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A Life: James Lee Jenks, 1952 – 2019; ‘You can’t drive a stretch of road in Lyme without pointing out something Jimmy did’

  • Jim Jenks runs a grader over a fresh load of gravel for the Lyme, N.H., Highway Department on a muddy portion of Grafton Turnpike, March 13, 2016. Lyme road workers spent the weekend restoring roads to passable conditions after wet weather and an early thaw made travel difficult on some back roads. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Hanover High School football player Jim Jenks poses for a portrait prior to the annual Shrine Maple Sugar Bowl football game in Hanover, N.H., in Aug. 1970. (Valley News photograph) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Listening along the back wall at Lyme Town Meeting in Lyme, N.H., on March 13, 2012, are Scott Bailey, left, who is on the town Highway Department, Jim Jenks, who works part-time for the Highway Department, Fred Sterns, the town road agent, and Bill Labombard, who is a sexton and works part time at the town Highway Department. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.



Valley News Staff Writer
Sunday, May 19, 2019

LYME — Jimmy Jenks made his living atop an excavator and any other piece of heavy equipment that he could get his hands on. He built roads, ponds and ball fields throughout the Upper Valley.

Jenks was the “go-to-guy if you needed some dirt moved,” a friend said recently. For veterans of the earth-moving business, watching Jenks finesse the foot pedals and levers of an excavator was like seeing Ted Williams with a bat in his hands.

“He was so smooth. There were no wasted motions. Everything just flowed,” marveled Allen Rowell, a close friend and Norwich contractor with his own grading business.

“When Jimmy got all done with a job, you didn’t have to do much shoveling or raking,” added Bill LaBombard, another friend who worked for Jenks from time to time.

Thirty or so years ago, Jenks was hired to do the excavation work for the new tennis and basketball courts at the town of Lyme’s Post Pond recreation area. After he was done, an asphalt paving company arrived to complete the project.

“When the pavers came they brought a grader and compactor to fix whatever was wrong with the job Jimmy had done,” recalled Jim Johnson, who was a member of the town’s recreation committee at the time. “After all their measurements, they just left their machinery on the trailers and started the paving work. Jimmy had it perfect.”

When the town got Jenks’ bill, it was for only diesel fuel. He didn’t charge his hometown for labor.

With his father and uncles in the construction business, Jenks started moving dirt at an early age. He was behind the wheel of a dump truck at job sites before he was old enough to get a driver’s license.

“You can’t drive a stretch of road in Lyme without pointing out something Jimmy did,” a Lyme resident remarked.

But over the years, the trade he loved took a physical toll. After two knee placements, a hip replacement and arthritis throughout his joints, he walked with the help of a cane. He developed a foot drop — a compression of a nerve in his leg — that hampered his balance. He was a big man, too, often tipping the scale at 300 pounds or more.

His physical limitations made climbing up and down from giant earth-moving equipment more challenging in recent years. “If I could just get my ass in the seat, I could work,” Jenks remarked not long ago to Sue MacKenzie, a now-retired physician’s assistant who was his primary care provider for many years.

His chronic pain and lack of mobility made it difficult for her husband to “do the things, he always loved,” said Patty Jenks, who has served as Lyme’s town clerk since 1997.

On March 19, Patty came home from work to find her husband slumped in his living room recliner. She called for an ambulance. Early the next morning, Jenks died at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center. He was 67.

When Patty Jenks sat down to write her husband’s obituary, she had a choice. Should she say that he had “died suddenly” and leave it at that? Or would she go into what was behind the death of her husband of nearly 48 years?

Before sending the obituary to the funeral home, Jenks showed what she had written to her oldest daughter, Katie, who lives in Lyme. “Jim struggled with the demons of depression,” Patty Jenks wrote. “The highs and lows raised havoc with his spirit and the exhaustion and stress this caused led into other health issues.”

She ended with an appeal: “Depression is a terrible, unpredictable and destructive illness. Find help if you or someone you love struggles with this.”

At first, Katie wasn’t sure the family needed to go there. But if that’s what her mother wanted, then OK, Katie said.

