PRESENTING JACK LESH, A GUSTAVUS PATRIARCH

This story is the first of two about Jack Lesh, one of our oldest Gustavus residents.  This first part covers his life up to 1965, when he and his family moved to Gustavus. The second part will be about Gustavus, and Jack’s life here.  Read on and enjoy!

Jack Lesh was born in Chicago in 1922, the first-born in his family.  At age two, he moved with his family to Berwyn, IL, a suburb west of Chicago.  He lived there until he graduated from 8th grade.  Then they all moved to Oak Park, IL, because the town had a much better high school.  When it came time for college, his folks didn’t have much money.  Jack enrolled in Antioch College in Ohio for 6 months until he ran out of funds.  He then worked for 6 months and earned enough to go back to college for a year.

Antioch held their school year all year, in 10-week divisions.  The students would go to school for 10 weeks; then to a job for 10 weeks, giving students experience in doing a job in an unfamiliar place.  Personnel would find the jobs for all the students in the program, with the purpose of teaching them to be on their own.  Jack liked having the work experience part of the curriculum.  It gave him a chance, however small, to earn some money while in school.

Jack’s going to Antioch turned out to be a pivotal point in his life.  Of course, one reason was because he met Sally Townsend, who became his lifetime partner, while there.  It also had to do with Antioch itself.  Jack enrolled there because the tuition was more affordable than at other schools.  He did not realize until he spent time there that his core beliefs and developing world view meshed beautifully with Antioch’s philosophy.

The college was founded on the belief in social and gender equality.  The school was the first United States college to designate a woman as full professor.  They fostered independent study and independent thinking.  According to Wikipedia, Antioch believed in the development of the individual as a whole.  Thus, the students’ work/study experience gave them a chance to take care of themselves in a new environment.  Students were expected to achieve educational goals through programs designed to create social change.  They were given a great deal of responsibility for shaping their own education, with course-work being collaborative and experiential.

Jack reminisced to me about Antioch.  He said they did not participate in major sports leagues, nor did they have fancy dress-up dances, such as proms.  The school did participate in sports as part of their physical education program.  Each floor of the dorms was a separate “house.”  Each house had its own team.  Also, as someone had donated a large tract of forest adjacent to the campus, it provided a place for hiking and bicycling.

Academic quality at Antioch was very high, and completely run on a spirit of honesty.  Students took final exams to their rooms to complete.  They were assumed to be honest.  Jack found the spirit of trust in the students to be very refreshing.  A great deal of camaraderie, existed between students and teachers, as there was more fraternizing between them than at other schools.  Students and teachers got to know each other well, so the relationship was comfortable.  A general idea prevailed that we are all searching for something.  We are all equal, with no difference between faculty and student.

As part of his work-study program, Jack did two jobs with Arco Paint Company.  The first one was in the mail room.  Next, he worked as an assistant in the paint lab, which developed special paints, commercially produced for certain kinds of use.  At another  job, he worked half-time at the campus coffee shop, which he managed.  As luck would have it, Sally came to work for Jack.  At closing, they had to clean up, so they would turn on the nickelodeon and dance.  In 1942, they  married, and danced together for many years.

In 1943, Jack got drafted, and took his army basic training.  When this training was completed, the army did not need any more infantry in Europe, so Jack was enrolled in a program that provided aptitude tests, followed by college classes.  Jack attended colleges in New York City for this program, including Fordham and New York University.  At the end of six months, the army again needed infantrymen.  He was sent to an army base in New Jersey, where he worked in a medical dispensary as a Physician’s Assistant.

As testing showed that Jack had an aptitude for medicine, he was sent to medical school for six months.  He attended Columbia University’s College of Physicians and Surgeons, in New York.  When the six months ended, the war was over, and Jack was discharged while he was in school.

By this time the couple had two children, Mike and Pete.  Sally worked and Jack got the G.I. bill for money to help with college.  He finished medical school in New York.  For the last two years of school he worked as a med-tech in the hospital.

Jack graduated from medical school in 1949.  By now, he and Sally had their third child, Jonathan.  Jack did his internship at Sparrow Hospital in Lansing, MI.  Interns got paid very little.  Because he had a family to feed, Jack interned at the hospital that paid the most.  He joined the Air Force as a lieutenant.  The Air Force paid for a year of internship in exchange for two years of service.  He did his two years immediately after he graduated, at Fairchild Air Force Base in Spokane, WA.  When he was discharged, his debt was paid.

