His long-term goal was to lead an interesting life, and his career and achievements show Thomas Katsahnias has achieved that ambition.
Katsahnias spent the majority of his professional career at Inland Steel Co., where he was general manager and chief operating officer when the East Chicago mill was the nation’s largest, employing more than 20,000 people. He also has served as CEO at a number of other companies and headed the boards of directors at several businesses and institutions.
Katsahnias, who at age 85 exercises daily including a mile run, looks back on his life, his work and his family with no compunctions.
“I’ve had a very interesting life,” he said. “I ended up with a wonderful family, good career, good friends and have no regrets about anything.”
Most people don’t give much thought to how to have an interesting life, Katsahnias, said because “they’re too busy being busy.”
His father, a Greek immigrant who came alone to the United States as a young child, had only a grammar school education. Yet he taught Katsahnias that education can direct a person’s future.
“He taught me education can make you realize your future and that your future is not determined by other people's decisions,” Katsahnias said. “What he told me, and what I believe, is all of us can shape and continue to shape our lives far more than we can imagine. Though everyone life has twists and turns, good times and some not so good, successes and failures, but ultimately it goes in the direction that the people determine it to go.”
Raised on the north side of Chicago, Katsahnias attended Lane Technical High School, where he was company commander of the school’s ROTC unit. On graduation, he applied to both the Illinois Institute of Technology and Northwestern University, but was rejected.
“I did rather well in high school, but they were favoring veterans of WWII,” Katsahnias said. “I went to North Park College and eventually transferred to IIT where I got a degree in chemical engineering.”
After college, Katsahnias was interviewed by several companies including Inland Steel Co, the steel subsidiary of Inland Industries.
“I took the job there in 1951 and was there 36 years and retired from there in 1986,” he said.
During the early 1950s, Katsahnias married his late wife, Ann. They moved to Munster, where he still resides, in 1956.
The couple had been married for more than 60 years when Ann died two years ago. She is survived by their three children: Jeneane Caruso, George T. Katsahnias, and Theodore J. Katsahnias, plus seven grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren.
Katsahnias was drafted in 1954 as the Korean War was ending and he was employed at Inland. Because of his background and education, he was trained at a bacteriologist and worked in that capacity until his tour ended. “I didn’t accept commission because I would have had to stay extra year,” Katsahnias said.
After leaving military service, Katsahnias went back to Inland. He also returned to school, attending the University of Chicago where he received a master’s degree in business.
“I had 12 jobs before becoming the operating officer for Inland,” he said. “When I first got there I said to myself, ‘what I am doing here?’ But it grew on me and I tried and succeeded in making my own operatives.”
Katsahnias worked in all parts of the mil before taking charge and leading its huge operations.
“It got so when I joined an organization, I wanted to lead it and I was successful,” he said. “It was an easy thing for me to make decisions and work with people.”
Katsahnias credits his upbringing for his leadership skills,
“I think it’s because of how mother and father brought me up, they told me you don’t move up at the expense of anyone else. You do it because you did a good job. I’ve always kept that in mind.”
After Katsahnias left Inland, he became senior vice president and operating head for Ancilla Systems Inc.’s nine hospitals located in Illinois and Indiana.
“The nuns there said to me, ‘Bring them (the hospitals) back to profitability.' In two years I did that.”
He stayed with Ancilla for three years, and after leaving a Greek steelmaker offered him a job planning, building and operating Beta Steel hot mill in Portage. He was the mill’s president and chief operating executive from 1990 to 1995.
“It was interesting working with people from Europe, who wanted to do things the way they do them in Europe” Katsahnias said. “That just doesn’t work here.”
He held a series of positions following his career at Beta Steel. Katsahnias worked for several banks, a realty firm, home health care and steel company before his official retirement from the world of business in 1996.
“I was used to turning companies around,” he said.
During his working career and afterward, Katsahnias also has used his leadership skills to help his alma mater and other educational and cultural institutions.
He served as president of ITT’s Alumni Association, on the Northwest Indiana Symphony Board of Directors, on the Chancellor's Advisory Board of Purdue University Calumet, and as President of the Board of Trustees of the Calumet College of St. Joseph from 1986 to 2011. He currently serves as president of the board of St. Demetrios Greek Orthodox Church in Hammond.
“It seems that’s what I’ve got to do,” Katsahnias said. “When I was chosen, I didn’t get elated. I’d say, ‘Good Lord what I’ve done.’ It’s just always been something to help other people.”
Dennis Rittenmeyer, the executive director of One Region and former President of the Calumet College of St. Joseph, credits Katsahnias for his appointment as president in 1987. Up to that time, only priests were selected as president of the institution, which was on the verge of closing. Katsahnias decided to turn it around financially and educationally that had to change, Rittenmeyer said.
“He asked me if I would consider being president,” he said. “He had to do some hand holding to get them to agree. ... He did a lot of negotiating behind the scenes.”
With Katsahnias leading the board and Rittenmeyer as the helm, the college turned around financially during his first year as president, Rittenmeyer said.
“Tom was instrumental working through those issues,” he said.
Rittenmeyer describes Katsahnias as a dear friend.
“Tom’s a very hard worker,” he said. “Very astute. A person who can cross boundaries to negotiate the best outcomes, but never wanted to have to act like a politician. He’s genuinely nice guy with a great conscience about the right thing to do. There’s not an arrogant bone in his body.”
Katsahnias contends there are things that were present during his working career that are still imperative to being successful, including a good education.
“Education is integral to the entire economy of a nation,” he said. “It creates jobs. It is essential to commerce and industry. It generates the organizations and the tools and technology to support civilization. I feel education is the most important key our economic future individually and well as nationwide.”
Education must be coupled with hard work, faith, personal responsibility, and perseverance, Katsahnias said.
“One of my concerns to the present generation is that they will let all the new technology suck them deeper into isolation and thereby draining them of their humanity,” he said. “Technology saves a few seconds here and a few there, but you cannot divide your life into seconds, Life is people – man and woman and children – going about the business of being people. You must give that your undivided attention and enjoy the process of living.”