Working Late at 98: Jack Warnack
You’ve heard the Paul Simon song about learning to fall before you learn to fly?
Jack Warnack learned to fall early, which was lucky for him. He was gearing up to be a daring guy, a relentless entrepreneur who jumped at every risk he saw.
Nearly a century later, he has found a happy landing as president of a Soulsbyville roofing business. At 98, he still puts in eight hours a day doing the company’s estimates and quotes.
“Why not work?” he says when asked about retiring. “I’d work just as hard on a Rotary Club float.”
And he has: Jack is a 34-year member of the Twain Harte Rotary Club who has worked hard not only on floats but on scores of both local and international service projects.
Jack began falling – and flying – early. His dad, John Warnack, was a Hollywood stuntman who taught his four kids the tricks of the trade. The youngest of the family brood, Jack was born in 1915 and was a natural. He could fall with the best of them and never get hurt.
By the time he was 17, Jack was an award-winning gymnast. Competing for the Los Angeles Athletic Club in the early 1930s, he won seven California tumbling championships as well as the Pacific Coast diving championship. In 1932, he was the Los Angeles city all-around gymnastics champion.
“I just had the body for gymnastics,” says Jack. “I was 5-foot-6 and 140 pounds.”
He was also a daredevil who ran up cement walls and did back flips on the way down. He got evicted from a four-story hotel for doing handstands along the roof line. Once he was pulled from under a Los Angeles streetcar after a “crazy” motorcycle accident in which he only lost a fingernail.
“I never broke a thing,” he laughs.
As a stuntman’s son, he found himself in the movies at a young age. His dad worked in Mack Sennett comedies, and footage was occasionally shot in front of the family home. Jack remembers standing in the back of a car pulled by horses. His job was to wave to a crowd or cry over a dying mother amid hijinks by the film’s star.
When Jack was 11, his “smart and beautiful” 16-year-old sister, Lucile, died of heart problems. Jack’s father turned to alcohol, and his parents divorced. Brother Ed left home and went to high school in Oregon.
Jack’s mother, Bertha, took him to New Orleans for a year, and then Jack returned to California, moving in with his sister Edna and her husband, who were decorators. Jack learned the business and soon took a full time job in a decorating studio at the impressive Depression-era salary of $12 a week.
“That’s what bank tellers made,” he still marvels.
Specializing in draperies, he was hired by big-name decorator Harry Gladstone. “Together we did the homes of lots of the stars,” says Jack.
After World War II began, Jack took a night job in a defense plant. By 1944, he was also working as a decorator for Bullocks department store and wrote a manual used companywide to estimate furniture and drapery jobs. By day he was a gentleman decorator. After dark, bare to the waist and covered in grease, he cut metal for tanks and guns.
The dichotomy only hinted at the variety of businesses and occupations Jack Warnack would have in the decades to come.
In 1947, high on his Bullocks success, Jack opened his own decorating studio in Beverly Hills. The post-war economy was booming and business took off. Then the ever-restless Jack, at 37, expanded his operation by opening three hole-in-the-wall steak shops.
“There was no Taco Bell or McDonalds, no place to get a quick sandwich,” he explains. The steak bars were a huge success, Jack says, but a partner who didn’t pay the bills undid the enterprise.
He next worked 13 years for a Southern California division of Dayton Tire and Rubber, rising to sales manager and vice-president. He then started an industrial plastics manufacturing firm, but says another dishonest partner and a disastrous plant fire ended that venture.
“I may have made it easy,” says Jack of his problematic partners. “I considered these people my personal friends. I trusted them.”
Rebounding, he started Structural Engineered Fiberglass as a founding partner and marketing manager. The firm built elevator doors for MGM, the façade of the Disneyland Hotel, and a display at the La Brea Tar Pits. Jack still has a model mastodon from that job at his home. But recreational products, such as skating rinks, brought insurance issues that bled the profit out of the company. It shut down in 1975.
But Jack knew how to land on his feet.
“Sure I’d get depressed,” he concedes. “A day or so, a week, maybe, then I’d start again. I had a million dollars’ worth of experience, and there were always new opportunities.”
And, it turned out, there were a few new wives as well. First he married his high school sweetheart, with whom he had a daughter. Next was a Czechoslovakian model, and then a piano bar singer who worked at a restaurant he once owned.
Finally, when Jack was 55, he settled into his last and best marriage.
”This one was different,” Jack says of wife Louise. “She was a wonderful woman. She was friends with everyone, and her friends could do no wrong.”
When Jack married Louise Boltz, whom he met through a mutual friend in Southern California, he also married into her loving family here in the foothills.
Maybe the marriage worked, he says, because he’d “learned how to be married.” Louise and Jack were happy together for 38 years, until her death in 2008.
When he first settled in the foothills, Jack’s plan was to build houses. His timing was wrong, amid a down housing market, “but roofs always need work.” In 1978 he and roofer Steve Kerr started Kerr Roofing. Kerr has since left the company, which is now owned by Jack’s stepdaughter, Leigh Chase.
Until he was 75, Jack still worked on roofs. “Then I got stuck on a roof once at nightfall, and I had to throw myself into a tree to get down,” says Jack. “Louise said, no more.”
These days he leaves the scrambling across roofs to grandson Robbie and his crew. Jack is a desk jockey, back to estimating job costs, a skill he perfected and taught at Bullocks back in the ’40s. When not at the office, he is likely devoting time to his beloved Rotary.
“There are probably 8,000 religions in the world, but Rotary – helping other people – that’s the one true religion,” says Jack, who has been Twain Harte Rotary president twice, in 1986 and 2011. Even more impressive is his perfect attendance record: more than 1,700 meetings over 34 years.
Together Jack and his Rotary colleagues have provided manpower and raised money for a long list of civic projects and improvements, including contributing to restoration of Railtown 1897 State Historic Park’s Engine No. 3. He’s also proud of Rotary’s work toward eliminating polio worldwide.
So will Jack Warnack retire from the roofing business and leave the Rotary Club’s business to younger guns? Don’t bet on it.
“I plan to live forever,” Jack jokes, “and so far it’s going pretty good.”
He’s got a driver’s license that’s good until he’s 102 and plans to use that up. As for his health, he’s got a few parts that aren’t original – both hips and a pacemaker. But he can drive at night as well as ever, he says, and his teeth are his own. He walks three miles with a friend three times a week.
How about the tumbling? “Not really,” he says. “I rolled on a concrete slab when I was 82. I didn’t break anything, but that was sort of an accident.”
Risk taking? These days he confines that to the poker table.
So what makes Jack so tough, so resilient? Although neither business nor marriage has always treated him kindly, he’s still living each day with grace and vitality.
“It was the gymnastics,” says Jack.
It was learning to fall.
Maybe it was the slapstick too, the routines where he waved from the back of an old car while watching the hero take pratfalls. It’s OK to fall on your face, he learned. Just don’t stay down.
© 2013 Friends and Neighbors Magazine