John Charles “Jack” Heckles chafed under the restraints of gravity all his life. He sought out high places, scaled cliffs and climbed mountains, usually avoiding the trails. He flew hang gliders. He loved birds.
He died May 14 in a fall from a cliff overlooking the Yellowstone River east of Livingston. He’d gone there alone to observe, from above, a golden eagle nest, something he had done many times in the past.
Before he fell, his day involved things he deeply enjoyed: a motorcycle ride, a scramble to a cliff top, a good look at some raptors.
Jack and his wife, Wendy, moved in 1996 to Livingston, where they became helping, beloved members of the community. Jack had retired from Caldwell, Heckles and Egan, Inc., a construction company he had founded with two friends in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. Wendy continued her elementary teaching career.
He was always generous. If you needed a tool, Jack would lend it. If you had a problem, he’d help solve it. He liked to ski the backcountry in Yellowstone National Park, canoe the Yellowstone River, and fly fish for trout. Generally a quiet man, when he decided to speak it was usually to say something worth listening to.
Jack was born in New Brunswick, New Jersey on Sept 17, 1944, the fifth in a line of men named John Heckles. He was the first son of John Sherman Heckles and Mary Johanne Grimsrud Heckles, who had immigrated from Norway in 1929. Proud of his heritage, he once had Norwegian flags painted on his toenails on a trip to Mexico.
The family moved to Lancaster when Jack was two. Like Jack, his father was a renaissance man. An organic chemist by trade, he built his own houses, supervised a CCC Camp in the 1930s, taught himself painting and woodcut graphic arts. Every summer, he took his family on camping trips of three or four weeks in New England or the Adirondacks. Jack carried on that tradition with his daughters, taking them hiking, backpacking, camping and canoeing, whether they liked it or not.
Jack grew up in Lancaster, where, as an eighth grader, he first made the local paper in an article about “unsupervised rocket making.” The report didn’t mention the pipe bombs.
Jack climbed lots of peaks in the northeast and went fly fishing in the Maine backcountry. At J.P. McCaskey High School, he was on the swimming, cross country, JV football, and tennis teams. He was homeroom president, was labeled “the king of archery,” and in biology classes melded his love of the natural world with his artist’s eye, producing beautiful technical drawings of various lifeforms.
After graduating from Ursinus College in 1968, and completing a hitch in the Marine Corps, he taught English at Stevens Trade School and began taking trips to the American West, one in a VW Beetle and another in a VW van. In the Tetons and Yosemite, he developed a passion for climbing that he never lost. He made impressive climbs, such as Half Dome, the Grand Teton, and Mount Cowan, and if you went camping with Jack, he would scale whatever was there, whether a cliff or a lighthouse. Once at the top, he often enjoyed mooning the earthbound.
He married Katy Smith in 1970 and three years later they bought 40 wooded Pennsylvania acres and lived off the grid. Jack felled trees and built a cabin with hand tools. His first daughter, Sarah, was born in 1973. Jack then gave in to the comforts of electricity and used power tools to build a larger house. Daughter Tatiana arrived in 1975.
Jack and Katy later divorced and Jack moved back to Lancaster, where he built a reputation for skilled restoration of historic buildings. He kept climbing, and started hang gliding, including one flight of more than 40 miles over several Appalachian Ridges.
Jack married Wendy in 1985, bringing her daughter Shawnee into his family.
After the girls had grown, Jack and Wendy moved to Montana, where he had the time and space to ratchet up his enthusiasms and pick up some new ones. Several Pennsylvania friends followed them there. Though he finally sold his hang glider, he kept the motorcycle and the fly rods, shot arrows at deer and antelope, and learned to play the fiddle some. He was an avid reader, an astute political observer, and is surely disappointed that he didn’t live to see the end of the Trump era.
He climbed and soared higher than most people. His last fall was a hard blow for many, but it happened in a place he loved, with views of mountains and the Yellowstone Valley. He died living.
Jack is survived by his wife Wendy Heckles, of Livingston, his daughter Sarah Heckles and her husband Scott Berggren, of Taichung, Taiwan, his daughter Tatiana Heckles and her husband Joe Catron of Cheju Island, South Korea, and his stepdaughter Shawnee Strasko, and her sons Samuel and Kieran of Lancaster, Pennsylvania. Jack is also survived by his three younger brothers, Tom and Jim of Pennsylvania and Paul of Maryland, and by his sisters in law and numerous beloved nieces and nephews.
Cremation has taken place. Services will be announced at a later date.
In lieu of flowers, donations may be made to:
Counterpoint – The center for mentally handicapped adults. This is where Jack has been volunteering for several years as a handyman. They are an organization that gets no glamour and little money. Donations may be made by check to: Counterpoint,116 E Lewis Street, Livingston, MT 59047.
Northern Plains Resource Council – Works hard to preserve Montana land and promote solar and alternative energies. Jack went to Helena with them for land rallies more than once and we’ve done workshops with them to push solar. Donate directly online: https://northernplains.org/donate/
Livingston Firefighter Fund operated by Livingston Fire & Rescue who saved Jack's bacon the first time. Fine humans. They do community work and use this fund for general all-purpose items, from gift cards for families in need to replacing broken appliances at the station. Donation may be made by check to: Livingston Firefighter Fund, 414 E Callender Street, Livingston, MT 59047.