John Stewart Day, heroically motivated, likes to be different, and here are some of the ways he has realized himself. Instead of a house cat he keeps an African cheetah. Instead of climbing mountains he likes to sprint to their summits and then dash down again in record time. Instead of driving a Ferrari, he drives a Volkswagen with a supercharged engine. And, when dining out at the Pear Blossom Room of the Mon Desir Dining Inn near Medford, Ore., his home town, he never drinks whisky. Instead he orders his favorite cocktail, a Shirley Temple, which is Seven-Up spiked with pomegranate syrup. And woe to the man who sniggers.
Now, just recently, John Day has attained a kind of uniqueness ordinary men can only dream about while reading the back panel of their box of breakfast Wheaties. Day, as of the opening ceremonies at Innsbruck this week, has officially become the oldest, most decrepit man in the world who failed to make a team in the Winter Olympics. That is the theory, anyway, and if it is a statistic hard to check out, it is one easy enough to believe. For non-Olympian Day is hard of hearing, wears bifocals, has back trouble, is slightly lame, has had ulcers, is known as Granddaddy to two small boys in his family and is 54 years old.
Notwithstanding any of this, Day spent the past 24 months pointing himself toward a berth on the U.S. Nordic ski team. His particular aim was to join the team's Langl√§ufer skiers, a breed of supermen who do not go in for that sissy slide-down-a-hill stuff, but for the killing, ice-on-the-eyebrows, cross-country kind. With the deliberate intention of making himself a member of that hearty, husky lot, Day strapped on a pair of skis for the first time when he was 52. Once he had learned how to remain up-right on the pesky things—no easy matter, he discovered—he graduated toward the science of moving forward in a predetermined direction, and from there developed a knack for moving uphill and downhill at a dead run. In pursuit of his latest hobby, Day expended considerable time, energy and money—his reserves of all three seeming to be ample. And though the competition was fierce, inasmuch as those who did eventually make the U.S. Nordic cross-country team have an average age of 25, there is reason to believe that had Day joined them in Innsbruck he could have made at the least a respectable showing for his country. What kept him from ever having a real chance was one small, niggling detail. When the team was put together, Day had never skied in an official cross-country race, and the Olympic subcommittee governing the selection of the U.S. Nordic team did not see how it could possibly make an exception to the rules for him and still discharge its duties with responsibility. The rules, put simply, require a candidate for the U.S. team to compete in a few qualifying races in order even to attend the final selection trials. A lot of people may see the logic of this, though John Day himself felt it was an outstanding example of narrow thinking and took steps to have the rules changed. "Everybody but the President called me up in John's behalf," says a ski-team committee member, seemingly glad to get away from the telephone. Not that this means the basic issue of John Day and the Olympic team is closed. The Day family motto shouts, "To the stars!" But since it says nothing about how soon a Day should get there, John is being philosophically cheerful. "Well, for goodness' sake," he says, "don't forget there will be another Olympics in 1968. I'll only be 58 years old then, so what's the big rush?" Some might think Day is kidding when he says a thing like this, but he is not. When a man like Day gets within striking distance of celestial success, he is not likely to slacken his pace.
A cattle breeder among other things, John Day lives on a ranch outside Medford in the beautiful countryside that is southern Oregon. "The ranch runs six miles thataway and, I reckon, a couple or more thisaway." Day will explain with sweeping arm motions, and he and one other man, a foreman named Don Hanscom, keep it up. Day's house is situated on top of a high hill overlooking the burbling Rogue River and about 4,000 acres of rolling range where the deer play and the buffalo roam. The deer are there because it is fairly wild territory, and the buffalo are there because a friend sold six of the animals to Day a few years back and they have been multiplying ever since. Day once toyed with the idea of crossbreeding his buffalo and his cattle—to what purpose is not known. He abandoned the plan on the advice of veterinarians, who told him that it would not work.
February 3, 1964
Because Day married Mary Parsons, the daughter of a well-connected Seattle family, and because he has consummated a successful business venture or two of his own, his house is in the six-figure class. It is also in the shelter-magazine class, and after it was built eight years ago it was the subject of a 10-page lead story in an issue of House & Garden devoted to having "the courage of your own convictions in decorating." The idea of the house, the Days told the H&G people, is to create an impact inside and out, yet leave the visitor perfectly at ease withal. It certainly does most of that. The house is put together with stone and cedar, and right from the representation of a Cro-Magnon cave mural beside the front porch, it offers an inside glimpse into the kind of family that lives there. Since Day is a big-game hunter, the head and forequarters of a stuffed bear reach out to embrace anyone entering the front door, and a stuffed Arctic wolf waits in ambush, fangs bared, around the first turn. The wolf, although somewhat unnerving to the family's three dogs and the semicivilized cheetah, is just so much furniture to the Days. They use its broad, fluffy back as a make-do bulletin board and leave notes for one another on it, such as, "Please have car greased," or, "Am at golf club." Forging deeper into the house, one sees a continuing variety of mounted trophies—goats, sheep, polar bears and whatnot—and, indeed, when the Days weary of one particular animal's presence, they can go into a living-room closet and choose a substitute head to their liking, including the remains of a homegrown buffalo that died of old age. The courage of the Days' convictions in decorating got its severest test, surely, when Mrs. Day discovered she was allergic to the living room's llama-wool rug, one which she had had woven in Ecuador and which repeated the motif of Cro-Magnon man's gamboling animals. Rather than send out for a nylon substitute, Mrs. Day had her doctor compound an antidote to her allergy. Whenever she is obliged to pass any lengthy time in the room she gives herself a shot in the arm, and all is well.
