FAIRBANKS — Every once in a while a person comes along who leaves an indelible mark on your life.
Jack Townshend was one of those people.
We said goodbye to Jack, who died of cancer on Aug. 13 at age 85, Monday at the Davis Concert Hall on the University of Alaska Fairbanks campus and it was a great celebration of life.
The stories flowed, and they all came from the heart of everyone who spoke. Since I’m not really good at public speaking and I was choked up a bit, I figured it would be better off if I put things in print.
So here are a few tales about the most incredible person I have ever met.
Although I interviewed Jack many times in the 1980s and early '90s, my first real recollection of the man who believes in serendipity was when I was in the midst of a
3 1/2 week death-defying stay at Fairbanks Memorial Hospital with intestinal issues.
He heard I was sick and knew I wouldn’t be able to cover the Equinox Marathon that year, so he stopped by to give me a pep talk. It was an uplifting moment, to say the least.
I was heavily sedated at the time so singing was out of the question, but Jack noticed there was a small recorder on the table. His eyes lit up when he saw it. I was allowed to listen to the Moody Blues and Louis L’Amour books.
The next day, he showed up with a tape of his favorite songs; he is known for belting out on occasion — Joe Cocker’s “You Are So Beautiful” and Frank Sinatra’s “My Way” among them.
A few years earlier, Jack had rented a music studio and an orchestra in Los Angeles and made a tape of his favorite songs. He also gave me a series of motivational-type tapes he had made about his serendipitous philosophy on life. I still have those tapes.
When I was well enough to say goodbye to FMH, I stayed with friends on Chena Ridge for a couple of weeks.
The day after the race, Jack arrived at the Kothe convalescent home to present me with a pair of paisley pants with a Velcro waistband he had worn during the race.
I kept those pants around for a long time and even wore them once or twice while I was training for the Equinox years later.
A year later, I was healthy and lucky enough to take a two-week vacation to the Cook Islands.
Right before leaving Roratonga, I was picking up some last-minute gifts to bring back and the thought struck me to pick up something for Jack since he had been taking me out to lunch at least once a month since my hospital ordeal.
I grabbed a small wooden ship with white sails and stuffed it in my carry-on luggage.
I had a row of seats to myself almost the entire trip, but I knew when I got to Seattle things would change for the final leg of my journey. I wondered if I would know the person sitting next me.
I boarded the plane and waited to see what would happen. Just about everyone was on board and nobody had sat down in my row.
Then, Jack appeared. “Hey Bob, I know you. I was wondering if I would be sitting next to someone I know. This is great.”
I had actually forgotten about the ship until we were about halfway home, so I reached into my bag and pulled out the ship and presented it to him.
Needless to say, he was thrilled. He actually was silent for a moment, before thanking me profusely.
Serendipity at its best.
Jack loved the Washington Redskins. He lived and breathed their every move and knew their front office personnel very well, so there was a ticket waiting for him just about any time he wanted one.
Jack and I were having lunch the Wednesday before the Redskins were going to play their final game at RFK Stadium. There was going to be a giant celebration.
As we left the restaurant, I can remember Jack’s words, “Bob, I really want to go to that game, but I don’t think I’m going to make it.”
I was watching the Redskins game as I was getting ready for work, thinking about Jack, when all of the sudden the phone rings and the voice says, “Hey Bob, it’s Jack.”
There was a lot of noise in the background, so I asked him why he had his TV turned up so loud.
“Bob, I’m at RFK, and guess what,” he said. I couldn’t respond. “I get to lead the crowd in ‘Hail to the Redskins’ at halftime.”
He went on to explain that he was having dinner with his lovely wife, Frieda, at the Pump House when he said, “Frieda, I’ve got to go to that game.” After finishing their meal, he took Frieda home and high-tailed it to Fairbanks International Airport and bought a ticket to Washington, D.C.
Usually I don’t watch halftime shows, but I wasn’t going to miss that one. And sure enough, as former Redskins were paraded around the track, there was Jack leading the band and belting out “Hail to the Redskins.”
A few years back, I was fortunate enough to be embellished with the Spirit of the Equinox award.
I had a lot of work to do that night and didn’t have time to go to the ceremony, but was lured their under the guise I was going to present scholarships to local runners because publisher Marilyn Romano wasn’t in town.
I was not happy leaving work. I needed time to write my Equinox stories for the next day’s paper. I was pretty much making an ass of myself before the presentation.
Jack grabbed me by arm, pulled me to a table and said, “Sit down and shut up.”
I obeyed orders. Then it hit me the real reason I was there. Jack could tell I had figured things out.
“Relax, you deserve it,” he said, shaking my hand.
To this day, receiving the Spirit of the Equinox Award and being inducted into the Fairbanks Hockey Hall of Fame are at the top of my most cherished moments list in the 33 years I’ve lived in Fairbanks.
Everyone knows Jack loved to sing. He belted out the National Anthem prior to Nanooks hockey games and was granted his final wish of singing before the Midnight Sun Run. He’d sing “You Are So Beautiful” on the spur of the moment.
Jack and Frieda have stopped by my annual Memorial Day Bob O’Que on several occasions in the past 16 years.
One year, Jack jumped up on the deck and belted out Sinatra’s “What America Means to Me” in front of probably 50 or 60 guests on a brilliantly sunny Sunday afternoon.
As quickly as he got up and serenaded the neighborhood with his booming voice, he was gone. That’s the way he did things.
Finally, I’d like to share Jack’s philosophy as printed on the cover of his celebration of life program.
“Yesterday is history. Tomorrow is mystery.
But today, the present moment, is a precious gift.
Enjoy it, cherish it, use it wisely, and
Share it with others in your journey through life.”
So long, Jack. You made the world a better place.
Contact sports editor Bob Eley at 459-7581.