When Frank Peter Jay’s kids won Jack, a donkey, at an auction in 1960, he knew what to do — convert his Port Washington garage to a stable.
“I think we were both sort of flabbergasted,” Jay’s wife, Jayne, remembered of when the kids claimed the burro. “Then he built a wooden platform in our garage.”
Frank Peter Jay, a professor, writer, lexicographer, patriarch of a family with nine kids and described as a “bon vivant” by loved ones, died Feb. 27 at home of complications from a stroke. He was 95.
To get a flavor of his sense of humor and joy for life, his family points to the last line of the short obituary he wrote for himself: “Instead of flowers, please buy a drink for some deserving drunk.”
Born in Brooklyn, he grew up in the borough’s Flatbush section and graduated from Madison High School.
He served with the Army Air Force from 1942 to 1943, and received his undergraduate degree in English from Fordham University in 1943 and a master of arts from Columbia University in 1946.
Most every Monday to Friday from 1946 to 1992, he’d take the 6:05 a.m. train from Port Washington en route to Fordham University, where he was a professor of English.
There, he put students at ease with his sense of humor. In 1971, Jay gave a classmate of Jack Colombo, 71, of Lynbrook, a “Z-minus” on a paper.
“He had that kind of sense of humor where he could develop a relationship with the class,” Colombo said. “He made you feel comfortable.”
Plus, Jay zeroed in on the fact that Colombo learned best through listening, Colombo remembered.
On the train rides to and from the city, Jay would edit books, papers, dictionaries and encyclopedias.
In the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s at various times, he served as an editor for Funk & Wagnalls, the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers Dictionary and Reader’s Digest, according to the “Who’s Who” 2009 edition.
In the mornings, he’d edit or write. Then he’d go to Fordham to teach. “He was very much a family man. He taught us to do the right thing,” said his son, Bryan Jay, 59, of Port Washington. “Work hard, commit to what you were doing. He’d say, ‘I don’t care if you’re hired to scrub the toilet. Scrub the toilet to the best of your ability, and then some.’”
He wrote articles and short stories, including “Jack: The Story of a Pretty Good Donkey” published in 1970 by Reader’s Digest.
The donkey had been the mascot for John F. Kennedy’s 1960 presidential campaign. When the election was over, a Port Washington political club auctioned it off. Jayne Jay said they agreed to let the kids take a chance.
“We said, ‘Oh, no one ever wins these things.’ Next thing I knew, they won,” she said.
The donkey lived the suburban life for about six months — sometimes escaping from the garage — until neighbors’ complaints piled up and the town ordered the donkey out. The story was picked up by the newspapers. The family — and donkey — went on to Johnny Carson’s show “Who Do You Trust?”
Soon after, the donkey retired to the family’s summer home in North River, in the Adirondack Mountains.
After Jay retired from Fordham, he continued to split time between Port Washington and North River, where he had spent summers with his family growing up to an acre of vegetables, Bryan Jay said.
Frank Peter Jay will be interred there this summer.
He is also survived by children Jennifer Gordon-Tennant, Jonathan, Melissa Bushey, Nicole Angelo and Matthew, all of Port Washington; Alison Kelly, of Sparta, New Jersey, Angela and Christopher; and 18 grandchildren.