John P. Szlasa, the son of Bayonne, N.J., shopkeepers, who worked his way through college, earned a scholarship to Harvard Business School and rose to prominence in pharmaceutical marketing and advertising, cherished his family and maintained faith in a loving God, died on Friday, February 12.
A native of New Jersey but resident of Savannah, Ga., John died from complications of aging at Hospice Savannah. He was 85.
Born to John and Jane (nee Kosakowski), Szlasa grew up above the family corner store and was surrounded by a large and tight extended family in Bayonne's Polish-American community.
John credited working in that store for some of the success he had in business, citing interactions with customers and lessons absorbed by watching his father and mother at work. After graduating from Bayonne High School, John worked full time for Standard Oil and began attending St. Peter's College. He graduated in 1958 and went on to Harvard, earning his MBA in 1960.
After graduating, John began his career in pharmaceuticals at Hoffmann-La Roche in N. J., He also served in the Army Reserve and had a few tense moments awaiting possible mobilization during the Cuban Missile Crisis.
Later, he wryly spoke of his military experience saying he would often hang back during the morning muster while his fellow privates jockeyed for assignments driving trucks or working other big equipment. "If I didn't get picked for something, I could spend the day in the library," he said. During this time, John also met his first wife, Mary Curley, on a trip to the Jersey Shore; they married in 1961.
John was known for his intellectual prowess throughout his life, particularly in business. John began his pharmaceutical career as a sales representative at Roche, but quickly worked his way into account management with Ross Laboratories in Columbus, Ohio.
He later moved south to take a job with Alcon Labs in Texas. It was there that John met the love of his life, Carolyn (nee Denton), whom he recently described as an angel on earth. They were married in 1976 and formed an unbreakable bond. Known for the obvious affection they held for one another; they also developed a reputation as a couple that could host a great party. John was an excellent cook while Carolyn is a gracious host with style and charm.
After living for several years in the Dallas/Ft. Worth area, the couple moved back east, where John took a position as Vice President of Marketing for a division of Revlon Healthcare, in New York City. From there he moved to the advertising side of the business, joining an agency in the city. About that time, Bayer was getting ready to launch a major brand and reached out to the Thomas Ferguson and Associates Agency to lead the advertising and marketing efforts. John, then a rising star in the pharmaceutical communications business, was recruited by Tom Ferguson, founder and CEO of the agency, to head up the new account.
John joined Ferguson where he spent many years leading the development of several business ventures, including the start of a direct marketing division as well as initiating the company’s medical education efforts. John was known as a brilliant marketer and mentor, contributing to the success of many blockbuster brands. He was also loved and admired for his no-nonsense style and tell-it-like-it-is attitude. He respected people who worked hard and contributed to his teams’ successes. His tongue-in-cheek credo, worn on lapel pins by his coworkers at his retirement party, was “I’ll be nicer if you’ll be smarter.” His impact on the pharmaceutical industry lives on through the careers of many of today’s leading pharmaceutical advertising executives who were lucky enough to have worked with and learned from him.
Upon John’s retirement, a plaque outside a conference room dedicated to him at CommonHealth, a pioneering firm in pharmaceutical advertising, describes his ability to unearth key insights as "legendary."
It continues: "His keen intellect and entrepreneurial spirit have been the driving forces behind several business initiatives. John has held several senior management positions encompassing sales, product management, market research, financial analysis, strategic planning and mergers and acquisitions."
A renaissance man with a love of reading and learning, he served on the Board of Education for the West Morris Regional High School District in N.J., performed at the Barn Theatre in Montville, N.J., in "The Taming of the Shrew," "A Man for All Seasons" and as the Ghost of Christmas Future in "A Christmas Carol." For a short while, he taught economics as an adjunct professor at Seton Hall University.
John enjoyed gardening, skiing, and completing the New York Times Sunday crossword puzzle in pen.
Over the years, John lived in Paterson, Passaic and Mountain Lakes in N.J., and Worthington Hills, Ohio with his first wife Mary and their daughters. After Mary's death, John took a new job and relocated with his daughters to Lake Country Estates in Texas outside Fort Worth.
For a time, the couple owned a second home in West Dover, Vt., where they could enjoy two of their great loves--skiing and being surrounded by family. A day in Vermont would often start with John making sausage gravy with biscuits to fuel the day’s skiing and end with everyone sitting around the fire laughing and telling stories. Often the stories would be about a two-week family cruise hosted by John and Carolyn through the fine wine regions of Europe.
After briefly living in Bernardsville, N.J., John retired and he and Carolyn moved to The Landings outside Savannah in 2006. John was active in The Landings Men’s Gourmet Club, Landings Association Committees, The Polish Club, The Rotary, a book club, various golf groups, a bridge group and Bocce.
John is survived by his wife Carolyn (nee Denton), his six children, Betsy, Mary Ellen, Jane, Katie, Carrie and John; their spouses, Bud, Steve, Joe, Wade and Colby; his grandchildren, Jake, Sam, Tess, Madeleine, Josie, Rocco, Bennett and Archer; two step-grandsons, Matt and Kevin McCullar. He is also survived by his two brothers, Tom and George, George's wife, Suzanne and his sister-in-law Karen, and many nieces and nephews. He was predeceased by his parents, his brother Peter, his first wife, Mary (nee Curley), his in-laws John and Dorothy Denton and his sister-in-law Pat.
