Walter Donald Zalenski, 95, of Greenfield, died on Monday, December 6, 2021, at Baystate Franklin Medical Center in Greenfield. Walt noted recently that he thought “to just drop like a sack of potatoes” would be the best way to go. Walt died as he thought best – standing up!
Walt was born on May 21, 1926, in Ashfield, Mass., to Charles and Joanna (Dytrch) Zalenski. Following his graduation from Sanderson Academy in 1945, Walt attended Stockbridge School of Agriculture in Amherst. Walt worked at the family farm in Ashfield and for many years at Kendall Mills in Colrain.
In February 1968, Walt was appointed to the unpaid position of Chief of the Ashfield Police Association, before the establishment of the Ashfield Police Department. During this time Walt accepted the Board of Selectmen’s offer to be employed by the town as both part-time Chief and part-time custodian at Sanderson Academy. Unfortunately for Walt, the increase in his police duties left him with little time to perform his custodial position. One night, Selectman Ralph Howes noticed all the lights on at Sanderson. He investigated and found Walt working. Walt explained that he was so busy with police calls during the day, this was the only time he had to do his janitorial duties. Selectman Howes was quoted as asking Walt, “How long are you going to last burning the candle at both ends?” In August of 1970 Walter D. Zalenski, Sr. was appointed full-time Chief of Police.
Ashfield resident Donna Scott remembered, prior to dispatch services, Walt would stop by her parent’s house to tell her father, Ed Scott, who was Chairman of the Board of Selectmen around that time, that he was going on a call for service. Walt would tell Mr. Scott where he was responding, just in case anything happened.
During Walt’s time as Chief of Police, he was instrumental in making many strides forward in policing, not only in Ashfield, but in towns across Franklin County. Walt not only thought of the safety of his community and officers, but of those of the surrounding area.
Following Walt’s retirement from town police work in 1986, he served as a court officer for many years in Franklin District Court, and he continued doing police traffic details until he was well into his 80s.
While on duty during the holidays, Walt often dressed as Santa Claus and could be spotted throughout the county, swapping his sleigh for a police cruiser, delivering cheer over many years.
According to Walt, “humanity” and “touching the hand[s] of the people” were the secrets of good policing. Walt understood the importance of community connection, and he demonstrated that commitment each and every day he served as Chief of Police.
Walt volunteered for many organizations during his long life. He served quietly, humble and understated – showing up to lend a hand to help or a shoulder to lean on or cry on. Walt loved to dance, and to his last days could sing songs fully in Polish. Walt loved a good joke and loved to laugh – and passed his sense of humor on to his family.
In 1947, Walt attended a dance at the Ashfield Town Hall and met the love of his life, Barbara, who came up from Springfield with a group of girlfriends to the dance. Walt and Barbara married on October 8, 1949.
During Walt’s life, many of his loved ones passed away. Walt was predeceased in 2014 by his wife of 65 years, Barbara (Van Ness) Zalenski. He was also predeceased in 1963 by his children Anne, Bruce, Martin, and Kathryn. Walter was also predeceased by his mother Joanna in 1958 and his father Charles in 1964. Walt’s brothers Charles and Chester died in 1927. His brother John died in 1988. Walt’s sister Clara Zagrubski died in 2019, and his infant nephew Thomas Zagrubski died in 1958. He was also predeceased by nephews John Kennedy and Charles Zalenski.
Walt’s survivors include a daughter, Athena (Jay) Mansell of Exeter ME; his sons, Jeffrey (Pamela) of Ashfield; Walter Jr. “Sandi” (Kathy) of Rutland MA; Christopher (Renee) of Warrington FL; and Mark Pichette (Nathalie) of South Deerfield MA; as well as twelve grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren, and many great- nieces and nephews. He is also survived by his brother-in-law Edward Zagrubski and nephew Jim Zagrubski, both of Ashfield, and John Zalenski (Linda) of Turners Falls.
Walter leaves a legacy of community police work to his friend, Ashfield Chief of Police Beth Bezio, who also contributed to this obituary.
Calling hours will be held in Greenfield on Sunday, Dec. 12, from 2-4 PM at Smith-Kelleher Funeral Home in Greenfield. A calling hour will be held in Shelburne Falls on Monday, Dec. 13, from 9-10 AM at Smith-Kelleher in Shelburne Falls, followed by a service at the funeral home. Burial will follow in Arms Cemetery in Shelburne Falls. Due to COVID-19 protocols, no public reception will be held.
The family would like to thank the staff of Baystate Franklin Medical Center, as well as the residents and staff of The Arbors of Greenfield and of Greenfield Acres (the High Rise) for their care and many kindnesses to Walt over the years. The family also thanks Tim Kelleher and the staff of Smith-Kelleher Funeral Home.