Thacher legend Jack Huyler, or “Uncle Jack” as we all knew him, passed away on January 2nd, 2014, peacefully in his sleep at the age of 93.
Uncle Jack, through his 64 years of involvement with Thacher, became a staple of the school with his direct influence in the freshman horse program, his fulfillment of almost every school position, his close relationship with the students and teachers, and so much more.
Head of School Michael Mulligan offered his praise for Uncle Jack.
Jack Huyler was a legendary teacher of English, a dedicated and detail oriented school leader, and the savior of the Thacher School Horse Program. He was determined, focused, fun-loving, often incorrigible, and larger than life. He could be a tough critic, but at the end of the day he helped me become a better Head of School, and he helped Thacher stay strong.
To understand this great man we have to venture back to the beginning of his story.
John “Jack” Seys Huyler III was born on April 18, 1920, in Greenwich, Connecticut. In 1926, the family, determined to live the cowboy lifestyle, moved to Jackson Hole, Wyoming and bought a horse ranch. Previously involved in the booming family candy company based in New York City, Jack’s father Coulter D. Huyler, upon leaving the city for Jackson Hole, began to slowly break off from the company.
Jack once said of his father’s change in business, “He bought horses in Jackson for each member of the family in 1926. Then he decided maybe he’d expand, get out of the candy business, and into the horse business.”
After almost 20 years of living in the family ranch, nicknamed the “Bear Paw,” Coulter sold the property to John D. Rockefeller, who added the ranch to the preexisting JY acreage in 1948. Jack’s family then relocated to the Rocking H Ranch in 1949. It was on these two ranches that Jack fell in love with Wyoming, horses, and the adventurous lifestyle he’d live for the rest of his life. Little did he know, Jack would soon meet the true love of his life, Margaret Appenzeller.
Margaret first came to visit the Bear Paw in 1938. A daughter of two missionary parents, Margaret spoke fluent Korean and Japanese from her many years of travel.
Uncle Jack recalled, “When Margaret first came to the ranch, she came as mother and dad’s guest. She was a missionary’s kid, and her parents were going back to Korea, and they thought she’d be lonely so they brought her to the ranch for two weeks. Well, she’d never ridden before so, of course, I put her on an old, secure horse. She took right to it. I guess we were all monkeying around down by the corrals, and I was probably trying to show off, I don’t know what I was doin’, but I looked around and she was standing up on her horse! I have that picture right here – standin’ up with both hands free. I was convinced. I said, ‘Boy, that’s for me!’ And I never changed my mind, not once!”
Jack and Margaret were happily married on March 28th, 1942, the same year Jack graduated from Princeton where he and six other friends founded the Nassoons, a singing group still active today on Princeton campus. Margaret and Jack were married for 63 years, alternating homes between Ojai, Jackson Hole, and years of travelling abroad.
The same year Jack and Margaret were married, the Wyoming native joined the U.S. army as a captain in World War II, volunteering himself to work for a program preparing U.S. soldiers for battle in China. Three years later, while Jack was in combat, Margaret gave birth to their first son John S. Huyler Jr. Margaret and Jack went on to have two more children: Ruth, born in 1948, and Stephen in 1952.
After returning to Wyoming after the war, and teaching English in Connecticut, Margaret and Jack decided it was high time for a change in scenery and came teach at The Thacher School in Ojai, California. Jack began his work at Thacher as an English teacher in 1949, the same year his family sold Bear Paw and began Rocking H Ranch. When they arrived, they moved into a small apartment attached to Upper School. Jack went on to teach grammar, literature, and horsemanship, while Margaret became the unofficial “mother” for the 120 boys on campus.
Jack went on to serve in almost every position in the school including Assistant Head of School, Head of School, and teacher; but his most important and influential position was Head of the Horse Department. Riding from the age of six, Jack’s love for horses was undeniable. Even up to the years just before his passing, Jack, though he himself could no longer ride, continued to offer his sound advice and critique that made him such an amazing rider.
Mr. Schryver said of Jack’s dedication to the Horse Program, “[he] kept alive the rather old school belief that there is something honorable, exhilarating and worthwhile in learning to ride well and daringly. Jack told me that he hated timidity and he certainly could walk the walk. He always had the confidence in his intelligence and ability that allowed him to think and act independently and go against the grain if necessary.”
Mr. Schryver continued on to note that when Thacher’s horse program began to falter, “[Jack] and Jess Kahle saved the horse program back when they were first here. They believed in its place in a school like this. Jack’s fierce and yet compassionate brand of competitiveness was unique. He wanted everybody to feel what it was like to be brave, ride hard, and carry that forward into the other areas of their lives. He could coach simply and effectively. I will always hear his voice on the field.”
Cherished for years as a teacher, advisor, and friend, Jack Huyler slowly started to evolve into the Uncle Jack we all knew and loved. Jack retired in 1986, yet was able to build a house on campus near the athletic fields. He and Margaret then began to split their time between Jackson Hole and Ojai, where he continually influenced the people around him.
The relationship that dad and mom had with Thacher, and vice versa, constituted a mind bogglingly beautiful type of honoring in both directions. I think my parent’s relationship with Thacher constituted an honoring of the highest sort, and I find it remarkable that my dad was able to commit 64 years of his life to engaging with and being part of the life of the school. It is so rare to find in this day and age such an example of mutual honoring and to provide that model for decades of Thacher students.
Tragically, Margaret passed away in 2005 after she was diagnosed with an aggressive form of Parkinson’s disease. Their marriage and unconditional love for each other affected everyone they met. As Mr. Mulligan put it, “Joy and I loved Margaret and Jack. They introduced us to a love for horses, to Wyoming and the Tetons, to cozy log cabins with big rock fireplaces, to inspiring mountain vistas, to horizons commensurate with our capacity for wonder.”
After his wife’s death, Jack still continued to spend time in both Ojai and Wyoming, while remaining a huge influence among the Thacher community. He began to began to work on passing down his wisdom through publishing his own books, some of which include And That’s the Way It Was In Jackson’s Hole, Every Full Moon in August: Campfire Tales of Old Jackson Hole, and most recently Whoa!: Training the Well-Schooled Horse and Rider.
Just a few weeks before his death, Jack’s son John noted, “The way that he lit up when I visited him just before Christmas whenever a faculty member or a former student or another friend would come to say hello. . .that was really quite striking to me. When somebody would show up, he’d light up like a light. It really showed a lot about him. He was so happy to see people, and he loved people. . .and horses.”
After further reflection, John also shared one of Uncle Jack’s traditions.
Dad had a prayer that he liked to ask when we sat down for a meal. It was, ‘Help us to live while we are yet alive.’ I believe his life exemplified success in that endeavor.
The entire school surely feels these sentiments, as we say goodbye to a truly amazing, courageous, and passionate man.
“In saying goodbye to Jack, we say goodbye to the Thacher of old,” Mr. Mulligan reflected. “A chapter is closed, to be sure, but it is a chapter worth our review whenever we start feeling like we are losing our way.”
The memorial service for the Thacher community will be held at 11:00 a.m. this Saturday at the Outdoor Chapel, followed by a reception at 12:30 p.m. on the Pergola. A second memorial service will be held at 1:00 p.m. August 9th (the last full moon in August) at St. John’s Episcopal Church in Jackson Hole, Wyoming.
Fittingly, as a sign of their devotion to each other in life, Uncle Jack’s ashes will be interred beside Margaret’s in Elliott Cemetery a few miles outside of Jackson Hole.