Giants in the world of sports all reach their end somehow. Sometimes a knee gives way or they take too many concussions or teams simply lose interest. But for Spokane badminton great John “Jack” Harvey, who turns 90 today, he simply outlived the competition.
Harvey has been humbling opponents with a racket and a shuttlecock (sometimes called a birdie) since he was 15. He just recently won the last two of 179 gold medals in local, national and international play at the National Senior Games in Cleveland.
“I started out in Cleveland when I was 17 in 1941,” Harvey said. “So, I thought I’d end my career in Cleveland. They put me in the 90-year-old bracket. I won two medals by default because they had nobody else. I decided that was the end of the rope.”
What a rope, indeed.
Only two things stopped Harvey from playing the sport he loved and dominated: World War II and quadruple heart bypass surgery eight years ago.
Growing up in Spokane “there wasn’t any winter sports other than a rope-tow at Mount Spokane,” he said. “I started in a junior badminton program at the armory.”
Harvey also played tennis at Lewis and Clark High School, but his first love was badminton. His first victory was the 1940 Spokane Junior Singles title.
“I just became good at it,” he said. “In two years, I won the all-city title.”
He won that title in 1941 and 1942 but he then enlisted in the U.S. Navy and served from 1943-1946 in communications, mostly on a light cruiser in the Atlantic Fleet.
Harvey served on the USS Juneau II, which replaced the USS Juneau. That ship was made famous by its sinking in November 1942 during the Pacific battle of Guadalcanal. Among the 687 sailors killed that day were five brothers from the same Sullivan family.
The Juneau II made little if any history during the war. Said Harvey of his naval service: “The war was already over when we went out to sea.”
But part of his training included a stint at Naval Station Great Lakes, located near the Illinois-Wisconsin state line, where officers would sometimes hear about Harvey’s exploits with a racket.
“Officers would challenge me. They thought it was a backyard game,” Harvey said with a wry smile. “They would find out that wasn’t true. I get that all the time.”
He earned his degree in mechanical engineering from the University of Washington and in 1948 founded the John L. Harvey Co., a heating and air conditioning company. He retired when he sold that business in 1988 to his son, John, after 40 years working on the east side of Spokane’s downtown.
But it was the end of his naval service, when Harvey came home to the Lilac City, when he began what would become decades of domination.
“I lost the men’s singles title in 1947,” he said. “I then won in 1948. Well, I won 17 years straight up to 1965.”
Harvey traveled all over the world to play. He’s won matches in New Zealand, Canada and Australia. In 1954, he was ranked 10th in the country in national men’s doubles.
“I won other tournaments all over the place. I didn’t keep records. I didn’t think they would have any meaning,” he said. “I really got serious in 1982.”
That year, at the age of 59, Harvey started playing in more masters and seniors-level championships.
“I started to win them,” he said. “My first gold medal came down in Atlanta.”
Harvey won gold medals in the National Senior games, (a.k.a. U.S. Senior Olympics), Canadian Masters Badminton Championship, World Senior Masters and Huntsman World Senior Games and others. He lists the 179 golds to his name in a trophy room that takes up an entire wall in his basement.
“You never get sick and tired of winning,” he said. “No one in Spokane will ever touch that. I don’t care what sport it is.”
In 2001, Harvey helped bring the National Senior Masters Badminton Championship to Whitworth University. It was the first national badminton tournament in Spokane since 1957.
Harvey, who is a member of the Scroll of Honor of the Inland Northwest Sports Hall of Fame, has been living alone since his second wife, Marion, died in 2010 at the age of 80.
“It’s no fun living alone,” the father of four said, looking down. “I’m the world’s worst cook. I eat out a lot.”
But his family is not letting Harvey’s 90th birthday go without a bang. They are planning a three-hour tribute to the badminton giant Saturday at the Rockwood Community Center.
“I’ve been very fortunate,” he said.
His daughter, Melissa Danelo, said the family marvels about Harvey’s achievements.
“We think he is amazing,” she said. “At 90, he’s hard to keep up with because he is so enthusiastic about the sport. He is a great role model for the family as an athlete and as a person, as well.”