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Team Captain

Team Captain
Photo by TJ Turner/Sidecar

When Leslie Jablonski’s son, Jack, suffered a spinal-cord injury in a hockey game in December 2011, the Jersey-born public-relations maven suddenly found herself in a situation where no amount of spin could sugarcoat the news. So she put on a brave face and applied herself fulltime to a new assignment: making sure her son—and her family—had the emotional, financial, and spiritual support to move forward.
 


On a recent afternoon, Leslie Lynch Jablonski paced the immaculate kitchen in her Minneapolis home, sighed, and repeated her request to the Duluth-based medical-supply firm. She had called three medical-supply companies so her injured son, Jack, could stay in Duluth with the Benilde-St. Margaret hockey team. Last season, he played varsity; this season, he helps coach.

Finally, after three hours of pressing menu buttons, holding, and reiterating her needs to a series of intractable team members, she gave up. Absently tugging the Tiffany heart toggled at her neck, she agreed to rent the equipment for the obligatory month (when all she needed was one day). She hung up and moved on.

The only constant in Leslie’s days is such negotiation, most of which is just as frustrating. But they’re managed in stride by this sleep-deprived, immaculately dressed, artfully accessorized woman.

Like many mothers, Leslie traditionally juggled her career with schedules and logistics for her family of four. But ever since Jack was checked into the boards and severed his spinal cord in a hockey game on December 30, 2011, she put her public-relations business on hold. The details are ever complicated. Mobility is always an issue.

The latest? Acclimating her younger son, Max, 14—who broke his leg in two places playing hockey in Hibbing this past December—and caring for her husband, Mike, who had hip-replacement surgery a week later. All of which prompted Jack to quip, via Facebook: “Mom, you’re the only one in the family who can walk.”

Leslie’s friend, Ann Gooley, has helped with the family’s housekeeping, snow shoveling, multiple moves, and temperamental Scottish terrier, Mr. Murphy. After 13 months, Gooley still is amazed by Leslie’s grace as she bears the unbearable and manages the unmanageable. “For Leslie, each day presents a different obstacle and a new challenge that most of us can’t even imagine,” says Gooley. “How does she keep going? How does she get up each morning and tackle the day?”

“If Jack can do this, I can do this,” explains his mother. “When I think of everything that’s been taken from him—of how he’s lost everything that meant the world to him and how brave and determined and upbeat he still is most days…. If I think about everything he goes through just to get up and get out of bed, it doesn’t seem so hard for me.”

Jack’s life-altering injury has prompted support akin to a cult. At first, the outpouring of love was kid-driven; legions of classmates wearing scarlet Benilde-St. Margaret’s jackets and “Jabby” paraphernalia followed him everywhere.
But soon, adults, too—from Benilde-St. Margaret, Carondelet Catholic School, and greater Minneapolis—embraced the cause. A year later, they continue to raise money, run errands, stay with Jack if Leslie must run out, tend the website (www.jabby13.com), drop off meals, sell out galas, and—until he broke his leg—ferry Max to hockey practice and games.

Hockey mom Lisa Collins says parents want to shoulder part of the load because the Jablonskis’ situation is relatable. “Anyone who has a kid who plays hockey, or any sport, knows it could have happened to them,”  Collins says.

In year two as the state’s most prominent human-interest story, the journey of Jack Jablonski—who has surpassed all medical predictions while studying prodigiously to keep up with his junior class—resonates far beyond Minnesota. He maxed out his Facebook friend limit at 5,000, has 51,000 Twitter followers, and there have been 2 million hits to his CaringBridge site, where his mother posts regular updates.

WCCO-TV reporter Esme Murphy, whose son plays hockey with Max, says the unprecedented outpouring of support is due to Jack’s sterling attitude, solidarity in the State of Hockey, and his mother’s considerable talents as a spokeswoman. Then, too, there’s the telegenic factor.

“Jack is just so good-looking. Such an incredibly handsome kid—that megawatt smile, the twinkle in his eye,” Murphy observes. “How can anyone not be rooting for this likable kid, especially when he’s trying so hard?” Before the accident, the Jablonskis banked tremendous goodwill with all who know them, Murphy says. “And since the accident, they have worked tirelessly for two compelling causes: safety in hockey and spinal-cord-injury research. And Leslie is just a beautiful writer. Her CaringBridge updates receive thousands of hits.”

