By Greg Kowalski
Fred Kovaleski died a couple of weeks ago.
He is name is probably not known to many Hamtramckans today but there was a time when he was in the papers almost weekly for years.
Kovaleski was one of the greatest tennis players Hamtramck ever produced — and that’s saying a lot. He was a product of Jean Hoxie’s legendary tennis program, and he didn’t disappoint. He won championships around the world for years. But the most colorful aspect of his life took place off court.
You see, after turning pro he played tennis mainly in Europe and North Africa, but for a number of years in the early 1950s that was just his cover.
In actuality he was a spy for the CIA. He met with Russian agents and conducted covert operations just like you see in the movies and on TV.
In fact, you remember the old TV show “I Spy” starring Robert Culp and Bill Cosby? That actually wasn’t based on Kovaleski’s life. But it could have been.
Kovaleski’s career with the CIA came to an end while he was stationed in Egypt and met Manya Jabes, whose parents had fled from Russia during the Russian Revolution of 1917.
He and Manya fell in love, but the CIA was leery of allowing an agent to marry someone with close ties to Russia, so he resigned. He and Manya were married in 1957.
Kovaleski went into private business, working for Pepsi, Nabisco and Schering-Plough pharmaceutical company, rising through the corporate ranks.
I first heard about Kovaleski’s career several years ago when I read about him in a magazine article. The article noted that at that time he lived on Park Avenue in Manhattan.
On a whim, I Googled the Manhattan phone directory — and I found his number. I called him. He answered and we engaged in a wonderful conversation. He confirmed that the tales of his days of spying for the CIA were all true, and even more remarkably, he was still playing tennis in his 90s.
He even competed in tournaments, although we both laughed when I asked him how much competition was there in that age bracket.
I spoke with him several times over the years, and I was always struck by how incredibly energetic he sounded. He was a delightful man who had not lost his roots to Hamtramck. He still remembered his home town and cared about it.
On his death, The New York Times ran an extensive obituary on him. It does a good job of relating his amazing life story.
You can find out more about Fred Kovaleski at the Hamtramck Historical Museum, 9525 Jos. Campau. Hours are 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday and Sunday and by appointment. Call (313) 893-5027. Visit www.hamtramckhistory.org.
June 15, 2018