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2016: John Petrinovich

By Priscilla Lisicich

The recipient of the 2016 Outstanding Croation Person of the Year, John Petrinovich, is a gentleman whose roots are founded on the island of Vis, a small island on the Dalmatian coastline of Croatia. In 1901 John’s father, Anton, immigrated from Vis settling in Tacoma and bringing his trade of fishing with him. He was among the many immigrants who left the Austro-Hungarian Empire seeking a new life and bringing with them techniques of purse seine fishing.

In 1922 John’s mother, Manda Pincecic immigrated from Vis to marry Anton. Settling in Old Town Tacoma, Washington many Croatian families sought to find a new life in America. There that John grew up with many of the children of Croatian families who became lifelong friends. John and his family often attended events at the Slavonian Hall. For John the most memorable event was the “Three Kings Dance” to commemorate the January 6th visit of the Three Kings’ to the Christ child. John says he really honed his dancing skills through that annual event!

The Slavonian American Benevolent Society (SABS) was founded in 1901 as a membership organization that held events to bring the Croatian community together in dance, theater, food celebrations, weddings and funerals. In 1906 the members built a hall that became the destination point for all events. The Hall became an anchor for many immigrants offering the opportunity for people of a common culture to gather, help each other get jobs, support each other through deaths as well as welcome new life into their community. In the fall after returning from the fishing grounds of Alaska and the Puget Sound families would make wine, celebrate the harvest of their home gardens as well as the “catch” from the fishing season, and to share the delicious pastries made by the women who had kept the home fires burning.

John met and married the love of his life, Shirley, in 1951. She was non-Croatian and not Catholic, both difficult barriers to overcome with the elders in the community! However, John overcame their judgments and pledged his love to Shirley in marriage. They joined the Slavonian Hall in 1955. John started at the bottom working in the kitchen, running errands and supporting the annual Daffodil Dinner, Christmas party, Vela Gospa, and the legendary Three Kings Dance. John joined the committee to commemorate the 75th Anniversary of SABS, which resulted in the designation of the hall on the National Historic Register. In addition, John advocated to restore the face of the SABS building to its original design, an important element in its designation on the National Historic Register. Over the years John’s commitment to hard work and support for SABS got him elected to the Board in 1992, then Vice-President and in 1996 President. John’s service as President lasted to May 2016. During his tenure he marked the centennial anniversary of both the SABS organization and the building.

In 2001, John led the development of the SABS Centennial project, which was determined to be a sculpture. John led the membership in its design. Larry Anderson, famous northwest sculptor, designed and cast a life-size bronze sculpture depicting a fisherman, his wife and his wife looking longingly at the salmon being held in the hand of her husband. Over $150,000 was raised through a membership and foundation drive. Today the sculpture stands in front of the Slavonian Hall on North 30th Street in Tacoma and is a symbol of the presence of the Croatian community in Tacoma, often a part of Old Town tours. John has also led several restoration projects to ensure the SABS designation on the National Historic Register. In 2006 John and members commemorated centennial of the SABS building through a big party. President John has also hosted Croatia Independence Day with a formal dinner for the Ambassador to the United States and in 2015 welcomed the Prime Minister of Croatia.

John was a founding member of the CroatiaFest planning committee in 2003 and has assured SABS members sustain their commitment to CroatiaFest. John’s passion for his Croatian heritage has left a lasting legacy for SABS members and for the City of Tacoma.

2016: John Petrinovich

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