Soundings: Jake's Pages

Author: Kerry Temple ’74

Jake Page was good for me. He wrote often and well for this magazine, and that writing not only entertained and informed our readers but also set an example for others — like myself — to emulate as writers, essayists, students of the world.

His prose was clear and loose, like a tumbling mountain stream packed full of stout river stones. Jake played in those streams with a youthful enthusiasm and through his writing shared those discovered stones of fact and truth and insight with others. His writing was never labored, precious or self-conscious, but he delighted in the creative use of the language with phrasings that were witty and impishly incisive.

And it was all in good fun.

That was something else I took from Jake — an attitude toward life that said enjoy it. And marvel.

I knew Jake mainly through his writing, through our correspondence over three decades and several trips to his home in New Mexico. There he and his wife, Susanne, an artful photographer, would give Walt Collins ’51, the former editor here, and me a place to land before and after backpacking trips out west. He’d lend us his raggedy pickup for our travels, and we’d hope it would bring us back.

Their house was in the hills overlooking Albuquerque, and it had a little homemade pond and stuff piled here and there. The home was full of artwork and photographs and the flotsam and jetsam of lives created on the fly. Dogs came and went. Both Jake and Susanne told great stories, made a guest feel embraced and cared for. There was a palpable generosity of spirit there, and windows thrown open to fun imaginings.

I made those trips at a time in my life when lightening up was a good thing, when having a scout point to happier horizons was a healing thing and when finding the mirth and merriment in sullen life was a prescription I sorely needed. I suspect that Jake could be combative and difficult, but there was only affection between us. He had a twinkle in his eye and a mischievous smile on his lips.

I came across his writing 36 years ago when he contributed a regular column, called Jake’s Page, to a magazine produced by the American Association for the Advancement of Science. It was intended to “bridge the distance between science and citizen,” and Jake’s writing did just that. He wrote with clarity, intelligence and humor.

When I joined the staff of Notre Dame Magazine in 1981, Jake was the first freelancer I invited to write for us. Between October 1981 and spring 2010, Jake wrote 31 essays for this magazine. Many remain favorites of mine.

Jake wrote about science with a humanist’s heart. He wrote about evolution and life on earth with a sense of curiosity, wonder and awe. He wrote about Native Americans with the respect and integrity that comes from being present and comfortable among people of different cultures. He loved dogs, hated the pompous and self-important, bureaucracy and BS. He had a fine sense of humor, an anarchist’s way and a brain that ranged as impressively as any mind I have known.

Through the years I’d often come up with a story idea that only Jake Page seemed right for. Like how ’bout the 10 greatest ideas of all time? Or the meaning of dogs. And sometimes Jake would write something special and send it to us, saying Notre Dame Magazine seemed like the right home for it.

Of course, Jake didn’t just write for this publication. He was a longtime contributor to Smithsonian magazine and was the founding editor of Smithsonian Books as well as Air & Space magazine, launched by the Smithsonian in 1985. He served as editor of Natural History Press and Natural History magazine. Two books, Pastorale: A Natural History of Sorts and Songs to Birds, came from the columns he wrote.

Ventures into the Southwest in the 1970s led to his eventually moving there from the East Coast, as well as to several major books on Native Americans, including stunning collaborations with Susanne on the Hopi and on the Navajo as well as In the Hands of the Great Spirit: The 20,000-Year History of American Indians, a comprehensive account of 500 North American tribes across centuries. The Washington Post called it the author’s “most monumental achievement.”

Jake wrote about earthquakes, polar expeditions, Zane Grey, vintage baseball, aspirin, dinosaurs, mythology, zoos and the role of women in prehistoric times. Some 50 books carry his name, about half of which he co-authored with leading figures in science and natural history. I remember a great piece of his that took the reader along with a piece of luggage through a series of airports, detailing its excursion from conveyor belt to buggies to human handlers.

Jake wrote science and was widely respected for the pro he was, but he loved telling tales of healings and dust devils, life’s mysteries and its inexplicable ways.

For an article on sacred artifacts taken from Native peoples, he opened with a great scene of museum curators in D.C. pulling Kachina dolls out of storage and, despite vehement protests from the Indian elders accompanying them, removing the plastic wrapping — unleashing the long-sealed spirits. “Oh no,” they exclaimed, and within moments a freak ice and snow storm descended upon Washington, resulting in a fatal subway crash and Air Florida Flight 90 diving into the Potomac. It was 1982. Jake didn’t say one caused the other; he just recounted what he had witnessed.

Jake’s disdain for those who stole sacred Indian artifacts led him to create Mo Bowdre, a blind sculptor and detective who animated five popular novels.

Jake last wrote for this magazine in 2010, and he and Susanne were living in Lyons, Colorado, when he died February 10 at the age of 80. I carried the loss around inside me for a few days. The world seemed to have been a sadly emptier place because of his absence.

Then again, as I thought further about it, Jake was the kind of guy you just know is somehow still around.

Kerry Temple ’74 has been editor of this magazine since 1995.