By DARRICK BOORD
Special to Profootballhof.com
John William "Bill" Bankert spent nearly all of his working life at the Professional Football Hall of Fame in Canton, beginning his career there in 1964 - just one year after the Hall opened - and staying on until his premature retirement in December 2005.
"Once he walked in that door, he really never walked out," said Joan Bankert, who married John in 1962. "He got hired and kept moving up the ladder."
John made it all the way to the top, becoming the Hall's fourth president/executive director in 1996. His retirement was brought on not by age, tenure, loss of desire or any of the reasons generally associated with wrapping up a career. John's retirement was thrust forcibly on him by the onset of Lewy body dementia, a debilitating disease that his family described as a combination of Alzheimer's and Parkinson's diseases.
"With Dad, it hit pretty quickly," said John's son Mark Bankert. "It's been tough for him. He's kind of at the point now that he doesn't get out of the house much at all."
John - who is more commonly known as Bill around his hometown of Waynesburg - was diagnosed with the disease in March of 2005 at the age of 65. Mark said that even before that, John knew something was wrong. He knew he was forgetting simple things that most everyone takes for granted. And he couldn't believe it was happening.
Mark still remembers the day they decided that John needed to see a doctor.
"He called me at work and said, 'Mark, after 50 years I can't tie my tie.'"
Cleveland Clinic specialists diagnosed that John was suffering from Lewy body dementia.
It is a degenerative disease, and Mark said he suspects that his father likely had the disease for at least a year or more before he was diagnosed.
It was about the same time as his diagnosis that John moved back in with his former wife, Joan. The pair had divorced in 1996 after 34 years of marriage, but remained close friends throughout their separation. She has been his main caretaker throughout his battle.
"It was a rough period of time when we were apart," Joan said. "But I think things happen for a reason. The years apart from him prepared me for what I'm dealing with now. It made me a stronger person, more independent. That's what I need to be now. I think, well, maybe God watches over us, maybe he knew what was best at the time.
"I just felt like it was such a blessing for me to have him back and be able to take care of him. I just told him, hey, you need to be here. This is where he wanted to be. It's just full circle, he's back home again."
Being in charge of a nationally-renown institution such as the Hall of Fame is a lofty position for a small-town boy from Waynesburg.
"He was always a well-behaved boy," said John's mother, Florence Bankert, 92. "He didn't get in any trouble. He is very kind to everybody and always was. He was just a good kid."
John began dating Joan when he was a 17-year-old senior and she was a 15-year-old sophomore in 1958. They were married four years later while John was in the Army. It was while he was stationed at Fort Lee in Virginia that he first heard that the Hall of Fame would be coming to Canton. The couple moved back to the area after finishing his term in the service, and John began classes at Malone College in January 1963. It was there that he saw an ad from the Hall of Fame seeking someone to take care of the theater and movies.
"He had done that in the Army," Joan said. "So he went over and applied and got the job. He knew all about that they wanted him to take care of.
"It had been open almost a year when he started working there. He definitely got in on the ground floor. He started out working in the film library. He was in college and I was working full-time. That was our life for a few years. He gradually started working full-time and going to college part-time. They just kept stepping him up. He continued and was made director when Pete Elliott retired (in 1996.) But he started out making $1.50 an hour."
Joan said that working for the Hall of Fame was a great experience not only for John, but also for herself.
"We were small-town born and raised," she said. "When he started there it was very exciting. We felt very blessed for him to have a position like that. We got to do some exciting things, do some traveling and meet some people we wouldn't normally have been able to. The Hall of Fame was great place to work - it has always been good to him. He loved his job. He loved working there. He did a lot for Hall, and the Hall did a lot for him."
While meeting the vast array of football greats would be the most obvious memorable experience, Joan said it was other celebrities who stand out in her mind.
"One time we were in the same place where Bob Hope was," she said. "I thought, how can I even be in the same vicinity where Bob Hope is?"
And Jimmy Stewart.
"At this cocktail party, Bill knew how enamored I was with James Stewart. So Bill said, "Come on, we're going to go over and I'm going to introduce you to him. We walked over and Bill introduced us. He shook my hand.
"We just always felt very fortunate. It was like, oh my golly can it possibly be us doing this? When he was in the Army and we were in a little apartment ... it was beyond our wildest dreams to be fortunate enough to do all the things we did."
For Mark, John and Joan's oldest son and the sports information director at Malone College, his father and the Hall of Fame always will be linked together.
"It was neat, I was really proud that he worked at the Hall of Fame and had been there basically since it opened, the year after it opened," Mark said. "My whole memories were always of him working at the Hall of Fame. As I grew up, as a youngster, when I saw an ad or saw the Hall of Fame I thought of my dad. It was like one in the same.
"All of my friends knew my dad worked there. My friends would joke, 'I bet you have Hall of Fame underwear!'"
Mark said that even though his father's position was very exciting, it was also very demanding.
"His job demanded lot of him, including some travel, particularly as he grew higher up there. But I always remember still getting to do stuff, my brothers and sisters and I. He probably never took his full vacation. I think he kind of felt he couldn't afford to be gone that much - he didn't feel comfortable with that. But we still did some fun things as a family growing up. I remember going to zoos, going to Storybook Forest over there in Pennsylvania.
"We did go to Disney World in Florida. That was kind of tied into a Super Bowl that was down there. It was a huge part of his life, so it took up a lot of his time. But we had time here and there for vacation. And we got the benefit of him being in the Hall of Fame and getting to see all of that. I got to go to six Super Bowls because of my dad."
