Trust Established by Illinois Basin Icon Funds D.C. Trips for Wayne Co. High School Seniors

Pictured from left are members of the Podolsky family, Suzanne C. Schoomer, Michael Podolsky, Naomi Podolsky, Bernard Podolsky and Bill Podolsky.

Bernard Podolsky is no doubt remembered by most as a successful, self-made oilman. But like so many of the Illinois Basin’s most prominent historical figures, the story of the founder of Fairfield-based Podolsky Oil goes far beyond the oil patch. The inspiration and positive impact made by the Bernard and Naomi L. Podolsky Charitable Trust is a prime example. As Bernard’s son Michael explains:

“He and my mother felt this community had helped them do well, that their kids had gone on to do well in the world, and that they should give something back.”

Bernard and Naomi Podolsky are pictured with their oldest son, William, in this 1944 portrait. Bernard was a Captain in the U.S. Army during the time.

Established in 2011, the trust has made it possible for more than 800 Wayne County high school seniors to visit Washington D.C. over the past seven years. The trust picks up the tab for roughly 60 percent of the annual trip’s expenses, allowing many kids who would otherwise not be able to afford such a trip to visit historical sites such as the Washington Monument, the Lincoln Memorial and Arlington National Cemetery, just to name a few.

The only mandatory stop is the Holocaust Memorial Museum, a requirement inspired by Bernard and Michael’s visit to the memorial years ago. Both came away believing nobody should graduate from high school without having experienced the museum and the lessons it teaches first-hand.

“It was so powerful,” Michael said. “And what was particularly powerful was the understanding that at the time that the Nazis took power in Germany, Germany in many ways was the most civilized and advanced country in the world…

“We came away understanding that the veneer of civilization is very thin, and that if you have the wrong people running it away, then the savagery that’s underneath can escape. We believed that people need to understand this, that Germany wasn’t some aberration – that this could be anywhere, that this could happen anywhere.”

Since the annual trip was established in 2012, Michael estimates roughly 80 percent of Fairfield, Cisne and Wayne City high school seniors have attended. Bernard once worried that the required visit to the Holocaust Museum would either keep kids from wanting to attend or not resonate on a meaningful level. But fortunately, the opposite has been true in both cases.

As then-Fairfield High School Senior Chloe Hodges wrote of the experience in a 2017 Wayne County Press article:

“I’ll never forget. I’d have to say that this would be the memorial that stuck with everyone the most. It’s a painful story to listen to, but a very, very necessary one.”

Bernard passed way at the age of 97 just one year after the trip was established. But fortunately, he was able to see how significant an impact that inaugural D.C. trip made on the students who attended. Seniors from Cisne High School sent the Podolskys a scrapbook documenting the inaugural trip with keepsakes, photos and – most significantly – hand-written letters thanking Bernard for making the experience possible. Michael shared one of the letters sent to his father by a Cisne High School foreign exchange student following the first D.C. trip. It reads:

Dear Mr. Podolsky,

My name is Katerina, and I am an exchange student from Slovakia currently living in Cisne. Without you, I would probably never see the most important city of American history and politics. I still can’t believe I’ve had this amazing opportunity and I am so thankful for that. Thank you.

It’s a pity I never got to know you. You seem like a really cool guy.

Thank you,


Because Bernard’s vision was failing at the time, Michael and his father’s caretakers would read these letters to him, an emotional experience for all involved.

“He was so touched by the fact that he could touch these kids’ lives,” Michael said. “When we would read these to my dad – he was a tough guy, he had been in war, he’d been in the oilfields, he’d seen a lot in 97 years – but he would always start crying when he would see what these kids took from what he offered.”

Bernard did indeed see and experience a lot during his lifetime. The son of immigrants from Russia and Romania, Bernard’s family settled in Pittsburgh in 1903. He went on to graduate from the University of Pittsburgh School of Petroleum Geology before setting out on his own in 1938.

“He had a round-trip ticket from Pittsburgh to Oklahoma City,” Michael said. “His professor told him there was an oil boom in Illinois, there was an oil boom in Oklahoma. He had 14 bucks and a suitcase and was looking for a job.”

Bernard found what he was looking for the day after stepping off the train in Effingham, where he was hired by Kingwood Oil Co. and soon met his future wife, Naomi. He worked at Kingwood Oil for three years prior answering the call to serve in the U.S. Army during World War II from 1941 to 1946. After leaving the Army as a Major, Bernard settled in Fairfield in 1950, establishing a successful exploration and production company that remains in business nearly 70 years later.

Though petroleum engineer and geologist were his official titles, Bernard was also a passionate industry advocate and conservationist – roles he strongly felt went hand-in-hand.

“He was really proud of the oil industry and he wanted the oil industry to be proud of itself,” said Michael, who is Bernard’s heir apparent at Podolsky Oil. “I like to think my father was a conservationist. I’d like to think that I’m a conservationist and I’d like to think many of the good people in this oil and gas industry are conservationist. We live here, we drink this water, we breathe this air.”

Michael and Bernard Podolsky pose for a photo prior to setting casing on a well near Noble.

Bernard took pride in reducing farmland impacts from oil and gas production and development, and was responsible for developing a widely-used brine cleanup process that would become known as the “Wayne County Method.” He also planted hundreds of trees, both for conservation and recreational and educational purposes, earning former Illinois Governor Jim Edgar’s “Illinois Outstanding Tree Farmer of the Year” award along with Michael in 1991.

At the core of Bernard’s conservation efforts was his spearheading of an effort to develop a 120-acre IDNR-owned tract of woodland just north of Fairfield for recreation and education. Bernard envisioned a parkland covered by lakes, bike trails, walking trails, birdwatching and every species of oak tree found in Illinois.

Though a total of $360,000 in donations from the Podolsky Trust and several other private donors have been secured, the project has yet to be finalized some six years after Bernard’s passing. But fortunately, the Washington D.C. trips the Podolsky Trust make possible serve as an ongoing example of Bernard’s vision being realized.

“I believe the words he actually used were ‘to open the windows of the world for the people of Wayne County and Southern Illinois’ and to make Wayne County a better place for everyone to live,” Michael said.

“I don’t know how many kids my parents’ legacy has touched, but if it’s one it’s worth it. If we keep one kid from getting a swastika tattooed on his arm or we make one person more kind or reach out to a refugee or someone who needs help, then it was worth it. … Hopefully this is something that can go forward for many years.”

Bernard Podolsky is pictured during a 2009 dedication of a new wing of the World War II museum in New Orleans. Bernard was one of 500 World War II veterans to march during the dedication.

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