I was heartbroken to learn that Jay Emmett died on Monday night. In that instant, the whole world got a lot less funny and we lost a great and loyal and loving friend. In days past, he would laugh when I'd discuss an event a few years out. "I'll be having a dirt nap by then," he'd say. We'd roar, but not anymore. A light has gone out in our lives forever.
Jay led a full, action-packed life for 86 years, laughed as much as anyone I've ever met, and never missed a party worth attending. Usually, we face the passing of a man like Jay with appreciation and resignation. "He had a full life," are the words that usually capture the death of a man at his age.
But when I heard the news about Jay, I just cried.
I'm not sure why. Jay's death wasn't a shock -- he was ill and struggling. He'd lost his beloved son Paul and his wife Martha just a few months before. In some ways, Paul's death in particular had robbed Jay of the fuel of his life -- the love he had for Paul was boundless, affectionate, proud, happy. All of us who knew Jay noticed that his voice was weaker, that he was struggling to connect. The Jay who always carried us was now needing us. His exuberance was muffled. I shouldn't have been surprised that his heart would give out. He was heartbroken. He was slipping.
But instead of feeling resigned to his passing, I felt robbed of a source of affirmation and happiness I can never describe. And I'm not alone. Many of us who counted Jay as the best friend we'll ever have spoke in the hours after the news, and we all cried. I haven't cried with that many grown men and women in my whole life! While I'm sure he was laughing hysterically watching us, I think we were all in the same condition -- wondering whether we would ever again have as much fun as we'd had with Jay. We cried because he gave us the priceless gift of feeling happy. We were all a mess, because we were afraid that we would never have that kind of fun again.
Of course, Jay Emmett was more than his own self-description: "I am the funniest man alive!" He was a hardscrabble, bootstraps kid who made it in the toughest business in the world. He was handsome, smart, mischievous, and proud. He was an innovative pioneer in the worlds of entertainment, licensing, promotion, and media. He made T-shirts and movies, sports franchises and movie stars, klieg-light parties and jet-set events. He dominated Mickey Mantle's in New York, The Palm in Washington, and helicopter-landing pads in Beverly Hills and Hyannis Port. He laughed at everything and everyone -- many times well past the point of decency and respectability. He was irreverent in a sensitive time; brash in a time of circumspection. He often crossed the line because he didn't even know there was a line to cross. Some were shocked by him; others recoiled. But everyone laughed and laughed and laughed.
We can never replace Jay Emmett. His devotion to the Special Olympics movement was as big as anyone's in our history: he gave to Special Olympics when he was in business, he led our communications team during a period of enormous growth in our brand and public awareness, he welcomed board members, staff members, athletes and friends to every event with his irreplaceable confidence and joy and affirmation. He labored over our budget as a member of the Audit and Finance Committee but he labored just as much over the needs of the members of the staff. He travelled on behalf of our movement to Ireland and Belgium, Mexico and Greece, China and Japan. More than anyone, he used his marketing genius to elevate the Special Olympics message using sports and entertainment celebrities everywhere. He brought stars like Pele (pictured above) and Christopher Reeve to the Special Olympics and attracted millions of followers to our cause around the world. He was irresistible.
And he was always funny. He worked his way through crowds by talking into his cufflinks pretending to be a member of the United States Secret Service, and everyone believed him. He braved stress by inviting everyone to dinner. He inspired the mighty with his business card sporting his phone number alongside the Queen of England's and the Pope's. He flirted with everyone and aspired to end his life as the victim of a raging jealous man. He rarely missed the chance to tell each of us that we were "terrific."
He never forgot our roots or his great loyalty to my parents, from whom he received the trust to support the athletes of Special Olympics all over the world. And he laughed over and over again.
In the end, I cried when Jay Emmett died because he made me and countless others happy in pursuit of our dreams. What could possibly matter more?
God only knows where the angels are carrying him, but I'm sure they're laughing throughout the ride.
Jay Emmett, have a great nap. But don't rest for long: there are countless happy souls in heaven waiting for you so that the party can begin.