His family said that John took great pride in his work at the Hall, and was careful to maintain a professional relationship with the football greats who were honored throughout the years.
"One thing he always said was he never got up in the morning not wanting to go to work," said his mother, Florence. "He talked about it a lot because he enjoyed it so much."
"If I had an idea to maybe get an autograph, he kind of discouraged that," Mark said. "A handshake is all you need. He wanted to treat the incoming Hall of Famers really first-class. He made sure they were cared for, them and their families. He made sure they weren't bombarded by people.
"I always felt my dad was really comfortable around these people. He worked there for so long ... he felt really comfortable around them, he could chat with them. It was like one of his friends, he wasn't in awe of them. Everybody knew who he was, obviously. As executive director he was well-known. But he did have a lot of great people around him. They were outstanding to work with and I know he really appreciated all the great, wonderful people he had to work with."
One of those people was Tammy Owens, the executive assistant at the Hall and a former Magnolia resident.
"John was a very demanding boss," Owens said. "But more than that, he was a friend. I think those two combined made you respect him for who he was and what he brought to the Hall of Fame. He was one who, when you thought you couldn't give any more, he made you dig down deep into yourself. He could pull that out of you. That's what I admired about him most. He was trying to get everything he could out of all his staff. He's a great, great person.
"He wanted it to be perfect for everybody. He wanted everybody to be proud of their work. He put his heart and soul into his work. He knew how to push your buttons and pull these best out that you had in you. He knew things that people could do that they didn't know they had in them. And he was also my best friend. He helped me through the death of my dad and other things. He was always there as a good, good friend. He was our rock there at the Hall for a long, long time."
Kay Hatfield, another Sandy Valley-area resident, also got her start at the Hall under Bankert.
"He was great," Hatfield said. "We had a great time, and we got everything done. It was a family atmosphere. It was very nice.
"I started out babysitting his children. That's sort of how I got my job there. The job opening came up, he asked me to apply and I did. I got the job there and I've just stayed ever since."
John has earned many lasting friendships through his years at the Hall of Fame, including several with some of football's all-time greats.
"I know one of his better friends, among the Hall of Famers, was Gale Sayers," Mark said. "They particularly seemed to be close. Gale seemed to come back practically every year. And I know he was close to Paul Hornung. And when Gene Hickerson was elected ... Dad was really excited and thrilled that he got in.
"Lamar Hunt, Dick "Night Train" Lane, Bobby Mitchell, Marion Motley, Paul Warfield were others whom he considered to be good friends.
"Dad never really talked a whole lot about different things that went on with people. It was more just official, he didn't necessarily want to go around and share things. But I would see people back in his office. He knew everybody really well."
Pete Elliott, who preceded John as the Hall's executive director, was a big influence.
"Pete Elliott is his good, good buddy," Joan said. "Not only is he the director that (John) worked under, they were very, very good friends. He has just continued to be a true friend. No more than two weeks will go by and he'll come visit him. They used to go every year to Kentucky Derby, just the two of them. They knew all the people, got to go to all the nice parties. He loved that trip. Other than the Hall of Fame functions, which were first, I think the Kentucky Derby was right up there."
Mark agreed with his mother.
"One person that I definitely consider Dad's best friend is Pete Elliott," Mark said. "And there were so many other people. Particularly that first year (after he was diagnosed), he got so many cards from people. He was so proud of that. I think it made him feel really great that so many people remembered him, cared and wished him the best not just with retirement but with disease.
"There were even a lot of Hall of Famers, he did get lot of calls from people. A couple even said, "Hey if you need anything" - I'm pretty sure it was Al Davis who said if you need flown here, taken care of, he said if there was anything he could do or if Dad needed anything special, don't hesitate to ask."
Mark said that Lewy body dementia patients have a life expectancy of 5-7 years. Doctors say John's decline is at least average, if not worse than average. He still knows people and recognizes faces, but his short-term memory has been failing.
"It's progressive and degenerative, and it's doing that," Joan said. "He's pretty much dependent on other people to move him, to transfer him to his chair and to bed, up and down. He's well into the disease, but still enjoys seeing his family and grandchildren. It's just sad that he had to be unfortunate enough to come down with this disease. It kind of has taken one thing away at a time everything from him that he used to enjoy doing.
"We've had a lot of good happen in our lives. He'd say, 'You know Joan, I've lived such a good life ... I've done everything I've never wanted and more. I've had more experiences and done so much more.'
"We did have lot of good in life that we feel blessed for, and to work for place you can feel like they're family - that's the way he felt about the Hall. I can't say enough about how good they continue to be to him, which is another blessing. In life I guess you have to count your blessings and be grateful for what you have.
"The bad part is just to see him ... he was so vital, he had a smile that would light up room."
Florence echoed that statement.
"When he would give a speech or anything, the words just rolled off his lips. When he got to the point he couldn't do that, that was very hard."
John's family includes Joan and Florence and his four children - Mark and his wife Colleen and their three children; Craig in Florida; Juli and her husband Jason Haines and their four children and Brett, his wife Mandy and their child.
"I feel blessed to have him with me and our children to help me," Joan said. "I have help every day. It just goes by so quickly ... and the older you get, the faster it goes, too. You just have to enjoy each day. Don't ever take anything for granted, enjoy all the good you have in life and live with what's not so good. Make the best with what you can."
"One thing I do think," Florence added, "Is how proud his dad would've been of him.
"He would've just been bursting with pride. And I'm proud of him, too."
This article was originally published in the The Press-News on Aug. 6, 2008. Republished with permission.
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