The living room also contains a movie screen on which Day can project the highly professional films he has made—or starred in—during half a dozen hunting trips to Alaska. Day is equally adept with rifle and camera, and sometimes he has been obliged to use both instruments almost simultaneously. One of the films in his collection shows him approaching a bear hidden in a creek bed. Day, who has put down his rifle on the snow, is about to snap the bear's portrait when it charges furiously up the creek bank. So, coolly, Day takes the picture anyhow, and then reaches down for the gun and shoots the critter dead at 20 paces. A companion on the trip recorded all this with Day's movie camera, and Day dearly loves to show the film. What with learning to ski, Day has not had much time for hunting lately, but he still wants to tackle Africa with gun and camera, which he has never done. "I was all set to go a few years ago for Look magazine, but at the last minute they got Ernest Hemingway instead," says Day. "If I had been the editor, I would have made the same decision, I'm sure," he adds, but his heart is not in it.
For a man with John Day's zest and enthusiasm, a house would not be complete without a gymnasium, and, of course, he has one. It is a splendid room with many mirrors for self-appraisal, and the trappings include ankle developers, barbells and an isometric-bar contraption. Day got the isometric exerciser not long ago, and the first time he used it he put his back out of whack. But he has since come to appreciate the subtle benefits of isometric contractions and recommends them unreservedly to anybody who will listen. Ranged around the walls of his gym are various pieces of skiing equipment, and behind the sliding doors of one closet is a vast array of mountain-climbing apparel. Day has been elected to the advisory boards of several cold-weather-clothing manufacturers, and they regularly send him samples of their wares, seeking his endorsement and recommendations. It is a clue to Day's generosity, which is very large, that he will open up this closet and ask a visitor to help himself.
Finally, in a room overlooking his heated swimming pool, Day has his home office. He is an unabashed collector of newspaper clippings, documents and gimcracks, and the walls and shelves in the office are blanketed with such oddments as ice axes and pitons, a photograph of John Glenn (whom Day resembles), a quotation from President Lyndon Johnson deploring procrastination, college diplomas, membership certificates from the Rotary Club, fraternities, outdoorsmen's clubs and the American Airlines' Admirals Club, and a number of framed letters from such luminaries as Dwight Eisenhower and Stuart Udall. Alaskan taxpayers will appreciate the $100 wolf-bounty check over his desk which, he says, he will never cash. A number of framed photographs taken by Day also are scattered around. Characteristically, each frame bears a small brass plate identifying the subject of the picture and, in somewhat larger letters, the photographer. '"I guess you can say John has about five principal hobbies," says a man who knows and admires Day. "They would be mountain climbing, hunting, skiing, photography and tooting his own horn."
The son of a man of protean tastes himself (his father. Earl, has been a concert pianist, an Oregon state senator, a judge and a rancher in his time), John Day showed an early liking for exercise and derring-do. His earliest hero, he remembers, was Tarzan of the Apes, and many were the boyhood hours he spent swinging through the family cherry tree while his mother clutched her heart below. The cherry tree was finally rendered, in part, into what Mrs. Day may have wished it was all along—a coffee table in John's living room. When there was work to be done on his father's ranch, John made the best of a bad situation by challenging his brother, who is two years younger, to contests. "Pitching hay," says their sister, Nancy, "was an annual event at home that was as important as any football game." Other times John challenged his father to ax-throwing matches and later put that experience to very good use: in his late teens and early 20s Day worked as a forest-fire fighter and ranger and, at one time or another, held the ax-throwing title in five Northwest national forests. "There was one rule we heard every day as children," says John's sister, "and that was, if a thing was worth doing it was worth doing well. John took that lesson to heart."
Educated at Oregon State, the University of Oregon and the Harvard Business School, Day returned to Medford, where he concerned himself with business interests that ranged from cattle breeding to gold mining. Healthy and wealthy, he was doing just fine until his back gave out about the time of his 40th birthday.
