Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Friend in deed

Inspired by ‘Bucket List,’ Ojai man joins pal on cross-country trip

By Sondra Murphy

When Ojai resident Jack Smart spent years in the travel industry, he never guessed his experience would lead to organizing a grand adventure that would feel like a step back in time. Last spring, Smart helped a high school friend make a “Mini Bucket Trip,” inspired, in part, by the movie, “The Bucket List.”
Smart met Sonny Rowell as a Granby, Va., high school football player in the 1940s and had not seen him for about 40 years. “In August 2007, I reunited with Sonny for 24 hours and that’s when I learned he was itching to take a trip.” Rowell was recovering from the death of his wife the year before and dealing with physical limitations brought about from type 2 diabetes and peripheral neuropathy in his legs and hands when he and Smart began planning a modest trip to visit former classmates.
The pair initially planned to visit specific people Rowell longed to see, plus tour New Orleans. “The fact that I had a travel background helped a lot,” said Smart. The friends set an itinerary that would take them 3,400 miles through 11 states for visits in Virginia, Tennessee, Texas, Louisiana, and Florida, while driving Rowell’s specially equipped van.
Smart’s understanding of the Americans with Disabilities Act proved useful to acquiring the types of accommodations Rowell required, as he relies on a motorized scooter for his mobility. “We stayed in Motel 6 in every town except two,” said Smart. “Their interpretation is, if there is a handicap room available, then somebody like Sonny can have it. If it only has one bed, then the person helping him can have the next room at no cost. It helped keep the expenses down.”
As word spread about Rowell’s visits, other school friends began wanting to meet with him and the bucket trips abounded. Smart helped arrange visits with the former classmates until a kind of momentum grew and a surprise luncheon was organized and attended by a veritable “who’s who” from their high school yearbook in Virginia Beach last spring. Who would have known that when Rowell was voted Most Popular in 1948 the opinion would have lasted 60 years?
By the time of the March 21 luncheon, 44 guests attended, which included the Granby High School football teams from 1946 through 1948, a coach, cheerleaders, as well as many people voted Most Popular, Best Looking and Most Athletic during school. All signed photos and souvenirs for Rowell to take home with him.
“When I was putting together the luncheon, it became apparent that the Granby High football team had not had a reunion, prompting them to come,” said Smart.
Smart kept a detailed travel log of their visits and adventures, some of which only the mature can appreciate. After Rowell’s motorized cart got stuck in a public rest room door in Georgia, Smart wrote, “Lots of foot traffic. Not a pretty sight. We both came to the conclusion on our departure from the visitor’s center that we probably set back Georgia tourism 20 years.” At a South Carolina location, the scooter got stuck in the narrow aisles of a small grocery store, with the vehicle’s tires wedged so tightly against displayed 12-packs the help of an employee was required to free it.
There were other examples of southern hospitality. “We’re both pretty big guys, each is about 6-foot-3, so Motel 6 was a real hero for us.” Smart said that even with the great service, he regularly had to educate the front desk staff about the Americans with Disabilities Act at each venue.
The travel log captures the fun Smart and Rowell had during their trip. “We laughed until our sides ached. We were two young teens who just obtained our driver’s license and were ‘on the road.’ Sonny’s mishaps with his scooter were priceless,” Smart recorded. “Sonny and I agreed all of this added 10 more years to our lives. Because of mishaps and chaos everywhere we went, we had the feeling as we motored into a new state, that the previous state immediately was hanging a sign flashing ‘Please do not return.’”
Smart said the successful trip has Rowell feeling better and the experience gave him the urge to do more traveling. “Sonny really hit it off with Janet Connelley Summers,” said Smart of the former cheerleader and Granby High’s most popular female of 1948. “Sonny invited her to take a cruise with him too and they had such a great time they are now planning a trip to South America.”
Smart said his wife of 54 years, local artist Jean Smart, was very supportive of his efforts to cheer up his buddy. “She is extremely encouraging to me,” Smart said. The couple moved to Ojai in 1987 after “looking for areas more rustic and with greenery.” They have two children, six grandchildren and five great-grandchildren. Son Joel lives in Oregon and daughter, Jody Comet, works at the Ojai Valley Inn & Spa.
“When we first moved here, I was fairly well-known and people would say, ‘This is Jean, Jack’s wife.’ Now that I’m retired, they don’t know me much and say, ‘Oh, this is Jack. He’s Jean’s husband,’” Smart said. “I’m very proud of her.”

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