Sometimes a love letter writes itself, and so many of us love Jack Downer so, and bear him so much respect, that this column - which purports to record the sorrow that runs through me and dissolves so many people - cannot seem overstated or silly.

Even on this terrible day ... the day I learned of the death of Jack, Ocean Park businessman and revered community leader ... he obtrudes. His voice, mannerisms, quizzical expressions, and blunt observations make him a hard man to keep quiet.

All day, I've shared the sad news with many who love him - some tearfully, some guardedly ... most of them long-time friends in various stages of repair.

Because it's always difficult to believe that extremely vital people can die, how could I tell someone of the passing of the man we wanted to live forever? I felt verbally infirm, spewing out a euphemistic softness Jack wouldn't have liked.

Jack, who spent 34 years on our Peninsula, lived to serve others - making the weak strong - a rather specialized form of blood transfusion. He pursued a passionate purpose he believed in so strongly that his spirit infected others - lifting them. Few escaped it.

Eighty-one-year-old Jack had deficiencies, to be sure. He was sometimes wrong and occasionally cantankerous. But he was usually the right man. And the only question was whether the other fellows were capable of being tuned to Jack's vibrations.

Jack had a thing that is as good as, and sometimes better than, knowledge. He had a sort of natural drive in the right direction, plus a solid respect for the work, ideas and opinions of others.

He was often like a boat being driven at the mercy of some internal squalls. But instead of fearing the weather, he preferred to challenge the wind itself, trying to make it blow more softly and kindly, maybe improving its direction.

Jack set up targets, sometimes pounding himself to pieces trying to hit them squarely in the middle. He was outspoken and passionate about subjects close to his heart ... county policies, septic systems, safe streets, or school improvements.

Jack would latch onto an issue, do his homework, talk it up, write letters, make calls, and push for change, despite weighty opposition. His opponents often succumbed before the force of his ridicule, regret, and common sense.

He seemed to relish badgering people "in the know" to fess up. And I think he quietly savored serving as our change agent ... stirring up the pot.

Of course, not everyone liked Jack. Some people cordially disliked him. Some were amused but not impressed.

And then there are the ones I saw on the day Jack died ... the ones who loved him ... the fortunate ones who had him for a friend - people he looked after and who looked after him - the ones who worked close enough to him to cross over the barrier reef of noisy shallows that sometimes surrounded him.

To be close to Jack was to inhabit a rewarding, relatively tranquil, and utterly trustworthy anchorage.

In a sense, my world died a little when Jack died. Jack was a wet nurse to my world - holding the earth close - doing things that weren't always necessary, but often helpful.

You could usually spot Jack at meetings, parades, or festivals, manning information booths, or picking up litter along Vernon Avenue or in front of his store.

Three years ago, I interviewed Jack for a feature story I wrote about Jack's Country Store ... asking him about his continuing involvement with the business. Jack told me how he liked to talk with customers, roam about the store, and sweep the parking lot.

"After all," he told me, "I don't think anybody should be exempt from the housekeeping." That remark characterizes the Jack Downer we'll all treasure.

Jack had a great impulse to "do good" ... when do-gooders are often taken lightly. Enjoying challenges to improve our little piece of the earth, Jack had an elephantine, enduring impact on us, representing life the way only a few others do. His memory will endure like a wilt-proof flower.

With much love in my heart, I say "God bless you, Jack." And "Thank you." I'll send up a prayer and hoist a martini (his favorite drink) in your honor. You will be profoundly missed.

But I'm so heartbroken, diminished, and angry. With all due deference to the divine, I say, "Forgive me Lord - but I can't suppress my sorrow. Damn you for taking him from us!"

Contact Observer correspondent Robert Brake at

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