Vincent Cainkar, steering the SNPJ

by JOSEPH C. EVANISH, SNPJ National President
Written as a portion of the Vincent Cainkar Symposium
held in Kog, Slovenia, July 28, 2011


VINCENT CAINKAR (1879-1948) served as Supreme National President of the Slovene National Benefit Society for 29 years, from 1919 until his death in September 1948.
VINCENT CAINKAR (1879-1948) served as Supreme National President of the Slovene National Benefit Society for 29 years, from 1919 until his death in September 1948.

On Saturday, Sept. 18, 1948, SNPJ Supreme President Vincent Cainkar and his wife planned to attend another SNPJ event at the SNPJ Hall adjacent to the SNPJ Headquarters on South Lawndale Ave. in Chicago. Prior to the event, he stopped at his office at about 9 p.m. where he suddenly became very ill. To his aid came Dr. Zavertnik. The next day he was taken to the hospital, where he was soon after operated on for appendicitis. For five days there were hopes that the Supreme President would pull through and resume his duties leading the Society.

Vincent Cainkar was 68 years old and in his 29th year as president of the Slovene National Benefit Society. In fact, Cainkar was the first and, up until that time, SNPJ’s only full-time president. He was known by those he worked with and led as a calm diplomat with the ability to organize; a wise, patient and generous leader. He was an excellent speaker who commanded the attention of his audience. The SNPJ benefited greatly from his skill as a negotiator and his quality as a tactful conciliator.

As a kind and well-respected leader, Cainkar was also well liked. He had a great ability to make friends. Vincent loved to attend SNPJ events, which he seldom missed. The people loved his presence as he was a good entertainer who enjoyed singing and loved to dance, and made occasions happier because of his participation.

President Cainkar’s life journey had humble beginnings. He was born Nov. 22, 1879, in a small village by the name of Jastrebci in the Štajersko region of Slovenia. After serving three years in the Austro-Hungarian army, he joined many other young Slovene men and women immigrating to the United States in 1904, which also was the year of our Society’s birth. He settled in Butler, Pa., a suburb of Pittsburgh, where he married Miss Louise Florjanc. The couple had four children. The family later moved to Popular Bluff, Mo., where they rented a farm, and finally settled in St. Louis where their mother later died of tuberculosis in 1918.

It was in 1909 in St. Louis that Vincent Cainkar became active in the SNPJ and began the role of an organizer. He was chiefly responsible, along with a few others, in starting SNPJ Lodge 107 “Planinski Raj” in St. Louis. His co-workers and fellow members appreciated his ability and diligence by electing him the new Lodge’s first president. That year they also elected him as their first delegate to the fourth Regular SNPJ Convention in Cleveland. It was the greatest honor for one to be elected as a Lodge officer or convention delegate. At that time the SNPJ was young and had been weakened by a bitter internal struggle a few years before.

Vincent Cainkar thus began his fraternal experience as one of the early pioneers of SNPJ. He was a visionary in his ability to consciously understand the significance and importance of SNPJ’s current and potential contribution to society and the Slovenian-American community. His sincere and strong desire to help his fellow man would bring him to the highest position in the SNPJ.

In 1912, Vincent was elected chairman of the SNPJ Supreme Supervisory Committee at the fifth Regular SNPJ Convention in Milwaukee. It was this convention that established the juvenile (youth) department which was a new step for fraternal organizations. At the next SNPJ convention, held in 1915 in Pittsburgh, Vincent was elected recording secretary of the bylaw committee which was responsible for preparing amendments and revisions to the bylaws for the next convention. This convention established the SNPJ’s official publication, Prosveta, as a daily newspaper. This, as well as other decisions, helped SNPJ quickly become the largest Slovene fraternal organization in the USA.

Vincent Cainkar played a leading role at the 1918 convention in Springfield, Ill., serving as speaker for the bylaw committee. Up until this point, SNPJ Supreme (National) Presidents had been part-time positions, and there had been four different presidents in the short period of the Society’s existence. This convention decided to make this office a full-time position and elected Vincent Cainkar as its first full-time Supreme President. Cainkar led the Society through periods of epidemic and influenza that devastated the entire country and created a financial crisis for the SNPJ. There were periods of economic downturn, which included the Great Depression, causing the Society financial hardship. These times included both World Wars. However, the SNPJ managed through these periods and challenges, not only surviving, but succeeding and flourishing with Vincent Cainkar at the helm.

