So Long, Jack... John Jillson Dies At 91

Jack Jillson stands beside his wood pile in this photo from June 10th 2008.DON PARKINSON/ENTERPRISE FILE PHOTO - Jack Jillson stands beside his wood pile in this photo from June 10th 2008.

We learned this week that John S. Jillson, a former selectman, lifelong resident of town, and longtime volunteer for the Sandwich Council on Aging, died on New Year’s Day, just a dozen days shy of his 92nd birthday.

Jack, as he preferred to be called, was a quiet, active, involved man who earned the respect of many during his nine decades here in town.

He was Harvard-educated, fought in World War II, and oversaw the subdivision and development of a huge swath of land just off Route 6A in East Sandwich—his family’s former farm—into what is known as Carleton Shores. 

Back in 2008, the Sandwich Council on Aging honored Jack as its Senior Citizen of the Year. We sat down with Jack after the award was announced to talk to him about his life. We decided to print that article again in its entirety this week as tribute to a man who loved his hometown so dearly and whose community loved him right back.

Over the past 86 years, John S. Jillson has been an eyewitness to Sandwich’s evolution from a close-knit farming and fishing community to a sprawling town full of commuters and computers.

He was born in 1922, when the town’s population hovered just over 1,000 men, women, and children. Today, that number has swelled to 22,000.

His graduating class in 1940 was just 13—eight girls and five boys. That’s a far cry from the 237 seniors who accepted diplomas outside Sandwich High School two weeks ago. Mr. Jillson’s first-grade class was the first at the newly opened Henry T. Wing School.

Mr. Jillson remembers the simpler times, when family took all else, But he is quick to point out that the “good old days” were not always that good. He recalled many bitterly cold nights growing up in an East Sandwich home with no electricity or indoor plumbing.

Then there’s the firewood—the cords and cords of firewood that needed to be cut and stacked. But to Mr. Jillson, the methodical simplicity of chopping firewood was, in its own way, therapeutic. All these years later, he still cuts a fair share of firewood each year, albeit these days with the aid of a chainsaw and a hydraulic log splitter.

Now in his Golden Years, a time when many people his age are slowing down, Mr. Jillson is going strong.

This Harvard-educated, World War II combat veteran plays tennis weekly during the warmer months, bikes along the Cape Cod Canal on a regular basis, and volunteers his time to a long list of groups in town, including the Sandwich Glass Museum, Thornton Burgess Society, Habitat for Humanity, and the Sandwich Council on Aging.

This month, the council on aging honored Mr. Jillson as its Senior Citizen of the Year.

“Jack represents the spirit of positive aging by involving himself in worthwhile ventures, which just happen to help and make a difference for so many,” COA Director Janet A. Timmons wrote when announcing the honor. “He is certainly a positive role model for our community.”

Mr. Jillson is a man of few words. He shrugged and smiled when asked about being named Senior Citizen of the Year. “I’m just helping out where I can,” he said.
Mr. Jillson was actually born in Newport, Rhode Island, the son of Augusta (Carleton) and Leroy S. Jillson.

The elder Mr. Jillson was a Navy man who died when his appendix burst while out at sea aboard a destroyer. Young “Jack” Jillson was 4 at the time. His younger brother, Carleton, was just 2.

With two small boys and no income to speak of, Mrs. Jillson moved to East Sandwich to live with her parents and her husband’s parents, in turn. The family spent summers at the Carletons’ 250-acre cranberry and blueberry farm on Route 6A in East Sandwich. Winters were spent with the Jillson family on Old County Road.

Mr. Jillson worked on the farm and had a paper route growing up. His mother helped tend the East Sandwich Grange, which was a community hot spot in those days.

Mr. Jillson remembers the thrilling times of his youth when he and his pals would “rescue” an old horse-drawn buggy from the town dump, tie a rope to the front axle for steering, and coast it down Old County Road, whooping and hollering the entire way. He also remembers the instances when he and his classmates were made to get out of their wooden-bodied school bus in the winter and push it out of a snow bank.

Mr. Jillson was a top student. After graduating from high school, he attended Harvard University to study economics. The move to Cambridge was a big adjustment, Mr. Jillson admited.

“It was a culture shock,” he said. “Remember, I was moving from a house with no electricity to the big city.”

