Reverend John R. Cantwell Sr., 87, of Le Claire, IA, died from complications of dementia and kidney failure at 5:44 AM on Monday, August 16, 2022 after a brief stay at Clarissa Cook Hospice House in Bettendorf, IA. He is preceded in death “by everyone,” as John, AKA The Rev, Pastor John, or Pops would say. He is survived by his son, John Cantwell Jr. (Tonia), his daughter, Anita (Herman) Roche, and his grandchildren—Katie Stompanato (Tim), Hannah Cantwell, Jack Cantwell, and Molly Cantwell.
John was born on February 25, 1935 in Oak Park, IL, to Edward Norton Cantwell and Beulah Edna (Archer) Cantwell. Pops was the youngest of three boys born in the Depression Era. Pops said when food hit the table you ate, and you ate quickly. John learned to cook and bake from his We still have Beulah’s My Better Homes and Gardens Cookbook with her handwritten recipes consisting of vague measurements such as “add milk until moist”. No matter, her cookie recipes are still some of the best—as are Pop’s.
Growing up, the Cantwell family shared an outhouse with their neighbors. The shared owner said one winter day, “Can you remind your boys not to urinate outside of the outhouse?” John’s father proudly said, “My boys don’t go outside. Perhaps you should remind your boys.” The co-owner replied, “Why would my boys write John in the snow?” Pops loved this story.
Even though, as the picture attests to, John and his future bride attended a one room schoolhouse, the love story of Patricia and John did not begin until later. The sparks flew at the Annual Gurnee High School Memorial Day picnic and softball game which was attended by current and former alumni. Both were intent on not having a serious relationship because John was leaving for the College of the Ozarks that fall, but the heart knows what the heart wants.
Upon arriving at college, John wrote Pat a few letters. When she didn’t return his letters, he called her home, hoping against hope there would be a simple explanation. Jimmy, Pat’s brother, answered the call, and John asked to speak with Pat. Jimmy replied, “Well John, she’s pretty upset with you right now. You said you’d write, and you haven’t.” The two conversed some more until they figured out that John sent the letters to the wrong rural route address! John spent many nights writing to Patricia. He wrote that he should be studying, should be writing an actual term paper, should be cramming for an exam, but instead was staring at her picture on his dresser, and writing to her because he could think of nothing else. He poured his heart and soul out to her. They were engaged and married by the next summer, and both of them returned to Arkansas that fall.
After earning his BA at the College of the Ozarks, John followed in the footsteps of his grandfather, who was a Methodist Minister in Fulton, IL. John obtained a Bachelor of Divinity from Garrett Theological Seminary in Evanston, IL. Thus began John and Pat’s devotion to not only themselves but to those around them as well. John’s first appointment would be exactly where he had asked the Bishop not to be sent: Chicago. In the end, Chicago was one of John and Pat’s favorite places. There they formed lifelong friendships, became lifelong Cub fans, and started their family with the birth of John Jr. at the church in North Chicago. Anita followed five years later at the church in Albany Park.
In 1964, John’s parents, Ed and Beulah, started building their summer retirement home in Barnes, WI, with the help of Pops, Pat, and John Jr. A collection of black and white pictures provide the historical context for how The Cabin began—clothes drying on a line, Beulah making coffee over an open fire pit, small tents for sleeping, breaking ground, eventually the frame being raised up by Cantwell’s. The Cabin is a testament to the love the family has for nature. Beulah, who we joked later had more pictures of plants and fish than of her grandchildren, has journals that reside at The Cabin. In them, she would write the date with simple statements like, “Wild strawberries are in bloom” or “Ed and I fished for crappies at dusk.” Each July, John would drive the family up for a week vacation at The Cabin.
John emulated his mother in this way. John’s journals contained similar statements: April 5th “Grosbeaks arrived. Spring is here.” He also included brief thoughts or the highs and lows for a particular day. March 18, 2020: “Day 1 of Quarantine”, July 7, 2020: “Moved to Anita & Herms,” August 20, 2020: “Pat/mom/wife died at 8:41 at Galesburg Marigold…What the heck????” Between the two of them, you could track the ebb and flow of their lives and the movements of nature. Pops loved hunting, fishing, bird watching, gardening, watching the storms roll in, and watching the sun rise and set. He instilled that love and awe in nature in both his children. Forever we will be grateful for that as we both find peace, joy, solace, and even religion in the outdoors.
