Paul Polak, Entrepreneur for Those Living on $2 a Day, Dies at 86


At a student party, he was brewing beer in a washing machine — a money-saving measure — when he met Agnes M. Potter. They were engaged six days later, his daughter Kathryn said, and were married for 59 years. His other survivors include two other daughters, Amy Schefer and Laura Polak, and two grandchildren.

Dr. Polak practiced psychiatry in the Denver area for 23 years and, for extra income, bought and managed small apartment buildings, drilled for oil and invented an oil-well pump jack. By 1981, he could afford to think about giving up medicine and focusing on real estate.

“But, instead of trying to become a Bill Gates or a Donald Trump, I came to the realization that, beyond having enough money to cover my basic living expenses, the marginal value of accumulating more wealth was not really useful,” he told an interviewer this year.

Shortly afterward, a friend working with the United Nations High Commission for Refugees invited him to Somalia, where he quizzed inhabitants of a resettlement camp about how they lived.

Seeing that transportation for water and wood was a major problem, he worked with local blacksmiths to repurpose parts scavenged from derelict cars.

“We built 500 donkey carts and sold them to the refugees for $450 each,” he said.

The commission’s model, however, was charity, “so we had to fight the establishment,” he said. But many refugees had connections from whom they could borrow money, repaying the loans by carrying goods for others.

Earlier this year, Dr. Polak described a new project he was working on: carbonizing mesquite chips and bamboo in motorized kilns made from chains of 55-gallon drums to see which made the best charcoal. He hoped to form a partnership with Mahindra, an Indian car and tractor maker, to encourage using renewable invasive plants instead of coal in rural stoves.

“We’re going to keep the whole system under $25,000,” said Stephan Reckie, who said Dr. Polak had made him the successor chief executive of Transform Energy, the company pursing the project. “It’s quicker than making charcoal the traditional way. We capture the off-gasses and reuse them, and we’re looking at a lot of employment for local people.”

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