The voice on the loudspeaker rose above the noise in the Greyhound bus terminal, alerting the weary passenger to a waiting call. In a matter of moments, that message would irretrievably change the young college student’s life.
“His words were deafening and put me right to my knees,” Jack Jennings, now 66, said as he remembered the Illinois state trooper’s words. “Is your mom Mabel, and your dad Charles? They were killed in an automobile accident.”
The blunt announcement struck with force. Stunned, the 19-year-old could barely process the news that his parents’ station wagon had been crushed by a fast-moving cattle truck that December of 1970.
In the aftermath, Jack’s heart was crushed, too.
“I was totally devastated, hardly knew my own name,” Jack said, reflecting on his shock that day, and the horrific news he would have to identify his mother and father’s remains. “They put me in the back of the trooper’s car as if I were arrested.”
During the long drive to the morgue, Jack knew he could never go home again – his world was demolished. Left were only childhood memories of growing up in Cañon City, Colo., until he went off to college and his dad, a New Jersey Zinc Co. manager, was transferred to Dalzell, Illinois. Those early years had been happy times when his mom worked at the local hospital and was a leader in their faith community. His dad, ever the encourager, helped his young son become an early entrepreneur.
“I started a fishing worm business at 7 years old,” Jack said, thinking back on the roughhewn sign advertising fruits and vegetables from their acreage. “So many came through on Highway 50 to go fishing for rainbow trout, and they needed worms. I started making a lot of money – more than some adults at that time.”
But those idyllic days were past, and what lay ahead was financial and emotional debris. A lawsuit by the cattle company destroyed the family’s estate, and with it any hope of Jack returning to Southern Colorado State University in Pueblo. With only $1,400 in his pocket and a used car to drive, Jack forged ahead for years on a trail of grief.
By his third marriage, Jack had eight children – one who now lives in the Tri-Cities – and a life in Ft. Collins that some might have envied. He and his wife had rental properties, Harley-Davidson motorcycles, nice cars, including a “beautiful truck,” Jack said, and a motorhome. Their savings account was plush, but ruin was on the horizon.
“We hooked up with a co-ed softball crowd and traveled around a lot,” Jack said, recalling the temptation to party. “We drank heavily when we won and drank heavily when we lost.”
Before long their new lifestyle seduced even more. “Crack” cocaine became their drug – their god, Jack said – and a choice he deeply regrets.
I probably spent over a quarter of a million in value on drugs. I lost everything we’d ever built, and we went into horrible debt.
“I probably spent over a quarter of a million in value on drugs,” the once successful businessman said as he reminisced about hocking all they had. It was the death blow to their 27-year marriage.
“I lost everything we’d ever built, and we went into horrible debt,” Jack said. “All our kids – grown at the time – were distraught. They had no idea we were doing drugs.”
From then on, Jack’s life was a blur of alcoholism with no money for his drug habit. He would scrape enough cash together from working odd jobs and selling scrap metal to keep a roof over his head, but not much else.
Bereft of family and finances, and facing the threat of eviction from his apartment, the destitute man called out to God.
“I don’t cry often, but that morning I was so distraught. I had no hope,” Jack said, remembering how he had blindly wept as he walked his dog toward a nearby field, and then caught sight of a breathtaking scene. “The hoarfrost was everywhere, like one- or two-inch ropes of tinsel on everything. I stopped and put my arms up in the air and I said, ‘God please help me!’ ”
In that moment, a few clouds cleared and the sun shone like a spotlight on Jack, the icy field and trees turning into a sea of gold.
I looked back up — the sunshine was blinding — and a loud inner voice beyond my own thoughts said, ‘Give me your heart. Come follow me. Every step you take in my name I will bless you forever.’
“I looked back up — the sunshine was blinding — and a loud inner voice beyond my own thoughts said, ‘Give me your heart. Come follow me. Every step you take in my name I will bless you forever,’ ” Jack said, remembering the indescribable love and warmth that penetrated his very being. “It was the most pleasant thing I’ve ever felt, and then suddenly all these doves flew up from behind my head. At the same time the frost broke and there were bright particles of ice floating around the birds as they flew.”
Above the tumult of his tormented soul, God had dramatically answered Jack’s call. From that moment in February 2012, his desire for alcohol vanished, and the blessings promised began immediately.
On his walk that same morning, Jack’s dog suddenly dug intently into a crusty snowbank to find 30 dollars in cash, enough to fill his van at the pump and include a gas station deli meal. Then, upon arriving at a craigslist site to pick up a freebie, not only was he given the metal shed as advertised, but he was also invited to remove old decorative ore carts to recycle as scrap metal. Before the end of the day he had enough money to put toward the rent and even more to advance his business after later dismantling the iron decor.
“I named the business ‘RecycleJack’ because my heart – and Jack – had been recycled,” he said.
Nowadays from his new home in the Centennial State, this entrepreneur continues to recycle what others discard. And through The Vineyard Church of the Rockies where he is the hospitality administrator, he often crosses paths with impoverished, discouraged folks who are where he once was.
Not surprisingly, Jack Jennings is quick to share a truth he knows firsthand: No one is a throwaway, only God’s recyclable treasure.