Like her son, Leslie is charismatic. Murphy remembers her package for WCCO’s New Year’s Day 2012 newscast, 72 hours after Jack had been paralyzed. A composed Leslie addressed the camera full-on and said she had a message for the 17-year-old junior who had checked her son from behind just after Jack scored the game’s first goal.

“I forgive you,” she said.

Says Murphy: “They have exhibited such incredible grace and compassion for the kid who hit Jack. Not only did they forgive him—and immediately—they have gone out of their way, all along, to express their concern for his well-being.”

Hockey mom Suzanne Tema says Jack’s injury hasn’t altered Leslie’s concern for others. “It isn’t ironic that Leslie was born on Valentine’s Day. She pretty much radiates good-heartedness....toward everyone and everything. She even has a name for every squirrel in the neighborhood and feeds them daily. “We call her St. Francis,” Tema says. Jack agrees. “My mom is a saint. She does so much for me and for everyone else. I don't know how she does it. Her positive attitude keeps me going.”
 

 

Born in 1960, and raised in an idyllic, Beaver Cleaver culture in Cedar Grove, New Jersey, Leslie Elizabeth Lynch grew up in a stable household in a neighborhood full of friends. Her father was a finance director for aerospace firms; her mother an executive secretary and Martha Stewart-style homemaker. Her younger brother, Tom Lynch, says his competent, organized sister would always find time to help him with his homework.

Because she endeared herself to people and worked hard, Lynch says his sister “rose to the top of everything.” Though Leslie says she “can’t sing a note,” she was cast as a lip-synching Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz. At Memorial High School, she was a cheerleader and president of the National Honor Society.

After graduating in 1982 from Seton Hall University in South Orange, New Jersey, she began a nine-year career producing special events for Mademoiselle in New York. Since part of her job included crossing the country—putting on fashion shows and makeover events, meeting the press—the magazine hired famed media consultant Stuart Sucherman, Katie Couric’s elocution coach, to make over Leslie’s voice and train her to speak effectively to reporters. Small wonder she is preternaturally poised in front of a microphone, with no Joizey cadences: more Amelia Santaniello than Teresa Giudice.

Working for Condé Nast on Madison Avenue was a heady experience: glamour wafted through the halls like magazine-strip perfume. Kate Spade, nee Katy Brosnahan, was an accessories editor at Mademoiselle, and first-generation supermodels like Elle Macpherson, Christie Brinkley, and Cindy Crawford glided through the building. “It was intimidating,” Leslie says.

Once, she made the error of entering an elevator with Anna Wintour. As everyone at Condé Nast knew, the imperious Vogue editor goes up and down alone. It made for a long, predictably silent ascent. “Remember, it was the ’80s: we weren’t wearing all black yet. I’m sure she eyeballed my bad perm and plaid kilt and couldn’t quite believe it.”

Though she listens more than she speaks, Leslie’s blue eyes miss nothing. She is private, guards her emotions, eschews gossip, and keeps her own counsel.

And she reads people well. When she met 3M salesman Mike Jablonski in a Hoboken bar in 1992, she soon knew he was the love of her life. Within months, she swapped the Jersey Shore for Lake Calhoun, and beer at The Stone Pony for wine at The Tin Fish. In November 1993, on the Sea Girt, New Jersey, shore, she married her St. Paul fiancé in a fashion-forward, black-trimmed dress. Her portrait was featured in Minnesota Bride.

She quickly made her mark in the Twin Cities public-relations and marketing world. She did 25 what-to-wear segments for Steve Adelman’s “Good Company” and worked with grooming-products giant Horst Rechelbacher at Aveda. In 1996, she joined Kilter, a PR and design shop started by Caldrea founder Monica Nassif. Three years later, Leslie established her own PR business—retaining clients like American Crew and adding a handful of local boutiques. As Mike Jablonski made a parallel climb at 3M, their hair was impeccable, their marriage solid, their two little boys darling.
For the next dozen years, she recalls, their lives “were perfect.”

