When Philip and Heidi Sarnecki pledged $500,000 to the State Farm Center renovation — landing the naming rights to the coaches' locker room — they did so in Robert Sarnecki's name.
When John Groce flew his Illinois basketball team to Oregon for a nationally televised game in December, Philip Sarnecki and his wife, Heidi, got to tag along for the ride.
The time before that, it was Groce who was the guest — at the Sarneckis' home, in Kansas of all states, with the orange-and-blue full court for a basement and the big Chief Illiniwek painted on the wall.
But as first-rate as the accommodations are now for the season-ticket holder and donor, Philip Sarnecki remembers the lean times during his youth in Homer and St. Joseph, when scoring any Illini tickets was a rare treat.
Even then, it usually meant watching Big Ten basketball from the cheap seats in C section of the Assembly Hall.
"My dad was a janitor at the UI for over 30 years," said the 1992 UI grad, a son of Robert and Kathy Sarnecki.
"He didn't make a ton of money, but he was a great dad and he worked really hard to take care of his family. Both of my parents worked very hard and made a lot of sacrifices so they could do things for us kids. I certainly wouldn't be where I am today without them."
Last month, Sarnecki showed his appreciation in a unique way.
When he and Heidi pledged $500,000 to the State Farm Center renovation — landing the naming rights to the coaches' locker room — they did so in Robert Sarnecki's name.
"It was a way to honor him and really, everyone (at the UI) like my mom and dad who kind of worked under the radar and never got any public recognition for all of their hard work and dedication," Sarnecki said.
Like father, like son
Both Robert and Kathy Sarnecki spent most of their lives in Champaign County. Robert, 68, lived in Urbana until his mother died in 1960, then moved in with an aunt and uncle in Champaign. After graduating from Central High School, he enlisted in the Army and served for three years, including a tour in Vietnam.
An Air Force brat, Kathy, 65, was born in Guam, then moved around with her family. When she was 7, her father was stationed at Chanute Air Force Base in Rantoul, and the family settled in Ludlow. She moved to Urbana in the eighth grade and went on to graduate from Urbana High School.
Kathy was attending Parkland College and working at the old Red Wheel Restaurant in Urbana when Robert, home from Vietnam, stopped in with his buddies.
"I waited on him. He told the guys he was sitting with, 'I'm going to marry that girl,'" recalled Kathy, who exchanged vows with Robert a few months later.
Back then, Robert was interested in a career with the U.S. Marshals Service or as a long-distance truck driver. But after coming home from the war — where he believes he was exposed to the Agent Orange chemical herbicide — his eyesight began to deteriorate.
"That held him back from several job opportunities," Kathy said of her husband, who's now legally blind.
At his uncle's suggestion, Robert found a steady job as a building service worker at the Florida Avenue Residence Hall. He retired in 2000 after 30-plus years.
He said the job allowed him to provide for his family — which also includes son Todd of St. Joseph, and a daughter, Katie Kayzak of Wichita, Kan. It also allowed him to volunteer for two organizations he was passionate about — the Champaign County Civil Defense, the forerunner to the Champaign County Emergency Management Agency, and the Homer Emergency Service & Disaster Agency.
Robert oversaw storm spotters for the civil defense, then left in the early 1970s to help launch the agency in Homer, where he and Kathy settled shortly after marrying. He became that agency's coordinator and was in charge of the rescue squad until he moved to St. Joseph in 1987.
Meanwhile, Kathy, who started filing and typing in high school as part of a federal work program for youth, worked as a secretary in a Department of Agriculture office on the UI campus. She left it and held a number of part-time jobs — including baby-sitting, selling Avon products, making doughnuts and working in a bookstore — while her kids were growing up.
She later went back to the UI as a secretary and retired in 2005 after 20 years with the university.
"I did a lot of part-time work so I could be around for my kids," she said, remembering how both she and her husband "kind of had a tumultuous life growing up. We wanted to provide a good, stable, loving, Christian home for them."
'Very loving, giving'
His parents' work ethic rubbed off on Philip Sarnecki early on. At 15, he started busing tables at his aunt and godmother Ginger Timpone's restaurant. And at 19, while studying finance and political science at the UI, he started an internship with a Northwestern Mutual office in Champaign.
By age 34, Sarnecki was the firm's youngest managing partner and based in Cincinnati. Now 43, he is the managing partner of RPS Financial Group in Kansas City, overseeing a staff of 240. On the side, Sarnecki is involved in a real-estate business and even started his own movie production company.
And, of course, he still keeps close ties with his alma mater. His family — which includes children Emilye, 13; Blake, 6; and Ava, 4 — has hosted Groce, UI baseball coach Dan Hartleb and athletic director Mike Thomas at their Overland Park home. When Thomas approached the Sarneckis about helping pay for the State Farm Center's $165 million renovation, they agreed to do it — but in Robert's name.
"Not many janitors have a locker room named after them," Sarnecki said.
Two years ago, Sarnecki moved his folks to Overland Park. They live in a 1,750-square-foot guest house — built just for them on their son's property.
Robert was both surprised and touched when his son casually mentioned the gift one evening during a family dinner. He responded in his typical low-key manner — something like, "Gee whiz. Thank you."
While Dad isn't the diehard Illini fan that his son is — Robert prefers pro sports, wrestling and NASCAR — both parents couldn't be more thankful.
"We feel very fortunate and blessed that he wants to do for us the way he does," Kathy Sarnecki said. "... He's a very loving, giving person."