Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Gentleman Jack

John M. Seabrook died last week and left something of a vacancy in the hearts and souls of all who knew him well.
by Charlie Leck

“He was a man who commanded respect, and excelled in countless fields, but will be remembered, for his humor, character, friendship, the love of his family and for maintaining the highest standards of excellence.” [Ben Baugh, staff writer for the Aiken (SC) Standard]
I’m in New Jersey today, sitting in the airport, ready to catch a plane back to Minnesota. I came here to attend yesterday's funeral for John M. Seabrook (Jack). It would have been unthinkable to not pay my respects to this extraordinary gentleman.

Jack died at his home in South Carolina on 11 February 2009. He was born in 1917 as the youngest of four children. As a boy he worked in the vegetable fields of his family farm, weeding and sorting various vegetables and flowers. The farm was not a simple family farm, but "one of the largest industrialized farms in the world, with interests in growing, canning and eventually freezing vegetables."

Much could be and will be written about him in the coming weeks and months. He touched so many lives and had such an enormous impact on so many people.

I wish I could say that we were close friends. We weren’t at all. He was a good acquaintance and I admired nearly everything about him. Until a few years ago, he would call me occasionally to ask questions about our carriage driving activities or to suggest something I should read or write about. I tell you this for cetain: We went to many exciting places to which we wouldn't have gone, and met many good and interesting people we would not have met if it hadn't been for this man.

There are several things that stood out about this man.

He was a gentleman!
I haven’t known many pure gentlemen in my life. I’ve always been curious about those I did meet and tried examining them to see what made them stand significantly straighter (in a metaphorical sense) than the rest of us. My wife’s father was a complete gentleman – in every way. Jack was even more so. No word ever seemed to stumble out of his mouth; rather, they flowed graciously from him. His face carried a perpetual, confident and genuine smile.

But, why not? This was a man easily at home with royalty and the ultra famous. I don’t believe the status of any person he met could unnerve him.

At a reception at a New Jersey horseshow, some 15 years ago, Jack beckoned to me from across the room and waved me over to him. He wanted to introduce me to HRH the Duke of Edinburgh, Prince Philip. I may as well have been playing mumblypeg. I was at a loss for just what I was supposed to say or do.

“Well, I’ll be goshed darn, if it ain’t a real prince and all!”

Truly, I didn’t go that lame brain, but I sensed that Jack’s eyes were giggling at my behavior (or misbehavior) and I think that he called me over just so he could watch such a performance. Several years later, at Windsor Castle, I got to speak with the Prince again. Because of Jack’s mentoring, at a tutorial session subsequent to that surprise introduction, I was able to hold my own and act in accordance with decorum – just an ever-so slight tipping of my head toward the man and an acceptance of his hand for a shake only after he first made the offer.

“Good evening, your highness, how very nice to meet you again. Yes, yes – our common and wonderful friend, Jack Seabrook, introduced me to you years ago at a horseshow in New Jersey. You’re looking very well, sir!”

Another time Jack presented me with his business card. He seemed aggravated when I didn’t examine it, so I dug into my pocket to retrieve it. It listed the full addresses of each of his homes – in London, Vermont, New Jersey and South Carolina.

“You and Anne are welcome to visit anytime,” he politely told me. “Just give me some warning. Won’t you?”

He was a man of character!
If Jack told you he was going to do something or promised you a favor, you could take it to the bank. It didn't matter if it was a little thing (like sending an article from a periodical) or a big thing (like getting you tickets to the theatre), he did it. Several of his business colleagues spoke atg his lovely memorial service today, and they indicated he was always that way in matters of business as well.

He was talented!
There are so many things that Jack Seabrook did well that I can’t recount them all here. He was one of the most gracious and exceptional public speakers I ever heard. Of course, he’d had experiences in his life such as most men never even dream. In speaking, he could call on a reserve of thousands of interesting anecdotes from his life’s experiences. And, he was delicately, respectfully and wittily humorous. Jokes were never overpowering. Subtly in humor was Jack’s modus. A punch line was dropped in complete, unsuspecting surprise. You had to be ready and paying attention.

What a horseman he was!
How he loved to drive a four-in-hand to one of his big coaches. He steeds moved with such certainty and smoothness and Jack’s hands gave signals to them so subtly that the observer would notice only slight movements that didn't seem compatible with the enormous changes made in the behavior of his horses.

