by Bill Hubbell
(Editor’s Note: John G. Hubbell spent 93-plus years on this planet, more than two-thirds of them married to the same lady. We wrote a short tribute to him last week but now that the family’s most prolific writer among the progeny has weighed in [this originally appeared on Facebook], we asked the scribe if we could feature it here. In that verbose way that he has, Bill said, “Sure.”)
Bouncer on duty at the Pearly Gates (he’s one of God’s angels, but, like all bouncers, a little on the haughty side): “Welcome… I’ll remind you of the book of Matthew, chapter 19, verse 24, ‘it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.’” (Stands back, ever impressed with his haughtiness.)
John G: “First of all, that’s a completely ridiculous metaphor, one would think Matthew wrote for ‘Newsweek,’ and second of all, I raised nine kids while working from home.”
Choir of Angels: “WELCOME TO THE GOLD CLUB”
Okay, here I go with another FB post about somebody special dying. I almost wrote “sad FB post,” but I caught myself. This one isn’t sad. My sister-in-law dying in July at just 47 years old is gut-wrenchingly sad. Dying at 93 years old with every conceivable box checked? Of course we’re all sad he’s gone, but here’s to all of us getting 93 incredible years.
My dad passed away last Wednesday night, literally as we were wrapping up a video tribute to the lovely Royana, who’d died unexpectedly on my dad’s birthday three weeks ago. A writer’s embellishment to the very end.
The man lived a helluva life.
Born in the Bronx, he grew up in Teaneck NJ, Atlanta GA, Teaneck again, and then moved to Minneapolis in 7th grade and never left. After two years at Christ the King grade school, he went to St. Thomas Academy and starred in both football and basketball, helping the Cadets win a state football championship in 1944. He then went to the University of Minnesota and majored in Journalism with a minor in History. While he was at the U, he wrote an article on how golfers should treat their caddies and a magazine called Golfdom loved it and sent him a check for $30. He was hooked.
Dad was a Roving Editor for Reader’s Digest magazine from 1952 until he retired in 1993. It was a title that I never saw at any other publication, but what I think it meant was, ‘get out there and travel to every corner of the globe and find the best stories, money and expense are never an issue, but keep in mind that we’re read by 31 million people around the world each month and just might be the most influential print communications organ ever devised, so if you need to go to Timbuktu for a paragraph, go, but whatever you send us better be good.’
My dad took full advantage.
He traveled the world and found the best stories. He spent a month in Spain to uncover the story of a missing hydrogen bomb. He spent a few weeks in Hawaii with Admiral McCain. He spent months in Thailand researching a book. He interviewed Richard Nixon in the Oval Office. It was a regular occasion to see him on Sunday morning talk shows in New York and Washington. Algeria? Check. The Sahara? Check. Siciily, Naples, Athens, Cannes, Nice, Monaco, Paris etc., etc. Check. Check. Check…. You get the point. He went nearly everywhere.
One place he never got to was the Soviet Union. He was supposed to in 1969, about halfway through the Cold War. The night before John G. was to depart for Russia, he was in DC at a Georgetown bar, having dinner and cocktails with his bosses and some high-ranking politicos. John G was seated next to a retired businessman who introduced himself as Jim Angleton.
Angleton said to my dad, “I understand you’re heading over to the Soviet Union tomorrow, I’m very jealous. I’d love to meet up with you when you get back and hear all about it.” John G thought it was a little curious, but thought saying ‘no’ would be rude. He woke up the next day to find out that the USSR had pulled his visa and were not going to allow him or the four Americans he was to be with into their country. My dad was a great reporter and quickly found out that Angleton was in fact, the Chief of Counterintelligence for the CIA.
John G chuckled at the memory and was bummed out he didn’t get to go, but said, “There were eyes and ears everywhere in that restaurant, on both sides. The Kremlin already didn’t like the Digest, and someone in the KGB seeing me chatting with a top CIA official was the end of that trip.”