John wanted people to find religion and find themselves however and wherever they felt comfortable. John started a church service at the campground while serving in Thomson, IL, which still takes place today, and volunteered, as a firefighter, seeing things no one should have to. While serving in Steward & Creston, IL John and fellow minister Jim Reid from Oregon, IL started a week long high school Retreat Camp—first at Camp Reynold’s Wood in Dixon, IL, and then eventually the camp moved to William's Bay, WI. The Retreat Camp brought youth from all over Northern Illinois to worship God and develop deep friendships.
John’s career as a minister and community volunteer hit its full stride at Frankfort United Methodist Church. There he started a Bradshaw Group, Wednesday night services for the many parishioners who traveled to their weekend homes, and a contemporary music service. When the Old Plank Road Trail was developed in Frankfort, Pops half-jokingly proposed to Gene Gerardi, a funeral director that they should start a walking group and their motto would be something along the lines of, “Walk with John, or your loved ones will be talking to the Gerardi Funeral Home.” John’s wit, humor, and upbeat attitude made every day a better day. Even as the end neared, when someone asked how he was doing, he’d respond, “I’m marvelous” or “I’m fantastic” or “I can’t complain.” In fact, he told the ER doctor he didn’t know why he was there; he felt just fine. His blood work told a far different story.
In 2000, John was awarded the President’s Award at the Annual Frankfort Chamber of Commerce Volunteer Appreciation Banquet for organization and the operation of his church’s booth at the Annual Fall Fest and for being instrumental in organizing Concerts on the Green, which debuted in 1988 and continues every Sunday at Breidert Green in the center of Frankfort’s Historic Downtown.
Perhaps it was John’s dedication to this church and the growth in parishioner numbers, but the family is very appreciative that the Bishop never moved them again. John and Pat retired to Allegan Michigan in 2000, having spent 21 wonderful years in Frankfort, and 40 years in the service of God and the Northern Illinois Methodist Conference. Pops, who could rarely say no to anyone, was cajoled into serving at yet another church in a neighboring town for a number of years. There were many towns and many wonderful friendships along the way that are chronicled in their 20 plus photo albums. They both carried pieces of each town when they left, leaving parts of themselves behind as well.
When grandparent duty called again, John and Pat moved to John Jr’s. farm in Strawberry Point, IA, where they spent their golden years before Pat’s illness forced a move to the Quad Cities. At the farm, they were able to participate in their grandchildren's daily lives, attend grandparent days at their schools, play games, attend sporting activities, and spoil them as they had with Katie. They found a wonderful church, often going out to lunch afterwards with members, succeeded in taking their bucket list trip to Ireland, and joined the Elkader Country Club where Pops loved to play golf. If memory serves me, he and his partner may have even been champions one year although that could be just another story Pops told.
Our dad doted on us; in his eyes we could do no wrong, and in life, things always go wrong, but there was no judgment. Just support. It was his gift to us. To everyone. Pops loved to tell everyone that John, Jr. would remark to him, “Dad, Mom’s such a catch. How’d you manage that?” If you’d ask our mother the answer, she would say one word: “Safe.” Followed by, “He made me feel safe for the first time in my life.” I’d have to agree. Pops made everyone feel safe and loved. While mom may have been the captain at the wheel, always steering ALL three of us in the right direction, Pops was the first mate who had signed on to have a good time. Oh the stories that could be told. Pops who was ever the conversationalist never met a person he couldn’t talk to…for hours. He loved caffeine. I mean loved caffeine. A close tie would be chocolate. In fact, chocolate with chocolate was in better. The Cantwell desert saying is, “Do you want dessert now or later? Yes!”
He will be dearly missed, but we know that there’s a party in heaven. He is surrounded by all those who have gone before. He and Pat are smooching it up again in the light of God’s love, eternal life has been bestowed upon one of God’s greatest servants, and one of the best men we’ve ever known.
We will be forever grateful to have had Michele (Don) Weimerskirch as Pop’s day assistant. She is an amazing caretaker and friend. We could not have had Pops at home for as long as we did without her. We’d also like to thank the homebased Promedica Hospice Staff, the ER staff at Genesis East for their compassion and guidance, and we are extremely appreciative of the compassionate and attentive staff at the Clarissa Cook Hospice House who tended to him during his final days.
John and Pat’s ashes will be spread in the places they loved. Find peace, love, and strength in those around you. In lieu of flowers, please consider donating to the American Red Cross | Help Those Affected by Disasters, the National Audubon Society, or the Genesis Clarissa C. Cook Hospice House.
Condolence cards may be sent to The Cantwell (John, Tonia, & grandkids) Family at 14610 330th Street, Strawberry Point, IA 52076, to Katie and Tim Stompanato at 1738 Warren Ave. Downers Grove, IL 60515, and Herman & Anita Roche at 28021 230th Street, Le Claire, IA 52753.