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John Koten

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John Koten Obituary
icon John A. Koten, a prominent supporter of education and the arts in Chicago and a leader in the field of public relations, died in Hinsdale, Ill., at age 84. Known by his friends as "Jack", Mr. Koten spent his entire career in various operating, financial, and corporate communications capacities in what was known as the Bell System. He worked at AT&T, Illinois Bell, New Jersey Bell, and retired as senior vice president of Ameritech and president of its Ameritech Foundation in 1994. He was known as a strong proponent of corporate social responsibility long before it became popular to do so. Early in his career, he served as executive director of the Better Schools Committee of Chicago, and spearheaded a referendum that increased funding for education in the city. He also was a member of the Illinois Schools Problems Commission and a life trustee of the Associated Colleges of Illinois. He arranged for the Ameritech foundation to make $1 million grants to ten Midwest universities, including Northwestern, the University of Chicago, and the University of Illinois. He was on the board of visitors of the Medill School of Journalism and was a director of the Plank Center for Public Relations at the University of Alabama. He helped start the Page Center at Penn State University. He also was a proud trustee of his alma mater, North Central College in Naperville, Ill., where he received an honorary degree. The Koten chapel at North Central is named in the family's honor. In addition to his interest in helping schools, Koten had a great love of the arts and ceaselessly advocated their importance to the culture of the city. He served as a life trustee of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, which he helped to tour in Europe, and as a director and treasurer of the Arts Alliance Illinois. He also was a strong supporter of the Lyric Opera of Chicago, arranging for the funding of several productions, including Puccini's Turandot, with sets by David Hockney. In one of his last acts at Ameritech, he committed to help bring the Monet exhibit to the Art Institute of Chicago. Outside Chicago, Koten served as a director of the American Symphony Orchestra League in Washington, D.C., was vice chairman of the American Arts Alliance in Washington, D.C., and a member of the board of overseers of the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia. He once helped convince Ruth Lilly to give $50 million to the American Poetry Society, with a $100,000 grant given each year to a poet. Of all of his many achievements, he was perhaps most proud of his work to found the Arthur W. Page Society, an organization of senior corporate communications executives dedicated to upholding high standards in the field. Koten was inducted into the Arthur Page Society Hall of Fame in 1995. Following his retirement, he compiled and edited Building Trust, a book advocating that corporations have a duty to operate with integrity and play a positive role in the communities from which they derive economic support. He did not like referring to what he did as "pr" or "publicity" but rather believed the role of the senior public affairs officer of a company was to learn what problems were hurting relations with important constituencies and then to develop and implement solutions to those problems. Koten demonstrated this philosophy at Illinois Bell following the riots that took place during the 1968 Democratic National Convention. He worked as contributor to The Walker Report to the National Commission on The Causes and Prevention of Violence, which investigated the causes of the riots and was later published under the title Rights in Conflict. He also served as director of business and industry for the Illinois Sesquicentennial Commission, on loan for a year from the telephone company. Other foundations and civic organizations in which he played a leadership role included serving as chairman of the Great Books Foundation and a director of the Economic Club of Chicago. A tireless, energetic worker who loved a challenge as much as ticking things off his daily hand-scrawled to-do list, Koten participated actively in the Public Relations Society of America, the National Manufacturers Association, the Conference Board, the Chicago Advertising Club, and the Tavern Club. He was a director of the Church Federation and chairman of the Board of Pensions of the Northern Illinois Conference of the United Methodist Church. When the 120-year-old United Methodist Church in Barrington, Ill., burned to the ground in 1998, he helped get together the funds to build a new sanctuary. He also served as a trustee of the District 220 Educational Foundation, which raises money for Barrington's public schools. A long-time resident of Barrington Hills, he also owned a summer home in Rochester, Indiana, a modest farm town between South Bend and Indianapolis. It was in Rochester that he began a lifelong love...with trains. As a boy, he would often make an effort to get to the tracks to spot the first signs of a Nickel Plate or Erie Lackawanna locomotive as it rumbled toward town en route to New York City or other distant locations. He memorized the timetables of every major train route in the U.S., so that at any given moment of the day, he could report which train was pulling into which station. He also traveled to see some of the vaunted trains of his time like the California Zephyr, Broadway Limited, Empire Builder and Phoebe Snow. When the Santa Fe's Super Chief and El Capitan appeared side-by-side at a Chicago train station, he found a spot on a bridge to snap a photo with his favorite Leica. At one point or another in his life, he worked in a bakery, wrote obituaries for the Indianapolis Star, and helped Ralston Purina introduce Rice Checks to the Midwest. He played the clarinet and could listen to Benny Goodman endlessly. He enjoyed painting--the kind you do on a house or the interior of a room. He loved sailing the most of any outdoor activity. John Alfred Koten was born in Indianapolis and went to Cooley high school in Detroit, where he ran track. At North Central, he was president of his class and edited the student newspaper. He did his basic training at Fort Knox and served in the U.S. Army at Fort Hood in Killeen, Texas. He is a descendent of Indiana poet John E. Troutman and was preceded in death by his parents, Roy Y. and M. Margaret "Peg" Koten (Neerman). He is survived by his wife, Catherine M. Koten (Hruska), a sister, Jane Koten, three children, John F. (Marisa), Mark (Karen), and Sarah (Tom Manley), and four grandchildren, Jake, Graham, Mak and Kate. As busy as he was throughout his life, he always found time for the family who loved him and who now miss him very much. Funeral services were held January 9 at Good Family Funeral Home in Rochester, followed by burial at the I.O.O.F. Cemetery there. Memorial services will take place later in the year at the Barrington United Methodist Church and at North Central College. Donations in his memory may be made to North Central College or to the Barrington United Methodist Church. Those interested in memorial details should send an email to
Published in a Chicago Tribune Media Group Publication on Jan. 26, 2014
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