Vanko remembered as educational leader in St. Charles

  • John Vanko

    John Vanko

Updated 4/15/2021 4:36 PM

Decades before John Vanko became superintendent for St. Charles' schools, his father was a young boy from Eastern Europe who was eager to learn English when his family settled in Pennsylvania.

His father's drive stayed with Vanko his entire life.


Vanko, who served as superintendent for St. Charles Unit District 303 from 1991 to 1996, died Monday at his St. Charles home after a 15-month battle with pancreatic cancer. He was 83.

Martha Vanko, John's wife of 63 years and a retired English teacher, stressed her husband's upbringing in shaping a lifelong passion for education. He is also survived by two children, Kimberly and Kenneth, his brother, Richard, five grandchildren and a great-grandson.

"John was very proud to be the firstborn son of a Czech immigrant," Martha Vanko said. "Education was very important to John and very important to his parents, even though they lacked much formal education. They wanted him to get as much education as he could."

Vanko was a teacher and principal at Joliet West High School before being named associate superintendent in District 303 in 1976 and superintendent in 1991. Vanko was instrumental in helping secure voter approval to build what is now Wredling Middle School.

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After his retirement from District 303, Vanko taught at Aurora University until 2008. St. Charles Mayor Ray Rogina, who taught at St. Charles High School, worked with Vanko at Aurora University.

"John Vanko was my superintendent, teaching partner and friend," Rogina said. "Our teaching arrangement at Aurora University for seven years teaching school law was one of the highlights of my teaching career."

Vanko was a standout athlete at Streator High School. After declining a tryout with the Chicago White Sox, he accepted a basketball scholarship to Western Illinois University. He earned his doctorate at Loyola University.

"The District 303 community was saddened to hear of Dr. Vanko's passing," District 303 officials said in a statement. "His thoughtful leadership and strength of character was a guiding influence on staff members who served with him in District 303."


Vanko served on the Delnor Hospital board for 10 years and volunteered with many organizations. He and his wife were avid golfers -- he shot four holes-in-one, including one just two years ago -- and they enjoyed numerous trips to Europe.

A funeral Mass will be held at 10:30 a.m. Tuesday at St. Patrick Crane Road Church in St. Charles. Internment will follow at Resurrection Catholic Cemetery in Geneva. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, there is no visitation.

In lieu of flowers, the family asks that donations be made to St. Jude Children's Research Hospital or the District 303 Education Foundation. For further information, contact Yurs Funeral Home.

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