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Huston Horn
February 03, 1964
Following the command of the family's heraldic motto, an aging Oregon rancher named John Day has overcome middle-age erosion to set speed records on mountains, bag big game in Alaska and come within hailing distance, or at least so he hopes, of a place on a U.S. Olympic ski team
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February 03, 1964

Steps To The Stars

Following the command of the family's heraldic motto, an aging Oregon rancher named John Day has overcome middle-age erosion to set speed records on mountains, bag big game in Alaska and come within hailing distance, or at least so he hopes, of a place on a U.S. Olympic ski team

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John Stewart Day, heroically motivated, likes to be different, and here are some of the ways he has realized himself. Instead of a house cat he keeps an African cheetah. Instead of climbing mountains he likes to sprint to their summits and then dash down again in record time. Instead of driving a Ferrari, he drives a Volkswagen with a supercharged engine. And, when dining out at the Pear Blossom Room of the Mon Desir Dining Inn near Medford, Ore., his home town, he never drinks whisky. Instead he orders his favorite cocktail, a Shirley Temple, which is Seven-Up spiked with pomegranate syrup. And woe to the man who sniggers.

Now, just recently, John Day has attained a kind of uniqueness ordinary men can only dream about while reading the back panel of their box of breakfast Wheaties. Day, as of the opening ceremonies at Innsbruck this week, has officially become the oldest, most decrepit man in the world who failed to make a team in the Winter Olympics. That is the theory, anyway, and if it is a statistic hard to check out, it is one easy enough to believe. For non-Olympian Day is hard of hearing, wears bifocals, has back trouble, is slightly lame, has had ulcers, is known as Granddaddy to two small boys in his family and is 54 years old.

Notwithstanding any of this, Day spent the past 24 months pointing himself toward a berth on the U.S. Nordic ski team. His particular aim was to join the team's Langl�ufer skiers, a breed of supermen who do not go in for that sissy slide-down-a-hill stuff, but for the killing, ice-on-the-eyebrows, cross-country kind. With the deliberate intention of making himself a member of that hearty, husky lot, Day strapped on a pair of skis for the first time when he was 52. Once he had learned how to remain up-right on the pesky things—no easy matter, he discovered—he graduated toward the science of moving forward in a predetermined direction, and from there developed a knack for moving uphill and downhill at a dead run. In pursuit of his latest hobby, Day expended considerable time, energy and money—his reserves of all three seeming to be ample. And though the competition was fierce, inasmuch as those who did eventually make the U.S. Nordic cross-country team have an average age of 25, there is reason to believe that had Day joined them in Innsbruck he could have made at the least a respectable showing for his country. What kept him from ever having a real chance was one small, niggling detail. When the team was put together, Day had never skied in an official cross-country race, and the Olympic subcommittee governing the selection of the U.S. Nordic team did not see how it could possibly make an exception to the rules for him and still discharge its duties with responsibility. The rules, put simply, require a candidate for the U.S. team to compete in a few qualifying races in order even to attend the final selection trials. A lot of people may see the logic of this, though John Day himself felt it was an outstanding example of narrow thinking and took steps to have the rules changed. "Everybody but the President called me up in John's behalf," says a ski-team committee member, seemingly glad to get away from the telephone. Not that this means the basic issue of John Day and the Olympic team is closed. The Day family motto shouts, "To the stars!" But since it says nothing about how soon a Day should get there, John is being philosophically cheerful. "Well, for goodness' sake," he says, "don't forget there will be another Olympics in 1968. I'll only be 58 years old then, so what's the big rush?" Some might think Day is kidding when he says a thing like this, but he is not. When a man like Day gets within striking distance of celestial success, he is not likely to slacken his pace.

A cattle breeder among other things, John Day lives on a ranch outside Medford in the beautiful countryside that is southern Oregon. "The ranch runs six miles thataway and, I reckon, a couple or more thisaway." Day will explain with sweeping arm motions, and he and one other man, a foreman named Don Hanscom, keep it up. Day's house is situated on top of a high hill overlooking the burbling Rogue River and about 4,000 acres of rolling range where the deer play and the buffalo roam. The deer are there because it is fairly wild territory, and the buffalo are there because a friend sold six of the animals to Day a few years back and they have been multiplying ever since. Day once toyed with the idea of crossbreeding his buffalo and his cattle—to what purpose is not known. He abandoned the plan on the advice of veterinarians, who told him that it would not work.

