KANKAKEE — Bill Cheffer was on his way to see about gaining a job in construction in the summer of 1952 following his graduation from Bradley University when he was walking down a Kankakee sidewalk and decided to walk inside Kankakee Federal Savings Bank.
“I thought maybe there was something I could do in banking,” he reasoned.
In a life and career filled with solid decisions, that was just one of many made by Cheffer, one of the key figures in leading Kankakee Federal Savings Bank and what it later became, KFS Savings. But Cheffer also helped develop the Kankakee region by serving on organization boards that developed such institutions as Riverside Medical Center, the Kankakee YMCA, the Kankakee YWCA and numerous others.
Born and raised in Kankakee, Cheffer never had any intention of leaving the community he’s called home basically his entire life. He reflected upon those decisions less than a week ahead of July 3, the day he turns 90.
Seating in his living room chair in the west Kankakee house he helped build and has called home since July 4, 1978, the tall, slender Cheffer could not imagine being any other place.
Low-keyed. Thoughtful. Honest. Loyal.
Those are just a few of the words friends, family and co-workers used to help describe the man who played a key role in not only helping the community grow, but in aiding others who wanted to become homeowners or business owners or people who merely wanted to send their children off to school.
The 1948 graduate of Kankakee High School and 1952 graduate of Bradley University was the “man behind the scene” who helped so many others here.
In addition to his banking duties, Cheffer served on the building committee for the original Riverside Medical Center, for the YMCA and the Central Christian Church (where he is a member). He served as Riverside Foundation Board chairman and was honored with the healthcare system’s “Samaritan of the Year” designation in 2000.
He also served with the Kankakee Chamber of Commerce, Kankakee Community Chest, Kankakee Development Corporation, United Way of Kankakee County, Kankakee Masonic Lodge and Lions Little League.
“If there were a picture beside the words ‘quintessential gentleman’ in the dictionary, there would be the photograph of Bill Cheffer,” said Mike Stanfa, who worked alongside Cheffer for 17 years at Kankakee Federal. “He is without question one of the fairest and kindest men in the business world and it carried well beyond just the business world.
“I do not believe you would ever hear him say a bad word about anyone. Not one,” Stanfa said. “The question he always asked himself before he made a decision was, ‘How will something effect other?’ ... You won’t find anyone in this town who will say a bad thing about him. He lived by the thought of respecting family, faith and friends.”
Such praise would no doubt make Cheffer uncomfortable, but the man who began his banking career in June 1952, shortly after his graduation from Bradley University in Peoria — some four years after his 1948 graduation from Kankakee High School — the soft-spoken gentlemen, who along with his wife, Irma, raised a family of three children, couldn’t have imagined having such a life.
He rose from the ranks of being an appraiser for the bank, to assistant secretary, to assistant vice president and through a few other posts before president and chief operating officer in 1988. He became president and chief executive officer in 1992. He then became president and CEO of Kankakee Bancorp in 1992.
After rising to the rank of chairman of the board of KFS Savings Bank in 2000, he resigned as chairman for Kankakee Bancorp and board chairman of KFS Savings Bank in January 2003. At the time of his retirement, he had been with the organization for more than 50 years.
Why did he choose to step away from the bank and from various other community roles? He wanted to spend more time with his wife, his children and their children. It is a decision, he said, he has never looked back upon with any sense of regret. He was able to enjoy antiquing with Irma, who now suffers from Alzheimer’s disease. He’s been able to watch his grandchildren grow and now, great-grandchildren.
“We always thought we would be able to grow old together, but it was not to be,” he said of Irma, who now lives in a nursing home.
A HUMBLE MAN
One of his grandchildren, Sarah Cheffer-Schoon, 32, of Gilman, noted she has followed in her grandfather’s footsteps. While not in the world of finance, she serves as the program director for the Central Citizens’ Library District in Clifton. Like her grandpa, she serves several organizations — such as the Kankakee Rotary Club, the Iroquois County Chamber of Commerce and volunteers at Riverside — and she believes that’s a calling she inherited from him.
When contacted to discuss her grandfather, Sarah was somewhat surprised he agreed to the story. He doesn’t like to call attention to himself, she explained.
“He’s so humble. He tries to stay out of the limelight,” she said.
Whatever the reason for him backing away from his career, Sarah, the daughter of Larry and Chris Cheffer, noted she is glad he did. She grew up being able to spend time with him — just a granddaughter with her grandfather.
“He taught me how to put siding on a house,” she boasted.
More importantly, he taught her to carry herself with honor and treating people with that same honor.
She said she tried to get him to attend some Riverside events, but he most often declined.
“He would always say he didn’t want the attention. But I see people who look to him for advice and leadership.”
‘PEOPLE TRUSTING OTHER PEOPLE’
Asked what he thinks will be the lasting mark of Bill Cheffer, he deflects the question.
“I’ve never been one to set goals that I want to be here or there or to done this or that,” he said. “I just wanted to have a decent job and to take care of and raise a family. I’ve been blessed. I never aspired to be president or CEO of Kankakee Federal. I had planned on being a homebuilder.”
Although their paths did not intersect due to their ages, Phil Kambic noted that Cheffer had much to do with the formation and success of the medical center.
“He was one of those people who became involved because it was the right thing to do, not because it was an obligation,” said Kambic, Riverside Healthcare president and CEO.
He also noted this community wouldn’t have prospered if not for local bankers such as Cheffer.
“He was not only supportive, but active. He provided that financial guidance to not only those at the bank, but at this hospital as well,” he said.
Inside his garage where he stores a classic Ford Mustang, Cheffer was asked what he does with his life since retirement. He doesn’t flinch.
“Not much,” he said. “I’ve enjoyed retirement.”
He paused. He adjusted his glasses.
“It’s been a great life. I’ve been fortunate,” he said. “People have told my children that ‘If it wasn’t for your dad, I wouldn’t have been able to get my house.’ That’s really what banking is all about. People trusting other people.”