Troubled by a persistent ache that no local doctors could ease, Day flew off to Boston's Lahey Clinic—"the most famous clinic in the world," he points out when discussing his case—where his ailment was diagnosed as arthritis. The disease was so advanced, in fact, that Lahey doctors ventured he would never be able to walk upright again. That was too big a pill for Day to swallow, and he rejected it. Well then, said the doctors, a program of carefully graduated exercises might help restore him to limited usefulness. Day willingly went for this alternative and, as is now apparent, there are very few limits to his ability to locomote. But hardly had he resolved his back problem than he was at Lahey again, this time with ulcers. During his second stay he did a little soul-searching.
The medical tribulations he was enduring, he concluded, might have their good points. Accordingly, he derived a new philosophy from the experiences. "The way I suddenly saw it," he says, "a man's life can be divided into three parts of 20 years each. The first 20 he spends developing himself from infant to adult, both mentally and physically. He spends the second 20 laying waste his physical assets in abuse and disuse. I was smoking four packs of cigarettes a day, for instance, and doing no telling what else. Then, in his last 20 years, a man passes his time in crippled, feeble regret for all he's done wrong to himself. I figured I had gone through the first two periods right on schedule. And I knew I was in for more and more physical trouble unless I changed my way of living. What would I do? I asked myself. I decided to climb mountains."
Ordinarily a man does not just commence to climb mountains, particularly a man past 40 with arthritis and ulcers. John Day is rarely bound by ordinary thinking, however, so there was nothing to stop him, and one early morning he simply hiked to the top of Mt. McLoughlin, a respectable if somewhat undernourished 9,497-foot peak in upper Oregon. "We—my wife and I and some friends—were up at Lake of the Woods for the Labor Day weekend in 1956," says Day. "We were playing cards and fishing and just having a pretty good time. Sunday evening I was out on the porch of this cabin we were staying in, and off in the distance I could see McLoughlin rearing up. I don't know what came over me, but I made up my mind I was going up that mountain before the next day dawned." Accordingly, at 2 a.m., Day started up the mountain's side. By daybreak he was almost to the summit. "When I got to the top, I was puffing and blowing, but I was not the bent-over old man the doctors had thought I would be. I was a man who was standing 9,500 feet tall, and I hadn't been so proud of myself in years."
In the years since, Day figures he has made about 150 ascents of various mountains in the Northwest and Alaska. With the exception of a few, however, U.S. mountains are not too difficult to climb. A pack mule accompanied Day, for instance, when he went to the top of Mt. Whitney, the highest peak in the U.S. south of Alaska. So Day resolved to make the game more challenging. "Climbing is a competitive sport, as far as I am concerned," he says, "and although this idea offends the purists, I think of climbing as a battle against cold, wind, altitude and a man's own inclination to say to heck with it and turn around halfway to the top." To make the U.S. mountains more competitive, Day made his decision that he would not exactly climb them, he would run them.
There being no such thing as speed records for mountaineering, Day had to invent that idea, too. He did this by the simple expedient of declaring the mountains open for foot racing and then charging off into the mists. Thereafter, in a succession of breathless ascents, Day, some mountaineer friends he came to know and occasionally his son, John Parsons Day, tackled almost every mountain in reach, each a little higher than the one before. Day's velocity and momentum became so frenetic in the summer of 1958 that he climbed six Washington mountains in nine days and, indeed, between the Fourth of July and Labor Day, was up and down a total of 17 major peaks.
It was with this feat—never equaled, but then possibly never challenged—that Day says he gave up climbing for speed records. One factor affecting his decision, perhaps, was a growing animus between him and some other Northwest mountaineers, who looked upon his tactics with a certain amount of scorn. Speed climbing is not only theatrical and shallow, they charged but, what is worse, it is dangerous. Day himself admits to the last criticism. "I stopped setting records," he says, "because I became aware that others, in seeking to break them, might overextend themselves and wind up in trouble." Ironically, it was Day himself who wound up in trouble just a few months later.
It had long been Day's ambition to climb Alaska's 20,320-foot Mt. McKinley, this continent's highest mountain. Day tried it, along with three other mountaineers, among them Jim Whittaker, who went to the top of Mt. Everest last spring with the American expedition. On May 15, 1960 the climb began. The four men reached the top of McKinley in three days without incident, and Day placed a metal plaque on the summit in honor of his wife. On the descent, however, one of the men lost his footing and the whole party, roped together, fell 500 feet down a glacial slope. Day, the worst hurt, suffered a fractured left leg, dislocated right ankle and torn tendons in both legs.
