By William D. Behling
He was a straight-arrow sort of guy. His word was his bond. He led a personal life of integrity, and he ran his successful business in the same way.
George Stankewitz, known by employees, customers and a host of friends as “Honest George,” is to have his name added to the roster in Beloit's Hall of Fame, along with four other deceased citizens. Enshrinement ceremonies will be at 2 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 16, at the Beloit Historical Society's Lincoln Center museum on Hackett Street. The public is welcome.
Best remembered as the owner-operator of the Pop House, a favorite gathering-place for students from local high schools and Beloit College, at Portland Avenue and Fifth Street, Stankewitz started the business in 1941. More than 30 years later, the place was renamed the Alumni House, and, in a concession to changing times, began serving liquor.
That business was only part of George Stankewitz's life, albeit a large part. He attended Parker School, and later Brother Dutton School, prior to going to Beloit High School, graduating with the class of 1943. He answered the call to military duty after graduation, and served as a rifleman in the 175th regiment of the 29th Infantry Division in Europe.
Experiencing fierce combat in Europe, Stankewitz was awarded the Combat Infantry Badge, the Bronze Star, the Purple Heart, and other recognition, and attained the rank of staff sergeant.
At war's end, Stankewitz's outfit was put in charge of taking custody of 150,000 German prisoners of war, plus thousands of displaced laborers the Germans had conscripted from various countries in Europe. He was made athletic director and arranged games for the men of his unit, as he awaited discharge and his return to Beloit.
The Pop House originated in his parents' former grocery store, which became a hangout for young people to eat and drink pop after school and weekends. Eventually, he converted the store to a place with booths and a jukebox. It soon outgrew the space, and Stankewitz had an addition with a dance floor built.
Over the years, the Pop House attracted such celebrities as Del Shannon, Bobby Goldsboro, the Kingmen, Bobby Vinton, the Fireballs, (who sang ‘Sugar Shack'), and many others.
Drawing on his interest in sports, Stankewitz started such traditional annual events as the “Turkey Bowl,” and the Bop House Olympics. He later instituted the Chili Fest, with chili-eating, dancing and the coronation of a king and queen.
Throughout his career as operator of the Pop House, and later the Alumni House, Stankewitz set rules of conduct, and they were enforced strictly: Obey the rules or leave. Period. No lying allowed.
Former employee and customer Tim Lowrie recalled Stankewitz as “just a great guy. He cared about Beloit and its people, especially the kids.”
He brought liquor into the business, reluctantly, in 1972, when the 18-year-old liquor law went into effect. It wasn't his favorite business decision, but it was a necessary one.
Stankewitz received the Beloit Booster Award, was named the Beloit Jaycees Outstanding Citizen, and the Beloit Daily News Outstanding Beloiter.
A lifelong member of St. Jude Catholic Church and its Holy Name Society, Stankewitz also acquired an interest in local affairs. He won election to the Beloit school board in 1974, during a period of growth and building in the district. He also served on the Rock County Board of Supervisors.
Though he never had children of his own, Stankewitz was a “father figure” to hundreds of kids who frequented his business. Plus, he had a huge “family” of friends and admirers, citywide.
Stankewitz was born Aug. 10, 1923, and died July 18, 1991. His survivors included two sisters, a brother, nieces and nephews and a legion of friends.