SYCAMORE – John Castle’s laugh is hearty and infectious. He has an easy smile and a way about him that puts people at ease.
He’s 86, but seems younger. He’s lived and worked in DeKalb County for decades, helping to shape and build multiple institutions through business, political and philanthropic exploits. But it’s the chain of bank branches once known as Castle Bank for which he may be best known.
“Banking was perfect for me,” said Castle, who lives in Sycamore. “I love people, and I was fortunate to have so many people who were so good at what they did and cared so much about their customers. It was just great to be around the people.”
Castle’s 60-plus years in the banking business will conclude Thursday, when he attends the last of hundreds of bank board meetings – this one as chairman of a local advisory board for the Illinois branches of First National Bank. During his banking career, as well as his work in politics, businesses including printing and newspaper publishing and community nonprofit groups, he has left a lasting mark on the area.
In keeping with the family tradition, his son, David, will take his place.
His easy manner and concern for people earned him the loyalty of customers. Many of those who worked at his businesses over the years say they were proud to work for him – and that he had a way of making them want to do their best.
Government and business
Castle grew up in Sandwich until leaving for boarding school at 14, and returned to DeKalb County in 1965 with a prestigious pedigree: a Princeton graduate, an Army veteran who had been deployed to Germany as an officer and a former Cook County prosecutor with a law degree from the University of Chicago.
Then 32 and married with children – he and first wife, Nancy D. Castle, would have three sons and a daughter – he already had been a member of the board of the family business, Sandwich State Bank, for a decade.
He began working as the city attorney for DeKalb, doing the legal work that would turn the DeKalb Community Hospital into Kishwaukee Community Hospital. In 1972, he was elected to the DeKalb County Board, and was promptly named chairman. Years later, in 1991, he would be recognized for his help in establishing the DeKalb County Economic Development Corp. and for years of supporting its mission.
“People in government and not-for-profit work really are good, decent people trying to do the right thing, and generally by and large do it pretty well,” Castle said. “I liked my time with the government.”
He also started a printing business and launched the DeKalb County Journal, a daily morning paper that competed with the afternoon Daily Chronicle in the early 1970s. Castle later sold the newspaper to the publisher of the Daily Chronicle, because “we were going broke,” he remembered with a chuckle. But the business, which became Castle PrinTech, would continue to thrive.
In 1969, Castle hired Jerry Smith, who had just returned from military service. Smith went on to a 30-year career with the business, the past 17 as company president. Smith remembered that Castle gave him the freedom to manage the operation, but made it clear who was in charge.
“He’s been just a community steward at its finest, and I can’t say enough about the 30 years that I spent with him,” said Smith, who would later become president of the DeKalb County Community Foundation and now is mayor of DeKalb. “He’s a man of great character, a man who expects a lot. While he let me pretty much run the company in the 17 years I was president, I knew who owned that company, and when John asked a question about the operations of that company, he expected an answer from the president, who was me.”
In the late 1970s and early ’80s, Castle served in the administration of Gov. Jim Thompson, but narrowly lost a bid for state comptroller in 1978. In 1980, Thompson tapped Castle to head a newly created state agency, the Department of Commerce and Community Affairs.
In that job, he faced a critical news media, and once rebutted a story about him being on the brink of leaving his post by telling a Daily Chronicle reporter, “I’m sure that if the wire released a story saying I’m dead, some papers would print it.” He also found himself dealing with people such as Michael Madigan, who in 1980 was House minority leader.
“He’s a shrewd man, he’s a very smart guy,” Castle said of Madigan, “and he’s very committed to what he wants to do.”
Castle left his state government post in February 1982. Although he would later meet President Ronald Reagan and both the elder and younger Presidents George Bush, banking would become his main professional endeavor.
Building Castle Bank
In January 1984, the smaller Sandwich State Bank acquired First National Bank of DeKalb. It was a coup for a small family-controlled bank to buy a larger institution, and Castle, by then chairman of the board, engineered the deal. A young employee at the DeKalb bank named Tim Struthers noticed a change right away.
“The old president had sat in a big fancy office, with couches and all that sort of stuff, and John just came in and sat in the lobby in a desk for about a year and just got to know everybody,” said Struthers, now 56. “That created an enormous change in the culture of that bank.
“We were kind of the second-fiddle bank in the town, the old DeKalb Bank was No. 1, we were No. 2, and John changed that in just a couple of years.”
The company’s banking business would continue to grow, and Struthers rose in stature there. Now he is senior vice president of commercial banking at First National Bank.
In 1991, Castle’s bank holding company acquired the First State Bank of Harvard. Then in December 1993, it acquired the Bank of Yorkville, where Stan Free would become president. Free, who worked with Castle about 26 years, calls him “the classiest guy you’ll ever know.”
“When you work for John, you want to do well for him, and the people who worked for John were proud to work for him,” Free said. “We wanted to please John because he’d
been good to us. We were proud of him as our owner,
and we wanted the bank to perform well for him.”
The bank’s shareholders certainly liked Castle – he made them money. A person who paid $1,400 for 10 shares of bank stock in 1958 was the owner of 6,000 shares of stock worth $99,000 in 1991, with about $14,000 in dividends to boot. The mid- to late ’90s saw Castle BancGroup report strong earnings, with its stock splitting two for one in 1999.
