After nearly two decades of recognizing and providing for the men who fought back oppressors in his homeland, the owner of La Chatelaine himself last week proudly accepted one of France's highest honors.
June 6, 1944 was a defining day in American history, a moment in time when U.S. soldiers -- many still in their teens and the rest not much older -- were among 160,000 Allied troops who faced Nazi Germany head-on to free France.
That event was not lost on Stanislas Jean-Marie Wielezynski, who, at age 66, still acknowledges that the bravery of those troops permitted him to later play on the beaches of Normandy as a young boy, and later still, to come to America to foster a family and build his dream.
Since 1994, Wielezynski and his wife, Gigi, along with their four now-grown children and the staff at La Chatelaine French Bistro and Bakery, have honored the day the Allies gained a foothold in France by closing their Upper Arlington restaurant and hosting a private party.
It started as an annual all-you-can-eat-and-drink fest for the men who took up arms on D-Day and has since expanded to honor all U.S. military veterans.
In recognition of his gratitude and dedication to those efforts, the French government honored Wielezynski April 22 when the National Order of Merit (Knight of the Ordre National du Merite) was pinned to his chest by Anne Cappel, the honorary consul of France in Ohio.
"This is very emotional," Wielezynski said, wiping tears from his eyes.
Then, with French television cameras rolling and complimentary champagne flowing, the honoree did what he's done on each of the last 19 D-Days: He turned to the fewer than 10 men present who stormed Omaha and Utah beaches 70 years ago -- the youngest among them now 89 -- and he gave thanks.
"We are really, really proud of honoring you guys," he said. "Without you, we would not be here."
With that, Wielezynski launched into an impassioned rendition of the French National Anthem, just as he's done during every annual D-Day celebration. The restaurant erupted into song, with staff members and U.S. military veterans joining in.
According to Cappel, Wielezynski was given the rank of knight by the French government not only because he continues to recognize and thank those who fought to free France, but also because he works with a local middle school to ensure the historical significance of World War II and D-Day is not lost on younger generations.
She also noted he financed a trip to France for one of La Chatelaine's permanent guests of honor, 95-year-old Marion Gray, who, as a combat medic with the U.S. Army's 29th Infantry, landed on Omaha Beach on D-Day.
"The National Order of Merit is one of France's most prestigious awards," she said,
Cappel added that Wielezynski is "actively involved in cultivating the history of this time," and said the French government now has recognized him for "dedication and generosity."
The annual D-Day celebration came to be, in part, because the Wielezynskis' daughter, Charlotte, was disturbed by the sight of a veteran begging for money during a trip to Washington, D.C.
Charlotte is now La Chatelaine's chief executive officer and runs the company's Worthington restaurant. A son runs La Chatelaine's Dublin location.
Charlotte beamed throughout the April 22 ceremony, as she poured glass upon glass of champagne and French wine for guests.
"My parents really don't like the publicity," she said. "To have them honor my family and everybody here, it means a lot.
"It's going to make me cry. I'm really honored and wish every American could see what (these veterans) did for us."
Charlotte credited Worthington resident Ed Turlo, who landed at Utah Beach with the Army's 79th Infantry, and Joseph Well, a U.S. Army Air Force veteran, for initiating the process to honor her father.
Turlo, who will be 91 in July, said Stan's and Gigi's friendship is rivaled only by their generosity.
"It costs them a pretty penny to run this," Turlo said of the D-Day private party. "They have well over 100 people show up a lot of years.
"For as long as I've been involved with Stan and Gigi, they've been very generous of themselves and their time," he added. "I wanted to try to get some recognition for him."
Just as he does each year when media and Ohio dignitaries drop in on his D-Day party, Mr. Wielezynski shrugged.
While acknowledging great pride in receiving the National Order of Merit, he said it represented how the French government and people "give their hearts and souls" to those who fought to free them, and he said he likewise is compelled to thank those men whose ranks have dwindled due to the hands of time.
"It's become a duty for me," Wielezynski said. "France is honoring me as a Knight of the Order of Merit for taking care of (these veterans).
"Normandy was my place in France. (These veterans) gave a year, two years, up to three years of their lives, giving something to liberate a country that was oppressed."
Before returning to his guests, Wielezynski said, "Someone who fights for you, you have to honor that. They did big stuff. We need to do something. We owe them."