Oradea, he said wistfully, is “a beautiful touristic town. Lots of hot spas there; they come from Israel, Germany. The water is healing, like the Dead Sea.”

It was a story that many other supers could probably tell, I thought. But Louie was unusual, choking back tears at different times when he recalled the people and places he had seen. “To come to America,” he said. “This is a special place.” The highly skilled engineer landed a job as a handyman at the Riverbank West in Manhattan. He was diligent and took courses offered by his union.

Louie was eventually offered a post at Austicorp, a Kew Gardens co-op, as superintendent. He loved Kew Gardens – “It is so beautiful” – but was appalled by the decrepit state of the 49-unit building. “When I moved here in 1984, the building wasn’t cared for very well,” Genevieve Tierney, a shareholder and board member, told me. “Louie came in and transformed it. It’s a beautiful building now. He’s always thinking of the future. He’s always thinking about what can be done to better the building. This is why people came to appreciate him, because they saw his value.”

A fairly normal story about a dedicated super took an unusual twist some years later when Louie, after doing some repair work for the co-op’s sponsors, bought an apartment from them. Buying in was odd enough, but when Louie ran for the board – and won – life became harder for him because to some, he had crossed a line. Having a former employee become a shareholder caused a few people to be apprehensive, and even led to hate mail. Louie sued the harassing shareholders, however, and they moved out.

Primarily because of Louie’s efforts, the co-op switched to self-management – and didn’t regret it. “I don’t think we would have taken the chance of doing that without Louie,” Tierney said.

Two years ago, he became board president. And, although having a president who was a superintendent who was a handyman who was an engineer may be odd, it must help enormously. He has worked his way up the food chain and seen building operations from many different angles. There is a new super in place, but Louie isn’t worried. It’s his wife. “She’s tougher than me,” he explained with a laugh.

Tierney is straightforward in her assessment: “Louie keeps a sharp eye on the building. He can diagnose a problem even before he calls the repairman. He has helped the building tremendously. He has transformed it.” And, in the process, he has transformed himself as well.

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