“Who the heck is Jack Hanna?” I asked the staff during a TV production meeting in the fall of 1979.
“He asked who the heck you were, too,” laughed my producer, who had booked the director of the Columbus Zoo as a guest on “Columbus Alive,” a television talk show I had been hosting from Ohio’s capital city for about a month.
While I have never attained Jack’s international acclaim, the man in the tan khakis and iconic outdoorsman hat was in some ways responsible for whatever success I have had. I’d like to think we gave each other a kickstart.
Jack, according to his family, has been diagnosed with dementia, a tragic circumstance for a man who should have been able to look back on his life with vivid recollections of the wondrous experiences he’s had with both man and beast.
During that first show we did together, we were both new to being live on TV. I asked him half-jokingly if the snake he had draped around my neck was venomous. Distracted by the cameras, he took several seconds to answer, appearing as though he had to think about it. It drew audible laughter from the crew. After the show, Jack apologized for his nervousness, but I told him that this naivete was charming, and I thought the show went splendidly. If you have ever watched Jack on talk shows, especially Letterman, you know he retained that air of innocence — even befuddlement — for his entire career.
On another show, Jack brought an opossum that had just had joeys, about seven of them. It was close to Christmas and Jack wanted to decorate me like a tree. He hung the babies on my suit jacket, each clinging with its tiny claws as I mugged to the camera. Six months later, I was awarded an Emmy for Best Talk Show Host, based on a short highlight reel the station had submitted. The first clip was Jack playing ‘possum … with me.
In 2013, I attended the celebration of Jack’s 30-year anniversary at the Columbus Zoo, an affair highlighted by penguins walking among the guests while they dined. While there, I asked Jack if he would write a blurb for my new book, “Mornings with Barney,” about my 13 years on WISH-TV with my beagle companion. Jack’s words are highlighted on the book’s back cover: “Bats, bears, baboons, badgers and bobcats. None compare with Barney the Beagle.”
And few can compare to you, Jack. Through humor and a touch of self-deprecation, you introduced us to the exotic world of animals. I hope you will always retain some memories of how loved you have been by the public you entertained and educated for more than 40 years.
You are someone few of us could ever forget.