Jack Falk’s flashy art bike was a conversation starter, but his boyish grin and friendly demeanor turned passersby into friends.
He became something of a Tacoma fixture by regularly riding down Pacific Avenue on his 400-pound bike, which was affixed with Christmas lights, flags, clocks, license plates and other trinkets collected from his travels.
Falk, 68, died Sunday of colon cancer.
The Washington State History Museum, where Falk began volunteering in 1998, announced his death on its Facebook page. More than 50 people expressed their sadness in the comments section, recalling everything from his decorative bike to the shorts and leg warmers Falk wore year-round.
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“He was a very kind, gentle person. He never had to work at making friends,” said Mark Sylvester, Falk’s close friend and head of support services at the museum. “He broke down barriers that some people could not accomplish in a lifetime of trying.”
Falk didn’t have the easiest life.
He was born in Michigan but his parents died when he was young so he was raised by an aunt in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, and an uncle near Hamburg, Germany.
As a child, instead of attending school, he worked on his uncle’s farm. He was strong and resourceful but never learned to read and write.
When he was 15, Falk started jumping trains from state to state and even visited Canada and Japan as a stowaway. Friends said he kept a duffel bag packed until just a few years ago so he could hop a train for the weekend and return Monday with a story.
Falk found his way to Tacoma in 1987. He quickly bonded with folks at the Tacoma Rescue Mission. He became the first tenant in their Jefferson Square single-occupancy housing facility when it opened the next year.
INSIDE HIS APARTMENT
In the small studio apartment, Falk hung his collection of frilly petticoats — more than 300 — on the walls and ceilings. A beloved 4-by-8-foot model train set covered most of the floor.
The outlandishly decorated bicycle he constantly readjusted leaned against one wall. License plates from the states he journeyed to, Mickey Mouse memorabilia and other prized possessions added to the colorful clutter.
Falk was known for his work ethic. He did not have a paying job but when he came to town he immediately began volunteering five days a week at the Rescue Mission in the clothing department.
The organization named him their volunteer of the year in 1996, stating, “he takes pride in his work, knowing he is helping the homeless and those who need free clothing.”
He worked just as hard for the museum, spending an average of six hours a day manicuring the grounds.
“The thing about Jack is that he helped out whenever, wherever,” museum director Jennifer Kilmer said this week. “You knew that whatever he was asked to do would be top quality.”
Museum employees considered him more of a staff member than a volunteer.
Falk liked to play weatherman and give weather reports to those he came across. Sometimes he was on point, other times he was less than accurate. But it gave him an easy conversation starter when he wasn’t near his art bike.
His thoughtfulness meant he asked everybody how their day was going and he often bought boxes of king-size 3 Musketeers candy bars and left them on employees’ desk at the museum.
Kilmer, who is not fond of the candy, at one point had a backlog of five 3 Musketeers because she didn’t have the heart to tell Falk she didn’t want one.
Kimberly Ketcham, the museum’s marketing director, said she was touched whenever she found a candy bar waiting for her.
“There was no note because he couldn’t write the note but you knew Jack was thinking about you,” she said. “He was sweet and endearing and honest and always cheerful. He was a real pleasure to have around.”
Falk cut quite the figure.
He had strong muscles from his years of gardening and a tan, weather-beaten face that usually softened into a smile. He wore shorts and leg warmers no matter the weather and was usually sporting his favorite Mickey Mouse sweatshirt.
On a rare occasion, Sylvester could convince Falk to don coveralls while tending to the grounds.
The interns who helped with groundskeeping in the summer couldn’t keep up with Falk.
“He would work all day if we’d let him,” Sylvester said. “He had a real dedication to making the grounds at the museum look beautiful.”
Even when life got rough, Falk remained positive.
He lived simply to survive on about $1,000 each month from the government and maintained even after the woman in charge of his finances was convicted of stealing $8,000 from him.
When Falk was diagnosed with colon cancer last year, he asked Sylvester (who had power of attorney for Falk) not to tell him the details of his illness. He just wanted to focus on enjoying life and trying to get better.
So his friends never told Falk his disease was terminal.
“I can’t say enough good things about the guy,” Sylvester said.
Falk’s bicycle, which he rode in the Daffodil Parade every year even though he never registered, will be on display at the museum this weekend.