By Roger Kratochvil
It was very difficult for me to leave after I interviewed him. He was a non-stop history book. All I had to do was propose a question and he was off to the races with a wealth of knowledge. How I got to know him is an interesting story too. About 10 years ago, I needed to get my lawn mower blades sharpened, and he was nearby. Every time I took my blades there, I enjoyed the conversation with him. I am a good listener, so I was absorbing all that he was telling me. His talking is very colorful – he could have been a sailor if you know what I mean. As a former history teacher, it was easy to see a story here. Unfortunately, it did take me about ten years to get to the point of writing this story.
John was born in Benld of Croatian parents in a coal mining family. They emigrated from Yugoslavia where Croatia was located. At the age of 1, his family moved to Staunton. and has lived there ever since. John has three sisters and two brothers of which only one sister is living. He said he worked in the coal mine for a little while but decided that was not the life for him. I was born in a coal mining family too, and one trip down a mine changed my life from that dangerous occupation to going to Eastern Illinois University, playing baseball, and becoming a teacher.
John’s early life centered around working for various farmers and helping them prepare and harvest their crops. He had a skill in mechanics, so he was always able to help keep the machinery operating, which pleased the farmers who hired him. Early life he actually attended a welding class in Carlinville to learn that skill. He goes back far enough to have had experience driving 4 horse teams on the farm.
It is also of notice that during his formative years he found great joy in dancing. This start with dancing eventually became a major part of his life’s entertainment and influenced some of the major financial decisions he made. More on the dancing part later.
On March 31, 1943, at the age of 19, he entered the army. It would be a very identifying part of his life. After all the preliminary training and assignments, he landed at Normandy on June 12th, six days after D-Day. He told me that he served 31 months and was hit three times as he served with the 9th infantry and General George Patton’s 10th Armor Division. He was hit with shrapnel injuring his arm. He served at Normandy, Northern France, Ardennes, Rhineland and Central Germany all the way to the fall of Berlin. During this time, he earned two service bars, American Theater ribbon, European-African-Middle Eastern Ribbon with 1 silver battle star, Good Conduct medal and, of course, the Purple Heart. He was considered a sharpshooter with a rifle. He saw it all during that time, from the most gruesome as war can be, to the more lighter times during lulls in the action.
John went into the war as a boy and came out as a man. I am sure what he saw in those roughly three years in Europe helped define him, especially his character.
After his time in the service he started his career in business. As he was not married yet, he chose to work hard and take advantage of opportunities that came his way. He learned to fly a plane, got his license, but very rarely did any actual flying.
As I said earlier, John became a real “hoofer.” That is slang talk for a dancer. No matter what he has done in his life he has always found time for dancing, especially ball room style dancing. He did not marry until he was 42 and his wife’s name was Katie. Katie had a daughter, Nancy, from a previous marriage. John and Katie spent many years together, but unfortunately she passed away, and later he married Norene and she just recently passed away too. You will notice that I talk about his dancing before I talked about his professional life. That is because in my interview, he could not stop talking about his dancing and all the fun he has had with it all of his life.
His interest in dancing started about 1935 in Staunton. During the Depression, President Roosevelt started a number of programs that allowed people to forget about their troubles and provide them work programs so they could make some money. Dance instructors needed work too, so the government, through their WPA program, provided dance instructors with the responsibility to teach dancing. He took lessons from Chaw Mank, Buster Firley, and Mary Tuscan in Staunton. Because of their excellent teaching ability, John said he learned to dance. I knew Chaw as not only a local celebrity, but he had some connections with Hollywood too. I was a member of the Lions Club in Mt. Olive during the 50s and 60s, and the club would often sponsor a fundraising production using our members as actors in a minstrel show or Hawaiian theme show. Chaw was involved with the makeup and the directing. He was also a brother of Mt. Olive resident, Gloria Osborn.
John and his friends would go out dancing as often as they could. On any given Saturday, they would start at Tarros in Benld about 9 p.m. When they closed at
1 a.m. they would go to the Mill Café between Mt. Olive and Staunton. When they closed about 2 a.m. or so they would all go to Mt. Olive to Marco Biscan’s Tavern and dance until 5 a.m. I guess you would agree that they loved dancing pretty much. Any bar or tavern where you could dance, John and his friends would be there. A place called Struck Bar and Dance Hall was a frequent stop for him. Actually, he ran a crap table at that bar. One time a customer at the table had too much to drink, and wanted to fight John over a move. He said the guy was very big and mean looking, and he thanked the stars that two good friends of his, Otto Sternickle and Gilbert Best were there to pitch in and save him in the fight.
He never forgot that.
