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LOCAL CHARACTERS

A GOOD DOCTOR

Captain Jack Eck’s circuitous road to Vail helped create a diverse skill set for the community’s most beloved doctor

Photography by Brent Bingham

Eck was not an ordinary doctor.  He always wanted more. More for his patients. More for the town. And more for the hospital that was eventually built in Vail.

Say the name Jack Eck in our town and you’ll always get the same reaction: a caring man, a gentle man. It’s a well-deserved reputation.  Ask anyone.  Dr. Jack Eck is truly a man for all seasons.

Eck’s renown is derived from his warmth and the unassuming way in which he interacts with everyone. His humble beginnings were in the coal region in Pennsylvania’s Susquehanna River Valley; he was the first generation of his family not to work in the mines. And over the years Eck has experienced a life that he never, ever thought possible. From growing up in a region where Saponi Indians once thrived to serving in the Vietnam war to finally settling in Vail, Colorado, Eck’s life took him on a journey that still, today, astounds this humble man. 

“My grandfather got out of the mines, went to Bucknell University and became a school superintendent,” Eck recalls. “My father finished high school and studied business at Bucknell Junior College before beginning work as a bank teller — along with one cashier and the bank president.

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“But when the president was caught embezzling funds, my dad was made cashier and the cashier became the president. And Dad kept working up the notches so that by the time he retired, he was the vice-president of the bank,” Eck chuckles.

Eck wasn’t sure what he wanted to do when he graduated from high school. “I loved basketball and I wanted to be a basketball coach,” he says. “All my friends got to be really great players and kept growing. But when I got to be six feet, I stopped growing. So that was the end of that.” 

Throughout his childhood, Eck was an active Boy Scout and became very adept in rowing and canoeing, having grown up near Harveys Lake, a glacial lake near his home. In fact, he led various waterfront programs from age 12 until he went to med school.

In his second year of medical school, when the Vietnam war began, Eck was drafted after losing the lottery. (On December 1, 1969, the Selective Service System of the United States conducted two lotteries to determine the order to call to military service in the Vietnam War for men born from January 1, 1944 to December 31, 1950.) He finished school, then interned for a year at Presbyterian Hospital at the University of Colorado in Denver. 

“I actually knew I was going into the military so I decided to intern near a ski area,” says Eck. “I had friends who were in Denver who told me to have a good time ‘because you don’t know what’s gong to happen when you get over there.’ Those were the days of freedom marches and most of them turned into riots. It was just a nightmare.

 “We mostly skied Steamboat Springs and because we were considered students, the ski ticket was only $3. Vail was pretty up there, like $11 or $12,” Eck says with a laugh.

Two years later, Eck entered the military as a captain. “I got assigned to an assault helicopter outfit on the DMZ in Vietnam. That turned into a real nightmare, as you can imagine.,” he explains with a faraway look in his eyes.” I was right there when they went out on combat assaults. We were up in the north and all the places that we weren’t supposed to be and I said to myself, ‘If I survive this, I’m going to go to a ski area for awhile.’ It was a bad year. A tough year. It was ’round the clock.”

Eck finished his military service six months before his orthopedic residency was to begin at Temple. So he decided to cover for the one doctor in Oshkosh, Nebraska who had been drafted. “I was there for six weeks and it gave me the perspective of being with good, kind folks. They worked hard, they shared things with each other. And it helped temper my bitterness, because when we were in ‘Nam, it was bad. The war was unpopular everywhere you looked.” 

Before heading back east, Eck’s stopped in Vail and was introduced to the town’s doctors, Tom Steinberg and Bill Holm. “I told them that I was getting out of the army in six months, would be attending Temple’s orthopedic program in the fall, and wondered if they needed help,” he relates. “Tom took my name and I went back to Fort Dix. Soon after, I got a call saying that the doctor they expected wasn’t coming and wondered if I was still interested. I was! So before I went back to Temple, I worked in Vail.”

