By Lori Gottula
Anyone who has owned or even watched TV in the past six years could no-doubt complete this commercial jingle, “Like a good neighbor…”
Bing! Thank you for playing! You got it right! “Like a good neighbor, State Farm is there.” For those in the Falls City area, State Farm insurance means only one thing: Mr. Mike Castle.
When the phone rings at Mike’s insurance agency, he does everything he can to live up to the popular jingle, and to be there. But he never knows what to expect because strange things really do happen to ordinary people. Earlier this year, he had a claim for one of the wildest cases he has ever had.
“A runaway horse had escaped from its corral, run down the street, and had kicked the doors in on someone else’s car,” Mike said, “It was a liability case, but we paid it!”
That was just one of the tens of thousands of claims that Mike has processed in the 40 ½ years that he has served as the State Farm agent in Falls City. His distinguished career will come to an end when he retires on Dec. 31, 2016. To celebrate his retirement, an open house will be held on Tuesday, Dec. 6, from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., at the State Farm office, 2002 Stone St.
But Mike’s 40-year career deserves more than just those few paragraphs.
Mike was raised in Falls City, and graduated from Falls City High School in 1965. He met his wife, Jean, when both were students at Peru State College. She graduated in 1968, he in 1969, and they started their careers in education in Stromsburg. Four years later, they accepted teaching jobs in Falls City, and moved back to Mike’s hometown. They planned to build a family here while teaching for the public schools.
However, in 1976, State Farm came calling. Falls City agent Tom Siefken was transferring to another Nebraska agency, and the area manager Larry Cook, of Beatrice, contacted Mike about the opening. Incidentally, the Castles and Cooks were next door neighbors in Stromsburg, and two fellow teachers became agents.
Mike hesitated, but eventually decided to give it a try. He took over Siefken’s agency on May 1, 1976 and began pounding the pavement to build his customer base. For years, he worked days, nights, and weekends, measuring buildings, taking photographs, providing estimates, and settling claims. In 1981, his hard work paid off when he was named a member of the prestigious President’s Club, which honors the top 50 State Farm agents out of more than 16,000 nationwide. (Coincidentally, that was also the same year that Mike won the Jaycees’ coveted distinguished service award.).
“That year was one that everyone should do once, but never do again,” Mike said with a smile. “I worked 80-hour weeks that year.”
After that, though, he was able to slow his pace a little, which was nice because of their growing brood of kids. Mike assumed the role of breadwinner; Jean was the main caregiver at home while continuing to work part-time at the insurance office. In 1991, Mike was forced to take a look at his pace, though. That was the year that he had his first of three heart attacks. He was only 44 years old. Soon afterward, his longtime secretary, Donna Martin, remarried and moved out of town.
“I realized then that I couldn’t keep up with the demands anymore,” Mike said.
So he hired Janet Malone to be his assistant. As the business continued to grow, he needed even more help so in 2001, Sherri Howard was hired as a second assistant.
“I couldn’t have done all of the things I’ve been able to do without these two amazing people,” Mike said. “They are personable, and really compassionate.”
When one thinks of the insurance business, “compassion” isn’t necessarily the first word that comes to mind, but compassion really is the most important part. Agents often deal with people who are experiencing the worst traumas of their lives. Some have lost children to accidents, or homes to fires. Understandably, the people are completely distraught, and unable to think about details.
“It’s our job to lessen their load,” Mike said. “And we will do whatever we can to do so.”
He means it, too. When one customer’s daughter had a car accident that totaled her vehicle, Mike not only produced a check within days, he also went out to the accident site and later to the mangled car itself, to gather all of her belongings. (That customer was me. I’ll never forget it.)
“Those are the types of things we do every day,” Mike said. “But our goal is make the customer feel like we have done it just for them.” If numbers are any indication, Mike and his co-workers have achieved that goal. When he took over the business in 1976, he had a portfolio of 900 auto policies and 300 homeowners’ policies. Today, he, Janet, and Sherri handle 2,300 to 2,400 auto policies, and more than 1,200 homeowners’ policies. The numbers alone are worth celebrating.
But there are more reasons to celebrate Mike’s service to the Falls City community, and they are much more important than numbers. He belongs to Sts. Peter and Paul Catholic Church, and has been involved in numerous civic organizations. He has been a member of the Chamber of Commerce for 40 years, was on the ambulance squad for five years, the school board for four years, and was a founding member of the Falls City Educational Foundation. He served as president of the Country Club board, was a member of the Lions Club for decades, and was named Lion of the Year in 1990-91. He was a member of the Jaycees until they “threw him out,” (in other words, until he became an ‘exhausted rooster’), and he received the Jaycees’ “Boss of the Year” award in 2009.
He and Jean also raised four incredible children; Monica, Jason, Ryan, and Stefanie. All four graduated from Falls City High School, and now have families of their own. Mike’s shoes will be hard to fill, but he is passing his files on to new agent, Matt Kirkendall, son of Bob and Kay Kirkendall of Falls City. Matt has worked for State Farm in St. Joseph, MO, for four years, and has gone through extensive training in Dallas, TX.
“He knows the business very well,” Mike said. “He’s very personable, too. Plus, Janet and Sherri will be here to help with the transition.”
As for Mike, he will be on the golf course or in his garden during the warmer months, in his kitchen trying out new recipes during the colder months, and in his basement brewing up a new wine or beer year-round.
“But my main plan is to spend more time with our four kids and eleven grandchildren,” Mike said.
Now, when they need him, all they have to do is call. And like a good neighbor, Mike will be there.