John Benish, Sr., chief executive officer and owner of the largest school bus contractor in Chicago, died suddenly the evening of Oct. 1. He was 82.
Cook-Illinois Corp., based in Oak Brook, Illinois, specializes in transporting students with disabilities and has 18 subsidiaries transporting over 200,000 students a day across Chicagoland. It is ranked as the sixth-largest school bus contractor in the U.S. The company’s origins date back to 1915.
Benish, Sr. graduated from Purdue University in 1959 with a bachelor’s degree in industrial engineering and then served in the U.S. Air Force until 1962. Around this time, as he told School Transportation News in 2009, his father-in-law told him about a business opportunity he had discovered while managing property taxes for large and small corporations in Chicago. Benish, Sr., soon went to work for Jackie and Lee Stahl, owners of contractor Illinois School Bus Company, which was operating on Chicago’s southside.
Benish, Sr. eventually partnered with Lee Stahl and then acquired Illinois School Bus Co., and soon thereafter, Cook County School Bus Co. in the northwest suburbs. Nearly every other company in between followed. Cook-Illinois Corp. was born.
So were five children to Benish, Sr., and wife Ellen. Each one of them while growing up was required to sweep buses after school and during the summer. Later, they obtained their commercial driver’s licenses, just like dad, so they could transport students.
Benish, Sr., was a member of the National School Transportation Association (NSTA) and received a Golden Merit Award for “achievements in the areas of safety, driver training, business practices, vehicle maintenance, and superior service to the school, community, and the pupil transportation industry.” Under his leadership, Cook-Illinois Corp. also won a Go Yellow, Go Green Award for the company’s adoption of propane school buses.
He also had the foresight to implement a family succession plan 25 years ago, one that has been effectively running the company’s day-to-day operations ever since. John, Jr., is president and chief operating officer, as well as the 2013 winner of the STN Leadership Award, a member of the TSD Conference National Board of Advisors and president-elect of NSTA. His brother, Anthony Benish, is lead counsel. Meanwhile, John, Jr.’s and Anthony’s brothers-in-law, John Knoelke, Tom O’Sullivan and Douglas Sikora, are vice presidents.