Long before the 2015 escape of Richard Matt and David Sweat, the word Dannemora instantly conjured images of the prison. While the high wall dominates the landscape, the village does have other historical connections, some of them in the world of sports, including one through the person of John “Jack” Lagree. Jack was a native of Churubusco, a tiny hamlet in northwestern Clinton County.
Blessed with engineering talent, mechanical skill, and a strong, traditional, North Country work ethic, he rose to national prominence in the world of bobsleigh competition (referred to hereafter by the more popular term, bobsled).
A graduate of Chateaugay Central School in northeastern Franklin County (Busco had a grade school but no high school), Jack worked at Dannemora State Hospital (part of Clinton Prison) for twenty-eight years, and operated Lagree’s Body Shop in Dannemora for thirty years. Taking an interest in bobsleds, he joined the American Bobsled Federation in 1965, and as an active member, Jack did most of his work behind the scenes, regarding it as a hobby. For the most part, he was only known locally, but became widely respected within the bobsledding community for his excellent work and creative talents.
Jack’s sudden emergence to national notoriety came in 1980, at a time when it seemed most unlikely. More and more, bobsled teams around the world were receiving sponsorship from governments and large corporations, decreasing the likelihood that an individual could impact the sport. But Jack Lagree managed to turn that idea on its head.
With the US Olympic trials looming, he spent untold hours converting an old sled into a competitive machine, fine-tuning it for the impressive team of Bob Hickey, Willie Davenport, Jeff Jordan, and Jeff Gadley. The results were noted by Tom Woodman of Plattsburgh’s Press-Republican:
One of Lagree’s innovations was an aerodynamic aluminum cowling that surrounds all four men on the sled. Soon after that appeared on the hill, most of the other competitors began sporting similar models.
It didn’t seem to matter that others mimicked Jack’s design. During a long, intense competition, Hickey drove the Lagree sled into the number one position on the US Olympic Bobsled Team.
The victory was historic for a number of reasons. Locally, it marked the town of Dannemora’s second foray into the world of bobsledding, following in the footsteps of the great Lyon Mountain teams of the 1930s and 1940s, led by the Linney brothers, Bob and Bill.
Of national significance as well was the makeup of the Lagree sled team. Willie Davenport and Jeff Gadley were the first black Americans to participate in the Winter Olympics. It was Davenport’s fifth time as an Olympian, having competed in the previous four Summer Olympics, earning a gold medal in Mexico (1968) and a bronze in Montreal (1976), both in the 110-meter hurdles. Gadley was a student at SUNY Plattsburgh and the reigning Empire State Decathlon Champion.
Jack’s role in the victory was undeniable, and he was thrilled, but didn’t thrust himself into the limelight, as reported by Woodman:
As the US Olympic four-man bobsled team was named at Mt. Van Hoevenberg Tuesday, standing aside from the media crush was a rotund gentleman from tiny Dannemora who had just proved that backyard dedication and old-fashioned elbow grease can still lead to an Olympics.
Lagree permitted himself a bit of satisfaction with the performance of his sled and his brood of champion bobsledders. “I figure that I accomplished something to do this — to build the fastest sled in the United States ever.”
But, unaccustomed to all the attention, the Dannemora garage owner was quick to give the credit to others. “I’ll go with Bobby (Hickey). He’s the best driver in the world. He’s a cool boy. I can tell by looking at the sled, where it’s scraped, that he’s the best.” He also made sure to mention that the members of the team all wielded rivet guns and worked together to build the sled. “They’re not only champions, they’re gentlemen.” To which his wife added, “They eat a lot, though. Jeff Jordan and Jeff Gadley drink more orange juice then anybody I’ve ever seen.”
Earning the right to represent the United States was a great accomplishment, but many European countries were well beyond America’s level of competition. At Lake Placid in 1980, the Hickey team finished twelfth of seventeen competitors, placement that was considered a good step forward for the national program.
Jack continued to work at his “hobby,” bringing further improvement to the performances of several of the country’s best drivers. Forming Lagree’s Bobsled Club, he prepared two sleds to compete in the 1982 North Country Championships.
A team of New Yorkers manned one of Jack’s sleds — driver Bob Hickey (Keene), Ed Card (Claverack), Rich Bisso (Plattsburgh), and Bob Brehl (Saranac Lake). The other sled featured one local man, Bob Nicholson of Keene Valley, accompanied by Gene Janecko (San Diego), Wendell “Bud” Bacon (Clifton Park, New York) and Dick Tracy (Houston).
The meet enjoyed excellent conditions on the first day of competition, with the temperature at twelve degrees, but day two was brutal. The mercury plunged to minus seventeen degrees, requiring competitors to sport protective grease on their faces or don facemasks to help withstand the windchill as they sped down the run.
The weather may have been cold, but Lagree’s sleds were sizzling. In a tremendous showing, Jack’s teams finished one-two in the competition, with Hickey’s team taking top honors, breaking the American record that Hickey had set two weeks earlier.
Next: Jack goes international.
A version of this story first appeared on the Adirondack Almanack.
Photo: young Jack Lagree in his pre-bobsled days.