However, soon after returning to school, Eck says he “began having mental issues” he believes was from the trauma of the war. And the doctors — who had known him when he was a medical student — suggested that he take some time off. They would always have an opening in the program for him, they assured him. 

So, Eck went back to Vail for two years and when other doctors set up practices in Vail, back to Denver he went for a two-year internship in internal medicine, another six months in cardiology and yet another in intensive care. Then he returned to Vail to open his practice.

Eck was not an ordinary doctor. He always wanted more. More for his patients. More for the town. And more for the hospital that was eventually built in Vail.

For two winters, Eck worked with ski patrol. He’d lead discussions to educate the patrol on how to better treat those injured. He had a defibrillator and drugs put in a suitcase to keep on the mountain. “I began teaching the basics,” explains Eck, “what I knew from Vietnam, what I learned about combat situations. I mean, if someone has a bad injury, it can be pretty tough.” 

 As it happened, in the early ‘70s, Eck treated a young woman who had sustained a neck injury, and soon this endearing man became a close friend of the family that included a 16-year-old named Kathleen. 

 “Periodically we’d all ski, play tennis, hike. He’d join us for dinner,” says Kathleen, Eck’s wife of 24 years.  “We lost track of one another for years. I went to law school, moved to DC and practiced law on the East Coast before moving to Denver in ’93.”

The following year, one of Kathleen’s old classmates asked if she wanted to climb Kilimanjaro. Kathleen jumped at the chance. “Of course, I had to get a lot of shots,” recalls Kathleen. “My parents asked if I remembered Jack and I said ‘yes.’ ‘Well, he would know all about those shots, my mother suggested. So I called him and told him what I needed and said that I would thank him by taking him to dinner. It was really very innocent. We ended up having a four-hour dinner. And that was it! I climbed Kilimanjaro and he picked me up at the airport when I got back.” 

Always wanting to expand his knowledge, Eck traveled to New Zealand to study hematology and worked at Christchurch Hospital with friends who had emigrated there after the war and were now leaders in bone marrow transplants. He worked in the hematology department for six months. 

When he returned, Eck began to see more patients who had cancer. “I was now comfortable giving the drugs,” he reveals. “A doctor from Denver came up weekly, to see the patients and put in the protocols. And I would take care of them during the week.”

As it happened, Hal Shaw, a member of the hospital’s board, and his wife, Marylou, wanted to honor their son who had been killed on the old Vail Pass. They wanted to build something. “I told Hal about the increase in cancer that I was noticing,” says Eck, “and asked if we could start some kind of cancer program. He wanted to know how much it would cost. I said I had no idea.

“So every month Hal would fly out here, on his jet, for a board meeting and to meet with me for an exam. And every month we’d go over numbers. This went on for months. And each month the number got bigger, until finally I found out that to include everything we needed and wanted was $18 million.  When I finally told him, I about choked, I couldn’t get it out. So, he and Marylou talked and the next month told me he would do it. I about died! Can you imagine that? He did it! And here I was a young punk doctor.”

Soon people from all over were being treated at the new Shaw Cancer Center. However, there was no place for them to stay — until a group of women who Eck says “made things happen,” decided to “build something.” 

That “something” became Jack’s Place, a cancer caring house named for this beloved doctor. “I had no idea they were going to name it after me,” says Eck demurely.

Now, although retired, Eck still attends weekly cancer committee meetings. He sometimes puts on his uniform and joins ski patrol and helps, if necessary. And now his energy is focused on working to put together a program and building a facility that will be an ICU for mental health. 

“Being here saved my life because, frankly, when I returned from Nam, I wasn’t comfortable with myself,” Eck muses. “But, fortunately, this place was here and I was able to feel productive and learn a lot.

“I was always the one in medicine to whom people would say, ‘Hey, Jack, we need this. We need that.’ And I would think, ‘Hmm, that’s a good idea.’ And I’d start working on it.”

Thank you, Dr. Eck. For everything.