Remembering Jack Hoenig

by Hugh Kenny

“A very important mentor to other great mentors.” Aaron Crespi

Jack Hoenig was the role model for many of us young tradesmen in the community. He was tall, thin, and soft-spoken. He had a Robert Ryan World War II mission-over-Germany kind of a vibe. When I hear the title “Gentleman,” my mind does not summon a picture of Noel Coward or William Gladstone. It settles on this handsome, gray-haired man, simply dressed in khakis and a soft blue denim shirt.          

Lynn Ritter, who loved him, said Jack was “one of the most handsome men I’d ever seen in my life.  He had a quiet that was so deep and comforting that I always felt nothing bad was going to happen when he was on the scene.”

Jack’s grasp of his trade and his patience and kindness were so manifest that he was able to communicate instructions to me so clearly that I would get it the first time around. Which is not easy for me.

Because for some reason, possibly that as a child, I liked to gnaw on the lead paint of my crib, I have poor visualization skills. Before I decided to learn carpentry, I had lived my life in my mind only. I could no more catch a set of tossed keys as you could catch a hummingbird.

Once, in a group, someone asked Jack if he thought I would ever succeed at carpentry. He took that occasion, to be honest, and with the kindest intention answered “No.”

That word from him knocked me back a bit. But I still chose to pursue that dream. He was right. And so was I.

He turned out beautiful work but more important to the Founder of our little social movement was that he could plan, design, and coordinate the many projects that were proposed. We had a number of retired trade professionals in our fold. They had had businesses, positions, or degrees before they moved in. They were successful in those past endeavors, and unfortunately successful in drinking unseemly amounts of alcohol.

One was cranky, gray-haired Bill Williams, a master sheet metal fabricator. And proud and petulant Luis Valdez, who could operate any piece of heavy equipment. Crusty Frank McFarland calculated the electrical and engineering specifications. Tom Hudson was our in-house electronics genius when he wasn’t gulping a tumbler of mouthwash or stealing off with someone else’s girlfriend.

When a new project was dreamed up or we bought a new property or Chuck relocated his Home Place, this team would be assembled.

Chuck would invariably place Jack in charge. Lynn Ritter, in another comment, said that she hoped that Chuck treasured him. My thought was that Chuck knew what a treasure he had but was too eager to spend the treasure. There was an empire to be built, and Chuck knew how to drive and motivate people. Chuck put Jack into most of his Big Shot group sessions. Chuck bellowed, critiqued, and had great fun verbally knocking him around, and Jack, introverted as he was, couldn’t really roll with the punches. He was defenseless against the exaggerated sallies of the Founder. You know me, I seldom have bad shit to say about Chuck. This is one of those seldoms.

Jack never let the pressures on him show. Until they showed up as a stroke. Dian Kenny loved him, too. We would visit him at San Francisco General. He slowly recovered. He was unchanged except for the one arm uselessly hanging by his side. I still remember him sanding a table with the other hand, using finer and finer grits. He eventually resumed his position as supervisor.

I was sent to work on projects at another facility.

The deck got shuffled again and again. I lost track of him. Then I finally dealt myself out of Synanon. I never knew what happened to him. Did Jack remain there or leave? Did he marry? Did he die there? Or later?

I made some queries recently to those who might remember. Nothing. Two great photos of Jack looking bemused surfaced, but nothing close to a conclusion.

But if Emerson is right about character being the only rank, Jack Hoenig ranked first among us.

8 responses to “Remembering Jack Hoenig”

  1. Vicki Stephenson Avatar
    Vicki Stephenson

    He had a thing for his sweaters, didn’t he? I always remember him as a quiet and nice guy! thanks Hugh for the memories.

    1. Yes, sweaters…like Mr. Rogers xo Cory

  2. Good recollection Hugh. I remember Jack well. He was one of the tradespeople that took Dick Quist under his wing after I took Dick in and he became a part of The Wagon Wheel in Santa Monica. Jack saved a lot of lives and made Synanon a friendlier place for many older ex alcoholics.

  3. “I loved and respected Jack Hoenig. I was 16 and spent a lot of time asking him questions. He was so knowledgeable and obviously above the fray that was Synanon for most people. Talking with Jack was like being in a gentle eddy in a raging river.” Pete Rosza

  4. Thanks for this WONDERFUL story Hugh. I remember Jack fondly as well. He often added his profound knowledge to our Reaches. I think he might have been astounded by how little some of us grasped the hands on physical world. I also appreciated your memories of the wonderful craftsman we had in Synanon and how well those skills were put to use in both building and training. My last strong memory of Jack was when we quit smoking. It was really difficult for him. It was the first time I ever saw this kind and often bemused gentleman very very angry outside the Game.

  5. Hi Hugh, I thought you would enjoy this response from Josh Millstein: .

    It is as eloquent a portrait I have read. Jack was a gent, a lovely man. I was a dog robber for him, Bill Williams and Frank McFarland for several months. They had a title I will recall by the time the fourth rolls around.

    Being their factotum/butler/expeditor/protector (from Ed Siegel among others) was a tonic. Jack above all, for his grace and generosity..

    Kudos to Hugh, grown into a legend in his own right.

  6. Hugh, thank you for that memoir.
    I remember your struggle to become a carpenter. It inspired me; “if he won’t quite when it is so hard for him, I can’t quit either,” I told myself.
    I’ve heard you became a damned good carpenter.
    Your writing inspires to. I did not know till I began reading you here how acutely you can express your thoughts. Maybe we should feed lead to more children???
    Jack Hoenig encouraged me as well. During the fifty years I have now been a builder, I must have repeated hundreds of times to guys on my crew the advice Jack gave me. “If you make a mistake, take apart all the work you did on top of the mistake, correct it, and then resume.”
    That’s a great axiom for carpenters. I feel that it is pretty good advice for life to

    1. dauntlesshugh9274 Avatar

      Thanks David,
      So very good to hear from you.You were fine Carpenter. It was amazing how quickly you.learned. You and Aaron Crespi and others.I was a decent carpenter but only just. But what a good time I had learning . What adventures. I did finish on both Gettys and the Disney Concert Hall. Even eeked out a small union pension. My partner Laurie Pepper (Miller) and I agree that you wrote the best book on Synanon, and your description of the Synanon Game a work of art. Congratulations on that and your carpentry business book. I thought I was bit of a rebel in Synanon, but you showed me up in character.

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