The Lesh family went to Falmouth, MA.  They liked the West, and would have gone to Sand Point, Idaho, but the doctor there did not welcome them, as his son would be working there soon, so another doctor was not needed.  Jack had heard of an opportunity in Falmouth, which he decided to check out.  He found two other doctors with different specialties, and they started a clinic, called the Falmouth Medical Association.  He worked in this clinic for 10 years.

Jack started at Falmouth as a General Practitioner, but every doctor practicing obstetrics had quit, because Jack said he would do these cases.  Also, the Air Force was short on physicians, so they would pay for dependents to go to a regular doctor.  Consequently, Jack became almost a full-time obstetrician, even though it was not his area of expertise.

Jack had always loved to sail.  In high school, he belonged to the Sea Scouts, who had a powerboat on Lake Michigan.  Through that contact, Jack met a gentleman in Chicago who had a sailboat that he chartered on weekends.  Jack served as a crewman for three summers and learned how to sail on Lake Michigan.

In Falmouth, Jack would rent a sailboat for the day when he had time off.  Sally would accompany him when she could.  One nice, sunny day Jack and Sally went sailing.  Jack asked Sally for a cigarette, and she said, “Didn’t you bring the cigarettes?”  No, Jack didn’t have them, so they went back home to get them.  This incident prompted then to quit smoking.

Jack’s mural

These days, Jack has a special sailing reminder on his living room wall, at the end of the room opposite his favorite chair.  Connie Edwards, our local health aide, had been painting and redecorating Jack’s kitchen.  Connie asked local artist Jess Mulligan to paint some sunflowers above a shelf.  They turned out so well that  Jack asked Jess to do a mural.  She painted a lovely scene showing serene water surrounded by lush nature, and in the center of the water rests a sailboat.  Its name is the “Lesh Go,” which was the name of the traveling school bus that brought the family to Alaska.  Jack says he always wanted to sail around the world, so now he can sit in his chair, look at that beautiful mural, and take an imaginary sail anywhere he wants to go.

Near the end of their 10 years in Falmouth, Jack accepted a patient who was single and pregnant, and who did sketches to support herself.  By then, the Lesh family included eight children.  The young artist, Zada Clark, sketched all eight of the children to pay her obstetrics fee.  Those eight drawings, now mounted in a single frame, hang on one wall of Jack’s living room.  The children in the drawings, from oldest to youngest, were Mike, Pete, Jonathan, James, David, Sally, Betsy, and Tom.

The children

The hospital was 20 miles away from Falmouth, so going to and from work involved a lot of driving.  Being on the beach, the town quadrupled in size in the summer, going from  8,000 to 30,000 residents.  Jack and Sally started thinking about a western move.  They decided Alaska was the Far West, so they planned a trip there.  Of course, they would have to go North for a long way before they went West, and they had to traverse most of Canada first.  They bought a school bus and refurbished it and left for Alaska in 1959.  They had thought about coming earlier, but Sally refused to make the trip until the last baby was out of diapers.  The bus migration included Jack, Sally, and the eight children.

The family traveled in the school bus because it was affordable, and the only solution they could find for moving a big family to Alaska.  No way could they pay to fly 10 people here!  No car was big enough to hold everyone.  So they made a shopping trip to Boston, where they found several buses to choose from in a used car lot.  They bought the used school bus.  Jack’s oldest son, Michael, and Jack remodeled the vehicle for the trip.  They took out most of the seats and built shelving for storage.

The remodelers also made a teepee.  Sally made a cover for it out of canvas.  As the school bus had been used as a “band bus,” it was equipped with a large rack on top for all the musical instruments.  The teepee and poles rode up there, along with the family canoe.  At night, once a camping spot had been selected, the boys would put up the teepee.  They became very good at this job; they would have their bedroom set up in a few minutes.  All 5 of the older boys slept in the teepee.  Sally, Jack, and the baby slept in a small tent.  The two young girls slept in the bus.

They drove the Trans-Canada Highway, the main artery East and West across Canada, from Montreal to Alberta.  This road was paved.  From Alberta to British Columbia, they took the Yellowhead Trail.  This section of road was not paved, and provided an adventurous segment of their journey, as it was a one-lane road, used frequently by logging trucks.  When they met one of these, they would have to back up to one of the frequent turn-outs provided.  There was only one settlement on this entire stretch of road.

