The stories started even before the smell of Sweet Martha’s cookies, being baked by Gary Olson, one of the actual founders of the Minnesota State Fair treat, filled the kitchen in Jack Lee’s Eden Prairie home.
There was the time that Jack sat on the phone for hours to sign up the Olsons for an appearance on “Family Feud” with Richard Dawson, unbeknown to the Olsons. As usual, he made it happen.
“My mom didn’t even like Richard Dawson,” Olson deadpanned. “I’d never seen the show.”
Then there was the time when Jack worked the university area as a Pabst Blue Ribbon distributor and he made his friends go into bars that didn’t carry the beer. The friends would pretend to be irritated and storm out of the bar. An hour later, Jack would appear, ready to sell the establishment PBR.
This was another gathering of “Jack’s PALS,” this time the cookie contingent, including “Sweet” Martha Rossini Olson and Gary’s brother, Scott, and business partners Neil and Brenda O’Leary.
Confined to a wheelchair and unable to speak clearly because of his ALS, a degenerative neurological disorder, Jack had his longtime friend and current caretaker, Mary Alice Lund, translate for him. “I like small groups like this so everybody can play ‘What did Jack say?’ ” he joked.
Jack, 58, is a legendary talker, dealmaker and angle-taker, working behind the scenes in St. Paul politics and civic life. If people ever said, “I’ve got a guy,” they were probably talking about Jack. He was once president of the Decathalon Athletic Club in Bloomington, so he knows all the business big shots across the metro. It was where he met his wife, Chrissy, who was a trainer.
While he was president of MBC Holdings, the parent company for Minnesota Brewing Co., Jack held raucous political fundraisers in the rathskeller. He raised money for politicians, including those who would become mayors of St. Paul.
That was back before the popularity of the craft beer movement, and the company eventually declared bankruptcy. Jack tried to save it by turning it into an ethanol plant, something that caused neighbors so much grief they sued him. Some think Jack helped keep the Grain Belt brand alive, eventually selling it to Schell’s Brewery and making it a hipster throwback favorite.
But being around booze all his life took a toll. In a video he did for Grace Church, Jack talks about being “a struggling, recovering alcoholic” who turned to his faith to save his life.
“He shook it and shook it hard,” said Gary Olson. “Now, his spirituality is of the utmost importance to him.”
Jack is from one of the big Irish Catholic families of St. Paul, with five sisters and two brothers. He went to St. Thomas Academy in Mendota Heights, and his old classmates still come by to trade jokes and insults. When a cookie’s namesake drops by to bake for you, it means you are a big deal.
Jack was one of the first workers hired at Sweet Martha’s. Later, he would become their beer guy (yes, employees swigged beer while making cookies), sneaking them strong beer against the rules.
As a kid, Jack watched his grandmother and uncle die of ALS, so he knows the drill. Once, he accompanied prayer group members to do housework for a man who had ALS. As he left, Jack thought, “you poor son of a bitch. About three months later, I had my first symptoms,” Jack said.
“I have begged the Lord since I was 13 to not let me die of ALS. I thought it was the worst way in the world to die. Now I feel like a lucky guy, I’m the most blessed guy in the world.”
He doesn’t feel God let him down?
“On the contrary,” Jack said. “ALS means to me ‘a loving savior.’ ”
Those first symptoms were twitchy hands. Doctors at first doubted he had ALS, until one didn’t. “I was naked at the time he told me, and not a lot of good comes out of that,” Jack said, flashing his famous smile. “The doctor said, ‘In fact I think you have a very aggressive kind of ALS.’ I said, ‘Doc, you need to work on your bedside manner.’ ”
The disease has indeed progressed rapidly, taking everything but Jack’s wit and spirit. “I think I’m almost out of the glamour stage,” he said.
Friends and neighbors have been amazing. The owners of Savoy Pizza regularly pack him bags of pasta to take home. Neighbors tried to hire a snow removal and lawn service for him, but when Nature’s Way learned about Jack’s health they told the neighbors to send the money to fund ALS research instead. They do the work for free.
A distant relative told invitees to their wedding to donate to ALS organizations in Jack’s honor, instead of bringing gifts.
“I’m not a crier, but when I heard about this, I bawled like a baby,” Jack said. It’s unbelievable. I know that I can be difficult to understand, but they keep coming. I’m humbled by the graciousness of people.”
Before I left, Jack gave me a CD of religious music from a group that dedicated the album to him, a T-shirt with “Jack’s PALS” written on it and a wrist band.
“I’m part of the group now,” I told Jack.
Without missing a beat, Jack smiled and said, “there will be a vacancy.”