By David Blanchette
John Kelker says he always knew he wanted to help people, and he worked in the nonprofit sector throughout his professional career. After graduating from MacMurray College in Jacksonville, he worked in Carrollton and Jacksonville before moving to Springfield in 1996 to become president of the United Way of Central Illinois. He served in that capacity for 26 years before retiring in April.
Kelker plans to stay in the Springfield area and he has continued to be very involved in the community. He has taken on a new role as president of the Citizens Club of Springfield and is also a member of the Midtown Springfield Rotary Club, American Business Club and the Greater Springfield Chamber of Commerce. In addition, Kelker serves as a Thrive Ally team member for the Springfield Sangamon Growth Alliance, promoting the area as a great place to live and work.
He and his wife, LuAnn, have three children: daughter Jayme, 45; sons Ryan, 43, and Rod, 40; and seven grandchildren.
You are not a Springfield native. How did you end up in the community?
I was born in Butler, Pennsylvania, and soon thereafter moved to Ohio. My family moved to Wheaton, Illinois, where I graduated from high school in 1976. I graduated from MacMurray College in Jacksonville in 1980 with a psychology degree.
I worked for a counseling agency in Carrollton and came back to Jacksonville as the director of Big Brothers Big Sisters. After several years in that position, I had the opportunity to join the United Way of Central Illinois as their president in 1996, where I served for 26 years until my retirement this past April.
Was there a defining moment when you decided to choose nonprofit work as your career path?
I always knew that I wanted to help people. Before taking the position with Big Brothers Big Sisters, I applied to be on the Jacksonville Police Department, knowing that’s another way that people can help one another. I was offered positions at both at almost the identical time, but I chose Big Brothers Big Sisters over the police.
Moving from Big Brothers Big Sisters to United Way I have often times related to someone being a classroom teacher who then becomes the principal. You move from caring about one segment of your school population to now caring about all of the school’s population and working with their families.
How did you keep your motivation year after year while serving as United Way president?
In a position like that, you work with volunteers. Though we have some volunteers that stay for a long time, my board members and lead volunteers at United Way changed every year, which kept us energized.
It is the nature of United Way to be responsive to issues in the community, because the communities change all of the time. So good volunteers and staying on top of what is most important to the community were two big keys to what kept me motivated.
Of which accomplishments during your United Way career are you most proud?
An accomplishment I’m proud of is moving to funding programs based on measurable impact. That was challenging for the agencies and their programs, but I have received positive feedback from those same agencies that it really made them work harder. They had to show evidence to children, families and individuals of what could be the positive outcomes of being involved with that agency.
I worked with a very progressive United Way. I have had leadership opportunities through the United Way of Illinois and United Way Worldwide. I was pleased that professional colleagues from around the country would look to Springfield as a model United Way.
How did your new role as president of the Citizens Club of Springfield come about?
I’ve been a part of the Citizens Club of Springfield for about seven years and on the board the last three years. I enjoy their programming and their mission of civilly engaging the community. And while it wasn’t something I was seeking, as Bob Gray looked to move on from that leadership role, Bob took the opportunity to seek me out. I think perhaps knowing my public speaking skills and administrative abilities, he wanted to see if perhaps that was a position I would consider taking from him.
Bob was the president of the Citizens Club for 17 years, something that this community should be extremely appreciative of. Certainly, I will not be in that position for the length of time that Bob was. My commitment was to accept that volunteer position and bring some structure to the club. We now have committees in place. Dominic Watson is the vice president of the Citizens Club and it is our expectation that Dominic will move up to serve as president in two years.
Are changes in the works for the Citizens Club of Springfield?
We are going to continue to have what I would consider top-class programming. I will say that diversity and equity are very important to us, and we try to build that into each of our programs and be cognizant of who our presenters are.
I know we have individuals who are considering some evening programming, because we currently meet on the fourth Friday of the month at 8 a.m., which is not always perfect for many people who are working in the community. So we are exploring the possibility of evening programming in addition to the monthly morning conversations.
What do you tell young people who are looking to be involved in the community?
I’ve been asked this a lot. If you’re healthy enough, I would encourage everyone to be a blood donor. If you’re serious about your community, I believe individuals should support their chamber of commerce. If you’re interested in people in a general sense, there is no organization stronger than the United Way. I say that not because I served as their president, but because I truly believe it. I was a United Way donor before I became their president.
Did you make a conscious decision to remain in Springfield following your United Way retirement?
My wife, LuAnn, and I are very pleased to have chosen to stay here in Springfield. We hear many things about people leaving Springfield when they retire. I am not in that camp. I think Springfield offers a great deal to individuals both while they are working and while they are retired. We’ve committed to stay here in this community for the foreseeable future.