At 4:49 p.m. on Friday, December 30, 2011, Leslie’s friend, Lolita Ulloa, was trying to shut down at work until the new year. After receiving several calls from Suzanne Tema on her cell phone, she finally picked up one of them. Tema—who had joined the Jablonskis for the Benilde-St. Margaret vs. Wayzata junior-varsity hockey game at the St. Louis Park Recreation Center—told her that Jack had been in an accident. “A horrific hockey accident,” Ulloa remembers.

Ulloa raced to the Hennepin County Medical Center. She was waiting outside, shivering in the cold, when Leslie’s silver Hyundai Santa Fe—and the ambulance carrying Jack and Mike—pulled up. “I was standing on the curb, and I had an immediate bad feeling in my stomach,” she remembers.

“And then I saw Leslie. I had never seen her that way. Her eyes were desperate and she was shaking, like a piece of paper.”

Ulloa shudders, recalling how the night ended.

“At 11 p.m., five doctors went into an HCMC family room with Mike and Leslie. I was close by, and the door was open a crack. After they all walked out, Mike and Leslie just threw themselves at each other and sobbed.”

At Benilde-St. Margaret and beyond, Jack’s accident has redefined what qualifies as a real problem. Teri Dewey, Leslie’s friend since her older son attended first grade with Jack, says that when her kids whine, her first inclination is now to tell them to snap out of it. “I say, ‘This may be an obstacle, but it’s something we can overcome,’” Dewey says.

Bob Tift, the genial, respected president of Benilde-St. Margaret’s, agrees: the school-and-home-hitting tragedy, he says, has been a “spiritual and emotional realignment.” He explains, “There’s no lesson plan any faculty member could have designed that would be as powerful as witnessing how the Jablonski family has responded to this ordeal.”

Leslie’s response has been to make life the best it can be for Jack, and keep all of her family on keel. And to lessen their heartbreak, while managing—and mostly internalizing—her own. Much of what mattered 13 months ago to the self-described shampoo-promoting, “product-savvy girly girl” is off the radar now. She constantly worries about how Jack “is really doing.” All the Jablonskis believe that someday he will walk again; that hard work can triumph over anything. But keeping his therapy on track and spirits up for the long haul of recovery is daunting.

“All four are really high achievers, and they all are super-organized,” Tema says. “They want to button everything up. But this [accident] does not allow for order. It has turned a very orderly life and flipped it upside down. There’s no control in this, and Leslie knows and accepts that.” Calls and visits from hockey greats like Wayne Gretzky, Bobby Orr, and Zach Parise have been inspirational and steadying for the teenager. Word of Jack’s injury spread like wildfire on social media, his mother says: “NHL teams and players are a tight-knit community, and they have been great about reaching out to Jack.”

Almost immediately, at HCMC and later at The Sister Kenny Institute, Leslie realized her elder son’s days, often arduous and grim, would benefit from the distraction.

“From the start, both Leslie and Mike knew they would need help motivating Jack, both mentally and emotionally,” Ulloa says. “Leslie knew that her love alone would not be enough for Jack.” She also knew that inactivity and solitude was not what her social son needed. “I knew that idle time would not be good,” she says. “We also knew we didn’t want to be alone down there, so we wouldn’t focus on how horrendous this was, and how exhausted we were. So we opened the doors and let everyone in.”
 

 

Though gracious with reporters, the Jablonskis do not seek out the press, says WCCO’s Murphy and Star Tribune’s Pam Louwagie, both of whom have covered the story extensively.

“They don’t call me, I have to call them,” Louwagie says.  “They have been open to the coverage, but they have not sought it out.”

Murphy agrees: although her phone numbers are in many mutual hockey directories, she says they simply don’t call her for professional reasons.  “I have never known them to ask anyone to do a story,” Murphy says.  “And, often times, they’ve said no when asked for interviews, access, and even just pictures
of Jack.”

