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Watkins, Jack

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Jack Watkins, a longtime resident of Sonora, California, died at home on November 23, 2023, at the age of 84. He was surrounded by family gathered for Thanksgiving, his favorite holiday.

Jack lived in Sonora for over 50 years, during which he built a business, raised a family, hosted friends from near and far, and stewarded the land where he and Kristine, his wife of 57 years, made their home. His early years involved more far-flung places and pursuits: growing up in Minnesota, camping and canoeing in Canada and Scandinavia, attending high school on the East Coast and college on the West, and serving as an officer in the U.S. Navy in Cuba, Spain, and Thailand. From his earliest years, Jack loved learning and sought out experiences that would offer him the chance to see the world and understand its workings.

Jack was born in Duluth, Minnesota, in 1939, to Stanley and Gertrude Watkins, a civil engineer and a schoolteacher. He was the oldest of three children, and although he left home early to attend boarding school in New England, he took his parents’ influence with him. Each year, the Minneapolis Star Tribune offered scholarships to two young newspaper carriers to attend Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire. Jack was offered this award in 1953 and headed off by train at the age of 14. At Exeter, he distinguished himself as a champion wrestler and a gifted mathematician and found friends who shared his love of outdoor adventure. One summer, Jack and four friends organized a canoe trip through Norway, an adventure compelling enough to attract the interest of the editors of National Geographic magazine, who proposed sending a photographer along. The young men declined but accepted the magazine’s offer of a camera and film to document their expedition. The results were never published; they are archived in a basement in Sonora.

Jack was set on attending nearby Dartmouth College after graduating from Exeter but changed course after meeting a recruiter from Stanford University, and instead accepted an NROTC scholarship to attend college in California, sight unseen. At Stanford, Jack received a degree in civil engineering and joined the Delta Tau Delta fraternity, a source of many lifelong friendships, most notably Robert Heigold, whose sister Kristine would become Jack’s wife.

After college Jack traveled around the globe as an officer in the Seabees, the Construction Battalions of the U.S. Navy. He often said that while Exeter and Stanford were both excellent schools, the best education he received was in the navy. He oversaw operations as a commanding officer in the Naval Mobile Construction Battalions in Rota, Spain, and Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, supervising a company of 120 men as they built a variety of projects: brick and concrete administration buildings, a timber pier, a street lighting system, a water main, and a large structural steel radar tower. From 1964 to 1966, Jack served as Officer in Charge of Construction in Bangkok, Thailand, where he supervised the construction of a highway that extended over 196 miles and included 114 bridges ranging from 40 to 460 feet long.

After completing his naval service in 1966, Jack returned to California, married Kristine Heigold, and started a family. He and Kristine would have three children: Heather (born 1969), John (born 1971), and Stanley (born 1975).

Jack’s experience in the navy earned him job offers in the U.S. and abroad. He took a position as a project engineer with the international construction company Peter Kiewit Sons’ Co., overseeing a highway project that ran through Sacramento’s Old Town. In 1969, a job managing the construction of Highway 120/49 between Moccasin and Chinese Camp brought Jack to Sonora. He and Kristine liked the community and decided to settle there. Jack soon joined George Reed Construction, and oversaw various projects in and around Sonora, including the construction of the Don Pedro Campgrounds.

In 1972, Jack bought Twain Harte Plumbing & Heating Co. from Harry Roberson. He later renamed the company Twain Harte Construction after growing tired of fielding house plumbing calls. Jack owned and managed Twain Harte Construction for more than 40 years, building water and sewer pipelines and facilities throughout the Sierras for both public utilities and private developers. The company was known for quality and cost-effectiveness, as well as creative problem-solving. For one project, Jack used dray horses to move materials over difficult terrain, drawing on his earlier experience working with the navy in Thailand, where local contractors sometimes used elephants for similar purposes.

The Watkins home in Sonora is a touchstone for Jack’s family—a gathering place, a haven for wildlife, and the site of Jack’s experiments in building and growing things. After he and Kristine purchased the property in 1982, one of the first projects was to build a bridge for driveway access that featured stonework and a decommissioned flatbed railcar; he named it the Stan S. Watkins Memorial Bridge in honor of his father. Jack planted hundreds of trees on the land, tracking their locations and growth over time on hand-drawn maps. Friends knew to call him with unusual opportunities, especially anything that involved planting or cultivation. An offer of olive trees from an overplanted grove in the Central Valley gave him the chance to test their viability in the foothills. A mission to collect rootstalk and scions from a heritage apple orchard in the southern Sierras led him to years of hands-on research in the art of tree grafting. When a large ponderosa pine on the property fell, Jack carved two totem poles that featured local animal species, including an owl and a mosquito.

Jack was an early adopter of the fax machine and had a car phone in the early 1990s, but he resisted later advances in telecommunications, including cell phones, email, and even computers. He was eloquent, with a distinctive wit and cadence to his speech that some of his nephews could imitate perfectly. Jack’s home workshop, furnished with a beautifully handcrafted bar he built on-site, was the setting for memorable feats of storytelling. He enjoyed reciting favorite poems from Kipling, kept a handful of jokes in constant circulation, and relished any chance to pull your leg. Jack loved pranks and adventure, skiing and fishing, reading and jigsaw puzzles, a cold beer and a Dutch Masters cigar. He often supported members of his community and others in need in unseen ways; his many acts of kindness and generosity were kept typically private, as he tended to eschew recognition.

He was a devoted, caring husband, father, grandfather, and friend, and will be missed by all who were lucky to know him. The family is grateful to the many caregivers, doctors, and dear friends who supported Jack through the end of his life, especially Dr. Todd Stolp and Jerry Fuccillo.

Survivors include his wife, Kristine Watkins; children Heather Watkins (Mark Annen), John Watkins (Vanessa Clark), and Stan Watkins; grandchildren Lillian Watkins, Hailey Watkins, and Jake Annen; and sisters Sue Lowenberg and Christine Watkins.

 

  • Date of Death: 11/23/2023
  • Age: 84
  • Residence: Sonora, CA
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