By Steve VanDemark, Crescent-News General Manager
Jack Palmer and I first met on a wintry Saturday night 42 years ago this coming January. He was the Crescent-News beat writer covering the Defiance High School basketball team and I was a new intern in the newspaper’s sports department.
He stood in the middle of the newsroom with a broad smile and even broader shoulders.
He also had a gentle, yet, genuine interest in helping the new guy.
I can remember wondering, “Is this guy Jack Palmer or Jack Armstrong?”
At the end of the shift Palmer said, “Why don’t you join fellow sports writer Bob Kehnast and myself at the Defiance College basketball game this week. It’s a big game against Central State and the gym will be packed. I’ll save you a seat.”
Sure enough, three nights later I entered the Defiance College gymnasium and found Palmer and Kehnast holding open a seat in the middle of a capacity crowd.
Thus began a friendship that lasted more than four decades.
When he died in his sleep at his Defiance home Sunday morning, the words of the writer that many viewed as the voice of this newspaper and one that they trusted and respected were silenced.
Jack Palmer was part Defiance promoter, part Defiance historian and part street preacher. His Thursday and Sunday page 3 columns touched on everything from baseball, to Defiance’s history, his personal faith and sometimes (when I permitted it), his left-leaning political views.
He was also responsible for the Friday religion pages and used his own three-term experience as a member of the Defiance City Board of Education when reporting on the work of many area school boards.
But most of all, his compassion for covering issues that mattered to Defiance and this region was as undeniable as the writings about his cats were outrageous.
But his newspaper career did not follow a straight path.
Within a year after we met, Jack’s father Harold, who was the Defiance City Schools superintendent, died of cancer. Six months later so did his mother, Anne.
Somehow at age 20, Palmer, without parents, maintained enough focus to continue his studies at Ohio State and graduated in only three years. Then he quickly achieved a family dream by earning a law degree from the University of Toledo.
When the hometown boy returned to practice law in Defiance many thought the story was complete. But years later his law career ended and suddenly “Jack Armstrong” was in need of a new path.
Reporting on his exit from the legal profession was the hardest story I ever published.
But soon he offered to rejoin this newspaper as a part-time sports writer. Talk about a humbling step. But Jack Palmer didn’t give up. When we asked him to write a column, lightning struck. His work became an immediate hit.
He felt the pulse of the Defiance community possibly because he’d seen it from both the top and the bottom of life. That experience proved helpful dozens of times later on as I sought his counsel on tough story calls.
I spoke with Jack Palmer for the final time just Saturday morning. He sat at his cluttered newsroom desk just feet away from the spot where we had met more than four decades ago.
His mood was light as we spoke of Defiance High School’s Friday night basketball game and the Christmas season. It was a final positive moment shared by two long-time friends. I won’t forget it.
My guess is that Jack is in heaven right now with his beloved parents, grandmother and the many, many Defiance people he befriended during the years.
God speed good friend and, if you don’t mind, could you please save me another seat.