Both Louwagie and Murphy contend that interest in the story is driven by Jack’s huge followings on Facebook, CaringBridge, and Twitter. But his tweets were less frequent last fall. After long hospitalizations, the family spent several months in a transitional apartment as construction workers built accessible additions, indoors and out, and added an elevator (currently used by Mike and Max as well as Jack). Materials and labor were all donated, from a Benilde-St. Margaret centered fundraising effort separate from the Jack Jablonski Fund for spinal-cord-injury research.

But beautiful as it is, moving back in October to their renovated Uptown home was a difficult adjustment for everyone, especially for Jack. His last poignant memory of the house he’d spent his whole life in was sleeping in his non-accessible bedroom, as an able-bodied kid, on December 29, 2011.

“It was hard for him. And it was hard for us to realize Jack wasn’t going to run up the stairs again, or walk into our bedroom and ask a question,” Leslie says.

Even if it was an option, Leslie knows that idle time would not be good for her, either. So she fills prescriptions, administers medicine, and keeps doctor appointments—and briefs tutors, teachers, therapists, doctors, and personal-care attendants. She hand-writes notes to the hundreds of people who’ve written, and meets with the devastated parents of other kids struck by spinal-cord injuries. Though her friends drop by regularly, she rarely finds time to go out for coffee or a glass of Grüner Veltliner, the Austrian wine she loves. For now, her personal life, like her career, is on hold.

And if, a year later, the days are less grueling, they’re still long. They begin at 5:30 a.m. when the personal-care attendant arrives. It takes two hours to get Jack up, dressed, showered, ready for school, and into their accessible van. Mike then drives the boys to Benilde-St. Margaret, where Jack remains until his 1 p.m. release to Courage Center in Golden Valley. There he does his ABLE program therapy for three hours. He is transported home at 5 p.m., has a fast dinner and studies and/or works with a tutor for most of the night, finally watching 20 minutes of TV until he collapses, exhausted.

His parents then begin the 90-minute task of readying him for bed. Although a PCA could do this, it’s an intimate act of love for Jack, who has dealt with caregivers, teachers, classmate helpers, and therapists all day.

At night, past the challenges of the day, Jack, Mike, and Leslie laugh, cry, watch videos of him skating on YouTube, and share their hopes and fears. “I know if he wants to say something, this is the time he will say it,” she says.

After Jack’s asleep, Leslie steals her only “me time” of the day. Her Twitter tag, @LateNightLeslie, is apt: always a night owl, now she is more so. Some nights, she continues to organize, schedule, de-clutter, post, tweet, and update CaringBridge until 2 a.m. On other nights, she does what she feels like: check in with The Real Housewives of New Jersey, perhaps. Occasionally, drowsy with sleep aids, she’ll munch on chips or snack-size Milky Ways and not remember it. Similarly, Leslie concedes, she sometimes “Ambien shops.” “I’ll go online and buy things in the middle of the night,” she laughs. “A few days later, when a box arrives from J. Crew or Nordstrom.com, I’ll be shocked—and have no absolutely idea what’s in it.”

Mornings, clad head-to-toe in New York black, Leslie often recaffeinates with skim-milk lattés at the Uptown Dunn Brothers. With her petite proportions and cap of ebony hair, Leslie, 52, has always stood out from Minnesota’s crop of tall blondes. But now, many people recognize her and, often, they want to hug her. Predictably, she is approachable, and hugs them in return.

Because the Jablonskis are not bitter and try hard to give back, “something’s going to come out of this,” observes their neighbor and friend, Shari “Sam” Moore. “Leslie is giving Jack his strength; she’s his bright and constant star. I think she’s giving him a light to find another path in life.”

That path may even lead him to the media spotlight in which his mother is so comfortable. Along with student coaching, Jack sometimes talks hockey on The Power Trip Morning Show on KFAN. His mentoring, communications-major mother is, of course, proud. “I think he will take that love of hockey and—with his charm and his engaging self—find a future in it,” she says. “Not in the way we had expected or the way we had hoped. But he will find a good career—maybe in coaching, sports marketing, or broadcasting.

“Most important, I think Jack will find there’s more to life than the ice rink. I think he will also find you can take that love of the ice rink and make it work somewhere else.”  

With her help.

Kate McCarthy is a Minneapolis-based freelance writer who has won numerous reporting and writing awards.
 


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