Archive for Thursday, January 13, 2011

Smith: Going back to Jack

January 13, 2011

A couple of weeks ago, I was watching one of the myriad college football games on TV when I heard a bit of an interview with a college official. He was talking about one of the school’s players and recounting his academic achievements, his community service and his athletic ability.

“He’s a real life Jack Armstrong,” the college official said.

Since the gentleman was on the mature side of 60, he certainly remembered Jack Armstrong, but the statement seemed to go over the head of the TV reporter who was probably under age 30. It occurred to me that at least two generations have gone by without knowing anything about Jack Armstrong.

I was mentioning this to Jean and she calmly said she had heard of the character but didn’t know anything about the show. Apparently, she didn’t listen to the same radio programs that I did.

“Jack Armstrong, All American boy” became part of our language and was used to describe a young man who was intelligent, honest, heroic, highly moral and, of course, a great athlete. Any young man in my generation was greatly honored when someone compared him to Jack. That meant that you were recognized as an outstanding and versatile young man.

So, who was Jack Armstrong? To be familiar with the story you would have to be well into your sixth decade and remember a time when radio dramas were popular and television was barely experimental. Actually, Jack Armstrong was the main character in a long-running radio show primarily aimed at the younger audience. The show was broadcast just after school was out and you had to hustle home to catch the opening announcement. I know youngsters have a hard time believing this, but there was a time when youngsters actually listened to stories on the radio and used their imagination. Yes, it was a far different world.

The radio adventure series premiered on July 31, 1933, on station WBBM in Chicago. Later it reached a national audience on CBS. Then it moved to ABC and it made the round, finishing its long run on NBC. The show was broadcast from 1933 to 1951, when radio dramas were fading away and in some cases moving to television. While “Jack Armstrong” never crossed over to TV, it was made into a motion picture serial in 1947. For most of its 18 year run, the show was extremely popular.

The story line centered around the adventures of a young man named Jack Armstrong, who was a brilliant student and an extremely courageous young athlete at Hudson High School. His best friends were Billy and Betty Fairfield, who both had a very wealthy Uncle Jim Fairfield — an industrialist. The three accompanied Uncle Jim in jaunts around the world and faced and foiled a variety of criminals. Of course, they always saved the day and made it to Hudson High School in time for Jack to lead the team to victory, always against heavy odds.

During World War II, Jack and his friends thwarted many Axis plots. Prior to that, the shows were set in exotic locations and considerable time was devoted to describing the area. One writer said the show was much like a travelogue and that increased its popularity.

Throughout its long run on radio, the show was one of the first to offer premiums. For example, you could mail in a box top and a nickel or dime and get a decoder ring, or whatever miracle items Jack was using to foil the bad guys.

The name Jack Armstrong came to be stand for integrity, honesty and ability. I think the important thing about the show was that the hero was perfect. He did everything well and represented the best in human nature. He was someone to look up to and want to be like. Yes, I know that it was an impossible goal, but he was someone to strive to emulate.

It is really unfortunate that there are no perfect role models today who urge young people to be the best they can be. Jack Armstrong will always be the epitome of the best example of honesty, integrity and courage.


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