Written by Jessie Doig ’10
John Banitt ’91 lives in Indian River County, Florida—a long way from his college home of Gustavus in Saint Peter, Minnesota. He and his wife Shannon ’93 have made their home in the coastal retirement community of Vero Beach, Fla., which is also the largest city in Indian River County.
There are two important things to know about the place in which John and Shannon live. First, being a high-end retirement community, Indian River County has one of the highest average incomes of any county in the United States. It is the retirement destination to a large number of Fortune 500 executives.
The not-so-outstanding statistic about Indian River County is that it has a 20 percent functional illiteracy rate among adults, which is a stat that is shared by the whole state of Florida. This means that one in five adults in the county cannot read and write well enough to fill out a job application. That’s six percent higher than the national average.
John, being an investment advisor, and Shannon, an estate planning attorney, thought it wise to make a career move to Vero Beach and build business in a growing retirement community. Of course, their professional work is what first brought them to Vero Beach, but it is their involvement in the illiterate community that is most notable since settling in the coastal city.
The Journey to Indian River County
John and Shannon settled in Indian River County seven years ago after a long path that began at Gustavus, where the two met. John comes from a long line of St. Olaf graduates. He broke the family trend and came to Gustavus because he was impressed with how inviting the campus was and he also liked the prospect of becoming a four-year contributor on the swim team.
He comments, “For me, choosing Gustavus was as much because it wasn’t St. Olaf as because it was Gustavus. Academically, both schools are strong, but when I was 18, I didn’t want the same professors as my parents had at St. Olaf. Going to Gustavus for me was a kind of rebelllion.”
John was a Kansas City native and a junior swimmer for the Gusties when he met first-year Shannon, originally from Inver Grove Heights, Minn. The two met roller skating in Mankato after being set up on a blind date by a mutual friend. Needless to say, they hit it off quickly and began dating through college.
Soon after Shannon graduated, the two were married and because there were limited numbers of jobs, they moved to St. Louis, Missouri, where John had found a job. John knew he was interested in investments from the start.
“When I was young, I was interested in the stock market, but I never wanted to be a broker because I never really wanted to be a salesperson. That just wasn’t me,” John remembers.
He began his career in St. Louis as bank auditor and started taking his Chartered Financial Analyst (CFA) exam in the process. When an opportunity came up working with trusts, investments, and wealth management, John quickly signed on.
John’s career at Mercantile Bank of St. Louis got busy, while Shannon worked for two years as a teacher and then became a paralegal after receiving her master’s in paralegal studies. Once the two moved to Albany, New York, John continued his career while Shannon attended law school.
In 2004, the two finally made the move to the Treasure Coast in eastern Florida. There, John began his job at PNC Wealth Management (he is currently the Senior Vice President and Senior Investment Advisor), and Shannon began her career as an attorney.
In Vero Beach, the Banitt family has found a place to call home and a place where they are making a positive impact through Literacy Services of Indian River County.
The Illiteracy Battle
John was introduced to Literary Services through his position at PNC Wealth Management. He was having lunch with a client and the two got to talking about Literacy Services. At that time, John was asked to serve on the Literacy Services Board. Today, John serves as the President of the board, where his primary responsibilities include heading up meetings and fundraising.
He acknowledges that being on the board sounds glamorous, but in fact, is not. “This isn’t one of those boards that people want to get on for prestige. Literacy Services is a private organization so it’s all about the fundraising. Ninety percent of what the board does is fundraising.”
Educators, as well as a variety of retired professionals, also serve as members of the board. However, John admits that the organization is so strong because of the hard work and dedication of the tutors. “The volunteer tutors are the ones who deserve all the recognition and credit around here,” John claims.
Literacy Services was founded 40 years ago to combat adult literacy in Indian River County. It is a volunteer-based organization and has 85 to 100 volunteers (many of whom are retired teachers) who regularly help teach English reading and writing to adults. In Indian River County, it is the only organization that provides literary classes for adults.
John explains why adult literacy is so important. “If you teach a parent to read, you affect every child in the household. The single biggest factor that affects a child’s academic success is the parents’ literary skills. This improves life for parents and for their children,” John says.
In the county, there is a very small middle class, which means the population that doesn’t fall in the wealthy retired category are often the lower-class service workers; the people that cook, clean, and provide home services. There is also a large citrus industry, which employs many immigrant Hispanics.
That being said, many of those who come to Literacy Services for help are immigrants, but there are plenty of other people who benefit from the program, including young people who have had accidents affecting memory and need to be taught to read again. Another large group of people that require literacy classes are the elderly.
John fondly remembers a particular student, a retired man, who came to Literacy Services to learn to read and write. He had a very successful career as a maintenance worker and could understand an electrical diagram, but he couldn’t read or write. John explains that this student wanted to write a letter to his grandchildren and volunteers helped him learn to do that.
John sums up how he believes Literacy Services positively impacts his local area: “You see, the longer I’ve been involved and more I’ve learned, I can see the need in the community. Everyone wins. We had a Hispanic student that learned English with us, and now owns his own business in Indian River County that employs two additional people. That person could have been a financial burden, but instead he is now a contributing member of society.”
Since life in a retirement community is so seasonal, the busy winter season for Literacy Services means lots of planning and fundraising for the Banitts. They’ve worked hard to celebrate the organization’s 40 years with a 40th Anniversary Gala event this year. Just last month, the family hosted a wine-tasting benefit at their home to raise money for the organization.
John admits he wouldn’t be able to put on these fundraising events without Shannon’s help as she does most of the planning. Ironically, Shannon was a volunteer tutor with Literacy Service before John ever got involved, so she knows first-hand the impact of the organization.
Alongside their busy professional and volunteer schedule, the couple’s first priority is their four-year-old daughter, Allison, who’s a “non-stop kid,” as John describes her. She’ll be starting pre-kindergarten in the fall and John hopes to maybe one day see her go to Gustavus just like he and Shannon did.
For now, John isn’t so worried about the future. He is of course, always excited about forward progress with each year, but he’s also content that he’s been able to look back on the past 20 years and be proud of what he’s done. Sure, retirement will come sometime for the Banitts, but for now, they take life one day at a time.
John says, “I’ve never been a ‘big picture’ planner. If you’re in the right place, at the right time, and doing the right things for the right reasons, while working hard, it’ll all come together.”