Jack Coombe

Jack Coombe and his wife Peg moved to Northbrook in 1961 choosing a home near the railroad station to facilitate Jack’s commute to downtown Chicago where he was employed. Jack and Peg had previously lived in the East, moving there after their marriage. Jack describes growing up in northern Minnesota, joining the Navy in 1940…

Recorded on November 11, 2011. Length: 30 Minutes.


JH:  Thank you, Jack, for agreeing to this interview.  Jack been an active member of our community for 50 years.  Jack, we are so glad to have you here today to share your memories of Northbrook.

JC:  Glad to be here.

JH: Can you tell us, of all the places in the world where you could settle,  why did you choose Northbrook?

JC:  Well, we had been living out East – we came to Illinois and then settled in the Chicago area and lived with another couple but wanted a place of our own.  We searched on the North Shore and I remember just coming down the street and something about Northbrook just rang a bell in my mind. We had been in other towns too but I was struck by –I don’t know, its hard to describe a feeling came over us that this was right.  It was close to the train station.  I was working down in the Loop at that time and had to get there every day and back so we found a little house not far from the railroad station so I used to walk down, get on a train and when I got through at the end of the day, get on a train and come back.   It worked out just beautifully.

JH: What year did you come to Northbrook?        

JC:  That would be 1961.  Yeah.  1961.

JH:  Before 1961, you say you were working downtown and had come from the East.  You want to give me just a little background on you and how you made your travels to Northbrook?

 JC:  Ah, do you mean – how we got to Northbrook?

 JH:  No, where you were born?

 JC:  I was born in Michigan in 1922 and I was raised there.  No, we moved to Minnesota where I spent most of my young life, went to school, my schooling was spent in a town called Virginia, Minnesota in the Iron Range country, the Mesabi Range. I grew up in the forests of northern Minn.  and I left when I got my first job out of town of course.  I had to move so we moved.   Peg and I got married and lived out East most of our married life.  We moved back here to the Midwest and we looked around.  I don’t remember what brought us up to the North Shore.  Peg would remember

 JH: Before you came here, before you came here you –  Where did you go to college?

 JC:  I went to college in the Chicago area – no Minneapolis area,  where I got my beginning.  My prompter corrects me – in show business we have prompters and I always bring one with me. 

 JH: So you went to college and after college –

JC: That’s when I first worked and in radio in Minneapolis.

 JH: And you worked as I remember hearing with some of the greatest radio stars there were – can you tell me some of the people you worked with?

 JC: I worked in both TV and radio and motion pictures.   I worked in six or seven radio stations.  At the networks with Henry Morgan.  Some of the other celebrities that came into my life were Danny Kaye, later I had the opportunity to write comedy for him.  Other celebrities that came into my life, not particularly here, but mostly when I was in the Chicago and New York area:  Arthur Godfrey, Danny Kaye – I wrote comedy for him for a year.

JH: Today is Veterans’ Day – You served in the Navy?

JC:  Yes, I served in the Navy from 1940-46  for six years.

JH:  In fact you an eyewitness to the beginning of America’s involvement in WW II?

JC: Yes, to Pearl Harbor.  Through the years, the years have mellowed me quite a bit. I used to get very disturbed in thinking about Pearl Harbor as it was such a trauma.  Here we were at Honolulu.  I was stationed at a naval air base in Honolulu and was waiting for another ship.  They put me at a receiving station which was on Ford Island right in the middle of Pearl Harbor.  I had a posh job.  Wake up every morning and cook my own breakfast and then the rest of the day all I had to do was go down to the airfield, pick up a pile of letters and bring them back.  So I had a posh duty.  So that morning – I won’t go through the whole business of Pearl Harbor and what led up to it.  I have spoken a lot on this and always the first questioned asked me is “Did we know that the Japanese were coming?”  Before I get to that, I was awakened that morning by the drone of planes, which is not unusual on an air base, but it sounded like a whole squadron.  We were expecting a flight  of B17s to come in and we thought the sound was them.  The noise was somehow  different and that bothered some of us.  The sound came closer and closer and closer.  The first planes peeled off as they came over Pearl Harbor and the first bomb was dropped.  There was pandemonium.  You know what everyone thought, Judy – that they were American flyboys  giving us a drill once again as they had done.  The American Air Force used to send in planes to keep us alert with sounds of firing.  That morning the planes that came over looked a little different with a red circle on the wings and on the fuselage.  It never dawned on us.  We thought immediately, boy these flyboys have really jumped the gun.  They have gone ahead and painted their planes to look like Japanese planes.  That is what happened.  Then, of course, as bombs began to fall, one plane came in and strafe.  One bullet just missed my leg as they bounced off the deck.  We all dove for cover.  We knew then  that we were at war.  That was my introduction to WW II – it was under fire from the very first day.