By 1917 the SNPJ had grown larger than all other Slovenian benefit organizations in America. During his tenure as president, the Society membership grew from roughly 23,000 in 1918 to more than 70,000 by 1948. SNPJ’s assets also grew from $466,000 to over $13 million. Many convention wishes and programs were implemented under his administrations. In 1922, SNPJ was the first among similar organizations to introduce a monthly magazine for its youth members, titled Mladinski List. Later, in 1945, in order to assimilate, the magazine’s name was changed to The Voice of Youth. Vincent Cainkar’s leadership, diplomatic and negotiating skills were also invaluable in bringing two significant Slovenian fraternal organizations into the SNPJ through merger: the SDPZ in 1921 and the SSPZ in 1941.

In 1924 the SNPJ printery was established. This helped support and promote the daily PROSVETA. It was also a great convenience for the Society, which needed all types of forms, stationary and other printed materials. To keep up with the Society’s expansion, additional space at the headquarters was needed. Significant additions were made to the original building, which was constructed in 1916. Building enlargements took place in 1924 and 1936.

The dedication of Vincent Cainkar’s birth home in Jastrebci, Slovenia, held July 28, 2011.
The dedication of Vincent Cainkar’s birth home in Jastrebci, Slovenia, held July 28, 2011. [Left to right] Dr. Boris Jesih, State Secretary of the Office for Slovenians Abroad; Alojz Sok, Mayor of Ormož; Donna Cainkar; SNPJ National President Joseph C. Evanish; James Cainkar, grandson of Vincent Cainkar; Dr. Bostjan Zeks, Minister of the Office for Slovenians Abroad; and Anton Luskovic, President of the Ormož Historical Society. James Cainkar and his wife Donna, from Burr Ridge, Ill., were on the SNPJ Slovenia tour and were honored to attend the Vincent Cainkar symposium in Kog, Slovenia.

Cainkar also played a leadership role in relief efforts for Slovenia in response to natural disasters and the suffering caused by the wars. This diligent work included SNPJ’s humanitarian endeavors, as well as his active leadership in other Slovenian relief programs which was in addition to his regular duties as SNPJ’s Supreme President.

He believed that it was important to initiate and promote youth programs to ensure that future generations would eventually step into leadership roles. The Cainkar administration encouraged and implemented these programs, along with the SNPJ English-speaking movement which began in 1925, with the best interest of the Society’s future in mind.

The personal development and influences in Vincent Cainkar’s early years instilled deep-seated values which related to that time period. His social-democratic beliefs stemmed from European influences. The endearment that he had for the common working man was born through his own experiences and the realities of the day; working conditions were deplorable. Vincent Cainkar and the SNPJ founders promoted the ideals of the common working-class people with adamantly strong support of the labor movement.

In the early years of SNPJ’s existence, the Society experienced much internal strife. This weakened the SNPJ. There were philosophical differences and struggles for power and control. Vincent Cainkar’s involvement in the SNPJ came at a critical time. It was Vincent Cainkar who brought stability to the organization at a time when it was most needed. His sincere desire was to do what was best for the SNPJ and not his own self interest. He instilled this spirit in those around him and the Society’s membership. In the years to follow, he steered the SNPJ through challenging economic and political times with a calm and steady hand. He diplomatically dealt with some of the most intelligent and strong-willed individuals in the Society, Slovenia, the Slovenian-American community, the political arena and the labor movement.

He was by no means a dictator as he truly believed in free thought and the democratic process. Most decisions were made by the SNPJ Executive Committee, the National Board or at the Conventions, and at times, through a referendum of the Society’s membership. Over 29 years as Supreme President, he chaired a rather large Executive Committee and also chaired the National Board, where he saw numerous members serve.

Vincent Cainkar’s passing came as a great shock to the SNPJ membership, and certainly was an even greater shock to the family. After being elected Supreme President at every convention since 1918, SNPJ’s leader died Sept. 24, 1948. Since that time, no other SNPJ executive officer has served longer. During the Society’s 90th anniversary celebration and grand opening of the new SNPJ Home Office in 1994 in Imperial, Pa., the Society proudly dedicated its boardroom in honor of Vincent Cainkar for his outstanding accomplishments and contributions to the Society. On July 28, 2011, a symposium was held in Slovenia honoring Vincent Cainkar. A plaque was also placed on the birth home of Vincent Cainkar in the village of Jastrebci, Slovenia. The above presentation about Vincent Cainkar was given during the symposium.

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Author’s Note: The information for this article was compiled from the following sources: SNPJ histories by Zavertnik, Molek and Sedmak; PROSVETA articles from September/October 1948; and SNPJ convention proceedings and reports.