By most accounts, Robert Edgar Jack was “one heck of a guy.”
One of San Luis Obispo’s most prominent bankers, land developers and ranchers, Jack led the city as mayor, served as master of King David’s Masonic Lodge, and worked to bring the railroad to town.
“This guy was really a leader in San Luis Obispo,” said Marilyn P. Darnell, a docent at the Historic Jack House and Gardens in SanLuis Obispo since 1998.
“What made him that way?What made him tick? What was the foundation he came from that he brought those skills here?’
She endeavors to answer those questions in her new book “Anything But Dull: The Personal Letters of R.E. Jack: His Legacy from Maine to California 1856 to 1869,” published by Cal Poly’s Graphic Communication Institute in December.
Originally from the San Fernando Valley, Darnell moved to the Central Coast in 1992 when her husband retired from the Los Angeles Police Department.
She first encountered the Jack House in 1993 on a tour led by former San Luis Obispo Mayor Ken Schwartz. Years later, after earning associate degrees from Cuesta College in general education and family studies/human services, she returned to the historic estate as a volunteer.
“I no sooner walked in the door than the gift shop was my duty,” Darnell quipped.
She wrote her first book about Jack — “The House That R. Jack Built: The Jack House and Gardens, San Luis Obispo” — while caring for her ill husband, who died in 2007.
“I was pretty much at home 24-7 and needed something for my sanity. That was my therapy,” Darnell said of the book, selfpublished in 2007.
When, in 2011, “I once again was at a place in my life that I needed purpose,” the historian said, so she set out to write a book about Jack’s children. But after spending a year sorting through 44 boxes of Jack family papers donated to Cal Poly’s Special Collections and Archives department, she grew frustrated at her lack of progress.
Rather than abandon the project entirely, she decided to focus on Jack himself, starting with his upbringing in Bowdoinham, Maine. She connected with volunteer Betsy Steen of the Bowdoinham Historical Society, who confirmed the family’s presence in the area and established a correspondence— occasionally sending Darnell letters written by Jack.
One letter in particular caught Darnell’s eye.
Penned April 19, 1865, it detailed how news of President Abraham Lincoln’s assassination affected the West Coast.
“San Francisco is one mass of excitement,” Jack wrote, describing how mobs swarmed the offices of newspapers owned by anti-war Democrats. “Business is entirely suspended and every building is draped in deep mourning.” Darnell said that letter “put everything in a whole new perspective.”
“I thought, ‘Here is someone who lived through (that event) and witnessed it. And this isn’t just somebody; this is somebody where I live,’” she said. In Darnell’s words, “Anything But Dull” portrays the “unfolding of a leader,” using letters by
Jack and others to chart his journey from a Maine Wesleyan Seminary student to Civil War militiaman to San Luis Obispo landowner and businessman.
The book begins in 1856, when Jack was a 14- year-old student, and ends in 1869, about a year before he married Lucy Ellen “Nelli” Hollister, daughter of Col. William Welles Hollister, at age 29.
In addition to showing the events that shaped Jack’s life, Darnell said the letters — carefully transcribed by Steen — also reveal his softer side. “You can tell in his letters how family-oriented he was,” she said. “If you study the whole person, (Jack) is a great role model for all of us — as a family man, as a civic leader, as a person who gave,” said Darnell, who spent three weeks in Maine this summer researching the Jack family.
She’s currently working on two other books— one about Jack’s offspring and another that would recreate San Luis Obispo society in the 1890s. “I’d really like to paint a picture of that time period,” she said.
Darnell hopes “Anything But Dull” will help renew interest in Jack and the home he built circa 1880.
“The No. 1 thing we hear at the Jack House is ‘I’ve lived here for 10, 20, even 25 years. I’ve passed by this place a kajillion times. Today I’m finally here,’” she said. “I’d like to change that. I’d like it to be the No. 1 place people want to go.”