Look, Up in the Sky!

Commentary by Dr. Don Newbury

I’m sure Will Rogers was a friendly guy, even if the quote usually attributed to him has been taken out of context. During an interview, he mentioned prominent men he’d met, all of whom he liked. (Lesser guys weren’t referenced.)

This observation aside, I have a friend whose admirers feel as strongly about him as Rogers seemed to feel about others. He rises “sunny side up,” and his positive outlook on life is both refreshing and infectious.

His name is Eddie Janek. He is as beloved immensely, this bona fide hero in Galveston, his home for some 80 years. He’s observing his 96th birthday come April 28. To celebrate, he’s jumping out of an airplane–the fourth time since his 90th birthday.

Dr. Don Newbury

I met him a dozen or so years ago, thanks to a mutual friend. Eddie is from a share-cropping family near West, and his upbringing redefines “hardscrabble.” A veteran of the U.S. Navy and WW II service, he fibbed a bit to enlist.

He was 15 years of age, weighed 98 pounds and stood 5-1. Understanding that Eddie desperately wanted to serve, the doctor said, “I’ve never done this before, but I’m changing your numbers to 17, 110 and 5-2.”

He never met his father, and was reared by his mother and other relatives. He could easily have viewed his first naval vessel as a cruise ship, since he had his own bunk, first toothbrush and “indoor” plumbing.
Eddie remembers long-ago experiences.

One was provided by “mean old” Uncle John, who allowed him to listen to The Lone Ranger on radio if he first gathered 100 ears of corn, shucked them, then fed the hogs.

Before he died, I thanked him for that lesson,” Eddie said. He also remembers stuffing two chickens into a tow sack, selling them to a West grocer for 15 cents. Proceeds would buy his ticket to the Best Theater, a box of popcorn and a comic book.

He learned life lessons well, always learning and always working. To many, he is “Mr. Galveston.” To others, he is “Mr. Baseball,” a testimony to his many years spent managing teenage baseball teams. Some call him “a county commissioner who would listen.” And for thousands like me, he is a revered figure with an ever-widening circle of friends.

He knows that some of his derring-do feats baffle his children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren, perhaps well beyond head-shaking.

A widower since 2015, Eddie defends his aerial observance by pointing out that he jumps in tandem with a guy who has made more than 8,000 jumps.

Smiling, he adds that his jumping partner is “shorter than he is,” a claim he can’t often make. (Previous jumps have been from 12,000, 14,000 and 16,000 feet, and if winds permit, this jump will be from 18,000 feet.)

He has always recognized baseball talent when he sees it. In the early ’60s, his team qualified for the state teenage baseball tournament. He was allowed to add a player he’d seen during the season.

Eddie selected a hard-throwing pitcher from Alvin, who had to cancel hours before the first game. The player, Nolan Ryan, explained that he had signed with the New York Mets hours earlier.

Every bit as memorable when we cruise from Galveston are the short visits with Eddie. His memory amazes, his generosity abounds and his frequent smiles light up his face.

To say he’s beloved in Galveston is an understatement. Accompanying him to a restaurant–or merely walking down the street–means witnessing his acceptance of thanks and greetings from friends along the way.

They want to express appreciation repeatedly, often for guidance or assistance rendered generations earlier. One was a former player, thankful for Eddie serving as his coach and mentor some 50 years ago.

Little wonder that a few years back, Eddie and several other Galveston leaders were honored when the city opened a new baseball complex.

Dr. Newbury, longtime university president, writes weekly and speaks to educational, church and business groups. Contact: 817-447-3872. Email: newbury@speakerdoc.com. Facebook: Don Newbury

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