As his life moved on, he entered many businesses. He was especially successful in the construction business. People would always try to get him to do their construction or excavating, because he was dependable, and not too expensive. Once while tearing down a church in Virden, he was operating a bulldozer and the tracks were not on solid ground, with one on concrete and one on wood. The wood side gave away, and his dozer fell into the basement. He was uninjured, but it was a close call. At the peak, he employed 18 people.
John was involved in many projects during his 48 years in business, including owning two landfills and building the motel located next to the Dairy Queen just off
I-55 at Staunton. But I think, based on how he felt about dancing, his building of the Crystal Ballroom in Staunton might have been his greatest accomplishment. He built the Ball Room, and it was dedicated on November 26th, 1983. Seven hundred people attended this dedication and danced to The Music Makers. It was a dream come true for John. John always wanted to bring the big band sound and the ballroom dancing to people in the area. The grand opening was so much fun that he remembers it in detail to this day. He said the only problem encountered that first day was that he did not have enough parking. But, he said that was corrected very soon, with three acres of parking now available.
John said he had 3 tuxedoes and they were always ready to go dancing. He also proudly proclaimed that the ballroom always had a dress code, and he enforced it. He was very excited about the huge crystal chandelier that hangs from the center of the ballroom. It was acquired in Europe by John and transported by way of California to the ballroom. It includes 2,300 lights making it one of a kind in the area. John was always looking forward to the next band to be hired for the ballroom. Probably the most popular polka band in America was Frankie Yankovic. John has a lot of pictures showing Frankie at the ballroom with different friends of John’s. I asked him if he hired Frankie maybe once a year or so. John’s response to that was, ‘Hell, Roger I hired him to play twice
a month.” Frankie was known when he was on tour to stay with different people in the towns that he played. That would ensure less expenses and a home cooked meal.
Don Kotzman, a Staunton and Mt. Olive resident, played the accordion in the band for a time. I remember seeing Frankie and his band with Don playing accordion, on Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show. Joey James and his band was a regular. That band often played at the Bohemian Club Hall in White City when I was a young boy. I mentioned that to Joey a few years ago, before his death, and he remembered that fondly.
John had many regular dancer friends that he would be with. One time he bought 18 vests for his group to wear whenever they traveled to Canada or another ballroom in the Midwest. He felt they got recognition from that and told me that he absolutely loved it when they were in another ball- room and the bandleader would announce that, “the Crystal Ballroom” gang was in the house. They advertised the Crystal Ballroom with their vests.
John’s group of dancers involved many people from the area. John remembered fondly Helen Rademacher with her famous instrument, the boomba, which was like an upright base with other “noisemakers” attached to it. She would join friends Wayne and Margaret Heinemeyer, along with John and Norene Halavonich to form a little band for fun. Helen was also known to carry a mannequin or dummy, called Jocko. She would often dance with him, and would place him in the front seat of her vehicle so it looked like she had a passenger. Helen Duda Rademacher, in many respects, is as well known as John is. When bands would come to the Crystal Ballroom they would expect Helen to play awhile with them on her boomba. If she forgot it, they would ask her to run home to Mt. Olive and pick it up. Her dad actually made the boomba for her so it goes back to the World War II era. Her dad also would perform and dance with a dummy too. Her name was Wilma and the dancing was an entertaining act. Her dad said, “Wilma was a damn good dancer. She never missed a step.” It reminds me of a person in Mt. Olive by the name of Charlie Knes. Charlie was an entertainer and would often go to Las Vegas. He had a female mannequin named Emma that he would dance with and entertain the crowd. Once he went on as the warm up for the Letterman who were performing there. He also was very entertaining.
Helen was very well known for over 50 years of setting up and decorating for weddings, parties, and often VFW activities. She unfortunately is currently in a nursing home as the 90 year young lady fell twice and injured her shoulder. From the nursing home, she reminded me that she was suppose to be at a Polka Fest in Chicago this week. She is an optimist and reminded me that these falls were just a little set back. She is a most inspiring lady.
More recently John was very interested when the famous Tarros was being considered for demolition after a fire. John told me he was interested in renovating it and bringing it back to life. Unfortunately, it was demolished before he could do it. Dancing was and will always be in his blood. I hope you can see that dancing was a major part of John’s life. Those memories will live forever. In my interviews with him and his daughter, Nancy, I see that he has enjoyed life to the fullest. He was able to convey to me in my interviews just how precious life has been to him. That’s why I call him Big John. I elevated him to that level because he has lived it to the fullest and we all are better for it.
Roger Kratochvil is a former school teacher, principal and Cardinal baseball scout. To reach him, email Kratz@madisontelco.com.