A life of laughter and service to others
BY MICHELLE OWNBEY
Albert Eck always loved to make people laugh, and he was no different in death than in life. At the wake, the spray of flowers on his casket was adorned with a sign that read “Good Riddance.” Instead of his hands clasped together in his coffin, they were positioned so that he appeared to be flipping people off – giving the middle finger to the Grim Reaper, perhaps? Albert lived his life with a smile on his face and a twinkle in his eye that made you wonder what was going to come out of his mouth next.
If you’ve lived in Springfield for any length of time, chances are you’ve known at least one person from Albert’s family. It’s hard not to – with eight children and 27 grandchildren, plus a couple of great-grandchildren and assorted nieces, nephews and siblings, the Eck name is a common one in this town.
“He came from and continued a wonderful family,” said Chris Perrin in an online tribute. “There are a limited number of truly great people in this world. Albert was one of the greatest. He was a kind, generous and thoughtful person who never failed to make me laugh.”
Born and raised in Springfield, accounting was in his blood. His father was one of the founding members of Kerber, Eck & Braeckel in 1931. Albert started his formal education at Blessed Sacrament School and finished it at the University of Notre Dame, graduating in 1958. He practiced with his father’s firm for nearly four decades before joining with two colleagues, Paul Schafer and Brad Punke, to found Eck, Schafer & Punke LLP in 1994. Today, the two firms that bear the Eck family name are also the two largest local accounting practices in Springfield.
Accountants often have a reputation for being better with numbers than people, but that was not the case with Albert. He spent his 60 years in public accounting developing people. He constantly challenged others to push themselves both personally and professionally, whether it was completing a college degree, joining a board or something as simple as getting up in front of a group to speak. He spent countless hours counseling people on everything from major career decisions to personal challenges. After his passing, both current and former employees shared stories on social media about how he had encouraged them along the way and influenced their career path.
Albert would tout your accomplishments to clients and co-workers alike. If he heard you mention to someone that you worked “for him,” he would be quick to correct you and say that you worked “with him.” It may seem like semantics, but when you’re fresh out of college and working at your first job, having the guy whose name is on your paycheck go out of his way to elevate you makes a difference.
I hadn’t been out of college that long myself when I first met Albert. After five years working for Springfield Business Journal, the company had changed hands and I decided to make a career change. I was trying to make a name for myself as a commercial realtor, and when I was fortunate enough to get a new listing I would share the information with various commercial lenders, attorneys and accountants in town in case they had a client who might be interested. Albert responded to one of my unsolicited messages, and after exchanging a few emails, he invited me to lunch at the Sangamo Club.
When we met for lunch, Albert peppered me with questions about my family, where I had grown up, what brought me to Springfield, and what I thought of the real estate business so far. He was the type of person who was genuinely curious about other people and wanted to know what made someone tick. He confessed that he had invited me to lunch because he felt sorry for me after realizing that I was young and new in the business. Although he himself was born and raised in Springfield and was well-connected in the community, he understood the challenges for those who weren’t in that position. He offered to introduce me to some of his contacts, but after we compared notes he joked that maybe I should be introducing him to some of the people I knew.
Over the next decade, I would run into Albert at various business events and fundraisers around town. He had a way of always making you feel that you were exactly the person he was hoping to see. In recent years, Albert wasn’t physically able to attend as many events. He would often send a co-worker to a charity gala with a few hundred dollars and instructions to spend it, but not to buy anything good. Albert didn’t want to compete with other donors for popular auction items such as a trip or tickets to a big game. He wanted his money to be spent on acquiring the tackiest or most unique item up for grabs that nobody else would bid on. Afterwards, he would get a kick out of seeing what strange item he had ended up with, and many of those acquisitions became gifts cherished by family, friends and co-workers because they understood the story behind it.
He instilled that culture of charitable giving into his company. Ten years ago, Eck, Schafer & Punke helped launch Springfield’s popular Fat Ass 5K, a unique downtown race that attracts thousands of people and has raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for local charities. The Fat Ass 5K combines many of Albert’s favorite things: his passion for promoting downtown Springfield, raising money for good causes, throwing a great party, and doing it all while being just slightly off-color.
While Albert enjoyed giving to worthwhile causes, he also enjoyed treating himself. At his wake, the family served port wine — one of his favorites — and handed out cigars to send him off in style. His colleague, Paul Schafer, recounted one of Albert’s habits around the office. “During the Christmas season, we keep some gift-wrapped boxes of Pease’s candy and nuts (intended for specific clients) under the tree. At least once or twice each year, Albert would emerge from his office mid-afternoon in need of a snack, go over to the tree, pick up a box, and slowly walk to the reception desk. Then with great fanfare and for all the office to hear, Albert would proclaim, ‘Merry Christmas to ME !’ before tearing open the box. As a result, we always had to buy a few “buffer” boxes of candy and nuts.”
Merry Christmas to you, Albert. You were a gift to all of us who knew you.
Michelle Ownbey is publisher of Springfield Business Journal and Illinois Times.