The trip took them 60 days, from Falmouth to Juneau.  On the first part of the journey, they made steady progress, but when they got to British Columbia, they would find a place they liked and camp for several days.

On the second or third day of their trip, they were in a state park in Ontario.  A river ran through the park, parallel to the road.  The river drained into a lake where they would camp for the night.  The ranger there assured them that the river was a very calm one, so they took the canoe off the bus, and Jack and Dave, then about 6, took the canoe down the river while Sally drove the bus to the camp.  Jack and Dave had not gone far when they hit some fast-flowing rapids.  The canoe overturned, throwing Jack and little Dave into the water.  Jack grabbed his son and the two made it to safety.  They retrieved the canoe and returned it to the water below the rapids.  However, Jack lost his camera to the river.  When they again saw the ranger, they scolded him for not telling them about the rapids.  “Oh, I forgot about that first little bit,” he said.

On a side trip through a Canadian national park, they saw a sign alongside the road, pointing to an uphill trail.  It said, “Typical Mountain Sheep Habitat.”  They got out and looked up where the sign pointed.  About 20 yards away, a sheep stood on a rock and looked down at them.  Those Canadians sure know how to post accurate signs!

If you would like to read more about the Lesh family trip in the school bus, look for Sally Lesh’s book, Lunch at Toad River.  It’s a good read.  Sally also wrote another book titled  All My Houses, which outlines her history by following the trail of houses she lived in over the years.

When they finally arrived in Alaska, they liked it, and drove almost everywhere they could drive.  Homer appealed to them, except the doctor there had someone else in mind for his clinic, and did not want them there.  They stayed for a while in the Eagle River Campground.  A neighboring family at the campground came from Juneau, and suggested they go there.  The Leshes had read an article in the Alaska Sportsman about Gustavus, showing a picture of the inn and cows in the foreground.  The city of Juneau was not far away.  So Jack flew to Juneau, where he interviewed at two clinics.  Both of them offered him a job, so he took one of them, and the family moved.  While living in Juneau, they visited Gustavus and stayed at the Gustavus Inn.  Jack wanted to work there, but didn’t know how they could afford to live there.  So, he worked at the Juneau clinic for two years.  The doctors at the two clinics had an antipathy toward each other, which created an unpleasant atmosphere.  Jack didn’t want to be part of it, so he quit the clinic.

Then, the Health and Welfare Department in Juneau hired Jack to serve as their medical person for all of Southeast Alaska.  He worked on 2 federal programs:  Maternal and Child Health, and Crippled Children’s Services. Being federal programs, they had a requirement that the employee had to have a Master’s in Public Health.  Jack had to go to Berkeley, CA, for 1 year to get this degree.  The whole family accompanied him.  Jack says that this new job was bureaucratic, requiring him to work in an office most of the time, and doing very little doctoring.

The Gustavus Inn

In 1965, drawn by that article they had read in the Alaska Sportsman, they decided to move to Gustavus.  They bought the Gustavus Inn.  However, they couldn’t survive on what they made from the inn at that time, so Jack spent four days a week at the state health department; then home again to do needed repairs to the inn.  After about four years, he quit working for the state.  For a time he covered the practices of doctors from other Southeastern towns when they went on vacation.  On one of these trips back to Falmouth to cover for a former partner, the whole family went along, and they bought a second school bus.  They wanted it to drive guests at the Gustavus Inn back and forth to the airport. Jack and two of the boys drove the bus back, and Sally and the other children flew home.  Jack quit his clinic work in the early 70s.

When they first bought the Gustavus Inn, it had 8 bedrooms.  Jack set one of them up as an examining room, buying doctor’s furniture from a man in Juneau.  He put out the word that he was open for business.  At the time, Gustavus only had about 50 residents.  After having his office open for three months, Jack had seen only two or three patients.  It turned out to be more lucrative to rent the room as a bedroom.

Jack told me that he loved practicing medicine, but he didn’t want to live in a city to do so.  After the Gustavus move, he drifted out of his medical practice because he had found the place where he wanted to live and a lifestyle that brought him happiness.

“To what do you attribute your long life?” I asked Jack.  “Part of it is because I’ve inherited good genes,” he answered.  “My mother lived to age 93.  I believe your emotional attitude is important, too.  I have a zest for living and I am happy.  I eat a healthy diet and lead a physically active life.”

We are glad you brought your family to Gustavus, Jack.  You are an inspiration to us all!