John Proko (gray shirt, center) was honored Oct. 23 for his 70 years as a member of the Knights of Columbus. (Photo by Karen Mahoney)

Knights of Columbus came to Kenosha’s Italian American Club to honor John Proko on Tuesday, Oct. 23, for his 70 years of service to the worldwide Catholic fraternal service order.

The Kenosha resident and owner of Proko Funeral Home is a member of the St. Mary’s Council 14362.

Members of the Knights of Columbus District 67, consisting of St John Neumann Council 973, St. Mary’s Church Council 14362, Divine Mercy St. Anne Council 16022 and St. Stanislaus Papczynski Council 16765, honored Proko at a surprise celebration dinner.

Proko, who has been a member of three different councils in his lifetime, expected to be celebrating the birthdays of a few grandchildren and was shocked to learn that he was the honored guest.

“I have never been this surprised in my whole life and this has been a long life,” he said. “I did not see the sign on the building but did see all the cars in the parking lot. I thought something must be going on but didn’t know it was for me. I am so grateful for the friendship and comradeship of these men and this wonderful organization.”

The 93-year-old received a plaque as an appreciation gift from the district but joked that he was hoping for the “golden chalice.”

The golden chalice was a program the district offered when a knight who reached the highest rank would die; the assembly would purchase a gold chalice and engrave the name of the knight at the base. The chalice would be donated to a local priest, bishop or missionary in the name of the deceased.

“I’ve been awfully worried about it because I heard that when you die you get that golden chalice,” said Proko.

Dr. David Kreutz, who is the Grand Knight for Council 973 and the Warden for District 67, explained the policy has changed and the knights no longer offer the chalice program, and that a knight who passes away now receives a series of Mass intentions instead.

“I knew it would happen,” Proko said. “I figured I would just miss the mark.”

Terry Glidden, Grand Knight of Council 16765 and Past Navigator, informed Kreutz that the district had three chalices left; and he promised to save one for Proko.

“You can take it from the top. He doesn’t have to hurry, does he? Maybe you can have all three of them,” laughed Kreutz, who admitted he had not heard of a knight serving 70 years in Wisconsin and especially not within the Archdiocese of Milwaukee.

Proko joined the Knights of Columbus when he was 23, just after he earned his funeral license. The self-described adventurist also had his commercial pilot’s license, drove charter planes and enjoyed riding his motorcycle.

“I was born in Pulaski, got married to my late wife, Magdala, in 1949, got my funeral license and moved to West Allis. I joined a council there — I can’t remember the name of it, but I was a charter member,” he said. “I moved to Kenosha in 1962, bought the funeral home and have been here ever since.”

Proko and Magdala, who died 12 years ago, have six children. He has 12 grandchildren and nine great-grandchildren, many of whom attended the celebration. In addition to owning Proko Funeral Home and serving with the Knights of Columbus, he also served on the Chamber of Commerce, was president of the Cancer Society, and served as chairman of the Kenosha Museum. Growing up in a faithful Catholic family as one of six boys, Proko said joining the Knights of Columbus seemed like the natural course.

“I was always involved in religious activities and when the Knights of Columbus asked me to join, I did and have enjoyed it very much. I also had fun being involved in the Friday fish fry and the Tootsie Roll drive each year, though I have not been active recently,” he said. “I was happy to get my son-in-law, Bill Drier, involved with the St. Mary’s council and I am still working on a couple of grandsons.”

Traveling to various locations for meetings and meeting new people was also a highlight of his tenure with the Knights of Columbus.

“The problem with me is that all my friends are gone. I have outlived them all,” he said. “But the guys are telling me I had better make it to my 75th anniversary. Only God knows.”