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Editorial: Heartbreak in Whately after fire kills two members of Golonka family

Mary and Sonia Golonka. The two died last week at the ages of 94 and 64 -- much of that time spent on their family farm in Whately.

Mary and Sonia Golonka. The two died last week at the ages of 94 and 64 -- much of that time spent on their family farm in Whately. Purchase photo reprints »

The town of Whately must bury two of its best-known citizens today. Friends and family who have been in mourning since Thursday, when they learned a fire had killed Mary and Sonia Golonka, will again feel the intensity of this loss as they gather at the Holy Family Church in South Deerfield for funeral services.

It was hard last week for people in Whately to describe what it means to lose this mother and this daughter, who shared the family’s 1827 farmhouse at 6 State Road near the Hatfield line. In comments to reporters, neighbors, friends and town officials managed to make clear how important the Golonkas were to Whately. Still, they spoke of Mary and Sonia’s trustworthiness, honesty, commitment to the success of the family’s farm and noted how deeply the community respected the two women.

Their deaths take all that from Whately — there is no question — and from the Valley as well, for the Golonka farm stand, which Sonia managed, drew visitors from outside this region.

But the suddenness, and senselessness, of a tragedy like this really has no bottom. Today’s services offer a new chance on a new day for people who loved them to come to terms with what happened. It will take a long time for that to happen.

Late last Thursday night, Sonia heard a smoke alarm go off inside the house. She called 911 for help, then went down to her mother’s first-floor bedroom. Before she could help, she was overcome by smoke and heat. Firefighters found them there together, and they could not be revived.

An inspection revealed that cracks in bricks in a prefabricated fireplace allowed sparks from a woodstove to ignite structural timber in the old home. We hope that this grim news moves anyone burning wood to check the safety of their own stoves.

We offer our deepest condolences to this family, one of whose members, Janice Golonka — Mary’s daughter-in-law and Sonia’s sister-in-law — works in the Gazette’s advertising department. The services today begin at 9 a.m. from the Wrisley Funeral Home on Sugarloaf Street in South Deerfield, followed by a 10 a.m. service at the church. Sonia was 64, Mary 94.

Several people spoke last week about how deeply connected Mary and Sonia Golonka were to the family farm. Even that doesn’t quite capture the profound bond between this family and its land in Whately.

That is a story that goes a long way back, to 1956, and is peopled by thousands who did business with the Golonkas over the years and will now continue to do so with Sonia’s brother James, who has run the farm for some three decades. It was 57 years ago that Mary and the late Bernard Golonka began raising tobacco, corn and cucumbers in Whately.

Sonia, the eldest of eight children, was just 10 when she began working at the farm stand. As she grew, so did the farm. Mary continued to work the family’s 75 acres well into her 70s.

In all that time, what began as a business venture became a way of life. It was a life that many once shared, for in an age before global food shipments, the Valley’s soils rewarded hard work.

Today, the value of locally produced food is again rising and being celebrated. Its proponents today could learn a great deal from Mary and Sonia. They and other members of the Golonka family helped feed the Valley for more than half a century.

They did so not across miles of highways but over the counter of a farm stand — real people doing real work in a real community.

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