By CHUCKIE MAGGIO
Jack Garner once watched a New York Knicks playoff game at the George Eastman House with Spike Lee, drank a Bloody Mary concocted by Bill Murray and referred to Robert De Niro as “my friend Bob.” For 30 years, from Star Wars: A New Hope to No Country for Old Men, the 43-year Rochester resident was, in his words, “paid to watch movies.” It was a dream job, for which he was revered.
Before emerging as one of the nation’s cinematic authorities for Gannett Newspapers, however, the 6-foot-9 Garner dominated in net for First Robinson Hall’s intramural water polo team at St. Bonaventure University. He was active in student media, serving as the station manager for student radio station WOFM and holding associate editor duties for The Bona Venture student newspaper.
Garner, who died peacefully at his home Sunday at the age of 75, also loved St. Bonaventure basketball as fiercely as Spike loves his Knicks.
“In the dark of winter in Olean, N.Y., basketball can save your life,” Garner told the Bona Venture at the 1995 gala dinner held at the Olean Armory to celebrate the 75th anniversary of Bonnies basketball. “To see Tommy Stith sink a hook shot last night (at the alumni game), I do not care if he has gray hair, is balding and is having trouble getting up and down the court. It brought back all the years when the hook shot went in.”
A South Williamsport, Pa. native, Garner was employed to commentate high school football games at 16 and believed he was going to pursue a career as a sports broadcaster. His path changed when he entered St. Bonaventure’s journalism program and developed a passion for writing.
Garner gained the valuable mentorship of Dr. Russell Jandoli, the founder of SBU’s journalism program, in his undergraduate career. In a 2017 interview with WXXI President Norm Silverstein, Garner recalled the uneasy feeling of receiving a graded paper from Jandoli and finding it covered in red ink. Regardless of how many comments were made, there was always an “A” on the top of the paper.
“He wanted to be sure to teach you,” Garner reminisced. “He would teach. And still, some of his sayings pop into my head every day. He used to say all the time, ‘Forward ever, backward never.’ I could have that on my tombstone; he said it so much and I loved it.
“I liked the ability to write and I love writing in all its forms… I do enjoy radio and I have a bit of a voice for it, I’ve been told, but writing is my mainstay.”
Garner, whose mother was an Olean native, was the ninth member of his family to attend Bonaventure. He chronicled Bona stars like George Carter, Bill Butler and Jim Satalin, first covering his classmates on the freshman team and summarizing intramural contests before quickly progressing to varsity team reporting and entertainment columns.
Voted Bonaventure’s favorite disc jockey his sophomore year, Garner was popular among classmates and colleagues alike. While he ingratiated himself with the Bona community, he fell in love with Upstate New York. He attended Syracuse University for graduate school and, after a year working in Pittsburgh, moved to Rochester after being hired at the Democrat and Chronicle.
Garner had visited Rochester once before in college, to see Ray Charles (“my No. 1 music guy”) in concert at the Auditorium Theatre. He grew to enjoy the city, even declining a relocation to New York City in favor of staying put. Most national film critics were based in New York, Los Angeles or Chicago; Garner succeeded in the job without the convenience of living in a major market.
Upon his semi-retirement in 2007, Garner became the second person to receive the George Eastman Medal of Honor, joining U.S. Representative Louise Slaughter. Garner credited the George Eastman House for many of the opportunities he had to meet the greats of the film industry, including Jimmy Stewart and Lillian Gish.
“That’s arguably the proudest moment of my life aside from the birth of children and grandchildren and the wonderful woman who agreed to marry me,” Garner remarked. “Getting that award was an extreme honor… I’ll never forget all my friends showing up and paying homage, in a way, to me, I guess, and to the Eastman Museum, which is wonderful.”
The most acclaimed films from Upstate New York’s most acclaimed critic? Citizen Kane (“Orson Welles used all the amazing technology that could possibly be used… and the genius of the film is that he didn’t know what he was doing”), Casablanca (“Ingrid Bergman, you know where she was when she got called to do Casablanca? Rochester, N.Y.”), On The Waterfront (“To this day, no performance in the history of film has been as powerful as Brando in that film”) and Lawrence of Arabia (“The great thinking person’s epic”).
Criticizing flops came with the territory, of course, but Garner mentioned influencing people to see great films as the best part of being a national movie critic. “To this day,” he told Silverstein, “I will occasionally run into somebody who says, ‘Thanks to you, I got to see…’”
Little did they know, Jandoli’s red ink led a trail to the theater.