The world became a less cool place early last Friday morning.
That’s when my great-uncle Jack Leeming passed away at the age of 84 in Las Vegas.
Jack, my grandma Jean’s little brother, was a Butte guy who moved to Vegas during Butte’s great strike of 1959. The strike lasted 181 days and it cost the Mining City some great people.
All these years later, though, it is hard to imagine Jack not living in Vegas, where he was the keno manager at Caesars Palace for many years. Jack and Vegas were a perfect match.
Mickey Mantle had to play for the Yankees, Roger Staubach had to quarterback the Cowboys, and Jack Leeming had to work in Vegas. He just had to work at Caesars Palace, too.
Jack fit Vegas better than Jerry Tarkanian.
I’m not talking about Vegas now. I’m talking about when Vegas was Vegas, back before the corporations took over.
My great-uncle always took care of Butte folks in Vegas, too. If you didn’t know him, your parents or grandparents probably did if they ever went to Sin City.
He would make sure they were treated right or he’d get them tickets to a show. Jack introduced my dad to Joe Louis, probably the greatest heavyweight fighter in history.
The list of the 100 coolest guys to ever live is made up of Paul Newman and 99 guys named Jack, and nobody was cooler than Jack Leeming. He was like a slightly cooler version of Sonny (played by Chazz Palminteri) in the 1993 movie “A Bronx Tale.”
Jack was taller, and with a perfect head of curly hair.
My favorite scene in “A Bronx Tale” was when Sonny told Calogero not to worry about the $20 Louie Dumps owed to him. “C” did not need to “crack him one,” to teach him a lesson.
“Look at it this way, it cost you 20 dollars to get rid of him. Right?” Sonny said. “He’s never going to bother you again. He’s never going to ask you for money again. He’s out off of your life for 20. You got off cheap. Forget it.”
To that, Calogero said, “You’re always right.”
That scene always reminded me of the way Jack would talk, especially when he would explain the ways of Vegas to me. Jack was always right.
Jack coming to town was the highlight of the summer. He’d teach me the language of gambling and how to bet on sports.
He also made it clear that I should never bet on sports because it is a sucker’s game.
A $5 bill isn’t called a $5 bill, either. Jack taught me that. It’s a “fin,” as in, “I slipped the valet a fin to make sure he treats us right.”
Jack’s wife, Margaret Mary, was also cool. We called her Mugs.
I eagerly awaited Jack and Mugs coming to town after I watched the 1995 movie “Casino.” I sat outside my grandparents’ house as we watched the fireworks on July 3, and I quizzed them for hours.
Jack knew of the characters played by Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci. He said they didn’t know him, but I bet they did.
Jack was easily cool enough to be a mob guy. He just had way too big of a heart to pull it off.
While Jack had the moxie of Sonny in “A Bronx Tale,” he had the integrity of Lorenzo, who was, by the way, played by De Niro. Like Lorenzo, Jack knew that the working man, not the mob boss, was the real tough guy.
Mugs said the guys in “Casino” were “snakes,” and that Hollywood made them look like better people than they actually were. I didn’t think it was possible to look worse than Ace and Nicky in that movie, either.
A few years later, after Mugs passed, my brother Don, Matt Vincent, Thom Southwick and I won a trip to Vegas for the Super Bowl in a fantasy football league.
Jack took us out on the town one night. He was 67 years old, and he stayed out with us until after 3 a.m. He’s the only one of us who didn’t look like a drunken fool after midnight, too.
Jack never played the part of an amateur. He was a pro’s pro.
I could have told you he was a pitcher in the big leagues, and you’d believe me. You’d also believe if I said he was a race car drive, a football coach, an astronaut or the president. He just had that distinguished look and the personality to match.
Through it all, though, Jack was a Butte guy. His heart was always in the Mining City.
He came home almost every year, and he was always looking to set up the next family reunion. He was proud of his Butte heritage, though he was way too smart to move back to this cold climate after he retired.
Instead, he chose the Seattle area, where he could check in on the Mariners and still follow Notre Dame.
In 2005, I went with Jack to a couple of Red Sox-Mariners games at Safeco Field. I think David Ortiz hit a home run in one of the games, but I’m not sure. The main thing I remember was getting to hang out at the ballpark with Jack.
Nothing was better than hanging with Jack, whether it was at the casino, at a ballgame or just sitting on the deck.
The last time I talked to Jack was when he called my dad’s house in July.
He asked me what I was up to, and I said, “I’m living the dream, Jack.”
He laughed and said, “Well, you keep on living that dream, Bill. Keep on living that dream.”
Then he told me that he was going through some tests because he was having some trouble with his lungs. No big deal he said. They’re on top of it. He’d be ready for 18 holes next time he came to town.
It turns out that was the beginning of a disease that hit Jack hard and fast.
Last week he was told there was nothing that could be done for him. Of course, Jack took this news in stride.
He kept his great sense of humor and he stayed positive. He was still Jack.
The last time my dad talked to him on the phone, Jack said that he would call him one last time in a few days.
There Jack was in a Vegas hospital room staring at the face of death like it was no big deal. He was still cool as could be.
Jack was ready to slip St. Peter a fin to make sure he was treated right.
— Bill Foley, who will need a lot more than a fin, writes a column that appears Tuesdays on ButteSports.com. Email him at email@example.com. Follow him at twitter.com/Foles74