Tenacious. Larger than life. The person able to gather the right people to do the right thing — and get it done.
These are some of the descriptions of Jack Kulka, who was a top Long Island builder and founder of The Kulka Group. The Hauppauge-based company, which is in construction management and real estate development, has been responsible for 22 million square feet of commercial construction across the tristate area and South Florida, according to the company.
Beyond that, Kulka never forgot his meager beginnings, and he continually helped people overcome poverty and bad fortune. He held leadership positions with the Commack Jewish Center, Long Island Israel Bond Campaign, United Way of Long Island, Suffolk County Crime Stoppers and St. John's Episcopal Hospital in Far Rockaway, among others.
Kulka, 79, of Smithtown, died of heart failure on Friday at NYU Langone Hospital-Long Island in Mineola, said his son, Devin Kulka of Dix Hills.
"My father was a visionary business owner and a strong advocate for Long Island and the working people who make it what it is," said the son, CEO of The Kulka Group. "He was larger than life. He had a presence. He did wonderful things for his community."
Jack Kulka was born into poverty in the Bronx in 1943, as his family had lost virtually everything when they fled Austria to escape the Nazis, his son said.
His bright mind was spotted at a young age, and he graduated from the Bronx High School of Science. He then received a full scholarship to New York University, where he graduated with a bachelor's in electrical engineering, said Devin Kulka.
He started his own construction company, Kulka Construction Corp., in his basement at age 34, the son said. Four years later, in 1978, he helped found the Hauppauge Industrial Association of Long Island (HIA-LI), which grew to become an important voice in the Island business community.
"He was tenacious. He was transparent. He didn't have a filter. He'd tell you when you did great and when you messed up," said Devin Kulka, who started working for the company as a carpenter at age 23.
In 1982, the company completed 35 construction jobs in a single year, helping to provide 6,600 jobs on Long Island, according to the company website. Two years later, Jack Kulka was awarded the Israel Peace Medal for his service to that country, according to the company website.
"He made a splash in the industry. He did something wild and crazy," his son recalled of a Port Washington project in the ’80s. "They needed to pave a parking lot. It rained and the ground was wet. He rented a helicopter to hover low and dry out the ground."
By 2003, the elder Kulka had completed $1 billion in construction. He also had served as the construction manager for the development of the $25 million North Shore Hebrew Academy, the company website said.
In 2016, he suffered a stroke and handed control of the business to his son. He recovered from the stroke but was unable to speak for eight months, his son said.
Meanwhile, HIA-LI, which Jack Kulka helped create four decades before, has grown to be one of the largest trade groups on Long Island. The Long Island Innovation Park at Hauppauge, where he constructed many projects, has grown to be among the largest industrial parks in the country, containing 1,300 companies and employing 55,000 workers on 1,600 acres, according to the trade group.
"He led the charge to create the group. He was a real force to be reckoned with," said HIA-LI president Terri Alessi-Miceli. She summed him up in one word: "Tenacity, the likes of which you've not seen before."
She added, "He showed extraordinary leadership. He knew how to get the right people together to do the right thing."
Jack Kulka led a big life, one in which even minor things became major. For example, he held season tickets for the Yankees for over 50 years, his son said.
Jack Kulka is survived by his former spouse, Harriet Kulka of Florida; four other children Paula Zeeman of Florida, Amy Marks of Clinton, New Jersey, Nell Kalter of Port Jefferson and Leigh Becker, of New Rochelle; and five grandchildren.
Services were Sunday at the Star of David Memorial Chapel in West Babylon. Burial followed.
The family will sit shiva at 16 Wyandanch Blvd. in Smithtown. The family has requested that shiva visits be limited to the following times: Monday, 5 to 8 p.m.; and Tuesday, 9 a.m. to noon.