Patty Jenks hit send.

Patty and Jimmy started dating at Hanover High School, where he was a couple of grades ahead and already a star athlete in the late ‘60s.

Chuck Hunnewell ranked Jenks among the top two football and basketball players during the more than 20 years that he coached at Hanover High.

“He was a stoic, country kid,” recalled Hunnewell. “I never had to worry about him not working hard in practice or playing hard in a game. The other guys on the team looked up to him.”

At 6-3 and 195 pounds, Jenks played center on the Marauders’ basketball team. As an upperclassman, he routinely scored 20 points in games. A two-way tackle in football, Jenks was selected to play in the 1970 Shrine Maple Sugar Bowl, the annual all-star contest between New Hampshire and Vermont.

Jenks brought a “Yankee-can-do attitude” to both sports, said teammate Dick Mosenthal, who was also in the Hanover High class of 1970. “He was a rock. He wouldn’t complain about injuries. He just carried on.”

In the fall of 1970, Jenks headed to the University of New Hampshire, where he enrolled in the agricultural program. “That didn’t hold his interest as much as life back in Lyme, so after a year he made his way home, went to work and got married,” Patty wrote in the obituary.

Jenks found a job with a plumbing company. When it suddenly went out of business, Jimmy and Patty, still in their early 20s, took over the small company. Eventually, Jenks traded his plumber’s toolbox to start Derby Mountain Construction. When the excavation business slowed in winter months, he used his heavy equipment background to land commercial plowing jobs, including the parking lots at the old Mary Hitchcock Memorial Hospital in Hanover.

“The more dirt he played in and the more snow he plowed, the happier he was,” Patty wrote.

His daughter Holly looked forward to late-night snowstorms. She’d ride along in the snowplow truck, keeping her dad company and treasuring their alone time.

By high school, Holly was working beside her dad during summers. When he built Sachem Field, an athletic complex on Route 10 in Hanover, she ran the dirt-packing roller. “He bought an umbrella and fixed it to the top of the roller so I wouldn’t get sunburned,” she said.

Along with his talent for moving dirt, Jenks was known for his hearty laugh. “He loved to tell a story and he loved to hear a story,” said Gina Boyd, a close friend of Patty’s since their high school days together.

Jenks could be a bit of a practical joker, too. “He got the biggest kick out of calling me at 5:30 in the morning and asking if I was awake yet,” Rowell said.

Starting in 1980, however, Jenks’ jovial demeanor became less apparent — a brain aneurysm claimed Jimmy’s and Patty’s 9-month-old son, Jonathan.

Jenks never recovered from his infant son’s death, said MacKenzie, his primary care provider. He was prescribed anti-depressant medication, but he tended not to stick with it. His wife and MacKenzie tried to get him into mental health counseling.

“That wasn’t his style,” said MacKenzie, a former selectwoman who had Patty Jenks’ permission to talk about her former patient. “He took much better care of other people than himself.”

Mike Smith, a family friend, said asking for help “just wasn’t part of Jimmy. But there were a lot of people who were helped by Jimmy.”

Bill LaBombard was one of them.

In 1998, LaBombard’s daughter was shot and killed by an ex-boyfriend. The next morning, without having to be asked, Jenks showed up at LaBombard’s house for coffee and stayed the entire day. “He was there for me,” LaBombard said. “He knew what it was like to lose a child. Just talking to him was a help.”

Ten years ago when Jenks arrived at Dartmouth-Hitchcock for his first knee replacement, the orthopedic surgeon commented on his toenails. They were painted yellow — the color of Jenks’ Mack dump truck.

His granddaughters, Emilie and Olivia, were at an age where they wanted to practice their nail polishing skills. Papa was the only one in the family who would let them.

“He was so proud of this granddaughters,” said their mother, Holly Lewis, who now lives in South Carolina. “They were really quite close.”

The times Jenks spent with his granddaughters (he also allowed them to braid his hair, which he cut only once a year), were some of the rare occasions when he let his guard down. Out in public or on the job, he used his trademark laugh as a shield.

