Family was everything to Vickie Czarnecki, so it seems only fitting she was blessed with two.
First, there was her biological family that included parents Michael and Antonia, brothers William and Mitch, several cousins, six nephews and nieces and their children and grandchildren.
Then, there was her other family.
Czarnecki worked in the front office of the Winnipeg Blue Bombers for 37 years, until her retirement in 1991. During those three-plus decades, she became a second mother to hundreds of CFL players who donned the club’s blue and gold, trusted kin to numerous coaches and general managers, and sister to the many women she worked with on Maroons Road.
"All of the people she met through the team were her best friends," recalls niece Shauna Czarnecki. "She loved all the new people she met.
"A lot of the players who came up here were Americans and… a lot of them would show up without winter clothes. She would take them under her wing and would help them find a place they could stay or she’d say, it’s going to get cold so you’re going to need to get some warm clothes. She was like a mom to so many different people."
Born Nov. 27, 1929, Czarnecki died Sept. 11 in Winnipeg, at 91. She was buried near her family’s farm outside the former village of Shortdale.
Growing up, most of her attention was focused on helping out on the farm. In her late teens, however, she left home to enrol at Success Angus Business College in Winnipeg, eventually landing a job at a local law office.
An opening with the Winnipeg Football Club would later draw her attention. She was hired by the Bombers in 1954.
Czarnecki started as an executive assistant before taking on a number of additional front office roles, including payroll and contracts. Eventually, she became the de facto office manager and the go-to person when someone needed something — whether it was a general manager looking for a copy of a player’s contract or a player and spouse searching for somewhere good to eat.
Interestingly, her duties were be split up amongst five different staff members when she retired.
"Everything went through Vickie," recalls legendary head coach Bud Grant, who led the team to four Grey Cup championships between 1957 and 1966. "She kept track of everything. She could decipher if something was important or very important or not important at all. She knew where everything was.
"She was indispensable. I don’t think the Bombers would have ever existed without her. We couldn’t get anything done without her help."
Lyle Bauer played 10 seasons with the Blue Bombers between 1982 and 1991, and later served as the team’s president and chief executive officer (2000-2009). Bauer says while Czarnecki always held her own in what was often a male-dominated environment, what he remembers most was how much she cared.
Vickie "had the players’ interests at heart and she didn’t mince her words or thoughts when you may have strayed from what she thought was right," he recalls.
"You could always count on her for honesty, support and a hug. They broke the mould when they created Miss Vickie. There will never be another person like her. I bet she is giving the boys hell up in heaven right now."
John Ulmer’s dad, Ed, was an all-star defensive back and punter with the team from 1965 until 1971; the younger Ulmer went on to enjoy his own pro career and played his final CFL season as a member of the Big Blue in 1989.
Visits with Czarnecki were always a highlight, he says, whether it was when his dad was playing or when he joined the team himself.
"I’d always pop into the office to see her. She would just light up your day. She had this glow or lightness to her. She was always so real. You knew exactly who you were dealing with," Ulmer says.
"And she was such a great communicator. If you were wrong, she’d let you know. If you were right, she’d let you know, too… She was down-home and honest."
Perhaps the one quality that best exemplified why Czarnecki was held in such high regard among Bombers players and coaches was her ability to keep things close to the vest.
She was privy to all manner of secrets — from how much a player was paid to what they owed on their home or car — but wouldn’t share that information even her other family.
"She knew everything that went on there. She knew every player’s salary, all their secrets, all of the trouble they got into. But until the day she died. she never spilled the beans on anything," Shauna says.
Although Czarnecki never craved the spotlight, she couldn’t avoid it when she was inducted into the Winnipeg Football Club Hall of Fame in 2001 as a builder.
It marked the first (and thus far only) time a woman has been inducted. Fittingly, she played down the honour with family and friends.
"She didn’t make a big deal out of it. At the time, I thought they did it for everybody," recalls her niece with a laugh. "That’s just kind of how she was — she was so humble about everything."
In retirement, Czarnecki pursued her love of travel. She went on several cruises and frequently gathered with friends for winter vacations. She also spent a considerable amount of time in her garden.
But her real passion remained family. Although she never had children of her own, she was a surrogate mom for her nieces and nephews and their respective families.
Family dinners were a fixture at her Loretta Avenue home, and she always made enough food to send some home for those who were unable to attend. She also regularly hosted out-of-town family when they came to Winnipeg and needed a place to stay.
"One of her favourite things in life was hosting visitors at her home and entertaining them," Shauna says. "She always had guests. People were always popping in. You never had to phone, you just showed up."