Because Day married Mary Parsons, the daughter of a well-connected Seattle family, and because he has consummated a successful business venture or two of his own, his house is in the six-figure class. It is also in the shelter-magazine class, and after it was built eight years ago it was the subject of a 10-page lead story in an issue of House & Garden devoted to having "the courage of your own convictions in decorating." The idea of the house, the Days told the H&G people, is to create an impact inside and out, yet leave the visitor perfectly at ease withal. It certainly does most of that. The house is put together with stone and cedar, and right from the representation of a Cro-Magnon cave mural beside the front porch, it offers an inside glimpse into the kind of family that lives there. Since Day is a big-game hunter, the head and forequarters of a stuffed bear reach out to embrace anyone entering the front door, and a stuffed Arctic wolf waits in ambush, fangs bared, around the first turn. The wolf, although somewhat unnerving to the family's three dogs and the semicivilized cheetah, is just so much furniture to the Days. They use its broad, fluffy back as a make-do bulletin board and leave notes for one another on it, such as, "Please have car greased," or, "Am at golf club." Forging deeper into the house, one sees a continuing variety of mounted trophies—goats, sheep, polar bears and whatnot—and, indeed, when the Days weary of one particular animal's presence, they can go into a living-room closet and choose a substitute head to their liking, including the remains of a homegrown buffalo that died of old age. The courage of the Days' convictions in decorating got its severest test, surely, when Mrs. Day discovered she was allergic to the living room's llama-wool rug, one which she had had woven in Ecuador and which repeated the motif of Cro-Magnon man's gamboling animals. Rather than send out for a nylon substitute, Mrs. Day had her doctor compound an antidote to her allergy. Whenever she is obliged to pass any lengthy time in the room she gives herself a shot in the arm, and all is well.

The living room also contains a movie screen on which Day can project the highly professional films he has made—or starred in—during half a dozen hunting trips to Alaska. Day is equally adept with rifle and camera, and sometimes he has been obliged to use both instruments almost simultaneously. One of the films in his collection shows him approaching a bear hidden in a creek bed. Day, who has put down his rifle on the snow, is about to snap the bear's portrait when it charges furiously up the creek bank. So, coolly, Day takes the picture anyhow, and then reaches down for the gun and shoots the critter dead at 20 paces. A companion on the trip recorded all this with Day's movie camera, and Day dearly loves to show the film. What with learning to ski, Day has not had much time for hunting lately, but he still wants to tackle Africa with gun and camera, which he has never done. "I was all set to go a few years ago for Look magazine, but at the last minute they got Ernest Hemingway instead," says Day. "If I had been the editor, I would have made the same decision, I'm sure," he adds, but his heart is not in it.

For a man with John Day's zest and enthusiasm, a house would not be complete without a gymnasium, and, of course, he has one. It is a splendid room with many mirrors for self-appraisal, and the trappings include ankle developers, barbells and an isometric-bar contraption. Day got the isometric exerciser not long ago, and the first time he used it he put his back out of whack. But he has since come to appreciate the subtle benefits of isometric contractions and recommends them unreservedly to anybody who will listen. Ranged around the walls of his gym are various pieces of skiing equipment, and behind the sliding doors of one closet is a vast array of mountain-climbing apparel. Day has been elected to the advisory boards of several cold-weather-clothing manufacturers, and they regularly send him samples of their wares, seeking his endorsement and recommendations. It is a clue to Day's generosity, which is very large, that he will open up this closet and ask a visitor to help himself.

Finally, in a room overlooking his heated swimming pool, Day has his home office. He is an unabashed collector of newspaper clippings, documents and gimcracks, and the walls and shelves in the office are blanketed with such oddments as ice axes and pitons, a photograph of John Glenn (whom Day resembles), a quotation from President Lyndon Johnson deploring procrastination, college diplomas, membership certificates from the Rotary Club, fraternities, outdoorsmen's clubs and the American Airlines' Admirals Club, and a number of framed letters from such luminaries as Dwight Eisenhower and Stuart Udall. Alaskan taxpayers will appreciate the $100 wolf-bounty check over his desk which, he says, he will never cash. A number of framed photographs taken by Day also are scattered around. Characteristically, each frame bears a small brass plate identifying the subject of the picture and, in somewhat larger letters, the photographer. '"I guess you can say John has about five principal hobbies," says a man who knows and admires Day. "They would be mountain climbing, hunting, skiing, photography and tooting his own horn."

The son of a man of protean tastes himself (his father. Earl, has been a concert pianist, an Oregon state senator, a judge and a rancher in his time), John Day showed an early liking for exercise and derring-do. His earliest hero, he remembers, was Tarzan of the Apes, and many were the boyhood hours he spent swinging through the family cherry tree while his mother clutched her heart below. The cherry tree was finally rendered, in part, into what Mrs. Day may have wished it was all along—a coffee table in John's living room. When there was work to be done on his father's ranch, John made the best of a bad situation by challenging his brother, who is two years younger, to contests. "Pitching hay," says their sister, Nancy, "was an annual event at home that was as important as any football game." Other times John challenged his father to ax-throwing matches and later put that experience to very good use: in his late teens and early 20s Day worked as a forest-fire fighter and ranger and, at one time or another, held the ax-throwing title in five Northwest national forests. "There was one rule we heard every day as children," says John's sister, "and that was, if a thing was worth doing it was worth doing well. John took that lesson to heart."

Educated at Oregon State, the University of Oregon and the Harvard Business School, Day returned to Medford, where he concerned himself with business interests that ranged from cattle breeding to gold mining. Healthy and wealthy, he was doing just fine until his back gave out about the time of his 40th birthday.

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