I once had the opportunity to drive his famous coach, the Nimrod, to my own four of horses when we were together in South Carolina. I needed to move the horses and coach and passengers over about a 13 mile route in a prescribed pace of time. In such a gracious and subtle manner, that no one ever noticed it, Jack coached me and encouraged me to make all the right moves. One of my horses threw a shoe and we had to pull up while a terrific coachman we’d brought along retrieved the shoe and reattached it. We’d lost valuable time and I was disappointed.

“We’ll make it,” Jack said to me. “I have the watch and I know precisely the pace we’ll need to drive. We'll find out how good your horses are. Pick them up.”

Jack set the pace for me and I was pleased with the speed and strength of the big horses out in front of me. In the end, we arrived 11 seconds late, but so close to my time that no one really noticed. A small band was playing and the mayor of the town was there to greet us. Sharing the box with him that day was one of the proudest moments of my life.

Jack was a founding member of the Carriage Association of America, an organization in which Anne and I each hold lifetime memberships. He was also a long time President of the Coaching Club of New York (founded in 1875 by Alfred Lord Vanderbilt). I also held a membership in that organization for several years, thanks to Jack, and wrote about resigning from it in a blog a few weeks ago. As well, he was a member of the exceptionally exclusive British Coaching Club.
"Many times, he traveled to England and Europe with his coach. He was a member of the British Coaching Club. His horses were always impeccably turned out and dressed. He was a gentleman who knew how to present a team. He was truly remarkable. He gave a lot to the world of driving, and will be remembered for that.” [Jack Wetzel, quoted by Ben Baugh in the Aiken Standard]
Jack was also an exceptional businessman.
In addition to commanding the company business – Seabrook Farms – in the great sandy loam of southern New Jersey, he owned several other companies and sat on the boards of several major corporations around the world. He was highly praised today for his extraordinary success over a period of 14 years as the CEO of I.U. Interntaional, a world wide untilities conclogerate headquartered in Philadelphia. Only rarely did he talk about these ventures. Once, when I was in his office, I was curious about a large model of a tanker ship. He explained that a company he held very strong interest in, Gotaas Shipping Corp, was making the state-of-the-art ship at that moment and, when it was completed, it would become the largest and fastest tanker in the world. He told me, too, about his ownership investment in Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines.

He graduated summa cum laude from Princeton in 1939 with a degree in chemical engineering. He retained a strong love for and bond with that University all his life.

His sartorial splendor
Jack possessed an immense wardrobe. Everything was tailored in the finest establishments. A very recent story about him described his love of clothing.
“He was known for his sartorial splendor, and was recognized by Esquire Magazine by being named to their Best Dressed Men in America list during the early 1960's as Seabrook made a powerful fashion statement with his extensive wardrobe as he was often seen in the finest tailored Saville Row suits.

“His sense of style and fashion were featured in Diana Vreeland's 1985 exhibit "Man and The Horse" for the Metropolitan Museum of Art's Costume Institute as his wardrobe played a prominent role in the display. The fashion icon asked Seabrook to provide clothing and accessories to the exhibition that were evocative of 19th Century England from the wardrobe he was still wearing.” [Ben Baugh, staff writer for the Aiken (SC) Standard]
I’ve always considered Jack a bit of a snob. I think that comes from not knowing many people like he. From my world, some of his actions seemed snobbish, I suppose. From his perspective they were the actions and behaviors that were expected of him. To be candid, I not only admired him completely, but I envied him so very much. How much I would like to have his mannerly way of moving through life and his utter graciousness with people he met.

Snob or not, I loved being around him and I loved listening to him reminisce about his exceptional experiences. He could tell a story like no man I ever knew.

Now, this handsome and debonair gentleman has gone off to the stars. He may well reorganize things when he gets there and make the entire system a little better for his presence. He certainly did that on earth.

We had never had the opportunity to meet all his children until yesterday and it was an extreme pleasure to chat with each of them. They were as gracious as we all would likely expect the children to Jack Seabrook to be.

Goodbye, dear, gentle, gentle man. It’s been good to know you! In your company I had some of the grandest moments of my life.

That's me, on the left, with two of the people I most admire
in this world, Vicki Nelson Bodoh, a former President of
the Carriage Association of America and
Gentleman Jack Seabrook, who tried to teach me how to
wear a top hat but never could. We're standing in front of
the Newport Country Club, taking a break from a drive of
the Coaching Club that wandered out along the shore of
the Atlantic Ocean. Jack was the President of the Coaching
and planned some wonderful outings for us. Ms. Bodoh,
and her husband, Jim, were guests on our coach for the


[Ben Baugh’s story about John M. Seabrook in the Aiken Standard]

For those who want to read more about Jack,
the following story appeared on the web site of NJ.Com. It was taken from a story that originally ran in the Bridgeton News by Bill Gallo, Jr.