A memorial service will be planned for a later date when John’s family and friends can safely gather to celebrate his life.
Donations in honor of John’s life may be made to St. Peter’s University or Savannah Hospice, Inc.
Hello Betsy. So sorry for your loss. Your dad sounded like an amazing man. I am sure you will miss him so. But what joy that he believed in God. He is now in His loving arms and enjoying eternal peace. Personally I recently lost my dad or Emily lost her dad. Both in their mid-80's. What an awesome generation. We owe them so much. We are praying for you!
- Nes Rotstein, Minnetonka, MN
Just heard about John’s death. He was very kind to the Seymour’s especially in our earliest days in New Jersey. I remember sharing your home with us when we didn’t have one yet! We watched the English sheepdog and had the whole house to ourselves! In business he was extremely helpful to me. Good man. He will be missed. Best to the family from our home in Pennsylvania! Love, Matt & Pam Seymour.
- Matthew R. Seymour, Coatesville, Pennsylvania
Dear Carolyn, so sorry to hear of John’s passing. He was an amazing man. We are thinking of you and your Family at this sad time. With deepest sympathy, Eleanor & Jack
- Jack and Eleanor Kiel, Savannah, Ga
Sorry to hear of John's passing. We relished the times our Polish dining group would gather, with John often leading the discussions of the day. He will be missed. Our thoughts and prayers are with Carolyn and the entire family.
- John and Veronica Wright, Savannah, GA
To the entire Szlasa family, I am so sorry for your loss. Seeing this news brought back numerous great memories of spending time with John and the entire family. Sitting on the couch with Katie, little John, Carrie and the whole family, watching Star Wars on TV brings back awesome memories and feelings of closeness and togetherness. And adding Jane, Mary Ellen and Betsy into the mix at the Holidays just amped up all of the dynamics. Through it all Carolyn and John always seemed to have everything under control (maybe with the help of a glass or two of wine as well). It was one of the happiest times in my life, and I will always appreciate all of those experiences that you let me share with the whole Szlasa clan. Reading his list of accomplishments and achievements only makes me wish I had spent more time understanding John, the way he navigated his life, and how he fought through difficult times dealing with loss, grief and 3 girls going through the same pains to lead such a successful and inspirational life. Szlasa's, thanks for so many great memories that will live with me forever.
- Frank Stark, Frisco, TX
So sorry to hear about John. My 2nd husband, Chris, died 6 years ago. My daughter Charlotte told me your sad news.
- Therese Abbott (was Davies), Hartley Wintney, Hampshire, England
I was saddened to hear about the passing of Jr. aka John. When someone we love passes away, it’s hard for others to find the words to let you know how deeply we feel for you. A while ago, I read something in a book - the author said “And in this life, nothing good is ever lost. It stays a part of a person, becomes a part of their character.” It’s difficult to lose a spouse/father, but all of the great memories you have, will be a part of you forever. My thoughts and prayers are with all of you at this difficult time.
- Claire Kosakowski Simonds, Phillipsburg, NJ
John and Carolyn Szlasa have been our very close friends for nearly 40 years. We met in Goldens Bridge, NY where we quickly discovered a mutual love for skiing and bridge. Despite the fact that we both soon moved and lived many states apart, we visited back and forth and vacationed together from the beaches of Venezuela, the green vistas of Ireland to the ski slopes of Squaw Valley and Mount Snow. John and Carolyn introduced us to the joys of cruising and together we visited exotic places. So many adventures and wonderful memories. Dumped at 2 Am with four or five suitcases in Madrid by taxi drivers who informed us the hotel was 'just around the corner'! Lost walking in the maze of Venice streets and canals. Late to the ship due to an altercation between our cruise bus and a garage truck in a tiny village on the Amalfi Coast! And who can forget? "We'll meet by the canoon!" Great food, both in restaurants and cooked by John! John, if you were here though, I would tell you I still draw the line at squid ink pasta. And our strangest meal? John drawing on his father's expertise to butcher a wild piglet in the Llanos of Venezuela. Over the years we've played hundreds, maybe thousands of bridge hands. Guys against the gals of course with a running tally for the entire stay. It was sometimes hard to concentrate on the cards for all the teasing and laughter going on at the same time. John wasn't a bad loser but if you didn't know, he was a horrible winner! He just couldn't keep himself from loud and hilarious gloating when the guys managed to win. Betsy, you may remember one of our first ski trips north to Stowe from Goldens Bridge. You travelled with us in the car with the defective ski rack. (We had to stop every so many miles and tighten it.) Dick and John 'Fall', as John dubbed himself, would lead the way down the slopes with Carolyn and I trying to keep up and wondering if the guys might have ulterior motives taking us on those steep, icy runs. But one of our fondest memories is back from the Stowe slopes, playing bridge on a makeshift table in one room or the other of the Golden Eagle Motel, the beer and wine handily stashed in a snowdrift outside a window. If John were able he would chide me as usual for a too long story. Dick and I can only wish that he were here to do so! You were an amazing man, an amazing friend and we'll always miss you Johnny.
- Dick/Kay Schlough, Frisco, TX
Services under the direction of:
Fox & Weeks Funeral Directors, Hodgson Chapel