Former Hamburg mayor John Yanish turned 100 years old on July 1 and shared stories of meeting celebrities, war, radio work and building community.
His voice still as smooth as velvet, former Hamburg mayor and World War II veteran John Yanish has turned 100, and he’s happy to share stories and wisdom from his century of adventure.
Speaking from his home last week, Yanish told tales of his time in the Civilian Conservation Corps, of his many years as a radio personality and his friendships with some of classic country music’s biggest stars, and of a fishing trip with none other than Jimmy Stewart and John Wayne.
Born July 1, 1920, in Franklin, Yanish and his family moved to nearby Hamburg when he was a young boy. Recalling being paid 10 cents and a quart of milk morning and evening to care for a neighbor’s cows, Yanish would leave home in 1933, lying about his age to join the CCC, a work program developed under President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal. There was a newly-formed camp at what’s now High Point State Park, and Yanish would become part of a crew that built Lake Marcia and Sawmill Pond.
“I was only 14, but I told them I was 19. They gave me a license and let me drive an Army supply truck, back and forth to Trenton, and up to Port Jervis, a few times a week,” Yanish said, “We didn’t have the nice roads then that we have now, so those drives weren’t too much fun. But in my time with the CCC, I drove over 100,000 miles without an accident.”
The CCC allowed Yanish to travel throughout the country, spending time in, according to him, most, if not all of the states. Yanish discovered a love of radio, and he would broadcast as a DJ for much of his adult life, no matter where he traveled.
“I broadcasted here at home for WNNJ; I broadcasted from the road in Oregon, from Boise, Idaho, from wherever I was at the time,” Yanish said before demonstrating his radio sign-off, “But when I got to work from the Grand Ole Opry, that’s where the big stars were.”
Yanish has some more ‘colorful’ anecdotes about some of the artists he met during his time in Tennessee but says that his friendship with Elvis Presley stands out among his favorite memories.
“Elvis’ mother was a lovely woman, and she would cook us breakfast on Sunday mornings, fresh eggs and ham from their smokehouse. Then she’d play the piano and we’d sing hymns. She was a funny woman, and they were poor, but she was so resourceful,” Yanish recollected, “Once Elvis started making money, they sold the farm and moved to Tennessee. Years later, I was invited to his wedding to Priscilla.”
Amidst his travels, Yanish would return home to Sussex County, working in the Franklin Mineral Mine and for Meyer Rosen’s bakery before being drafted into the Army during World War II.
“I would always ask Meyer for a raise, and he’d always tell me, ‘Not this week’ because he was taking his wife into the city for dancing lessons,” Yanish said, “The rhumba, the cha-cha, all while I was trying to live on $6 a week!”
Deployed to the Philippines during the war, Yanish said he was and still is deeply affected by the horrors of war, experiencing what was then called shell-shock, what we now know to be PTSD. He was present at the surrender of Japanese General Yamashita and his troops, before being sent home, injured, on the Queen Mary. He convalesced at the military hospital in Oakland, Calif., which is where he met Jimmy Stewart and John Wayne on a visit to the troops.
“They mentioned they liked fishing, and I like fishing, so I told them I’d write to them the next time I went on a big fishing trip. So, I was going to Yellowstone, and I wrote a letter, and that’s how we ended up fishing together.”
Yanish said the affection between the two actors was a genuine friendship, ribbing each other over who caught the bigger, better fish and sharing a meal with Yanish and his wife.
“They really were a hoot,” he said.
Yanish settled close to home in the 1950s, opening his insurance and accounting firm on Rt. 23 in Hamburg, joining the Hamburg Fire Department and the Franklin American Legion, organizations in which he still holds membership and is a supporter of today. Yanish would serve as mayor of Hamburg for eight years in the 1960s, and is proud of his accomplishments for his town, including bringing water to many of the citizens, being instrumental in having the road markings changed from white to yellow (to be more visible during snowstorms) and his proudest moment, staging what’s believed to be the first country music concert in Sussex County. The benefit show, featuring Hank Snow and Johnny Cash, was held at the Hamburg School in 1965, and the money raised helped build the Hamburg Fire Department a new station house.
“No one believed I could get those big stars here,” Yanish said, “But I did. It was an amazing show, and we made a lot of money that night.”
Yanish has certainly lived a full life, and he’s never slowed down with his advocacy for fellow veterans and Sussex County citizens. He worked with the Sussex County freeholders in the late 1970s and early 1980s to get Sussex County Community College established, and more recently, he was the impetus behind a campaign to get the monument and park at High Point properly renamed and dedicated as a veterans’ memorial, which took place in 2019.
“It was always supposed to be that way, but no one ever really took the time to name it as such,” he said, “It was an honor to go to the ceremony and see it finally done.”
The American Legion also recognized Yanish for his 70 years of service at a recent barbecue, which he said was great fun, and very humbling. He remains self-sufficient and still loves to watch Westerns and listen to his beloved country music. Asked what his biggest takeaway is from 100 years on this Earth, Yanish had some advice for young people.
“Take responsibility,” he said, “Parents, take care of your children- don’t be their friends, be their parents. And children, love the people in your life. Your parents feed and clothe you, make sure you’re safe and healthy- don’t take them for granted. Don’t give in to peer pressure. I always did my own thing and was accountable for it. That’s what we still need today.”