There are some people in your life for whom you will drop EVERYTHING to be available to them. Jan Gabriel is one of those special people to me. Many of you will remember him as the reverberating motorsports voice over guy with his iconic “Sunday! Sunday! Sunday!” mantra. Everyone from Al Roker (weekly, it seems) to Jay Leno borrows Jan’s famous phrase.
To me, Jan was a second dad, career mentor and best of all, my partner in crime. God, did we ever make each other laugh over the years. We would just feed off of each other with our quick minds and our out-there humor. Little did I know, our last act of hijinks together would involve me…and Jan’s ashes.
Jan passed away this last January from complications with Polycystic Kidney Disease and Peripheral Artery Disease. He wanted a cremation, and Jan–who ensured his trademark brand remained intact by expiring at 11:57 p.m. on a Sunday—always got his way…in life and in death.
Very last minute on this past Tuesday morning, Jan’s widow Teresa asked me to accept Jan’s “Lifetime Achievement Award” from the Illinois Broadcasting Association on Wednesday night in Normal, IL. I don’t exactly have a love affair with public speaking, but I felt Jan was pulling my strings from the other side. I called Jan’s and my mutual friend Nan, who used to star on Jan’s Chicago variety show, Up Tempo, back in the 1960s on WCIU/Channel 26. Miraculously, she was able to join us, despite a busy family life and running a wildly successful business. Her calming presence kept me grounded. Nan is also great eye candy and she really looks the part of someone who belongs in Jan’s entourage. She’s a tall, blonde Amazon woman with a figure like a sideways stick of gum with giant beach ball hooters. Jan would have been so proud to have her representing him that night.
Yet another miracle occurred. We walked into the ballroom at the Marriott and couldn’t believe our eyes. The entire event had a motorsports theme! Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s gleaming car sat in the front of the Marriott ballroom. Racing flags were the centerpieces on a hundred tables, as far as the eye could see. Then our IBA contact Debra walked up. She was the person responsible for making the last-minute decision about Jan receiving the award. She told us she had been considering it for a long while, and then she went to rent a car last weekend. The guy behind the counter told her she needed to return the car on “Sunday! Sunday! Sunday!” In that moment, her mind was made up.
It wasn’t until I sat down at our table, directly in front of the stage, that I was able to jot down some bullet points for Jan’s acceptance speech. As I do with most creative tasks, I have to marinade the ideas for a while in that scary cauldron between my ears. I commit nothing to paper until I’m at the 11th hour, buzzing from my deadline adrenaline rush. This trait of mine makes my orderly BFF Christina Bouvier completely crazy.
With me on this mission were some of Jan’s ashes, in a small Cloissonne’ vial, about the size and shape of a pepper shaker. I guarded it carefully–I would never live it down if Jan Gabriel became the dark specks on someone’s mashed potatoes at this dinner. As I sat there growing more and more nervous, Miss Illinois gave a wonderful speech, a two-star general from the National Guard spoke, Jeb Bush delivered a few quips, and then I was up. This is what I told the room full of executives from every Illinois TV and radio station:
“Jan would have loved this party, with its motorsports theme. You have no idea. Jan interviewed Dale Earnhardt Sr. for our motorsports series, The Super Chargers back in the early ’90s when NASCAR wasn’t on anyone’s radar, and Jan was on the announcing team at the Indy 500 for many years in the ’70s. Jan loved motorsports. So I brought him with me tonight.
At this point, I pulled out the vial and set it before me on the podium. It made a loud THUNK! sound. I’m fairly sure, I felt the room did a giant inhale before some nervous laughter ensued. Jan would have eaten this up with a spoon! He lived for dramatic moments. “Here he is!” I declared gleefully.
My voice quivered as I struggled not to cry. I missed him so damned much. I proceeded to share with the crowd that Jan was the American Dream personified–this bigger-than-life character who lived within the wonderful reality he created for himself. He wanted a TV show that was a mash-up of entertainment and motorsports, so he just started one. He had no money and he had no Hollywood connections. It was the sheer forcefulness of his personality that made things happen. He created his own opportunities. And only Jan Gabriel could convince Elke Sommer to drive a monster truck on TV. Those were crazy times.
After a few more anecdotes about Jan’s career and the Team Demo Association he founded, I ended the speech by thanking everyone, and reminding people that Jan would have wanted me to remind them to sign up to become organ donors. Jan had waited for five long years and finally died before getting his second transplant.
I took the award, shook hands with the presenter and returned to sit down at my table. That’s when the moment arrived that would have made Jan apoplectic with laughter.
The presenter paused and said, “Uh…Denise…you forgot Jan.” Horrified, I looked up, and there was Jan’s little Cloissonne’ vial, sparkling in the stage lights, still sitting on the podium. I clambered back up there and awkwardly murmured something into the microphone about Jan not wanting to leave the party so early, but the crowd was laughing so hard, I doubt they even heard me.
My hubby Dave will never let me live this one down. He already saw me as Lucille Ball’s heir apparent with my penchant for inadvertent gaffes. In his eyes, this sealed my legacy. But I maintain that in this particular case, I wasn’t a solo act. Jan Gabriel orchestrated the whole thing.