How does a kid from a Russian-Polish ghetto where no one in his home had books or spoke English end up a school principal with two master's degrees?
"We were always taught, 'You work and you will succeed in life,' " says Pete Sencevicky of the Belfair community in greater Bluffton.
The lesson came from his father, an illiterate carpenter who taught himself to read Russian as an adult, and his mother, who was matched with his father in a marriage of convenience after they filed through Ellis Island. Only in America.
But how did that same New Jersey kid form the Dixieland Jazz Society of the Lowcountry in his retirement?
By taking money out of the collection plate at church.
Twenty years ago this month he took a crisp 10-dollar bill from the plate at First Presbyterian Church on Hilton Head Island. Everyone was urged to do the same. A young-adults Sunday school class organized the Multiply the Gift campaign. Everyone was asked to take $10, multiply it somehow, and give the proceeds to the church. The money they raised went to Habitat for Humanity, Volunteers in Medicine, the Lowcountry Human Development Center and more.
Sencevicky's wife, Gretta, used her money for an ad in the Packet offering computer lessons. Money from the first lessons went to the church.
She urged her husband to do the same, but advertise for something he'd wanted to do since he retired: organize a Dixieland jazz band. His ad asked anyone interested to show up at 3 p.m. Sunday, June 28, 1992, at Cheryl's LeCabaret Piano Bar. Twelve musicians and three singers showed up, and they shared their joy in numbers like "Closer Walk," "B-Flat Blues" and "Ain't Misbehavin'. " The society is still going strong, still playing from 3 to 6 p.m. on the last Sunday of each month at The Jazz Corner.
Early on, Sencevicky and four others put together a band called the Carolina Boys. Two years after the church passed the plate, Sencevicky repaid the church five-fold from his first gig.
Sencevicky, 79, learned to play the acoustic bass and was introduced to Dixieland jazz in high school. He managed to play most weekends as an adult. The neck of the upright bass he paid $75 for 50 years ago often stuck out the window of his Volkswagen Beetle as he went to gigs with groups like the Buffalo Disaster Jazz Band. At the first practice, someone said they sounded like a buffalo herd. Someone else said, "This is a disaster."
In the Lowcountry, he has seen many accomplished players and singers come marching in from all around -- Beaufort, Walterboro, Yemassee, even Aiken.
He says the Lowcountry Dixieland Jazz Society has uncaged the creative spirit of people who had it stuffed inside while carving careers and raising families.
"This was a door that had been closed in many of our lives," Sencevicky said. "That 10 bucks opened the door."