John Martin Seabrook, a New Jersey farm boy who became a corporate titan, influential sportsman and a man of impeccable style, died Wednesday at his home in Aiken, S.C. He was 91.

He had been a resident of Mannington Township for more than 40 years before moving to Aiken.
Mr. Seabrook, known as "Jack" to friends, was born on April 16, 1917, in Bridgeton, the youngest of four children. He worked in the vegetable fields of his family farm from the age of nine. His father, Charles F. Seabrook, and grandfather built a small Cumberland County farm into Seabrook Farms, one of the largest industrialized farms in the world, with interests in growing, canning and eventually freezing vegetables. The town of Seabrook in Upper Deerfield Township, where many of the company's workers lived, is named after the family. As a boy, Mr. Seabrook weeded onions, sorted flower bulbs in the farm's greenhouses and applied his early fascination with chemistry to soil testing and plant cultivation.

Mr. Seabrook graduated summa cum laude with a degree in chemical engineering from Princeton University in 1939; he remained an ardent supporter of his alma mater for the rest of his life. Upon graduating, he went to work at Seabrook Farms, becoming president in 1954 and building the company into one of the world's largest producers of frozen vegetables and prepared meals. Under his leadership, Seabrook Farms developed the boil-in-the-pouch method of cooking its popular frozen creamed spinach, as well as pioneering frozen entrees that would become known as "TV dinners." By 1959, some 25,000 acres of South Jersey farmland - including many acres in Salem County - were either owned or leased by the company. That same year, Mr. Seabrook had a falling out with his father, who maintained the controlling interest in the company's stock. His father sold the company and Mr. Seabrook resigned. He said that no crisis in his later business career came close to the trauma of losing the family business.

Mr. Seabrook soon regained his footing, however, becoming by the mid-1960's the chief executive of I.U. International, a utilities company headquartered in Philadelphia. As a leader in the business climate of the 1960's that favored conglomeration, Mr. Seabrook built I.U. International into a global corporation with interests in energy, mining, shipping, transportation and food products.

Mr. Seabrook's first marriage, to Anne Schlaudecker of Erie, Pa., ended in divorce. In the mid-1950's, he had a romance with the actress Eva Gabor, a frequent visitor to Seabrook Farms, who later used some of those experiences in her role as the cosmopolitan wife of a farmer, played by Eddie Arnold, in "Green Acres," the popular television series. He was also a regular at "21" and the Stork Club, in New York City. However in 1956, he bid farewell to his bachelor days by marrying Elizabeth Ann Toomey, a newspaper reporter whom he had met earlier that year, while aboard the USS Constitution, en route to Europe for Grace Kelly's wedding to Prince Rainier III of Monaco. Mr. Seabrook was a guest of the Kelly family; his future bride was covering the wedding for United Press International.

By the early 1960's, when Esquire Magazine first named him to its Best Dressed Men in America list, Mr. Seabrook was recognized as one of the country's most stylish devotees of the British Saville Row look. To accommodate his wardrobe, he installed a revolving dry cleaner's carousel in the attic of the 18th century farmhouse in Mannington Township where he and his family lived. An enthusiastic equestrian, Seabrook was equal parts horseman and clothes horse. When Diana Vreeland produced the exhibit "Man and The Horse" for Metropolitan Museum's Costume Institute in 1985, she asked him to provide clothing accessories appropriate to 19th century England - outfits that he was still wearing on a regular basis.

Mr. Seabrook had begun collecting and driving 19th century carriages when the sporting world had almost forgotten about carriage driving, and he was instrumental in reviving the sport of "coaching" in the U.S. He was a founding member of the Carriage Association of America, and was only the third American admitted to membership of the British Coaching Club, following William Tiffany and Alfred Vanderbilt.

