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A Fear Of Flying
Ron Fimrite
April 12, 1976
Jackie Jensen was the ultimate hero, an all-sports star who married a storybook girl. But the Golden Boy's world and marriage collapsed, and his shining baseball career ended in torment brought on by a dread of air travel. Today Jensen is a college coach and a changed man.
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April 12, 1976

A Fear Of Flying

Jackie Jensen was the ultimate hero, an all-sports star who married a storybook girl. But the Golden Boy's world and marriage collapsed, and his shining baseball career ended in torment brought on by a dread of air travel. Today Jensen is a college coach and a changed man.

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"When you're young, you always think it will never end," she says during a break from the tables. "But it always does, doesn't it? Sure, Jack and I started at the top, but we also started at the bottom, like everyone else, with just ourselves." She shrugs, smiles and returns to the tables.

Jensen and Zoe Ann were married twice. She divorced him in 1963, two years after his final retirement from baseball. He moved back to San Francisco and went to work for an auto dealer who quickly went broke. Then Jensen was hospitalized with appendicitis. She visited him, and they decided to try it again. The second marriage barely survived three years. This time it was Jackie who got the divorce.

Badly shaken by this second failure at marriage, Jensen plunged with no better luck into a succession of business ventures. A promised auto dealership in Carson City, Nev. failed before it ever began. He invested in a golf course, then sold out. He worked part-time as the baseball coach at the University of Nevada and dabbled in local broadcasting. Finally, in 1966, Jensen found himself short of cash, and sold out his interest in the Bow & Bell to Erb. The transaction in all of its various and, it seems, unnecessary complexities was nearly fatal to their long friendship, which was repaired only this year.

Separated from Zoe Ann, Jensen went to work in 1967 as a TV sportscaster on KTVN in Reno. The producer of the show was a quick-witted, lively divorcee named Katharine Cortesi. A Virginian eight years younger than Jensen, she was educated in Europe, spoke several languages and was as well-traveled as he was not. For 10 years she had been an illustrator and assistant editor at Harper's Bazaar in New York. She had come to Reno for a divorce, had become enraptured with the mountain scenery and easygoing pace, and had decided to stay on. She and Jensen began dating. They were an unlikely pair, the down-at-the-heels has-been athlete and the cosmopolite, but they were well matched. They still are.

Katharine coaxed out Jensen's intellectual potential, exposing him to art, literature and desert exploration. More significant, she restored his courage, bolstered his flagging self-confidence and gave him a sense of proportion. In February 1968, in a ceremony performed in a ranch house by a one-armed justice of the peace, they were married. It was hardly the wedding of the century. After the ceremony the newly weds quaffed a nuptial beer and went back to work at the television station.

Their home was the gamekeeper's cottage on a dude ranch operated by friends, in the foothills of the Sierras. Deer grazed in their backyard, coyotes howled at night, the scent of pine was pervasive. In this sylvan setting life seemed to be taking another turn in Jensen's favor.

Then, on March 26, 1969, Jensen was conducting baseball practice on the University of Nevada diamond, shouting encouragement to his mostly inept charges, when he felt a pressure in his chest. It was mild at first, then suddenly it became crushing. As the pain worsened, his arm went numb. He had one of his players drive him to the hospital in Reno. He collapsed there with a heart attack. The perfect body had broken down. Jensen was 42 years old.

He remained in the hospital for 10 days, then sailed for the Italian Riviera, where he recuperated in style at a villa belonging to Katharine's baroness aunt. After six weeks Jensen returned to the U.S. and accepted temporary work as a coach of Red Sox rookies in Jamestown, N.Y. Though he had hopes of staying in the team's minor-league system, the Sox did not offer him a permanent job. He returned to Reno, unemployed again, apprehensive anew, his health precarious, his prospects bleak. The TV deals were finished, the university could not pay him more than a pittance for coaching and he felt unwanted. "At 43 I had to start all over again," he says. "I was qualified only as a baseball man. I couldn't find a job. Katharine had to go back to work. People wouldn't believe me when I told them I was broke. Once I tried to get a job as a janitor. They laughed at me. 'Oh, c'mon Jack,' they said. 'You, Jackie Jensen, a janitor? You gotta be kidding.' I wasn't."

In 1971 he was hired by Nevada Governor Mike O'Callaghan as a deputy director in the State Office of Economic Opportunity. The job paid $12,000 a year, and Jensen was happy to take it. His troubles had left him introspective, self-analytical, aware of the strange turns fortune can take. In a relatively brief lifetime, he had been famous and forgotten, wealthy and poor, healthy and near death. He began to put the pieces together, and he discovered his problems were not unique.

"I could see that jillions of other people had gone through what I had—divorce, illness, financial struggles, starting all over. I began to think of the good times I'd had, of how lucky I had been, of the people I had gotten to know. I began to think that people should be envious of me. At the time, we were making do with little income, but we were happy. We had the solitude, the quietness and the freshness of the desert."

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