Everyone in my family has always read a lot; that probably comes with the territory when your dad is a writer. In the late 70’s my mom, brothers and sisters and I were on a Louis L’Amour kick. He wrote fantastic cowboy stories about the old West. John G. avoided them until one day he grabbed one to read on an airplane to New York. He loved it. A month later Louis L’Amour walked in the front door of our house to have dinner with us. The Reader’s Digest was a big deal back then, and my dad wanted to do a story on him.
Like I said, a helluva life.
My dad loved golf and was a member of the Minneapolis Golf Club for over 60 years. He has a couple of golf stories.
In 1955, he had dinner in the Augusta National clubhouse with Bobby Jones and Gene Sarazen, and the next day he rode the grounds on a cart with Jones and couldn’t help smiling as they pulled up to a lone figure hitting balls from the 13th fairway and the man who invented The Masters introduced himself to a giddy, 25-year-old named Arnold Palmer.
Years later, my dad spent time at both Augusta National and down in Florida with Jack Nicklaus, doing a Digest cover story on Jack the year after he won The Masters as a 46-year-old and it’s only his third best golf story! (For the record he played Augusta 8 times and broke 80 every time.) At that same 1955 Masters, he spent Tuesday night drinking beers in the clubhouse with Cary Middlecoff, who went on to win the tournament.
On the 14th tee on Sunday, Middlecoff saw my dad in the gallery and yelled his name and John G walked to the box and Middlecoff shook his hand and whispered, “Would you mind grabbing me a coke?” The 1959 PGA Championship was held at MGC and my parents were a “host” family. The player they drove to the course each day was Bob Rosberg and he ended up winning the tournament.
So wait, what’s his best golf story?
That was closer to home, up at Madden’s Resort. Most of my dad’s best friends were hard-core golfers and they used to travel up there each year for the Pine-to-Palm match play tournament. He lost early in the week one year, no big deal, we can stay up later and have a few more drinks and hit the dance floor. A 21-year-old looker named Punkin Hartigan caught his eye the first night and they danced. She was there as the “date” of a different golfer, who made it to the championship and was heading to bed early each night. Night two my infatuated Dad told Punkin he was going to marry her. She laughed and said, “I’m going to have 12 kids, still want to marry me?”
They were married for 64 years, had nine kids, 28 grandkids, 6 great grandkids, and never spent a day not loving each other.
During the last few weeks of my dad’s life he spent a lot of time sleeping and when he’d wake up he’d be a little disoriented, but every time he woke his eyes would search the room for my mom, and when they found her, a smile would spread wide across his face. She’d walk over to his bed and take his hand in hers and say, “I’m here Johnny,” and he’d close his eyes again with the smile and 100% contentment across his face.
The jacket of my dad’s second book, ‘P.O.W.’ described him as, “one of the nation’s most respected writers in the field of military affairs.” I’ve read that jacket probably 1,000 times in my life and it gives me goose bumps every time. And it wasn’t just because I knew I could get it in front of my 5th, 6th, and 7th grade teachers in the days just before parent/teacher conferences with the unspoken subtext being, “hey teach, maybe for both our sakes, go ahead and leave out the part about my ‘unruly recess behavior,’ trust me, it won’t go well for either one of us.” It just didn’t seem like a good idea to get in trouble with a man who’d just written a 600-page book that detailed the extreme torture of prisoners of war.
My dad worked his ass off as a writer because he loved it, and because at the end of the day what he wanted more than anything was to sit around a giant kitchen table and listen to his wife and nine children laugh like drunken sailors. We got to do that because John G. was at the wheel.
He loved being a sports fan, but he never took it too seriously.
He loved being a Catholic, but his favorite masses were at a small church he found in St. Louis Park where at the 7 am Sunday mass, everyone in attendance, including the priest, was wearing golf spikes.
He was the smartest, most well read person I’ve ever known. When Trivial Pursuit came out in 1981, he was impossible to play with because he knew the answer to every single question on every single card.
There were very few places on the globe he didn’t get to, and Lake Harriet was his favorite spot on the planet.
His idols were his two older brothers. He married the love of his life and they never, ever took each other for granted.
Rest easy Dad, and thanks for showing us how.