Men in black
ARCHIVES/DONALD R. SERFASS Sister Bernard Agnes, IHM, principal, Marian High School, is flanked by Ralph Cipko, left, and brother Daniel on June 1, 2001, on occasion of a Cipko donation, one of many.
They were rich and mysterious.
Caring and kindhearted.
And without question, eccentric.
In fact, on an eccentricity scale of one to 10, they scored a 20.
Daniel and Ralph, the brothers Cipko, were Carbon County's dynamic duo of donations.
Some believe they gave away the lion's share of $10 million, or maybe more.
In the process, the black-garbed pair became a media sensation. The men were subject to intense scrutiny, even controversy. At one point, they spawned a fan club which had its own newsletter filled with Cipko trivia.
For 12 years, Cipko sightings became the number one public pastime in Carbon and Schuylkill counties.
And no wonder.
You could search far and wide and never find anyone else like them.
Same but different
The Cipkos dressed alike but were a study in contrasts.
Daniel, a Korean War veteran, was outgoing, outspoken and full of life.
He wore heavy makeup, including eyeliner, and kept his hair teased in a puffy pompadour.
"Yes, we're characters," said Daniel in a 2002 interview. "And you've got to have character to go through life."
Ralph, the older brother, was shy, soft-spoken and introverted. He was a World War II Purple Heart recipient but never spoke of his past.
"I don't like looking behind," said Ralph. "It's the present and future that matters."
He sported a small, Hitler-type mustache and stood by his brother's side, half smiling, with eyes looking up to the heavens.
The Lansford natives emerged on the scene in 1994 when they donated $75,000 to Marian Catholic High School in Hometown. It was among the first of countless donations to clubs, churches, municipalities and organizations.
The quirky pair quickly earned a following. They were likable, even if nobody knew quite what to make of them.
"I remember Ralph and Daniel were frequent visitors to WLSH Radio during the Bud and Alice Angst days," said veteran radio personality Mark Marek. "I recall Ralph driving that old 1980 Plymouth and was shocked to learn from Alice they were millionaires." Marek recently mentioned the Cipkos on his Facebook site, Coal Region Connections.
The Cipkos were two of eight born to Slovakian immigrants Michael Martin and Agnes (Melish) Cipko.
Details of their upbringing are unclear.
"We were a family of 10 on New York's East 68th Street," said Daniel. "I don't remember much of my mother. My sisters brought us up."
Their mother died young. The father moved the family to Lansford and took a mining job.
Sadly, he died of black lung disease at age 50, forcing his teen sons to take jobs in the coal mine to survive.
On his death bed, he asked the two brothers to stay together.
They honored his wish and never married. Instead, they shared a house and spent every waking moment together.
Once a bit older, they found work in the Bethlehem Steel plant before moving to Detroit, where both were employed as inspectors for General Motors. They also may have lived in Connecticut and Ohio before ultimately returning to Carbon County.
They owned homes in Lansford and Palmerton, along with a townhouse at Rittenhouse Square, Philadelphia.
The source and extent of the brothers' money is unclear.
Many believed the brothers had jointly invested in South American mines, reaping a fortune of perhaps $300 million. However, other accounts claim the Cipkos inherited a tidy sum from a sister, widow to a Philadelphia real estate mogul.
The exact amount of their wealth is subject to debate.
What is known is that the brothers lived frugally and, for more than a decade, donated extravagantly.
The Cipkos freely gave money to causes that caught their fancy: $15,000 to a Jim Thorpe celebration, $40,000 to repair the courthouse clock, $12,000 to the animal shelter, $17,000 for a Palmerton town hall clock, $19,000 for church bells, and $13,000 for two marble murals dedicated to the Cipko family. Among donations given to Lansford were: $10,000 for Christmas decorations, $16,000 for a Kennedy Park gazebo, and more than $20,000 for a mining museum.
Larger donations went to churches and Catholic dioceses in Allentown, Scranton and Philadelphia.
Although devout Catholics, the Cipkos supported initiatives of other faiths as well, including Jewish and Protestant.
In October 2002, the brothers donated $10,000 to Tamaqua's First Presbyterian Church for purchase of a Young Chang grand piano for the congregation. They were led to the gesture after a chance meeting with the Rev. Ken Hollenbaugh at Normal Square Inn. The three men appeared to bond.
At the time, Daniel said he and Ralph support all faiths: "We love all churches because we are all children of God."
Daniel appeared to enjoy notoriety resulting from their benevolence, often giving speeches or joking to the media.
One time during a cancer telethon, he took the microphone and sang. Eventually, however, the Cipko style sparked controversy.
A Lehighton man wrote a letter to the editor: "This is being written to remind certain well-known philanthropists of the fact that the most sincere form of charity is that which is given anonymously and known only to God."
Soon, other charges were leveled, accusing the brothers of holding the media hostage by demanding news coverage.
There were accusations that the brothers wouldn't finalize donations unless reporters and media cameras were guaranteed to be on hand.
End of era
The Cipkos' final living donation appears to have been made in 2006 when they paid $15,000 for a carillon at St. Jerome's Roman Catholic Church in Tamaqua. The brothers were unable to attend due to illness. Parishioners prayed for their health.
On Monday, Nov. 20, Daniel, age 76, passed away at the Blue Mountain Health System, Palmerton Campus, where he was a cancer patient.
After Daniel's passing, Ralph largely disappeared from public view. Just over a year later, Ralph died in his Palmerton home at age 86.
Remaining was $269 in a checking account and $150,000 in a money-market fund. The full estate, however, was estimated at $350,000 due to real estate holdings. Also listed were three vehicles, one not running and two in poor condition. Total car value, $820. The estate was divided among a few hospitals and Catholic churches.
In the end, the gentle Cipkos lived a storybook rags-to-riches life. They'd started destitute, yet spent their final years using wealth to help others, trying their best to spread happiness.
And true to a promise to their dad, they stayed together for an amazing 76 years.
In fact, the brothers remain together even in death.
They rest side by side in St. Michael's Parish Cemetery, Summit Hill.