Jack Wetzel: Philanthropist leads ordinary life with interesting history

May 5, 2019

Jack Wetzel would like to be remembered as just an ordinary guy, who did whatever he could to help his neighbors and mankind.

“I like to be behind the scenes,” he said during a recent interview. “Life has been kind to me. I don’t need to broadcast it or show off.”

Many people in the Aiken area don’t know much about Wetzel, so the desire for his legacy to be largely unpublicized is pretty much guaranteed.

For the most part, only his close friends are aware that Wetzel’s personal history is filled with interesting experiences, accomplishments and charitable contributions.

It also includes a connection to royalty.

If you sit down and talk to Wetzel, he might – or might not – tell you that he enjoyed international success in carriage driving competitions, was a top male model for 20 years and has dined with Queen Elizabeth II.

“She is the nicest person and a hard worker, too,” Wetzel said.

In the horse community locally, he is a quiet, but influential individual.

Wetzel serves as the president of the Aiken Horse Park Foundation, which he helped his lifetime partner, the late Bruce Duchossois, found and finance.

In addition, Wetzel is a member of the Aiken Training Track’s board of directors and a founder of the Whitney Barns Group, which is restoring and preserving several historic wood structures near the Training Track.

Wetzel also is a major donor to the Great Oak Aiken Therapeutic Riding Center. He paid for the construction of an indoor arena, which is named in Duchossois’ honor, and an outdoor arena, named for another deceased Aiken horseman, Stephen Groat.

For 12 years, Wetzel was the president of the Green Boundary Club, a social and fine dining organization on Whiskey Road.

Philanthropy is a priority because “my family and Bruce’s family taught me that when you’ve been given so much, you give back in kind,” said Wetzel, who has supported a variety of museums and causes here and elsewhere over the years.

When he’s gone, the bulk of Wetzel’s estate will be divided among nonprofit groups.

But to Betty Ryberg, who has been Wetzel’s friend for more than 30 years, it’s the efforts by him to assist those in need one-on-one that stand out the most.

“I think he’s incredible with his big outlook, but one of his biggest gifts is his ability to listen to other people,” she said. “He remembers their stories, and then later he seeks them out to fulfill anything he thinks he can do. He is so much more generous in his spirit than he lets people realize.”

One of the recipients of Wetzel’s largesse was the late James Pockets Carter, who owned and operated the Track Kitchen with his wife, Carol.

“Jack was very heartfelt about him,” Ryberg said. “I received a letter years ago from Pockets, and he described Jack as a gentleman. He would come in and give the respect to Pockets that he felt Pockets deserved, and he helped him.”

Wetzel was born in the 1930s in the village of Tennessee in western Illinois. He was the 10th of his family’s 14 children – seven boys and seven girls. His father was a farmer, who grew corn, soybeans, wheat and other crops.

“My father was really strict about cleanliness and manners, but he could be a good pal,” Wetzel said. “One of the things he didn’t want any of his children to be was a loudmouth, and that worked for me.

“My mother was raised on a ranch in Idaho with nine brothers,” he continued, “so she could always help us boys deal with our dad. She always said, ‘Boys, listen to your father. He’s right.’ ”

Wetzel and his siblings had fun riding a mare that his father owned and used to plow gardens.

“My mother taught me how to drive carriages, and she gave me my grandfather’s carriage. He was a doctor,” Wetzel said. “Then I graduated to a team of horses and started showing. I was a natural. I had very good hands. My horses trusted me, and I trusted them. I could go ride in traffic and it never bothered them. A train would go by, and it didn’t bother them.”

Driving was a passion for Wetzel, and he continued to pursue the activity as an adult, scoring victories nationally and in other countries.

Wetzel was especially skilled at four-in-hand driving, which involved guiding a quartet of horses. But it was a chestnut pony named Harry that got Wetzel noticed by Queen Elizabeth II.

“She had heard about Harry because I had won three national championships with him,” Wetzel said. “I received an invitation from her in 2004 to come to the Royal Windsor Horse Show. I couldn’t go, so I asked her if I could take a rain check.

Wetzel and Harry traveled to England in 2005 and again in 2006, and they were victorious both years in the dressage competition.

In addition, Wetzel got to have lunch with the Queen, and he helped her present ribbons to the members of the Household Cavalry Regiment.

“We became good friends, and I felt very privileged,” Wetzel said. “If it hadn’t been for my pony, I wouldn’t have gotten to know her. We still keep in touch.”

Wetzel began his modeling career at the age of 34, after a stint in the U.S. Army and two years of studying geology at night at Baylor University while he was stationed at Fort Hood in Texas.

At the time, Wetzel was farming 80 acres that adjoined his family’s farm.

He and one of his sisters were returning home from a trip to Chicago on a train.

