Watts: Mountain climber, marathon runner
- Susan Matheny
- Madras Pioneer - Sports
John "Jack" Watts
His parents, Carl and Nellie (Shutt) Watts were living in Terrebonne where his dad taught school, when Jack was born on March 6, 1924, at the Redmond hospital. Both sets of grandparents, James and Lillian (Ramsey) Watts, and Irvin and Myrtle (Mason) Shutt, were area homesteaders. I.F. Shutt was a carpenter who built the Mason House and many other area structures, and Lillian Watts was the county school superintendent for 34 years.
Jack's family moved to Madras when he was 3 months old, and his dad taught at the Mud Springs and Grizzly schools until becoming principal of the two-story Madras Grade School, where he also taught seventh and eighth grades.
Back then, the school didn't even have a pencil sharpener, Jack recalled. "When I was a second-grader my pencil needed sharpening, so I took it the the seventh grade room and knocked on the door. Wayne Hull answered the door and took out his pocket knife and sharpened my pencil," he said.
He played hookey once, but the offense was overlooked. "It was towards the end of the year and I just got on my bicycle and went for a ride, and then came back. But nothing was said, because my grandmother was the county school superintendent. That was the worst thing I ever did," Jack confessed.
The Watts family, which now included siblings Lynden and Caryl, lived in a house where the current Ahern's Market is located. His father, who was a well-liked teacher and principal, began suffering abdominal pains and it was discovered he had intestinal cancer. He had surgery and came home with a 50-50 chance of survival.
The family was able to spend an idyllic summer together at Suttle Lake before he passed away in 1934 at the age of 34.
Jack remembered, "Dad built a row boat and we did a lot of fishing. I was age 10 and would row clear across Suttle Lake and back and I didn't know how to swim."
With three kids to raise on her own, his mother Nellie got a job at the county assessor's office, and a few years later ran for office and was elected the county clerk, a position she held for 35 years.
In the summers, the kids would go stay with their Shutt grandparents, who had moved to Salem. "They lived right across from the Salem Senators baseball field and I'd sneak into baseball games all the time," Jack said.
Their uncles James "Jimmy" Watts and Ross Watts became father figures to the children, and took them hiking and fishing.
"One day Jimmy brought me a .22 rifle when I was 10, which started my hunting career. I hunted rabbits and sage rats in the area where Les Schwab and Subway is now -- that was a big sage rat area," Jack laughed.
Madras' high school had burned down, and Jack's class was the first one to enter the new Madras Union High School building. In high school he was active in basketball and baseball and was the pitcher as a freshman. "I'd practice hours at pitching and had a pretty good curve ball," he said. There wasn't any track program, but he and Lynden set up a high jump bar by their house and spent hours high jumping.
For fun, he said teens rode bicycles in the summer, hiked out Willow Canyon to the twin tunnels, and did a lot of roller skating on a stretch of smooth sidewalk on the north side of the Madras Hotel.
"I graduated in 1942 and was valedictorian, but there were only four students in my class," he said with amusement. He attended Willamette University for one year to study physics, but World War II had started, so he enlisted in the Marine Corps in 1943.
Jack had been interested in radio since he was young, and trained as a radio-radar technician for the Marines. He spent a year training at service schools in Utah, Illinois and Texas, then was sent with the 13th Marine Air Group to Majuro in the Marshall Islands in 1944.
"We were just getting ready to ship out for the invasion of Japan when the (atom) bomb was dropped and the war was over," he said.
After being discharged in 1946, he returned to Willamette University and completed a degree in physics, with a minor in sociology in 1949. He remembers a professor giving a lecture entitled "You Can't Go Back Home," but Jack did. He came back to Madras to work as the county weed control supervisor and state seed certifier for 10 years.
In 1952, he met Marilyn Cook, a Portland girl who had come to Madras to teach fourth grade. Jack's mother was the greeter at the Methodist Church where Marilyn attended, and also boarded some of the teachers.
"One time she had the teachers out for a potluck and I met Jack, who was home from the service," Marilyn said, adding, "Beth Crow was one of the teachers I knew, and after I met Jack, Beth persuaded him to give me a call for a date." On one of their first dates, Jack popped an important question, asking Marilyn, "Do you like to hike?"
They were married June 27, 1954, and started a family. Son John was born in 1955, Susan in 1959 and Alan in 1960. (The Rev. John Watts and well-known rock climber Alan Watts now both live in Bend, and Susan Buckle lives in Beaverton. Jack and Marilyn have eight grandchildren).
As a family, the Wattses did a lot of hiking and some camping. "I drug Marilyn up to the top of Mount Hood, Three Fingered Jack and almost to the top of Mount Jefferson. I have nice memories looking back on all that," Jack said, noting the kids climbed many of the mountains with them.
At age 47, Jack picked up an interest in distance running from his son John, who was involved in the sport. Over the years, Jack ran nine 26-mile marathons before he and John tackled the Boston Marathon together in 1978.
Meanwhile, Jack had started another career after he began helping repair radios at Paul Rowan's radio shop. One day Rowan put a TV antenna up on the hill on the Galbraith's property and ran a wire to the shop. "We had live cable TV, the first in Madras, and that was the beginning of the cable system," Jack said.
When Rowan decided to expand in 1961, he asked Jack to work for him. Jack was the 33rd electronic technician certified in Oregon and worked repairing TV sets and car radios and selling appliances.
Then Vern Moore, who had a trailer park south of town, asked about running a TV cable line out to his place, which got Rowan to thinking about developing a cable system.
In 1971, Rowan decided to sell the appliance business and go into cable TV full time, adopting the name Crestview Cable TV. They applied for a franchise in Prineville, but were told by the city council, "We already have three good channels from Grizzly, why would we need more? You'll go broke," Jack laughed, adding, "We told them we wanted to take the chance and it worked out pretty good."
He worked at Crestview until the corporation sold in 1982, then retired at age 58. Years later, he received a plaque honoring him as a "Pioneer of Cable TV."
Over the years, Jack served on the Madras City Planning Commission from 1979-93, then on the City Safety Council, and also served on the board of directors at Juniper Bank from 1988 to 1994.
Wondering what he'd do in retirement, he soon got a call from the Meals on Wheels and Volunteer Services programs, which needed people to drive patients, foster kids, and others to appointments.
Volunteering his time, Jack has been driving for Meals on Wheels since 1982, and for Volunteer Services since 1986, traveling as far as Klamath Falls, Portland and The Dalles.
"He loves to drive and he's nice to the people. That just seems to fit him," Marilyn said, to which Jack added, "It's a way to relax."
Besides driving thousands of miles, Jack, now 82, finds time to raise roses, and enjoys reading three newspapers and working the "Jumble" word puzzle daily. The Wattses attend the United Methodist Church, and still enjoy hiking.
"Just two Sundays ago we went to Smith Rock and climbed Misery Ridge and hiked around Monkey Face," Jack said, noting they'd like to hike the Three Creek Lake trail this summer.