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John Jenks

John Jenks


John Jenks, 86, of La Crosse died peacefully at home Sunday, March 17, 2019, surrounded by his family.

Over the years, John mastered many arts and skills – he was a radio personality, news reporter and director, college professor, marketing consultant, Naval Reserve officer, jazz aficionado, bagpiper, advocate for the disabled, tour leader and world traveler. He also charmed almost everyone he met with his quick wit and dry sense of humor.

John was born May 6, 1932, in La Crosse and attended Washburn Elementary, Lincoln Junior High and Central High School, graduating in 1950. Even though he later roamed the world, he was always most content close to his earliest southside stomping grounds.

His first adventure came in 1951 when he enlisted in the U.S. Air Force. After teaching him Russian, the Air Force sent him to Germany to help keep tabs on the Cold War enemy. During his leaves he explored Europe but returned to La Crosse in 1955 to earn his bachelor’s degree on the GI Bill at what is now the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse (UWL). He studied English and history in the day and worked at the old Allis-Chalmers plant on Second Street on the night shift.

John’s personal fortunes took a permanently good turn in 1958 when he met and began courting Rita Ulbrich, who had moved to La Crosse to study nursing at St. Francis Hospital. They married Nov. 12, 1960, and remained partners and best friends for 58 years.

John’s love of music and language led him to an early career in radio at WLCX, where he worked as a disc jockey, news reporter and director, announcer and all-purpose raconteur for several years before he took the opportunity to earn a doctoral degree in communication at the University of Iowa. His research into what was then the cutting-edge technology of cable television led him briefly to Washington, D.C., where he testified about his findings before the Federal Communication Commission.

After three and one half years in Iowa, he and Rita returned to La Crosse, now with two small children in tow and a third soon to follow, to create the Mass Communication Department at the university. The department quickly grew to more than 300 student majors under his leadership. John brought his passion for radio to the university and led the drive to create radio station WLSU-FM. He also shared his expertise in media and marketing beyond the classroom through regular seminars, workshops and consultancies for businesses, governments and nonprofits around the state.

Throughout those years he continued his service to his country, this time as an officer in the U.S. Naval Reserves, where he served nearly three decades and rose to the rank of lieutenant commander as he used his skills in teaching, media and persuasion to boost Navy recruiting. He brought those skills to bear in the community to help the disabled, serving for many years as a board member of Chileda, an institute for children and young adults with cognitive and behavioral challenges.

By the late 1970s, John was combining his love of music with a rediscovery of his Scottish heritage, by learning to play the bagpipes and helping to create La Crosse’s premier bagpipe band, the La Crosse & District Pipes & Drums, also known as the Floodplain Fencibles. For decades the band has thrilled tens of thousands of people at parades and festivals around the region, and even traveled to Scotland to perform. John and Rita later led many tour groups to Scotland over the years – highlighting bagpiping, nursing, culture and, of course, a wee dram of Scotland’s best-known products at the end of the day.

John brought his passion for Scottish life and culture to the university when he taught in the Scotland study abroad program at Dalkeith Palace, the ancestral home of the Duke of Buccleuch just outside of Edinburgh. He served there for four semesters, two of them after he had retired from active teaching at the university in 1996. The sureness of his feel for Scotland, and his playful sense of humor, came out on a later tour of the country. He was wearing his traditional Scottish kilt outside historic Cawdor Castle when he convinced a group of camera-wielding tourists that he was the castle’s duke, and posed with them for pictures in front of “his” castle.

In 1993 he and Rita ventured into the wild world of post-Communist Europe when they went to Latvia for a year to teach conversational English to university students as part of UWL’s Cooperative Teaching program. They made lifelong friends and forged an enduring connection between La Crosse and Latvia. John’s interest in Eastern Europe continued after his retirement as he journeyed to Poland and Ukraine as a marketing consultant to help with newly competitive businesses and schools there.

But travel was not just for work. As their three children began hop-scotching the world for their own jobs, John and Rita traveled to Europe, Asia and Africa to see the sites, and their growing crew of grandchildren. They also sampled plenty of exotic locales on their own, from Victoria Falls on Africa’s Zambezi River to misty Chiang Mai in the highlands of northern Thailand. More recently they made an annual trek with a group of area friends to the sunny beaches of Zihuatanejo, Mexico, each snowy February.

Closer to home they shared for years their deep knowledge and love of the Upper Mississippi, its people and culture by leading week-long Elderhostel tours up and down the river on the Julia Belle Swain steamboat. They learned as much as they taught as they recruited musicians, story-tellers, naturalists and other experts for the tours.

John is survived by his wife of 58 years, Rita; sons, John Jr. (Jennifer) and Jeff (Dawn Broussard), of Oak Park, Ill.; daughter, Julie of Decatur, Ga.; grandchildren, Leah, Daniel, Luke, Jake, Tafesse and Meron.

In lieu of flowers, memorials in John’s name can be given to the UWL Foundation or the Gundersen Medical Foundation. Online condolences may be made at the Coulee Cremation Society at

There will be a celebration of life for John Jenks announced at a later date.

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