They Called Him Jackie

Eighty-three years ago today, just over a year before the big stock market crash of 1929, a baby boy was born in Scranton, Pennsylvania. His parents, John and Mary, named him John as well, carrying forward a custom the family had brought with it from Wales during the prior century. Somehow they must have known he would be a special man, so they dubbed him Jack, or Jackie, to give him his own identity.

Jackie’s parents were members of the working class, and I have to assume the little family struggled financially in those days during The Great Depression while John worked an assortment of odd jobs to put food on the table. In fact, it was another eight years before they added to their family, having two boys in quick succession, and Jackie was sent to live with nearby relatives to ease the financial burden. He never complained to me about those days; still, he learned early on to shoulder responsibilities that we would never give a child in today’s world.

When his father, a veteran of two prior wars, joined in the fight against Hitler, Jackie quit school to help support his mother and brothers. He never went back to school, never earned his high school diploma, a fact that shamed him the rest of his life. But he was a humble man, a selfless man, and taking time for himself to continue his education probably never crossed his mind. Instead he enlisted in the Army Air Corps (convincing the recruiters he was older than he was) and served in Okinawa at the end of World War II. During that time he learned about electricity and electrical systems, and when his tour was over, he went home to Scranton where he got a job in an electrical supply company and met Lois, his bride-to-be, one afternoon on the way to the movies.

They fell in love quickly, but it would be some time before they could have their happily-ever-after moment. Lois contracted polio during the big outbreak of the early 1950s and was told she’d never walk again. With a lot of grit, and the love of her Jack, she fought back and walked down the aisle as his bride (in a packed church) several years later.

After a quick honeymoon trip to New York City, Jack and Lois moved into an apartment on the second floor of her parents’ home and set up housekeeping. In a couple of years, they had their own baby boy, and claiming there were too many “Johns” in the family already, named him James. Six weeks later, Lois’s father died while he was watching baby James, and they moved in with her mother to help support her, financially and physically, a situation that lasted until her death at the age of 91.

Those weren’t always easy years for Jack and Lois. Money was tight, and tensions sometimes ran high, as they do with any normal family, but they were happy. Then, Lois’s muscles, overworked and overtired from battling the effects of the polio for so many years, began to fail, little by little. By the time she was in her late fifties, she was wheelchair bound, depending on Jack for many of her needs. Yet the love that had seen them through those early days of her disease stood strong, and their devotion toward each other only grew.

It was during that period that I met James, my husband-to-be, and coming from a single-parent home as I had, I was amazed to witness a love like that, still solid after more than thirty years despite all the struggles they’d seen. James and I fell in love, and when he asked me to marry him a few years later, I figured any man who’d been raised in a family like that–where marriage meant a true commitment, where family stood by each other even when it would be easier to do otherwise–was someone to hang on to. (Smiling here.) So we married and I folded myself into their life.

It was some time before I became comfortable with my new father-in-law. He was a quiet man and said little to me in those early months, yet he went out of his way to care for me too. In bad weather he’d pick me up so I wouldn’t have to walk the ten blocks or so to my job. He fussed at James whenever I went out alone and worried for both of them until I returned home. Before long, we began to grow close, and at some point I started calling him Dad.

Time passed, James and I moved from Pennsylvania to the D.C. area, and it was while we lived there we learned that Lois had been diagnosed with uterine cancer. It was yet another struggle for the couple, surgery followed by debilitating radiation treatments, but together they fought, and together they made it through.

It wasn’t long after that before we had our own news to share: We were to be parents! We weren’t anywhere near financially ready for a baby, and my father-in-law knew that. He and Lois made the five-hour trip to visit and immediately took us shopping for maternity clothes and baby needs. They didn’t have the money any more than we did, and her health wasn’t exactly robust, but that’s what their version of family did–they sacrificed to help out.

When our own baby boy arrived, we named him John, after Dad, and I don’t think we seriously considered another name. The two became best friends very quickly, despite the physical distance between us. It was the same story when our second son was born, and if we were more like George Foreman, we might have named him John as well, but instead we chose David, Dad’s father’s middle name.

Life was busy for us. We’d moved from D.C. to New Jersey, near my family, and our hours filled with work and the boys’ activities. But we tried to visit often, and with each trip to Scranton, we could see that Lois’s health was failing, despite what her doctors would claim. Then one evening we got a call from a nurse in their hospital. Lois had gone in for a routine procedure, and during the procedure it was discovered that her cancer had returned and had consumed much of her internal organs. The pain from the disease had been masked by her nerves deadened from the polio. She died during the night, leaving her shocked and bereft husband and son at her bedside.

We begged Dad to come live with us, but after spending the bulk of his married years living with his mother-in-law, he’d decided a couple needed privacy, and he refused. I don’t think either of us would have minded. In fact, we worried about him being alone. After about a year, he took up with a lady friend, though, so I decided he needed his privacy too…and I was glad for it! He lost her to cancer several years later, and just when I thought he might make the move to stay with us, his health began to fail. The diagnosis: cancer, of course. Dad fought valiantly, as he had so often in his life, but in the end the disease won, and we lost.

My husband lost a father that day, my children lost a grandfather, and I lost a man who was more a father to me than my own had ever tried. But more than that, the world lost a great man. He might have been of humble means, and a simple upbringing, but Jackie knew what was important in life, knew what the true treasures of life were. He lived by those values, and he taught them to his son and grandsons who bore the family names. I can only hope they too will carry his legacy to future generations.

Happy birthday, Dad. We miss you.

3 Responses

  1. Jack was a wonderful man. It was an honor and a pleasure to know him.

  2. Amy Schissler

    You were blessed to have such a man with such simple wonderful values to guide you in your life’s walk….although, I know you gave back as much to him as he gave to youl They were blessed to have you in their family. Even with all the responsibility you were carrying, both of you, you both made sure your dad got the best of care, no matter how tired or exhausted or inconvenient it was. And I know he knows this as he watches from his more comfortable place! Amy

    • Leah St. James

      Thank you, Amy. I do like to picture him, with Lois, free of pain and disease in heaven.

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