(This article was originally published on June 29, 2004.)
To say George Czurlanis is committed to his cause would be a grave understatement.
He has collected contributions outside grocery stores and was even robbed once of his collection jar. He has donated his own money, fought in court and parted with some of his Colonial-era coins in an effort to raise money for his mission.
Earlier this month, when dozens of reporters and photographers camped out at the home of the sister of Paul Johnson Jr., the West Creek native killed in Saudi Arabia, the bespectacled octogenarian was there too, distributing flyers and promoting his efforts to preserve a piece of history in his town.
Czurlanis, 83, has been working for at least two decades to preserve the Pulaski Monument - which commemorates a battle in which British troops ambushed a group of Continental soldiers in 1778 - and the nearby Willet's farmhouse site, where Polish refugee Count Casimir Pulaski encamped with his legion.
Czurlanis does not have ancestors killed in the Affair at Egg Harbor nor, as far as he knows, any family members who fought in the Revolutionary War.
So why has he devoted years to a battlefield trumped in historical significance by skirmishes at Concord and Lexington, Saratoga and Valley Forge?
He reaches into the chest pocket of his blue-buttoned shirt and removes a piece of paper bearing his prepared response: "As our soldiers, they were massacred. As our veterans, they are persecuted."
A veteran remembers
George Czurlanis is himself a veteran - and a proud one at that.
Czurlanis, one of three boys born and raised in a northeastern Pennsylvanian family, left school early to work in the coal mines during the Great Depression.
He served in the Army during World War II - four years, seven months, five days, he recalls as his length of duty - before being "filled up with shrapnel" in Alsace-Lorraine, a part of France that was taken by Germany during the war, and discharged as a disabled veteran.
He lowers his shirt collar to point out his scars.
"You're reminded by nightmares that you have of the war, " Czurlanis said. "So it's something ... that you experience that never leaves you. It always comes back."
He counts himself as a lifelong member of the VFW, the American Legion and other veterans groups. He has also been awarded a Purple Heart.
Czurlanis considers his fight a crusade on behalf of fallen American soldiers. He has a cluster of buddies killed in World War II whose bodies were left behind in Europe but who have been given proper burials.
He would like to see the same recognition afforded to the 40 soldiers he says were killed in Little Egg Harbor on Oct. 15, 1778. Those who died centuries ago, and those who gave their lives just decades ago all fought for liberty, he says.
As Czurlanis recites the last names of his comrades killed in combat, his eyes appear to well with tears and his voice softens.
"Sorry, " he says. He takes a moment to compose himself before proceeding with his memorized list of the dead.
Asked about his other passions, Czurlanis identifies himself as a family man who enjoys spending time with his four children, nine grandchildren, one great-grandson and wife of some 54 years.
Czurlanis, who watches Catholic programming on television and is a committed anti-abortion advocate, has been a civic activist during the more than 20 years he has lived in Little Egg Harbor. He said he has taken on asbestos, a proposed garbage incinerator plant and other issues.
But he considers his role as founder and president of the Affair at Egg Harbor Historical Society to be his most passionate crusade.
"When there's a mission to try to fulfill, as I say, you don't let opposition like that interfere with your goal, " Czurlanis said.
Approaching the Pulaski Monument with a white trash bag in hand on a recent Thursday, Czurlanis bends over and removes an iced tea bottle and plastic drinking cup from the ground.
The granite marker, erected in 1894 by the Society of Cincinnati, commemorates the night when British troops attacked an outpost of Continental soldiers, killing several dozen in the battle known as the Affair at Egg Harbor.
Czurlanis, as head of the society, which own the monument site and the nearby site where the Willet farmhouse once stood, is currently fighting for tax-exempt status for the sites. The group first applied for in 1992 and has been unsuccessful in several subsequent bids.
Township tax assessor Joseph Sorrentino has previously said that the sites do not meet state requirements for tax exemption because they do not have some sort of structures standing on them. Sorrentino did not return calls for comment during the last few days.
In a recent ruling, the Ocean County Board of Taxation placed the assessed values for the properties at $100 apiece. The township is appealing, township Administrator Raymond Urezzio said Monday. The township decided to appeal out of concern that a company performing a revaluation of all Little Egg Harbor properties would assign a new value to the sites, thereby starting the conflict over again, he said.
"We're not fighting George Czurlanis - by no means, " Urezzio said.
Meanwhile, Czurlanis estimates that he pays about $1,600 a year in taxes to retain both sites, using the money that he raises from collection drives outside grocery stores and other locations in and around town.
"To me, the guy's an American hero, " said Timothy Hart, a Manahawkin-based attorney who has been representing Czurlanis on a pro bono basis for three years. Hart is also president of the Stafford Township Historical Society.
But Czurlanis says he feels older than he did several years ago and won't be capable forever of playing the role of fund raiser.
Should he somehow be unable to pay the full amount of taxes on the sites, Czurlanis worries that the township could sell the properties at a tax sale.
Urezzio said a tax sale was a very unlikely scenario, But Czurlanis is dreading the possibility.
"I puff just walking from the car carrying groceries in, or sometimes just walking around, I get out of breath, " Czurlanis said.
"It wouldn't be that the generosity of the people has changed, it would be that my health has changed."