He often conducted business from the box seat of a road coach. Richard Fain, who as a young executive worked under Mr. Seabrook at I.U, and later became the CEO of Royal Caribbean Cruise Line, recalled, "He would be holding four reins in one hand, a coaching whip and champagne glass in the other, driving four horses through farm roads lined with vegetables, remarking on the state of the crops, while simultaneously discussing how best to finance the five new supertankers the company was getting ready to order. Of course, the board of directors was along for the ride, both literally and figuratively." In his later years, his horses and carriages became a familiar presence in Newport, R.I., for the annual summer meeting of the American Coaching Club. On the rural roads surrounding his Mannington home, he was often seen driving his carriages with family and friends as passengers. For many years he took part in the parade of carriages, one of the most popular events in Winterthur Museum and Country Estate's spring Point to Point fund-raiser in Delaware.

After retiring from I.U. International in 1981, Mr. Seabrook continued as chairman and CEO of Gotass Larsen Shipping Corporation, successfully spinning off Royal Caribbean as a separate entity, before selling the remaining assets to the Barclay Brothers. He also continued as a director of Bell Atlantic (now Verizon), retiring in 1989 after 34 years, then the longest tenure as a director in the Bell System. He and his wife began to spend more time in Aiken where he pursued his interest in coaching and lent his time to preserving the Hitchcock Woods, a 2,000-acre urban park in the middle of Aiken. They moved there permanently in 2000; Mrs. Seabrook died in 2005.
He supported philanthropic causes throughout his life, many in the Salem County and South Jersey region. Among those was a key role, along with his late wife, in helping to found Woodland Country Day School outside of Bridgeton. Besides preservation efforts in Aiken, he also supported the Brandywine Conservancy, an organization dedicated to the preservation of natural lands in the Chadds Ford, Pa., area along the Brandywine River.

He also championed a number of causes to improve the lives of the underprivileged. One of those roles was his service as a member of the New Jersey Migrant Labor Board where he worked to improve the working and living conditions of seasonal agricultural workers.

Mr. Seabrook maintained a lifelong interest in New Jersey's agricultural heritage, and served as an informal advisor to the state's longtime secretary of agriculture, Art Brown. The last great enterprise of his life was devoted to ensuring that the nearly 2,000 acres he still owned in Mannington would be preserved as farmland in perpetuity. In November 2008, Charles Kuperus, New Jersey's agriculture secretary, announced it as the largest preservation deal in New Jersey history, saying, "This truly is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to be able to preserve such a sizable portion of South Jersey's agricultural land base."

The preservation of the Seabrook property was a major milestone for Salem County, bringing the county's total of preserved land to 25,892 acres. The county now ranks No. 1 in preserved farmland in New Jersey.

"The county has lost a great citizen. He gave so much to the community but no greater gift than the preservation of his land for our future generations," said Freeholder Director Lee Ware.
Brown, who served as New Jersey's secretary of agriculture from 1982 to 2002, said one of Mr. Seabrook's greatest legacies will be the preservation of his Mannington farm.

Brown first met Mr. Seabrook in the summer of 1954 when as a college student he did seasonal work at Seabrook Farms. Brown later started working there full time in 1958, in charge of a number of projects.

"Of all the schooling I had, I thought that was the best school I ever attended - Seabrook Farms," Brown said.

Brown said he spoke with Mr. Seabrook often during his years as agriculture secretary and the idea of preserving his Mannington farm was a frequent topic.

"He wanted that land to be farmed forever. I know in his heart that he definitely wanted to keep it in agriculture, there was no question. It all turned out very positive."

"Jack should be remembered that way. He kept agriculture alive in Salem County. Everyone should thank Jack Seabrook for keeping it out of development although he faced strong pressures. He left a good legacy, not only in the past, but in the end he did get to keep his wish."

Mr. Seabrook is survived by his four children - Carol Boulanger, Lizanne Brooke and John Seabrook Jr., all of Manhattan, and Bruce Seabrook, of Miami - and by five grandchildren.
Services will be held Tuesday, 11 a.m., at the Deerfield Presbyterian Church, 530 Old Deerfield Pike, Upper Deerfield Township. Burial will be in the church cemetery.

Friends may call at the church after 10 a.m.

Arrangements are under the direction of the Freitag Funeral Home, Bridgeton. Written condolences and tributes may be made to the family using the funeral home Web site,

In lieu of flowers, the family requests contributions in Mr. Seabrook's memory be made to Woodland Country Day School, 1216 Roadstown Rd., Bridgeton, NJ 08302, The Brandywine Conservancy, P.O. Box 141, Chadds Ford, PA 19317 or the Hitchcock Woods Foundation, P.O. Box 1702, Aiken, SC 29802.

1 comment:

  1. I worked on Jack's carriages when he was in South Woodstock and he was one of the finest men I ever met.