Published February 7th, 2020 at 6:00 AM
Sometimes you want to go… Where everybody knows your name… And they’re always glad you came… You want to be where you can see… The troubles are all the same… You want to be where everybody knows your name…
– Cheers, written by Gary Partnoy and Judy Hart
To hear Jaime Clark tell it, the only problem with St. John’s Catholic Club atop the Strawberry Hill neighborhood is that everyone knows each other.
Spend awhile in the beating heart of the close-knit Croatian-built community in Kansas City, Kansas, though, and you just might wonder if that’s a problem at all.
Sometimes, you see, we all want to go where everybody knows your name.
Nevermind a last name absent of clustered consonants, Clark is quick to point out that he is “as Croatian as they come.” As chairman of St. John’s Catholic Club, he is equally proud to recount his childhood memories as a member of the red-and-white checkered community.
Clark looks back fondly on memories of enjoying bar food and soda pop while his mother laced up for the club’s Thursday night women’s bowling league, an uncle who bartended on Friday nights — even earning a few paychecks of his own sweeping lanes as a boy.
In a half century, Clark moved from the broom to a captain’s seat at what’s known in the community simply as “The Club,” located at 414 Barnett Ave. He’s now doing his part to carry on the legacy of St. John’s first priest and club founder, Msgr. Martin D. Krmpotic, and steer the community’s social hub into the 21st century.
“It’s a recreation spot. It’s a place to gather and it doesn’t matter what your religion is. It doesn’t matter what your politics are. It’s just a place where you feel safe. It’s a comfort spot,” Clark says, before adding that Croatian ancestry is no requirement to pray, play or party in the 98-year-old joint.
The two-story building, just a skip from the steps of the large brick church built by Croatian immigrants, is a lot like other church basements or parish halls. It’s been the spot that makes perfect sense for Scout meetings, shrimp and taco dinners, dances, luncheons, receptions and holiday parties for four generations.
What sets the club apart is its rich history as a gathering place for fellowship and familiarity for Croatians in a brand-new country. Just as notably, it features a functioning bar and a bowling alley on church property.
“It ties back to our ancestors who sacrificed so much,” Clark says. “They couldn’t even speak English.”
He recalls a fire, which may have been caused by a candle left burning after the night’s letters were written and stamped for the parishioners off at war.
And there are tales about old Charles “Jake” Sutulovich, who is well into his nineties and has spent what seems like at least a little bit of every day of his life in the club.
Aside from slight renovations here and there, plus updated bowling lanes and pin setters to ensure sanctioned competition, the club looks a lot like it did when Clark was a boy.
“It smells the same as it did when I was a kid,” Clark adds, perhaps a permanent reminder of the thousands of Krizman Sausages cooked, and the miles they’ve rolled across the club’s grill.
It’s still a perfect place for stories of the old days to run wild around big tables, just like the generations of children who have done so, while wearing their Sunday best.
“It means a lot to a lot of people,” says fellow third-generation member Nick Tomasic III, who joins Clark on the mission to ensure the club will be there for a fourth, even fifth generation.
He says that the building’s archaic charm and tight sense of community is a part of the draw.
The charm, community and bowling, of course.
“You know that bowling place that was at Power and Light (District) with the cheap balls? This isn’t like that,” Tomasic insists.
The club’s six lanes shine, welcoming bowlers of any skill level to a Wednesday men’s league, Thursday women’s league, or the every-other Monday night group, Labor Day through March.
Lanes are also available for private parties — the only catch is that if you’re keeping score, it must be with pencil and paper, the old fashioned way.
“If you look at the original bylaws, it says the (Msgr. Krmpotic) wanted a place for people to socialize and do physical fitness, stuff like that,” says Tomasic. “That’s why the club was founded.”
Tomasic is looking forward to February’s Frank Ladek Bowling Tournament, when many of the city’s best will come together over three weekends for top-notch bowling in his own backyard — or at least pretty darn close.
“The majority of the Croatians have moved, but they always come back for stuff like the parish festival, salami raffles, fair games,” says Tomasic, looking down the street at the 120-year-old church from his front porch on Strawberry Hill.
The spike in competitiveness thanks to the Ladek tournament might not compare to what it was like when the boys came home from World War II. And the kids might not take interest in learning math, bowling frame by bowling frame the way Clark did just hundreds of feet from his classroom. But the weekend will at least provide the chance to tell the stories.
“It’s a mixture of religion, family, culture, history — all of those things wrapped into one thing,” Tomasic says.
“I feel lucky to be a part of it.”
This article is a part of Flatland’s SportsTown Series: A collection of stories covering the average athletes, niche-sport elites and everyone else who are dedicated to the games you’ve never heard of, could easily be a part of, and just might want to love that make Kansas City truly a one-of-a-kind sports town.