Everybody needs just one whom they would unflinchingly trust with their lives. My guy was John Hanks.
The driver of the great iron bird died early last Saturday morning in Lake Havasu, Ariz. A fall exacerbated his heart condition and, as he would say, he “bought the farm.”
Cropduster pilots talk that way. I’ve collected enough Hanks quotes over the years to fill a book.
Oscar-winning actor Tom Hanks’ grandfather and John’s grandfather were brothers. The future actor lived in Reno as a child. As far as I know, John last saw his cousin as an infant. As Tom Hanks demonstrated in “Forrest Gump,” a humble man’s packaging can surprise you.
Born in Denver, John Thomas Hanks became a businessman, remote-controlled aircraft expert, WW2 soldier, North American crop duster pilot, photographer, award winning film maker, motorsports aficionado and Harrah’s Auto Collection veteran (including the legendary hydroplane team.)
The adventurer turned down a CIA offer to fly for Air America in southeast Asia. The money was awesome but if you got captured, the agency never heard of you.
John operated Pauline’s Sportswear franchises and wore his trademark bomber-pilot leather jacket while marketing to ladies’ clubs. “I’m Pauline,” he’d say, often adding that “I change my flight jacket’s oil every thousand miles.”
I met him in 1972 when my ad agency was retained by the Greenbrae Center Merchants Association. Former Tribune owner Carl Shelly operated the still-vibrant Shelly’s Hardware.
When current Tribune co-owner Tim Dahlberg got his first job, the newspaper office was across the hall from a Greenbrae doctor who had a contract with Joe Conforte’s Mustang Ranch. John and long-ago Tribunites vividly recalled exotic high-heeled wenches clonking by.
In 1973, Hanks and I turned half the parking lot into a motorcyle dirt bike course. Across town at Moana West, we made every retailer in the region green with envy when we scored Mickey, Minnie, Goofy, Peter Pan, Wendy and Captain Hook for live shows. People parked six blocks away, which generated another Hanks-ism: “There’s no sight so fearsome as a determined mother with an armful of kids.”
We used our award-winning Laurel and Hardy lookalikes for the Disney event. Media personality Doug Davies created a perfect Oliver Hardy while Reno High grad Herman “Jack” Marston brought Stan Laurel to life. We lucked out because Jack was visiting from Hollywood. He went on to a stellar career.
John shot killer motorcycle footage but our greatest hit came with black-and-white silent-movie parodies entitled “The Apparels of Pauline,” an hómage to the classics of similar name. (Ragtime piano by Davies.) With the awesome Robin Vonderheide Andrews as damsel in dress distress, we created an award-winning series. I even shot John’s cameo appearance as (his term) “a greaseball mechanic” helping Pauline into an ancient aircraft where haberdashic disaster soon ensued.
We shot motorsports all over California for Team Reno, future State Sen. Randolph Townsend’s (D and R) racing team before he signed with Paul Newman. I produced and syndicated the 1976-78 Long Beach GrandPrix Formula One street race radio network. Hanks and I enjoyed great times and learned stuff like don’t leave your beer unattended in a dark bar after an event. We once did and returned to find that some greaseball mechanics had done our drinking for us.
John’s greatest gift to me was not friendship but fraulein. On April Fool’s Day 1976, I met John and his wife, Marge, at their Carson City store. Their manager had put together a fashion show for ladies clubs at (his real name) Pastor Thunder’s Protestant church.
I had never met Betty Donlevy and was greeted by a drop-dead gorgeous 30-something with blonde hair falling below her Barbyish waistline. I was further impressed with the emcee script she wrote for me. We were together for the next 30 years. Marge and Betty are now gone. John’s ashes will join Marge’s.
John learned to fly before enlisting in WW2. He served in the Pacific theater and broke his neck in an auto accident, ever-after suffering in cold weather. I once asked him to film Subarus being unloaded on a bitter-cold day. The truck was very late.
My wife remarked that John was like Dr. Seuss’ Horton the Elephant, “faithful 100 percent.” He got the shots.
Today’s politicos could learn from John who was possessed of a true moral center. Because he was a fair man, he was both reasonable conservative and open-minded liberal, leavened with a sense of the absurd.
“I don’t care who screws who, how or why,” he remarked when we heard a newscast outing a macho actor. John thought gun controls did not work and that the Supreme Court was the country’s major problem. (Given that Justice Sandra Day O’Connor installed Bush-Cheney, he proved prescient.)
His all-time favorite pol was Washington U.S. Sen. and Gov. Monrad Wallgren. Hanks often told the story of a c.1948 radio interview in which the guv was asked about selling liquor licenses under-the-table.
“Yes, I have a big yacht to support,” he purportedly quipped, “but I spread it around. The rest goes into the welfare or road fund or wherever it’s needed.” While such candor is now stylish, Hanks remained aghast at the country’s corporate tilt.
He perfectly titled the 2016 election: “Do something, even if it’s wrong.”
John was a sexy devil. He got kicked out of Sunday school for asking who did Cain marry, his mother or his sister? (He’d killed his brother, Abel, so that was out.)
John once remarked about the cute young nurse who stuck his vein on first try at the Phoenix VA hospital. He was impish about sin, advising “don’tcha never do business with a preacher.”
John and Marge left Reno for Georgia and finally to Northrup in California. His radio-control expertise proved valuable to aircraft designers.
John once wrote “If I die tomorrow, I have not missed anything. Anything I do from now on will be a repeat.”
John Thomas Hanks had simple tastes, preferring sandwiches to fancy dinners, a true Renaissance Man who could build or fix just about anything. He proved it with planes and people, my best friend forever.
As John often said, the only thing worse than warm beer is no beer. So somebody get some beer so I can propose a toast. Or seven. Adios.
Be well. Raise hell. / Esté bien. Haga infierno. (Pardon my Spanglish.)
Andrew Barbano is a 48-year Nevadan and editor of NevadaLabor.com. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org> Barbwire by Barbano has originated in the Tribune since 1988.