Selling the shares, keeping the name
As the 2000s began, the four community banks were renamed Castle Bank – but they needed capital to modernize and maintain market share. There were no more acquisitions to make, however. Although his family had controlling ownership of the bank for 145 years, the decision to sell in 2001 was easy, Castle said.
“Once you realize you probably weren’t going to grow anymore, and you might even start shrinking, and that would probably affect people in their lives, you try to find a way out,” Castle said. “The way out was selling, if you can find the right buyer.”
Castle had built community banks and sought a buyer to continue that tradition. In 2001, he found Bruce Lauritzen, another Princeton graduate whose family has controlled Nebraska-based First National Bank of Omaha for six generations.
Struthers said those who knew a sale was coming figured one of the big regional banks in Chicago would buy the company. They were dumbstruck when Castle told them he was selling to a company from Omaha.
“John had multiple potential buyers for the bank that could have yielded bigger value, but the family ownership was important,” Struthers said. “He told us and kind of promised that he was leaving it in good hands and that we would all kind of be proud of the buyer, and the great majority, most of us, are still here.”
The deal with First National was announced the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, as the world recoiled in horror at the unfolding terrorist attacks in New York and Washington, D.C. But Lauritzen didn’t have any second thoughts, Castle said.
Under the reported $81.7 million merger deal with First National, Castle Bank continued under a separate charter, and Castle remained as the local chairman of the board, while First National bought the shares for $18 apiece.
The Lauritzen family remained true to their community bank roots. The bank’s signature event, which began as the Castle Challenge in 2000 – now the First National Challenge – has raised more than $1 million for booster clubs at DeKalb and Sycamore high schools. The challenge games, which pit the Barbs against the Spartans in football and boys and girls basketball each fall and winter, are some of the best-attended sporting events in the county.
“They lived up to every promise they’ve made,” Castle said. “It was a great experience. People were well-treated, and it worked out very well.”
Tough times in banking
By 2008, the subprime mortgage crisis was putting people out of their homes and weighing down bank balance sheets. As were many others, Castle Bank was awash in stressed loans and foreclosed properties whose value had plummeted.
“[Castle] was tough and disciplined in the approach,” Free said. “He knew there was a job that had to get done and we had to do it well, but it was never a situation where it was, ‘What the hell did you guys do here?’ it was, ‘We’re going to work together, we’re going to get this thing figured out.’ ”
The numbers were ugly; the slide continued for years.
In 2011 alone, DeKalb County properties lost $200 million in combined assessed value; 1 in 5 homes sold in the county that year was bank-owned.
Castle knew he had to remain upbeat for the sake of the people working with him to solve the problem.
“The issue is how do you work out of it, how do you work out of it to save the bank, how do you work out of it to save the customer?” he said. “You don’t blame people. You try to come up with solutions that work for everyone.”
Those solutions required tough actions.
“The only way to solve it was you had to get them off your balance sheet, which meant really difficult conversations and actions. At the same time we kept our soul and stayed dignified through that process,” Struthers said. “We were never sued throughout that process.”
Many other banks were sued. In fact, the nation’s 10 largest banks would reach an $8.5 billion settlement with the government in 2013, paid to people who were improperly evicted from their homes.
In 2010, Castle Bank was combined with First National Bank, and in 2015 the local Castle Bank branches took the First National Bank name. Castle remained a member of the holding company’s board of directors until his last term expired in May.
From the time he joined the Sandwich State Bank board in 1955 until his final board meeting in May 2019, he attended more than 800 such meetings. The bank board he joined in 1955 controlled $3 million; by 2019, First National Bank of Nebraska controlled $21 billion, about 7,000 times more.
The banks Castle acquired and grew employed more than 400 people when he sold them, and have continued to provide the capital to help people start countless businesses and buy homes, Struthers said.
“The investment that he made in this town, in DeKalb, in DeKalb County – and he kind of doubled down on that investment – this building, all these employees all this stuff, it all gets back to his investment here,” he said.
Castle doesn’t claim a lot of credit for himself.
When it’s mentioned that he was given an award for helping to start the DCEDC, he said, “Don’t believe everything you read.”
As for the bank’s success, he credits the board of directors, including board President Bruce Bickner, who he points out never awarded him his full bonus. When he was asked during an appearance at Northern Illinois University how he got his job, he replied, “It helps to own stock.” He downplays whether he’s met any famous people, then concedes that he met three presidents.
Asked what he learned after so many years and achieving success in different ways. Castle thinks for a moment. It’s a question he’s heard before.
“If you can find things that you really like to do and are able to do them fairly well, that’s a pretty good start,” he said. “It helps to have friends and family who kind of pull together.
“Sometimes the easy times are the hardest. People can get a little carried away with themselves, and start doing things that they might not otherwise do.”
As an English major at Princeton, he studied poetry.
A favorite poem is “Ozymandias.” The 19th-century sonnet by Percy Bysshe Shelley is about a crumbling statue of a great ruler, “king of kings,” whose empire has disappeared beneath the shifting sands of time.
Unlike that mythical king of Shelley’s, the DeKalb County institutions Castle helped to build over more than 50 years are far from disappearing.
Castle and his wife, Nancy M. Castle, plan to remain in the area, too.
“My family’s been here for 150 years,” Castle said. “So you don’t very easily just leave.”