Diane Schwarz was a single mom living in Hot Springs, Mont., when Bill Malinak came into her life. She was holding a yard sale hoping to raise more than pocket change.
Malinak was bargain hunting, so their motives weren’t compatible.
She had a locking chest freezer on sale for $200. Malinak offered $50. Schwarz balked and demanded $150. She was too flustered to realize this rough-exterior Montanan with whom she bargained was flirting profusely even though her daughter, Charlotte Nemec, was aware.
“He had a diamond ring on his right hand, a pretty big ring,” Nemec said. “And you could tell he was flirting. He went on and on about how overpriced it was. I think she was enjoying the battle.”
Malinak got the freezer chest for $125, plus the chance to contact Schwarz again about its missing key, and, eventually, after seven years of courtship, Schwarz’s hand in marriage. By the time he died Sept. 10, Bill Malinak and his wife Diane had been together 16 years. They were romantically in love to the very end.
“He used to tell people it was so difficult for me to part with that freezer, at a price with which I did not agree, that I had to marry him to get it back,” Diane Malinak said. “We still have it.”
She misses his big voice, his way of being playfully argumentative. Bill Malinak was always trying to get Diane’s goat, but he also was incredibly giving. He practically adopted Nemec, before knowing whether he and Diane were going to be an item.
Malinak lived in Spokane Valley, a 30-year employee of Kaiser Aluminum, retired. He was divorced. His two sons, Mike and Stephen were grown, and he was an empty nester. When he learned that Nemec was moving to Spokane to attend Eastern Washington University, he insisted she take one of the spare bedrooms in his house. He proved easy enough to like. After a few years Nemec took to calling Malinak “Papa.”
“It was the best arrangement in the world,” Nemec said. “He would have dinner ready for me every night. He’d say, ‘Got a crock pot going for you, honey.’ I felt very unconditional love from him.”
His weekends were reserved for Diane, who was still in Montana, working in the public school system. The relationship that started in Hot Springs stretched to Lolo, Mont., where Diane got a new job.
Diane was 230 miles and two mountain passes away from Spokane Valley, but she’d frequently found Bill parked in her driveway when she came home from work on Friday nights.
“He’d say, ‘I didn’t have anything planned and thought I’d come over.” He made the three-hour trip to Lolo sound so casual, as if stopping by to take Diane out for a hamburger was no big deal.
The truth is, Bill Malinak had a knack for helping ladies in distress. He wanted to help, and he didn’t want to be repaid.
“I’d say he had a soft spot for ladies,” said Bill’s son, Mike Malinak. “I don’t mean that in a bad way.”
Bill Malinak’s mother had a tough row to hoe, which is perhaps where his “helping hand” philosophy came from. His mom, who lived to be 100, lived in a small ranch home surrounded by scrub pine on the arid Montana plain, not too far from where Bill met Diane in Hot Springs. Julia Malinak cooked her meals on a wood stove. A bucket and ladle were her tools of everyday life.
Bill helped women. He helped Mike, too. He got his oldest son a job at Kaiser’s Trentwood mill, where Bill was a supervisor.
The two never worked together. And Bill told Mike early on that if the son did anything to besmirch the Malinak name at the mill, Bill would do the firing. The father had a reputation as fair but tough with his subordinates. He worked the hot line, where aluminum ingots were heated and rolled into thick sheets.
“You remember that TV jingle for Joe Albertson’s supermarket? Well, Bill used to sing, ‘It’s Henry Kaiser’s aluminum company, but the hot line department is mine,” said Joe Cavanaugh, a Malinak friend and co-worker.
Malinak had a reputation for not always agreeing with union workers at the plant but for negotiating with them fairly. He was easy to have a beer with after work, no matter what happened on shift, Cavanaugh said.
“Bill was always willing to sit down and listen to people’s problems, be it personal, vehicle or whatever,” said Norris Carr, a co-worker and childhood friend of Malinak.
Carr and Bill Malinak were part of a foursome of Kaiser workers who met for coffee once a week at Denny’s Restaurant at Sprague Avenue and Pines Road. The group is down to two members now.
As kids growing up outside Hot Springs, Carr ran around with the four Malinak brothers, Conrad,Bill, John and Paul. They were educated in a one-room schoolhouse where the six Malinak kids, four boys and two girls, made up half the student body. The Malinak boys were always pulling pranks.
“On the Fourth of July one year, Bill and his brothers stopped by my brother’s home. It was hot and the window was open,” Carr said. “They saw someone lying in the couch, so they lobbed a big firecracker in there — only it wasn’t my brother. It was his father in-law. They got a chewing for that.”
The country life never rubbed off Bill. He was “farm smart” about fixing things. When some kid needed a car for college, he put one together. He had an auto shop for a few years. When Diane needed a lid for a pan, Bill made her one out of a pie plate, or whatever he had handy.
“He was pragmatic,” Diane Malinak said. “His idea was, ‘No problem was not solvable.’.” With a little work, even something like a yard sale item could turn out to be the deal of a lifetime.