He got so homesick at one point that he left school and walked and hitchhiked all the way to East Sandwich. But he returned to school in short order. But then, in the middle of his sophomore year, war came to America. The Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor.

Like many men his age, Mr. Jillson enlisted in the military. He ended up flying bombing missions over Germany with the Army Air Corps. He flew 19 missions in all. Asked if he saw much action, he nodded.

“Every single mission,” he said. “We got shot up pretty bad. We had some close calls. Losses at that time were great. We were losing something like 20 percent of our planes on each mission.”

In all, Sandwich lost three men during World War II. Mr. Jillson knew each one of them.

During the war, the military had leased some oceanfront acres of the Carleton farm and converted them into an artillery training range—firing at airborne targets being towed over Cape Cod Bay. There were many gun emplacements built as part of the operation, along with barracks and support buildings to serve 1,000 men, Mr. Jillson said. After the war, the military removed the guns and abandoned the buildings.

Mr. Jillson returned to Harvard after leaving the military to finish his studies. He graduated in 1946.

He returned to East Sandwich to help his uncle run the family’s farm but soon found farming was not the life he wanted for himself and his wife, Carol (Handy) Jillson.

He spent a brief time as a schoolteacher and was recalled to active duty during the Korean War before going to work as a loan officer for Buzzards Bay National. He later went to work for Sandwich Cooperative as head of its loan department after the bank built a building on the hilltop at the corner of Route 6A and Tupper Road, where Sovereign Bank now stands.

He was a tough but fair loan officer. He said, back then, many of his loan decisions were based on gut instinct.

“Sure, we had paperwork, but I could tell a lot about a person by his handshake. You can’t run a bank like that anymore,” he said.

Mr. Jillson and his wife moved into a former barracks building on the Carleton farm and started a family. They would later build a house next door.

Time was not kind to the old Carleton family farm. By the early 1960s, profits were down, and debt was growing. The family decided to begin subdividing and selling pieces of the property. Mr. Jillson was picked to oversee the transition, which would grow into the 134-lot Carleton Shores development.

During his years in Sandwich, Mr. Jillson has served on many boards and committees, including stints on the finance committee, board of selectmen, and the committee that recommended the formation of the Upper Cape Cod Regional Technical School.

He watches town government meetings on cable television, including the selectmen’s meeting every Thursday night. Sometimes these meetings get him angry. “There’s too many words said; not enough meat.”

In 1994, Carol Jillson died of cancer. The couple had been married 51 years and raised three children: Carol Jillson, Bruce A. Jillson, and Cynthia Myers. Bruce and his family now live next door to his father, Cynthia is a mile away in the old Carleton farmhouse on Route 6A, and Carol lives in Great Barrington.

A while after Carol’s death, Mr. Jillson began seeing a family friend and neighbor Sarah C. terHorst, who had lost her husband. They soon married.

The couple decided to give back to the Hospice & Palliative Care of Cape Cod that had aided their families so much during their respective spouses’ illnesses. In 2000, Mr. Jillson donated two acres along Service Road for what would become the Mary McCarthy Hospice House.

“They helped us so much,” Ms. terHorst said. “I remember we were talking with them when they said they had hopes to build a hospice house in town, if only they had land to build on. That’s when Jack said, ‘Well, I can help you with that.’ ”

Asked what he misses most about the Sandwich of his youth, Mr. Jillson considered the questions for a while before answering.

“I guess it would be the sense of trust and duty that everyone seemed to have back then,” he said finally. “People would make promises and shake hands and that was that. More often than not, you could count on them to keep their word. There doesn’t seem to be as much of that these days. I guess that’s what I miss most.”

Asked what has changed for the better in all those years, Mr. Jillson was much quicker to answer. “I enjoy having electricity,” he said with a laugh.


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  • Patrick Jenkins

    Mr. Jillson was always one of my most favorites. If I can be just half of what he was I would be happy. May he rest in peace. My thoughts and prays to the family for their loss. Patrick jenkins
  • edie

    Jack was a long time family friend to the Ericksons and to many many others in the community. A fine, upstanding man. A rare gem. He accomplished so much and he lived life to the fullest. I feel truly blessed to have known him. Edith Aucoin