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Lake Placid, N.Y. Jan. 22, 2002 (AP by John Kekis)–At 91, Jack Shea had discovered the fountain of youth.
He was the patriarch of the first family to produce three generations of Olympians, more famous now than when he won two speedskating gold medals at the 1932 Lake Placid Winter Games.
National media courted him. Sprint made a TV commercial featuring the family. He jetted back and forth to Salt Lake City, excited by the prospect of watching his grandson, Jim Jr., compete in skeleton in February.
“Gosh, it will be wonderful to see Jimmy march into the Olympic Stadium,” said Shea, whose son, Jim, competed in the Nordic combined and two cross-country ski races at the 1964 Innsbruck Games. “The pride that’s coming to me will be absolutely priceless.”
Jack Shea’s dream ended Tuesday. America’s oldest living Winter Games gold medalist died eight hours after being involved in a car accident just a few blocks from his home.
A van driven by Herbert J. Reynolds, 36, of Saranac Lake, N.Y., slid out of control late Monday afternoon and hit Shea’s car, police said. Reynolds was charged with driving while intoxicated and other counts.
News of Shea’s death spread quickly–Sprint spokeswoman Laurie Ellison said the popular commercial would be pulled–and saddened the village where his grandfather had settled in the 1880s.
“It’s a tragic day for us,” said Sandy Caligiore of the New York State Olympic Regional Development Authority, which oversees the winter sports venues in the region. “Jack basically was the steward for Lake Placid. He really understood what the Olympic movement was all about. He was moving in that direction every day. To end so suddenly without seeing his grandson compete next month is a tragedy on top of what already has been a tragic day.”
Back troubles had kept Shea from skating much since the 1950s. But he attended speedskating events in Lake Placid, and when the Olympic Torch Relay came through the village three weeks ago on its way to Salt Lake City, Shea carried the flame into the Olympic Speedskating Oval where he had won his gold medals and ignited the cauldron.
“We have lost a true Olympic hero and inspirational human being,” said Lloyd Ward, chief executive officer of the U.S. Olympic committee. “Jack Shea lived the Olympic ideal and passed along his knowledge to generations within the Shea family. We hope his legacy and inspiration will be strength to his grandson.”
Mitt Romney, president of the Salt Lake City Organizing Committee, said there had been plans to honor Shea at the opening ceremonies of the Olympics.
Jack Shea’s first speedskating race, at age 7, certainly wasn’t a portent of the greatness that would follow. He fell only 15 feet from the starting line. In tears, he was picked up off the ice by local police chief Tom Black, who told him there would be other races.
When the Winter Games came to Lake Placid for the first time in 1932, the 22-year-old Shea skated past the Scandinavian stars to win gold in the 500-meter event in 43.4 seconds. That was six-tenths of a second faster than his idol, Charles Jewtraw, posted in winning gold in 1924 at Chamonix.
“When I stood on that dais to get the gold medal and I heard the national anthem of the United States, how proud I was to represent my country, my community, my father and mother, to follow in the footsteps of Charlie Jewtraw,” Shea said in an interview with the Associated Press in 1990.
Shea also won the 1,500 meters.
When he graduated from Dartmouth in 1934 as the Depression gripped the country, Shea was unable to take full advantage of his Ivy League education. He got a job in the post office delivering mail.
In 1936, Shea was a stronger competitor and had a chance at winning more Olympic medals at Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany. But Lake Placid had a large Jewish community whose rabbi asked him not to compete in Hitler’s Germany, and Shea agreed.
After also working in the family market for years, Shea was elected supervisor of the Town of North Elba in 1974 and served eight years. He made it a personal quest to help persuade the International Olympic Committee to stage the Winter Games in his hometown again in 1980.
“I felt I would like to accomplish one more medal, to bring the Olympics back to Lake Placid,” Shea said.
Shea is survived by his wife, Elizabeth, and three sons. Another son, Patrick, committed suicide in 1978 at 36.
Funeral services will be held Friday.
Copyright © 2000 The Associated Press