Gone in the blink of an eye

Published 7:29 pm Tuesday, September 20, 2011

He was a colleague and a friend, and in the blink of an eye, he was gone. Just last week, I was writing about the tranquility of flying in a small plane this Sept. 11. This week, our country experienced back-to-back tragedies at air shows. The pilot in the West Virginia crash was my friend, Jack Mangan.

Jack was a partner in a company that owns dozens of Hardee’s and Little Caesar’s restaurants. We met almost 15 years ago, when he and his partners started their venture into fast food restaurants.

Jack was a graduate of the Air Force Academy and spent 13 years flying F-14 and F-15 fighter jets. When he left the military, he kept his love for flying. It didn’t matter what kind of plane, he loved being at the controls. His last flight was in a 1958 T-28 Trojan performing with the Trojan Horsemen, an acrobatic flight team that performs at air shows paying tribute to the U.S. military.

He flew his small plane to visit his restaurants that were scattered between Tennessee and West Virginia. I often teased him that his business was just a way for him to write off the cost of owning his own plane.

The most unusual thing I have ever seen in the air was while flying with Jack. We were approaching a weather front, and the closer we got, the more it seemed like a massive, sheer gray wall. There was obviously no way to fly over, under or around it, although I thought turning around and heading the other way might be a good option.

“Don’t worry,” he said as we headed straight for the solid wall. We slipped right into the clouds and our vision was instantly gone. I looked over at Jack and he was grinning from ear to ear, obviously enjoying my discomfort. He loved to fly.

Jack was a teacher as well. He didn’t teach in the school system, but he taught those around him. He was the Instructor Pilot of the Year for the Tactical Air Command while in the military. He was also a teacher to his many employees, helping them achieve greater things for their company and for themselves.

We served together on our brand’s purchasing committee for many years. He had the capacity to grasp large amounts of data and make sense of it. He was always thinking of better ways to do things.

Although Jack and his family moved to North Carolina almost 20 years ago, he never lost this heavy Bostonian accent. He loved the Red Sox, the Bruins, and the Patriots. In fact, I expect he loved everything about Boston except the winter weather.

Just over a year ago, Jack approached the Hardee’s franchisees about changing the focus of our charitable giving to support our military personnel. When I first heard his proposal I thought it would be a miracle to pull it all off in the time frame he proposed.

Jack didn’t like things to move slowly, and sure enough the “Stars for Troops” campaign was soon born. Hardee’s and Carl’s Jr. Restaurants around the country sold die-cut paper stars for $1 with the proceeds going to two military charities that ease the burden of service to military families. He persuaded all the franchisee and the corporate stores to participate, which is not an easy task.

Jack thought big, and before the first campaign was finished, more than $1 million had been raised.

I found out the terrible news about Jack yesterday afternoon. Today, I am on a plane headed to Tucson, Ariz. Ironically, one of the events I will be attending is a dinner celebrating the success of “Stars for Troops” and showing the ways the money is being used around the country. None of it would have happened without Jack.

Jack made a difference in the lives of his family, his employees and his friends. He made a difference fighting for his country and then years later supporting those in the military that most needed help.

I can see Jack in every passing cloud today. He is flying higher and faster than ever before with God as his co-pilot.

There are a lot of reasons to be prepared for life to end. Jack understood that and left nothing on the table. Perhaps that is the last message from Jack to those of us lucky enough to know and love him. Be prepared to live life to the fullest, every day, because for any of us it can end as quickly as the blink of an eye.

Dan Ponder can be reached at dan@donalsonvillenews.com.