Whether presented with peril or privilege, Krystyna Skrowaczewski responded with strength and grace.

"She had some traumatic times, but positivity and optimism always guided her," her son Nicholas Skrowaczewski, of Minneapolis, said of his mother, the wife and "right hand" of former Minnesota Orchestra conductor and composer Stanislaw Skrowaczewski.

Krystyna Skrowaczewski died of progressive supranuclear palsy, a brain disorder, Aug. 26 at a Minnetonka care facility. She was 78, and had been cared for most of the time since her 2006 diagnosis at her Wayzata home.

Family members gave this account of her remarkable life: She was born in 1933 in Krakow, Poland. Her father, like his father before him, ran a mineral-waters spa in eastern Poland. Her first six years were spent on her grandfather's estate.

On Sept. 1, 1939, Hitler invaded Poland. As the Nazis moved in from the west, some Ukrainians attacked Polish landowners. Krystyna's family fled and spent the next few years in Krakow under German and then Soviet rule. There she attended a convent high school, "which she rebelliously ran away from a time or two," Nicholas said.

In 1956, fresh from Krakow's Jagiellonian University (where one teacher was Karol Wojtyla, later Pope John Paul II), she fell on a ski slope in Zakopane, Poland, and was helped up by a gallant man 10 years her senior -- Krakow Philharmonic conductor Stanislaw Skrowaczewski. That September, they began a 55-year marriage.

Stanislaw's career was popping, and the couple traveled often. In 1959, while in Cleveland, he was offered a position with the then-Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra. Krystyna "had to tell her family in Communist Poland that she was not coming home, perhaps forever," Nicholas said.

Thus began Stanislaw's 19-year tenure with the Minnesota Orchestra. "Here she was, suddenly in a prominent role, learning a new language and a whole new social scene," her son said. Krystyna and Stanislaw practiced speaking English at home, which after 1963 was in Wayzata. Children Anna, Paul and Nicholas were born in 1966, 1968 and 1970.

Krystyna gracefully balanced her roles as mother and keeper of an immaculate house and gardens with complex social obligations. "She hosted lovely, elegant events for visiting classical musicians," her son said. "Entertaining was an art form for her."

He described his mother as "soft-spoken and warm, with understated graciousness." At home with her family, she "created a cozy, fun atmosphere."

Most of all, "she acted as my father's right hand," Nicholas said. "She artfully composed letters for him when he was not sure of how to word something. She kept him looking dapper. She made his home a sanctuary where he could focus on his music."

Son Paul Sebastien of Tiburon, Calif., said she "taught us to value experiences over material things."

"She's been an incredible force of nature in my life," Sebastien said. "Even at a very young age, I knew my mother as remarkably selfless. She was the glue that made the whole family thing work beautifully, and losing her really hurts."

After her husband was no longer conducting full time and their children grown, she served as an advocate for several charities.

Nicholas said some of his best memories of his mother were formed after she fell ill, when, as her frequent caretaker, he "had the opportunity to bond even more deeply during the long goodbye."

"Even in an advanced stage of illness, she had the ability to laugh at life," he said.

In addition to her husband and sons, she is survived by daughter Anna Skrowaczewski of Brooklyn Park; a brother, Rajmund Jarosz of Krakow, and two grandchildren. A memorial service will be held at 10 a.m. Saturday at St. Olaf Catholic Church, 215 S. 8th St., Minneapolis.

Pamela Miller • 612-673-4290