As it happened, three other climbing parties were on McKinley at the same time, and one of them heard Day's call for help moments after he had fallen. Not much later the biggest mountain-rescue operation in U.S. history was launched—a woman in one of the other parties was reported in distress from exhaustion at the same time, complicating the situation—and after four days of suffering in a tent Day was lifted off the mountain by a helicopter flying some 1,300 feet above its rated ceiling. But the dramatic rescue was no triumph. Earlier the same day two men in a light plane had flown up to the spot where Day lay and had crashed about 100 yards from his tent. Both men were killed, and their widows have since filed suits against Day seeking damages.
After his rescue, Day spent two months in hospitals in Anchorage and Seattle, and while the experience may have sobered him and left him lame in his left ankle, it did not destroy his love of climbing. To celebrate the first anniversary of the fateful McKinley climb, he went back up Mt. McLoughlin, where the whole thing had started, and then sent a telegram of congratulations to the Seattle doctor who had set his broken bones 12 months before, informing him that he was back in business.
If Day is not the dear friend of Northwest mountaineers, there is no gainsaying his ability to get up and down mountains, a most remarkable ability considering his age. Thus it was not surprising that in 1963 he was invited to go on the American Mt. Everest expedition, an invitation tendered, to some degree, because of the financial help he could supply the team. Day first accepted, then later announced he would not go. He said business commitments prevented his spending six months away from home, but there was one other factor that probably colored his decision. Day's expansive personality began to rub some other members of the team the wrong way, and there came the time of a mutual falling out.
Not that Day did not need the time now left him to develop his skiing, which he determined to take up after attending the 1960 Winter Olympics at Squaw Valley, Calif. He needed lots of time. "I had watched the downhill skiers," he says, "and while I was impressed by their skill, I was not impressed by the physical ease with which it was done. But when I saw cross-country skiing I knew that was something I would like. It exacted a great deal of effort. That's my dish of tea."
In the fall of 1961, therefore, with his eyes fixed firmly on the 1964 Olympics, Day got busy. "I thought about the kids I had seen skiing past," he says, "and I told myself I would be doing better than they were in 10 days. However, 2½ months later, I guess it was, I wasn't even sure I would ever learn to keep my balance on skis." Eventually, with the help and patience of friends and instructors, Day got the hang of skiing downhill. "I got to be—and I still am—what you could call an average, run-of-the-mill skier," he confesses. With that under his belt, he went looking for someone to teach him the secrets of Nordic skiing.
Day, who likes to start at the top, naturally called first on Willy Schaeffler, widely considered the preeminent ski coach in the U.S. Schaeffler, too tied up with his duties as coach of the University of Denver ski team, was unable to take on Day. Nothing daunted, Day decided to go to Norway, where he knew he could find Nordic coaches with no trouble. Before leaving, he notified the U.S. Olympic Nordic ski committee of his plans and told members he wished to be considered for a place on the team. Since the team is open to anyone who can demonstrably prove himself superior to the next man, there were no objections. The only requirement, the committee told him, was that he enter the qualifying races to establish his proficiency.
Unfortunately, Day never managed to establish anything. He showed up for the sanctioned North American races in Crested Butte, Colo. last winter but hurt his shoulder in practice and could not enter the 15-kilometer cross-country run. And by the time he got to Norway, all competition there was over as well.
Still, in Norway, Day did get in a fair amount of practice—about 2,000 miles' worth, is his estimate. "For one 40-day stretch, I was on skis all day, and my coach and I would cover about 30 miles each day. Of course, we had a communication problem; he didn't speak English and I don't speak Norwegian. His wife would try to translate for us at night, telling me what he said I had done wrong during the day. You don't exactly get the nuances this way, so after he had grounded me pretty well in fundamentals, I got another coach. I stayed with him for a month, and we kept moving north until there just wasn't any more snow. Then I came home."
After weighing the credentials of the dozens of U.S. skiers anxious to try out for the Olympics, the Nordic committee narrowed its list down to 25 last June. John Day was never on the list, because there was nothing official to indicate he should be. Nevertheless, in the hope an exception might be made for him, he kept up his training program to the bitter end. During the summer and fall he ran literally hundreds of miles across his ranch, sometimes loping up hillsides with a ski pole in each hand, perfecting the curious bent-kneed, hopping lope of cross-country skiing. Workouts with the isometric bar were just as constant. "There was nothing I could do about it, of course," says Ted Farwell, chairman of the Nordic subcommittee. "Mr. Day did not meet the set requirements, and to make an exception for him I would have to make an exception for every man in the United States who thinks he should be on the team. If I had done that the tryouts would have been unmanageable."
But, needless to say, Day has remained undaunted. He now has four years to train for the next Winter Olympics. He intends to spend the winters improving his skiing, but how else can he keep himself busy? "Well," he says, casting his eyes aloft and thinking about that family motto, "I may take up sky diving."