Stankovic heading to international polka hall of fame
The Citizens’ Voice via AP
NANTICOKE, Pa. — Back in his Polka band’s heyday, John “Stanky” Stankovic once had a globe-crossing marathon weekend by playing in England on Friday, at the Bloomsburg Fair on Saturday and in Switzerland on Sunday.
“How we did that? I don’t know. But we did it,” Stankovic, 83, said.
From playing at church bazaars in Northeast Pennsylvania to performing in front of one million people at a festival in Tiananmen Square in China, his band “Stanky and the Coal Miners” has been a world traveler.
That’s always been the plan.
When Stankovic was a boy, his coal miner father — who urged him to learn to play the accordion instead of focusing on baseball — told him if he learned 10 songs he could make a living for himself.
“I told him, ‘I’ll learn 11 and see the world.’ And I did,” Stankovic said.
Stankovic’s legendary 74-year career will soon be feted when he is inducted into the International Polka Association’s Hall of Fame. He’ll be inducted Aug. 31 during the organization’s 51st annual convention in Buffalo.
“I feel happy about that. It’s a wonderful thing after all these years and it’s a great honor,” Stankovic said.
Stankovic, who grew up in the Hanover section of Nanticoke, where he still lives, started taking accordion lessons in 1942 and formed his first band in 1945 when he was 9. They started by playing at weddings.
“When you played weddings, you played at houses. You didn’t go to ballrooms. Back in those days, weddings lasted for three days — Friday, Saturday and Sunday,” Stankovic said. “How you made money was when people were walking in the door, you held a basket out. At that time, everybody would give you a quarter, half dollar or dollar. Sometimes that would add up to $20 a guy. At that time, that was a hell of a lot of money.”
Early in his career, Stankovic’s band was a side gig, though they played as many as five nights a week.
His first job was as a “rag man,” essentially a junk collector who drove the streets looking for unwanted items he could sell. Later, he worked as a garbage man for Nanticoke’s Public Works Department. After that, he worked several other manual labor jobs until music became full time.
Stankovic’s band name was originally the “Tip Toppers” until he changed it to “Stanky and the Coal Miners.”
While the name paid tribute to the area’s coal mining roots, for him it was literal.
Stankovic’s early band mates were all coal miners and he picked them up directly from the mines to go on gigs.
“We used to pick them up and their faces were black, their clothes were black. We used to get to a job and they would wash their faces off in the restroom and then come out to play,” Stankovic recalled.
Stankovic’s biggest supporter for most of his career has been his wife of 57 years, Dottie, who is well known for being Luzerne County’s long-time elected register of wills. She often took the stage with the band to sing, ring bells and play the violin.
For decades, the couple hosted the “Pennsylvania Polka” show on WVIA public television, a show which televised people dancing to Polka music.
Polka music allowed Stankovic and his wife to travel the world together. They’ve been to five continents where “Stanky and the Coal Miners” performed. Sometimes as many as 100 fans from Northeastern Pennsylvania would join them.
Stankovic said his band performed on nearly 60 cruises, including 25 to Alaska. One cruise liner, he said, offered his band the opportunity to be the performers for a 100-day cruise around the world, but he had to decline.
“If we did take that, we would have lost our day jobs,” Stankovic said.
During the band’s peak, they were booked two years in advance.
As the older generation has passed away, the demand for Polka music has diminished, Stankovic said.
But he still plays at festivals and nursing homes.
Stankovic continues to play annually at Knoebels Amusement Resort and this year will mark his 45th consecutive year playing at the Bloomsburg Fair. Most recently, “Stanky and the Coal Miners” performed Friday at the Plymouth Alive Kielbasa Festival.
At 83, Stankovic still plays the accordion flawlessly and his voice is still sharp. He just uses a lighter accordion than the one he used for most of his career. And instead of standing during performances, he sits on a stool.
But retirement from Polka isn’t even an option, he said.
“If people keep calling, I’m going to keep playing,” Stankovic said.