Remembering the Late Jack Pettinger

Photo Courtesy: Dan Ross

By Andy Ross.

I learned of Jack’s passing the night before it happened. My dad (current Purdue men’s coach Dan Ross) texted me and my brothers that Jack wasn’t going to make it past 5 p.m. that day. The next morning he told us Jack died over night.

“I am relieved,” was all he said.

My dad had known Jack Pettinger for more than 30 years. They met when he was a swimmer at Purdue and Jack was coaching at Wisconsin.

My whole family knew who Jack was. He was almost like the grandfather we never had. My dad texted my brothers and I about a month ago that he was debating if he wanted to go to Madison to see Jack for the last time, knowing that his health was slowly deteriorating.

We all told him not to go.

Jack had lost his memory and probably wouldn’t even recognize my dad. After almost 30 full years of friendship, his last memory of Jack would be him not knowing who he was. He couldn’t stand to see him that way, so he didn’t go. But he felt guilty for not going.

Jack had been my dad’s mentor in his coaching career. There were many nights when I would be sitting in our living room watching TV, and I could hear my dad talking to Jack, sipping on a Coors Light, almost as if they were in the same room together. He would ask for advice; whether it was about coaching, family, or what to eat for dinner. Whatever it was, Jack was there.

My older brother told us one of his favorite Jack memories after we learned of his passing.

“I’ll always remember as a kid, when the house phone would ring and you’d hear from the other room, “Hello? Jack!” and then that conversation would go on for hours. Only person I’ve ever heard (my dad) answer the phone that excited to hear — every single time. I can always hear that excitement in my head.”

Last summer, my dad and I were in Taipei at the World University Games. We had a few meals throughout the two weeks we were there with Jack’s daughter Kathy, who was living in Taiwan. After our last dinner in the country, my dad asked Kathy if he could see Jack.

His health had started declining, his Alzheimer’s was kicking in.

“If you ask him what he had for breakfast, he won’t be able to remember. But if you ask him about something that happened 30 years ago, he will be able to talk about,” my dad told me at the dinner table that night.

We waited until after the meal to FaceTime him, since the 12 hour time difference meant he would be getting out of bed and eating breakfast by the time we were ready.

When his face came on the screen, I could hear that familiar excitement in my dad’s voice, just like it was when we were kids.

“Jack! I’m sitting here, just got done eating dinner with Kathy and Andy in Taipei, can you believe that?”

The two talked for almost a half hour.

I don’t remember much about the conversation, but I do know that he remembered who I was.

I met Jack when I was maybe 7 years old. My dad took me to dinner with him after some meet in Bloomington, Indiana and we ate sushi and rode around in Jack’s Cadillac. (I don’t remember much about that dinner, but it’s one of my dad’s favorite memories).

When I was 11, I swam for Jack while we were on vacation in Hawaii. We got to know each other more, although my extremely awkward sixth grade self was unsure what to say. I remember being afraid of him because he was angry at one of my brother’s friends for messing up a set. But before we left, Jack knew I was a big swim nerd, and he told me with sincerity, “if you ever want to talk about swimming, just pick up the phone and call.”

And that’s how I’ll always remember Jack. He was tough, but he was one of the most kind-hearted people. A couple days ago, I asked my dad if he could share with me some words about Jack.

“He cared. He demanded greatness. He had tough love for guys he coached. But I never heard a woman say Jack mistreated them. In fact ask Kristy Brager. Numerous Coffee house baristas would say he was the nicest, kindest, most special man or mentor they ever met!

Jon Urbanchek might say he never graduates University of Michigan without Jack and Jon would have to return back to Hungary. Mike Unger may say swimming for Jack at University of Wisconsin prepared him for his father’s death, and him becoming the man, husband and father he was to become while running an organization in its explosion of the 2000s!”

I was almost amazed by how many people knew Jack. It seemed anyone who was ever affiliated with swimming in the state of Wisconsin knew who Jack was, or knew someone who knew someone.

My girlfriend was at a clinic in Colorado Springs late last year. Robert Pinter, who was another one of my dad’s good friends, was giving a speech on “coaching with concepts” there. The picture on the slide was of Robert, my dad, Mike Unger, Bob Groseth, and Jack. She sent the picture to me. I sent it to my dad. He sent it back to Robert.

She recognized my dad in the picture, but it was Jack who brought everyone in that picture to become friends, and remain friends to this day.

When I was a kid, I didn’t realize how big of a deal Jack was, because he just looked like a regular, goofy guy. Later did I realize he coached with Doc Counsilman, he coached Jim Montgomery, he roomed with Jon Urbanchek and did many other great things.

So here’s to you, Jack. I’ll always remember you as one of the all-time greats. Thank you for making such a great impact on my dad’s life, as well as my entire family’s. I hope you are in a much better place now. I hope one day we can talk about swimming like you suggested 12 years ago.

1 Comment
Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Robert Pinter
3 years ago

Thank you Andy for a great article! I usually do not comment on swimming related issues. As a coach I think it is best to keep my opinions on the pool deck and let others weigh in online. However, in this case, I feel that I must acknowledge publicly and proudly on the tremendous impact Jack Pettinger had on my life. Jack paved my way to come to America in 1989, offered me a scholarship, guided me through college, coached me to be an Olympian, advised me on my career path as a coach and was a mentor and a friend all throughout. I had the privilege to coach with Jack for several years and what I cherish the most is our post morning practice tea-time we had at the coffee shop on Regent Street every morning for many years. Thank you Jack – you will continue to live through me, in my coaching and beyond.