This past month, John Stackowicz of Granger retired from his post as general agent of the John Stackowicz Insurance Agency through the Knights of Columbus. Though his 45-year tenure with the Knights of Columbus will be celebrated with a gathering of family and friends later this spring, Stackowicz’s career started from less festive origins.
In 1973, Stackowicz was a long-haired, 19-year-old working as a Jewel-Osco stock boy in the Chicago suburb of his upbringing, Deerfield, Illinois. He had dreams of marrying his college sweetheart, Millie, whom he had met at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater. But with only two years of college under his belt, he felt ill-prepared for the financial demands of marriage and family life.
Stackowicz cut his hair, invited his father to lunch and prepared for one of the most important sales pitches of his life: asking his father for a job.
He left the lunch meeting that day a successful salesman: He had acquired a new position, the seeds for what would become a life-changing career; and even had a free meal. (His father picked up the lunch tab.) In the next few weeks, he would begin working as a field agent in the Chicago insurance industry.
Stackowicz’s father, Joe — currently a 96-year-old resident of South Bend and an avid supporter of the University of Notre Dame women’s basketball team — was serving as the general agent at a Northern Illinois Knights of Columbus insurance agency at the time, and he quickly took his son under his wing.
“My dad’s job was to find qualified full-time agents, to train them, and motivate them to become successful,” John explained. “I knew that I was kind of born for management, because as soon as I started, [my dad] would have me train every one of his agents. So in a sense, I was like his assistant.”
Soon after, John found himself ranked the No. 1 agent in Illinois. After maintaining that ranking for 11 years, he was offered a promotion that would enable him to follow in his father’s footsteps and become a general agent. A position had opened in Northern Indiana and he accepted it, moving his young family to South Bend in 1984 and starting the John Stackowicz Knights of Columbus Insurance Agency.
John credits his father and his hasty immersion into the Knights of Columbus not only with his early discovery of his professional talents, but also with the Catholic faith he maintains today. “When I started I was 19 years old, and 19-year-olds these days get away from the Catholic faith, I think,” he said. “It probably would have happened to me, but I decided to go for the Knights of Columbus job, which was a shock to my dad. In my position now, I probably never would hire a 19-year-old unmarried kid that had long hair. But my dad did.”
He also credits the Knights of Columbus with helping him discover another lifelong passion: travel. “When you’re hired by the Knights of Columbus, the head guy always makes a statement like, ‘We’re going to show you the world,’” John explained. They mean it literally: Every year, successful agents are invited to participate in an awards trip. In his first year with the agency, having never travelled outside the United States before, John and his wife visited Portugal and Spain. The next year, they traveled to Rome and met Pope Paul VI.
“I’ve been basically all over,” he said, reflecting on his career. “All over Europe, to Hawaii I think 12 times, to Mexico probably five times, on numerous Caribbean cruises, all through the Knights of Columbus. So, when they say they’re going to show you the world …”
Forty years into John’s career, the trips even went back to where his world travel began. “On the 40th anniversary of me working for the Knights of Columbus, they went back to Portugal and Spain,” he said. “When our head of the company, Thomas Smith, the chief insurance officer, was announcing where the trip was, he said, ‘We’re going to take you to some place where you’ve never been before.’ And I had to interrupt him and say, ‘Actually you’re lying’ — which you’re not supposed to say to the head guy! And then he looked at me and said, ‘Oh my gosh, I forgot you’ve been around so long!’”
The trip included a stop at John’s favorite Marian apparition site, Fatima, which aligns with the Knights of Columbus’ larger goal to incorporate Catholic sites into the award trip location rotation ever few years — an approach which has influenced the couple’s independent travels, too.
“Whenever we travel, we always try seeing as many churches and cathedrals as possible. When we went to Croatia, we were at St. Blaise the week before the blessing of the throats. We’ve been to St. Peter’s Basilica. We always make sure we go to Mass once or twice on these trips.”
He even made it to Mass during a trip to Tanzania, where he successfully climbed Mount Kilimanjaro.
Now that John is retired, he and his wife plan to continue traveling — both globally and locally. “There are so many beautiful churches here in our diocese. One thing my wife and I decided we’re going to do is, every Sunday — maybe three Sundays a month — we’re going to go throughout the diocese and we’re going to try to get to Mass on a Sunday in every church. Even here in South Bend I haven’t seen hardly any of them. And we went to a Mass recently at St. Patrick’s — how beautiful is that?”
The Mass was for the wedding of a family friend and fellow Knight Andrew Weiss, who currently works for the John Stackowicz agency. “John has been a mentor and a fatherlike figure to me both in my career with the Knights of Columbus and on a personal level,” Weiss said. “He’s taught me how to be a better leader, and he’s helped me grow as a man.”
Now that John is retired, he’ll continue to serve as a role model for young people. With five children and 11 grandchildren, the opportunities for mentorship are frequent. He says he’ll especially enjoy watching his third child, Phillip, tackle a new job: working as the general agent in the post he left, an appointment that was made by the Knights of Columbus based on Phillip’s merit and independent of John’s feedback.
As he passes along the family tradition of working for the Knights of Columbus that his own father began, John is looking forward to recommitting to fitness and joining St. Pius X pastor Msgr. William Schooler at the gym, spending time with family and continued travel. In April, he and Millie will fly to Ireland and Scotland for one last awards trip with fellow Knights and their wives, who have become the couple’s lifelong friends.
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