 JH: Where did you serve during the rest of your time in the Navy?

 JC: I joined the fleet later, went to radar school and became a radarman.  I got into the amphibious forces and assigned to a ship that was a combination warship and landing craft, an APA 50 (USS Pierce) and that’s where I spent most of the war.  We were in every major naval engagement and every important landing fall the way from the Gilbert Islands and Okinawa and right up to the doorstep of Japan.  We were all set to invade Japan when I was transferred.  They came in and said “you have had enough duty – why didn’t you ask for transfer.”  I said “well, sir, that I saw the war start and I wanted to see it end. “  They said “You are not going to see it end here.  You are going home.”  They sent me home just before the surrender of Japan so I saw four years of combat duty. 

JH: When did you and Peg marry, before the war or after the war? 

JC: Oh, yes, after the war I was stationed in Rhode Island.

JH: What was the station?

JC: Charleston Naval Air Station, Rhode Island, was where I met her.  She walks in and I was –  that story is something, do you want me to tell it?

JH: Certainly.

JC: Because of my background in radio and my early days in radio.  I had been on network shows and met many important people such as Arthur Godfrey, one man, his name was Tom Kelly, and he was a producer.  He remembered me and was responsible for trying to get a hold of me.  He searched through navy files and contacted the FBI.  Three FBI men were sent after me and found me at the Charleston Base where I was awaiting my discharge.  The three FBI men walked in and hauled me off an ddrove me all the way  New York but I kept asking what I had done.  I was in the Navy and I dated a Japanese girl at one time. Is that it?  No, no,  we know all about that but that’s okay.  They kept teasing me all the way to New York.  Come on, guys, I said, you are scaring me.  When we got to New York, they took me to a huge building and we went up to about the 40th floor.  I don’t remember for sure as it was so long ago.  We walked into a room which had some chairs there and the FBI man ordered me to sit down.  Ok, ok, ok. I sat.  I thought I had been through a lot of things in my life – war, combat but this was the worst.  I was scared to death.  The door opened and in walked Danny Kaye who said “you are going to write for  me?”  I said, “what?”  He noted I was in uniform and examined my medals – “Wow, you have been through a lot.”  And he asked if I was going to write for him and I responded that I guess I am.  He laughed and said, you are my man.   

JH: That is a great story.

JC:  He was a wonderful man and I enjoyed working for him and writing for his CBS radio show in New York.  They put me up in a suite in New York City.  I had everything.  I was quite a sight going in and out of the elevators in my naval uniform with lots of celebrities around but that was how I got started.

JH: That’s how you got started with Danny Kaye and Charleston is where you met Peg?

JC:  Peg was in the library reference department at the base.  I needed to get a particular book to help me write a script for the Danny Kaye Show.  Peg was on duty that day. 

JH: So libraries have been an important part of your life for a long time? 

JC: Yes, she was on duty and got the books for me but she wasn’t supposed to be on duty that day.  She was filling in for somebody.  I kind of looked and thought there is something about this girl.  I want to see her again.  When the scripts were written and after I was discharged from the Navy and I thought maybe I would never see her again.  I returned to Minnesota and my mother told me to stop thinking about her.  I kept thinking of her so I got on a Greyhound Bus and traveled from Minnesota to Rhode Island to see Peg and be with her.  I stayed at the YMCA because I couldn’t afford anything else and courted her.

JH:  We’ve talked about your beginning days in radio and how you came to Northbrook.  Now, please tell me about “your Northbrook.”  What has Northbrook meant to you and how you have contributed to Northbrook?  You have contributed greatly to Northbrook.

 JC: When we settled down in Northbrook and the dust settled a little bit I began to look around the and consider what I could do as a writer.  What I liked about Northbrook was its proximity to Chicago for easy commutes.  An more than that, the more you look at Northbrook, the more it grows on you.   I have always had this love affair with Northbrook and the people in Northbrook.  I wanted to get active and give back part of what the town has given me.  I spent a lot of time in the library writing for scripts and writing books. 

JH: How many books have you written?

JC: I am on my 11th –   9th, no 8th book.

 JH:  You were involved with the Art League and helped put on the old Art Show in the Park and have been a member of Civic Foundation. 

JC:  Yes, I was part of those organizations and the Historical Society.  I always felt one shouldn’t live in a town without trying to give back to the community which has given you opportunities.  This was one of the driving motives for getting settled and writing my books here and doing any radio or TV work.  When TV opened up as an old showman, I jumped immediately onto that and became involved with NCTV with Cheryl Fayne who took me under her wing and we created a talk show on cable TV here – Talk Around Town which has been on the air for 17 years.

