Illinois Valley pays tribute to Dick Janko: ‘He made a lot of things happen’

Business mogul, benefactor dies at 96

He built homes and businesses, created jobs and and reshaped the Illinois Valley. He used many of the proceeds to inspire other entrepreneurs and help the less fortunate.

Dick Janko died Thursday at Manor Court, Peru. He was 96.

He was a mover and a shaker. He made a lot of things happen.

—  Kevin Heitz, Utica village engineer

Janko was born during the Great Depression to an immigrant family and his father died before Janko was 10. Janko entered the business world with little more than gumption, though there was no shortage of that. After serving in the U.S. Army during World War II he founded Janko Frozen Foods and, by the late 1950s, launched a second career in construction, development and real estate.

Dick Janko

Goody Toraason, a retired banker in Peru, went to school with the Janko children and enjoyed Dick’s support and encouragement after entering banking in 1976.

“For the next 45 years Dick became a good friend, mentor, confidant and customer,” Toraason said. “He was a shrewd and very successful businessman and asset to the Illinois valley. His favorite thing to do was help young people and give back to the community. He was a good friend and will be missed by many in the Illinois Valley.”

Jim Miller, now of Marco, Fla., said he worked with hundreds of people in banking and Janko stood apart from the pack.

“To me, he defined the term ‘Street smarts,’” Miller said. “From humble beginnings in the Depression, to buying and selling among the merchants on Maxwell St. in Chicago, Dick realized to sell anything he first needed to sell himself. He loved the game of business and his family. I am better for having known Dick and proud to call him friend.”

Scott Harl served as mayor of Peru when Janko had reached an age when most men have retired or scaled back their business activity. Janko still was tireless in trying to build up the local economy and still was brimming with enthusiasm.

“Mr. Janko was a great person to listen to as well as ask questions of his favorite subject, that being the creation of jobs, jobs, jobs with responsible growth in our community,” Harl recalled. “The only factor that comes to mind more than his passion for making the community a better place for everyone was his level of energy.

“He will be missed. Thank you, Mr. Dick Janko.”

Summarizing Janko’s myriad contributions is no simple matter. Though many residents will recognize the names Atlas/Janko Building Companies and Janko Financial Group, he also held behind-the-scenes roles in entities that didn’t bear his name.

Kevin Heitz, village engineer for Utica, said he knew and respected Janko over a long span in which Janko put many people to work and transformed the local landscape.

“He was a mover and a shaker,” Heitz said. “He made a lot of things happen.”

Larry Bianchi of Peru is a commercial real estate broker, and former realtor, who had a long professional and personal relationship with Janko. What stood out most in Bianchi’s memory was Janko’s “unbridled enthusiasm.”

“Dick’s most unique feature was his ability to concentrate on something positive and keep moving forward,” Bianchi said. “If you told Dick 10 things and nine of them were negative, he would simply focus on the positive and go on to achieve great things.

“Dick was a natural resource in the truest sense of the word. He was my mentor, my confidant and my friend. I shall miss him greatly.”

Janko was equally visible in civic circles. He headed the LPOS Chamber, IV Homeowners Association, J.O.B.S. and a board member of FNB, Oglesby. He was especially interested in mentoring young entrepreneurs and created a scholarship fund at the Starved Rock Country Community Foundation.

Pamela Beckett, founder of Starved Rock Country Community Foundation, called Janko “a brilliant mentor.”

“Dick supported the creation of the Starved Rock Country Community Foundation from the start,” Beckett said. “Through the years he became my friend, always eager to explore our shared vision for further economic development of our region by enhancing philanthropy, education, healthcare, the arts and tourism. Dick’s ideas challenged my mind, his clever sayings and generosity touched my heart, and our times together will never be forgotten.”

Lacking a college degree himself, Janko prized education and was active creating opportunities for underprivileged youths to avail themselves of higher education. He was especially active at St. Bede Academy.

“Dick Janko had a long and fruitful relationship with St. Bede,” Abbott Michael Calhoun said. “He was generous with his time, talent, and treasure. When the academy created its Board of Trustees, Dick willingly agreed to be a member of it. His keen business sense helped the academy to have a better understanding of its finances to ensure its future. Dick had a special fondness for St. Bede and we for him.”

Services will be Wednesday at St. Joseph Catholic Church, Peru, where Janko was a lifelong parishioner. Mueller Funeral Home, Peru, is in charge of arrangements.