Tuesday night was John Mach’s first day back at the security desk in Roche Sports Complex. He had been in the hospital for four days last week due to some health concerns, and when he returned, he received a get-well-card signed by more than 60 gym regulars — so many that a folded piece of paper was slid into the card to hold all the names and messages.
“Get well soon, the sports complex needs your happy face, sir,” senior David Stone wrote in the card.
Another note signed by a student so familiar to Mach she left only her first name, Rachel, read: “Looking forward to more conversations!”
Receiving that card brought Mach to tears.
“Gosh, I didn’t know so many people cared,” Mach said. “It made me feel good.”
The 71-year-old former truck driver may work security, but students and community members said he does much more than make them feel safe. Greeted by his smile and sarcasm, sports complex visitors pass by Mach on their way to and from working out, but not before talking about a favorite hobby, their career aspirations, who they’re dating, or life in general.
“He is the most joyous person I know,” junior Liz Laux said. “He always knows people’s names, and he gets to know them personally. He makes you feel special.”
Mach started at Hillsdale College three years ago, after he and his wife of 51 years, Ginger, moved to the area from Westland, Michigan. They wanted to be near their son, who works in anesthesiology at Hillsdale Hospital, and their grandchildren, who attend Hillsdale Academy.
While Mach often teases the people he regularly sees at the sports complex — “You’re dating him?”, “Here to lose?” — it all comes from a place of love.
“‘Loser’ was written next to your name on the bathroom wall, but don’t worry, I cleaned it off for you,” he said to a student walking by.
“Thanks, John. I know I can rely on you,” the student responded.
“They know they can rely on me to insult them,” Mach said, chuckling. “They love it.”
Mach can banter with these friends just as easily as he can brag about them like a parent would: “She got a standing ovation!”, “He was accepted to Ohio State University’s dental school!”, “She’s from Frankenmuth, Michigan, and they voted her queen for a float!”
Mach said he tries to make an effort to go to many of the students’ music and dance concerts.
As senior Susena Finegan walked by, Mach chased her down and apologized: “I had to tell her that I’m sorry I missed her concert on Saturday, because I was in the hospital.”
Interactions like those make him Finegan’s favorite security monitor at the gym.
“He calls me ‘Finny’ and ‘Irish,’ and he constantly asks me about my life,” Finegan said. “He remembers little details about little encounters, which shows he cares about the students he comes into contact with, and it makes me really appreciate our conversations.”
Mach said he appreciates them too.
“Every one of them is wonderful,” Mach said. “In a school of 1,500 kids, they are all so hardworking and talented and driven and Christians. They’ll tell me that they’ll pray for me, and you don’t see that at other places.”
Because Mach engages with them, many students invest in him, too. Laux, a Frankenmuth native, once brought him the city’s special Bavarian chicken seasoning because he mentioned that he and his wife like it.
Likewise, knowing that Mach enjoys the musical “The Phantom of the Opera,” junior Cole McNeely offered to take him backstage of a nearby performance since McNeely knew the actor playing Raoul. Mach was unable to attend, but McNeely brought back a poster and program signed by the actor plus a candle from the set.
“He treats me well,” McNeely said. “It’s the little things. He invests in me, so I invest back in him.”
Mach said his affinity for people is somewhat surprising. He spent 33 years in a semi-truck cabin with just a radio to keep him company for the more than 3 million miles he traveled.
“Maybe I’m starved for conversation,” he said. “Everyone has got such a different story.”
Mach grew up in Wayne, Michigan. In high school, he planned to attend the United States Military Academy at West Point — and even had the recommendations he needed from two members of Congress — but he blew his knee out in a football accident and his dream had ended.
Instead, Mach studied business management at Valparaiso University in Indiana, intending to take over his father’s Ford Motor Co. dealership in Northville. When Ford sought to turn a nearby Mercury dealership into another Ford one, a legal battle followed. While the Machs won the lawsuit, Ford threatened to appeal and said Mach would never take over his father’s business. They sold the business after a doctor diagnosed his dad with Parkinson’s disease.
“I wanted him to enjoy the rest of his life,” Mach said. “I told him I would be okay.”
But Mach was unemployed for a year and a half. He said affirmative action programs were becoming popular at the time, and as a white man, he was not what job recruiters were seeking.
One day, Mach was watching an auction on television. One item being auctioned was to spend a week with Michigan Gov. James Blanchard. Mach called in, bid, and won it. He shared his story with the governor, who sent him to check for an availability in the governor’s office.
Once again, Mach didn’t fit into the minority category the interviewer needed to fill.
“He said: ‘You’re just a white guy. All those positions are taken,’” Mach recalled.
So, unemployed, he and his wife had to sell their home and move into an 800-square-foot house their church owned. The downsize forced most of their furniture into the basement, where a sewer leak ruined everything.
“I decided I was never going to go broke again,” he said.
Mach then started his own business. He bought a truck and began hauling all sorts of items, often driving 20 to 40 hours at once.
He also leased his services to other companies that had the authority to send him longer distances. During one delivery to Florida, police stopped Mach because the company he was serving had not paid its licensing in the state. The fine was $400. Mach called the company only to learn the person in charge was busy enjoying his boat on a Saturday morning.
Police handcuffed Mach, and he spent a night in jail before he finally paid the license fee from his own pocket. He still made the delivery on time, and eventually, the company reimbursed him.
After more than three decades on the road, Mach said he became tired of his road trips — and the traffic tickets. That’s when he came to Hillsdale with his wife.
Now, he says he would like to spend more time with her and show her new places, since he was away so often as a truck driver.
“She looks like a million bucks,” Mach said. “She just sparkles. I want to be with her more and travel with her.”
But Mach says he loves his job, and it’s the people that are keeping him here.
“I love these kids,” Mach said. “It’s why I do this.”