JH: That is an amazing amount of time for you to have done a local cable show.  And you also do a second show – Northbrook Newsletter. 

JC:  Yes. 

JH: And you have a partner? 

JC: Yes, and this occurred in a strange way.  I looked around and I needed a partner.  I was sitting in the Village Hall at some meeting and I sat near a table where several women were seated.  I am always listening to speech patterns and one of the women spoke.  I was struck by how she spoke and answered a question very precisely.  That was when I was just forming the idea for Talk Around Town so I needed a partner.  I went over and asked Susan Carrington if she would like to be my partner on a local TV show.  She was flabbergasted and insisted she could not do that.  I had to do a little selling and finally convinced her.  She has been my partner ever since. 

JH: Your show interviews local people that you feel will be of interest to your audience.

JC: That’s right. 

JH: Tell me a little bit about the show.  How do you prepare for the show? 

JC: Of course you have to have guests.  This is another remarkable thing.  Susan and I have talked about it many times  to try to figure out how this happened.  Immediately, we had some guests that we interviewed right away.  I began thinking about how long the show would run and wondered if we would have access to more guests.  I suggested that if we could last a year or maybe two years, we would be doing fine.  We are now in our 17th year on the air and still going strong.

JH: How do you prepare to interview these people – do you talk to them beforehand?

JC: Not every time.  We found out that if can’t meet with the guests in advance, we have a “poop” sheet to prepare for the interview.  It is a kind of “gab sheet.”  We’ve interviewed you so you know how we work.  The main thing is to put our guests at ease which has always been a problem.  We have ways of doing that even if it means telling jokes.  In show business you learn to put people at ease.  Once we get started we are always amazed.  Susan and I are constantly amazed at how fat our guests get relaxed and talking about themselves.  We’ve done this now year after year.  We still have list of people and I had given us two years!  It’s amazing.

JH: It is amazing.  For someone who watches the show a lot, I enjoy watching the show and have learned a lot about Northbrook.  Are you surprised sometimes by the things you learn about Northbrook? 

JC: Absolutely, yes.  Susan and I often talk about that saying, “did you know that about her or him?”   As much as we thought we knew about them in advance, we learn much more.  We’ve learned to get information about people without them really knowing it.  I have a series of questions which I ask the guests to open up the doors.  That comes through long experience.  Just one guest clammed up on us.

JH: What did you do?

JC:  We went as far as we could.  Susan and I carried on with the show.  Susan is great so we kept up a stream of dialect and the guest just sat there, scared to death.  That was very rare, only happened once.  Most guests get put at ease very easily.  We have been very fortunate.  We’ve had a lot of prominent people on our show  – Joe Matagna who is starring in the TV show, Criminal Minds.  We’ve had politicians, community leaders and others including some who have moved out and even returned.  The government leaders change and come on the show – 17 years of guests.  People change chairs.  We have never run out of guests.  Many in Northbrook are very interested in the community and given the chance will happily talk about it.

JH: We are doing this interview in the library.  Do you use this Library for some of your research for your books?  Tell us what you write about.

JC:  Oh, yes, I mostly write about history – I wrote a the first three volume Naval History of the Civil War which has won awards by the way.  I take history and bring it alive sometimes through fiction, sometimes nonfiction.  Usuallly there is history involved.  I wrote one novel a long time ago and it is out of print.  It was the life story of Jonathan Edwards, the Puritan leader whom I admire very much.  I wrote one book on my career in radio called “When Radio was King.”  Thats where all the sordid things about my career came into view from day one.

JH: We have been talking for almost 30 minutes, can you believe it? 

JC:  Doesn’t surprise me. 

JH:  Before we end the interview, if someone came to  you and asked you where you lived and you answered Northbrook and they said they had never heard of Northbrook – tell me about it.  What would you say to them?

 JC: Well, I love to call it a jewel on the North Shore and it is a jewel.  In all the places we have lived since we’ve been married and my long career before that, we have never lived in an area like this.  People are friendly and everything is close by.  I had no trouble in getting a TV show going because there are always people willing to talk about their village and help out.  I am amazed at the amount of people that really want to do something in return – like Northbrook Civic Foundation which I belonged to for awhile.  I’ve always been struck at the drive of these people have and the love of the Village of Northbrook.  Why?  It is the Village itself.  You can’t help but fall in love with this village.   I always use that phrase.  I fell in love with radio, I fell in love with my wife and you do fall in love with this village.  You can’t help it.  That’s the great secret.

 JH: Thank you, Jack, for participating in Village Voices.  Your memories and perspective will add to the history of our village.  I really thank you for taking the time to be interviewed. 

 JC: It was my pleasure.  Thank you.

 JH: You are very welcome.  Thanks.