Jack “Cactus” Wells (1911-1999)

Jack Wells

Year Born: 1911

Year Died: 1999

Year of Induction: 1988

Pioneer – Member of CAB Hall of Fame

Wells, Jack “Cactus” (1911-1999)

“Aside from Marquis wheat and a couple of railroads, nothing rolls as familiarly across the prairies as the voice of Jack Wells, an uninhibited sports announcer whose rare combination of garbled syntax, colossal irreverence, haphazard pronunciation and great personal warmth has made him an institution in the west and a unique figure in the whole country”. – so wrote Trent Frayne for Maclean’s Magazine, August 15, 1959.

Born in Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan, on May 13, 1911, John Hampson Wells fashioned a career in the broadcasting and sporting world that stands second to none. Like many others from the prairies who achieved success and national recognition, Jack was a product of the “dirty thirties”, the son of a contractor whose business failed during the depression – a boy who left school in grade eight to help his family eke out a living as an apprentice plumber at night and as a bicycling telegram delivery messenger by day. He gave up on a plumbing career when a clerk’s job opened up at the CPR telegraph office and he was transferred to Saskatoon where fate awaited to facilitate his entry into broadcasting.

While listening to a hockey broadcast on CFQC, Jack boasted he could do a better job than the guy on the mike. Dared by a chum to prove his claim, Jack applied for a job at the station, and was hired. The year was 1936. His guide and mentor in this new world was Sy Cairns.

In 1939, he joined the staff of CJAT Trail as an all-round announcer, operating and writing copy, and broadcasting a season of games involving the Trail Smoke Eaters. Then, it was back to Saskatoon and the first of two rejected attempts to enlist in the Canadian Army.

In 1941, he got a job as a sports announcer at CJRC (later CKRC) Winnipeg and a role in Wrigley’s Treasure Trail western network program. CJRC provided his springboard into football broadcasting, and he began travelling with the Blue Bombers to relay the play-by-play back to the fans in Winnipeg. The operator of the Amphitheatre Rink and Osborne stadium gave Jack the exclusive rights to broadcast from the two auditoriums which, in turn gave him the right to sell time to any one of the Winnipeg stations. Jack left CKRC and went free-lance.

In 1954, CKY offered him a contract for exclusive broadcasts, and this deal, together with his television work, newspaper columns and personal public appearances, made him the highest-paid sports announcer in the west.

It was during an announcing stint on CKY that Jack acquired his nickname. A fellow-staffer, “Porky” Charbonneau, who did a western show on the station, went on vacation, and Jack filled-in for him. It occured to Jack that he, too, should have a moniker and adopted “Cactus” and it became one of the most famous in Canadian broadcasting. It was only fitting that Jack have a nickname. He’d been adding descriptors to others along the way.

In his colourful career, Jack Wells broadcast at one time or another on four Winnipeg stations – CKRC, CKY, CJOB and CFRW. In the early 50s, he became the first television voice of Western Conference Football for the CBC. In 1959, he took his unique play-by-play style to CJAY-TV – the CTV affiliate in Winnipeg.

In 1991, Jack was honoured by the Blue Bombers for his 50 years on the football beat in Winnipeg. In semi-retirement, he continued to make an appearance on all Blue Bomber home games and to select Cactus Jack’s “Happy Honker” Player of the Game Award.

In 1988, Cactus Jack Wells was inducted into the CAB Broadcast Hall of Fame.

On May 26, 1999, in Winnipeg, Jack Wells died following surgery.

Written by J. Lyman Potts – July, 1999