Sunday, October 18, 2015

Hanging with Jungle Jack

By David Horst

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Jack Hanna thrilled a crowd of 700 people of all ages Oct. 16 at Kimberly High School with a blend of his stories, videos of some of his best adventures and cute, exotic animals from snow leopard to otter.

It all benefitted Mosquito Hill Mature Center and was sponsored by the Charlotte Bates Fenlon Memorial Fund at the Community Foundation for the Fox Valley Region. That's the official story. My day was more about hanging out with Jungle Jack.

Jack Hanna is the definition of personable. He is interested in what people have to say and what they care about. He is funny and irreverent, and genuine.
As a member of the event planning committee, I had the very pleasant assignment of serving as Jack's shuttle driver.

He had barely made it into terminal when someone visiting from Columbus, Ohio, stopped him to say hello and praise the Columbus Zoo, where Hanna is director emeritus. Jack pulled out his ever-present Sharpie and stack of promotional photographs and signed autographs for the man and his son.

This scene would repeat itself over and over. At the airport, in the hotel lobby, for the janitorial crew at the high school. He even took a long time coming out of the men's room because he was leaving a trail of autographed promotional photos.

I also repeatedly saw a gaping smile and a childish gleam in the eyes of people who recognized him and were taken back to childhood.

I was getting quite a kick out of being able to give them an introduction to Jack Hanna. 

There was the hotel desk clerk who had studied biology in college, the 70-something twins who still dress alike and the maintenance guy at the high school who also takes care of building and grounds at Bubolz Nature Center and feels strongly about Jack's message.

I was able to make a small dream come true for both.

I got plenty of my own one-on-one time. I heard about Jack's ranch in Montana, the joys (the people) and the drags (air travel) of the job. We talked alpacas -- we both have some -- my wife was able to ask for tips to teach kids about nature.

On the way from the hotel to a press conference at the school, WHBY's Phil Cianciola was on the car radio emoting on how much Jack's wildlife shows were a part of Phil's childhood. He was disappointed that he didn't know Jack was in town and had missed a shot at having him on the show. 

It would really blow him away if we called the radio station, I told Jack. He was game.

At the press conference, we got the studio number from reporter Mike Kemmeter and called in. Jack was a riot. He said he was in town to catch an escaped gerbil that was loose in the city and to show the first bigfoot in captivity. He jabbed at the Philcast host and skillfully weaved in plugs of the show and Mosquito Hill. The podcast is worth a listen.

I had trouble keeping up for one whirlwind day with Jungle Jack. He's 10 years my senior and spends at least 200 days like this on the road each year. He had flown in following a show at a packed high school gym in the coal country of West Virginia and would fly out the morning after our program to do it again in Chicago.

He left with a good opinion of the people of the Fox Cities and left behind a lot of smiles on the faces of people who experienced Jungle Jack.

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