“When we boarded, a guy who was all dressed up, stopped me before I could sit down and asked me, “Are you working in Chicago now?’ ” Wetzel remembered. “I said, ‘No,’ and he said, ‘Oh, I thought you were here from New York.’ I said, ‘No.’ Then I took my seat, and before we got off the train, he gave me his card and said, ‘When you come back into town, let me test you as a model because I’m doing a new print ad for suits.’ ”

That encounter led to a lucrative career that lasted for two decades in print and television. It also gave him the opportunity to travel the world.

Wetzel appeared in ads for John Deere tractors, hamburgers, bicycles, clothing and other products.

For several years, he was a Marlboro Man, smoking cigarettes while dressed as a rugged cowboy.

“There were a lot of Marlboro men,” Wetzel said. “By the time I started, cigarette advertising had been banned on television. I wasn’t in any commercials, but I did do some newspaper ads. We would shoot all over. Someone would put a cigarette in your mouth and light it, and then you would ride off. We had quarter horses, and they were hot-blooded. Luckily, I was a good rider, so I didn’t have any problems.”

Modeling provided Wetzel with a big retirement nest egg.

“They paid me too much,” he said. “I was making $150 an hour, $1,000 a day, when I quit. I was one person that had much more than I needed.”

Through his involvement with a therapeutic riding program in Illinois, Wetzel met Duchossois, an accomplished equestrian and a son of the wealthy businessman, thoroughbred owner and breeder, and racetrack owner Richard L. Duchossois.

“I needed horsemen on the board, and someone told me, ‘Try Bruce Duchossois,’ ” Wetzel said. “I had heard of him, and I knew his father. We went out for drinks, and Bruce joined the board. We started seeing each other a little bit, but I was not interested in anybody and he was.”

The relationship changed when they went to out West with some horses that Duchossois’ father wanted to sell at an auction.

“We rented some riding horses, rode up in the mountains and talked about things,” Wetzel said. “That’s when we decided that we were more than friends.”

In the mid-1980s, Duchossois and Wetzel began coming to Aiken for the winter training season with young thoroughbreds they owned as well as some owned by Duchossois’ father.

“We stayed at the The Willcox for four winters,” Wetzel said.

Then they acquired a home they had long admired on Powderhouse Road when it came up for sale.

Wetzel and Duchossois furnished it with antiques and filled it with bronze sculptures and other art.

Wetzel still resides there today, with four Norwich terriers and another small dog, Chummy, that Duchossois rescued from a farm in Florida where pit bulls were trained to fight.

“There are flying squirrels in the my attic, and they come down sometimes through the chimneys, run around and then go back up and go to sleep,” Wetzel said.

In 2000, Duchossois and Wetzel purchased more than 60 acres of land on the corner of Powderhouse and Audubon Drive that became Bruce’s Field.

Their immediate goal was to save the property from residential development. They also wanted to preserve the course where the Aiken Spring and Fall steeplechases were held.

In addition, “there also was a little bit of self-interest involved,” Wetzel said. “I knew that if 400 homes were built there, I would never be able to get out of driveway of our home.”

In addition, Duchossois and Wetzel had a plan to develop a state-of-the-art show horse facility that also would have an old-fashioned feel to it.

“Thats all we talked about at breakfast, lunch and supper,” Wetzel said.

Duchossois, his father and Wetzel all chipped in money for the multimillion-dollar project.

“We didn’t have to borrow anything or worry about paying any bills,” Wetzel said. “We didn’t have to listen to anyone else, and we could hire the best architects and engineers.”

Because he was battling esophageal cancer, Duchossois knew he might not live to see the dream realized. He created the Aiken Horse Park Foundation to nurture the building process and also to ensure that the facility, once completed, would be maintained for benefit of future generations of equestrians.

Duchossois, who was a member of the National Show Hunter Hall of Fame, died in July 2014.

He wasn’t around to oversee the construction of the barns, show rings with artificial surfaces and an office with a boardroom upstairs.

But Wetzel believes Duchossois would have been pleased with the results.

“His vision was to have a small, wonderful showground in this sweet little town,” Wetzel said. “He wanted people to be finished competing by late in the afternoon, so they could go have dinner and enjoy downtown Aiken. That happened and it wasn’t long before the top riders in the country were coming here.”

The Aiken Charity Horse Shows are being held now at Bruce’s Field and are in their fourth year.

This past March, the inaugural LiftMaster Grand-Prix Eventing showcase, which had a $50,000 purse, attracted many riders with Olympic experience and thousands of spectators.

Other events on Bruce’s Field’s 2019 calendar include the Special Olympics State Equestrian Show on May 18 and 19.

In the future, Wetzel would like to acquire more property nearby and have a covered arena built.

If land is ever added, Wetzel has heard suggestions that it could be named Jack’s Field.

“No, absolutely not,” was his response.

“Jack is a wonderfully generous and kind man, who is dedicated to Aiken,” said Horse Park Foundation Vice President and Treasurer Tara Bostwick. “He likes to stay in the background, but that doesn’t take anything away from his generosity and his hard work.”