“He always seemed happy,” his wife said. “He hid his feelings very well.”

At social gatherings that Patty “dragged him to,” he preferred to stay in the background. “But the crowd would find him,” Patty said. “Jimmy was just someone that people enjoyed being around.”

In public, he played the role of the rugged northern New Englander well. “He was one of those guys who didn’t talk about his problems,” Boyd said.

In recent years, Jenks became even more withdrawn. He wasn’t interested so much in taking Saturday road trips across New England with his buddy Allen Rowell to look at heavy equipment that was for sale. “Wherever we went, he always seemed to know where there was a good place to get lunch.”

But as his health declined, “it got harder and harder for him to do stuff,” Rowell said. “I don’t think he could accept it.”

Jenks sold his dump truck. Shortly before his death, the Jenks also sold their gravel pit in Lyme. One of the last times they spoke, Jenks told Rowell, “I don’t feel like a man any more.”

When Patty Jenks arrived at Ricker Funeral Home in Lebanon on a Sunday afternoon in late March, people were already lined up on the sidewalk.

Before the afternoon was over, 550 people had signed the funeral home’s guestbook. “I knew he had a lot of friends and worked for a lot of people, but I didn’t know how much people respected him,” his wife said.

After the memorial service, notes to the Jenks’ family began pouring in. Friends and family from 16 states wrote condolences in the funeral home’s online guest book.

While I have not seen him in several years, I will remember him as a big bear of a guy with a heart of gold.

In describing some situations, he could see through the bs and wasn’t abashed about expressing his honest opinion, frequently followed by that wonderful laugh.

He did earthwork nearby and made my son feel that pushing dirt around with big equipment was exciting and a vocation to aspire to.

Katie Jenks heard from a friend that she hadn’t seen in a while. The friend revealed that her father had killed himself, but for 20 years, it was a family secret. “She had struggled to tell people how her father had died,” Katie Jenks said. But after reading Jimmy Jenks’ obituary, she could finally talk about it.

Since her husband’s suicide, Patty Jenks has come to realize that he had suffered from an illness — the same way that cancer and diabetes are diseases.

At first, “I was really feeling guilty,” she said. “Why didn’t I identify that he was sliding?”

She also wonders if there was a deeper connection between his mental and physical well-being — particularly pertaining to his balance issues. In January, her husband took a backwards fall onto his workshop’s concrete floor that left him with a concussion. He had suffered multiple concussions in falls over the years, she said.

Patty Jenks has been reading about traumatic brain injury, known as TBI, and how it could relate to suicide deaths. In 2018, the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health that examined data from 17 studies that included more than 700,000 concussion patients. The Harvard analysis found that “people with concussion or mild TBI were at increased risk of suicidal thoughts and suicide attempts.”

After her husband’s death, Patty began seeing a clinical psychologist, Dom Candido, of Lebanon, to help her sort through her emotions.

“A common thought that survivors have is that they could have done more or should have done more,” said Candido, who also had Patty’s permission to be interviewed for this story. “Patty really did not have control over her husband’s decision to not seek the appropriate care.”

By going public with her husband’s death, Patty is helping bring suicide out of the shadows, Candido said. “The stigma of mental illness has been with us forever,” he said. “These conditions are as real and as consequential as any physical condition.

“The courage Patty is showing to get the story out there and her desire to help others who are dealing with similar situations is very incredible.”

The same goes for the rest of Jimmy Jenks’ family. “We’re all heartbroken,” his daughter Holly said, “but if we can help someone else avoid what’s happened to our family, we need to do this.”

Jim Kenyon can be reached at jkenyon@vnews.com.

“Help is Always Available:”

■ National Suicide Hotline: 1-800-273-8255 (TALK)

■Psychiatric emergencies call 911 or your local community mental health crisis line or go to your nearest hospital’s Emergency Department.

■Other resources:

■Get more information about the National Suicide Prevention Hotline

■For more information on suicide prevention, check out this link to the National Institute of Mental Health

Source:Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center, Department of Psychiatry