Verkamp: In his own words<br>Businessman was GC pioneer
GC VILLAGE — Workaholic. Golf enthusiast. Smart businessman. Community volunteer. Outdoors-man. School board member.
Those are a few of the ways people remember Jack Verkamp, the longtime Grand Canyon businessman who died March 18 at age 84. Friends and family bid farewell to Verkamp during a memorial service on Thursday afternoon at the Shrine of the Ages, the chapel he helped build.
Born as John George "Jack" Verkamp II on June 13, 1916, in San Diego, he came to Grand Canyon with his parents and two sisters in 1936 after living in Flagstaff.
"My dad was not as lucky as some and he lost a couple of fortunes in the livestock business," Verkamp said in a 1995 interview with Grand Canyon National Park historians. "It got down to where the little operation at the Canyon was about all he had left … so come along 1936, he gathered us together and said, ‘we’ll we’re gonna have to move up to the Canyon, the whole family will move up there.’"
His father, John Verkamp, was the first person to sell curios at Grand Canyon, renting a tent from the Bright Angel Hotel. After that venture did not work out as planned, the current Verkamp’s store was constructed and opened in January 1906.
The younger Verkamp was a man of 20 years when the family began to run the store full time on the South Rim. In previous years, store managers, including his aunt and uncle, had been hired to oversee the operation. Verkamp’s first paying job was one summer "dipping sheep" at his father’s sheep camp before the move. He made $2 a day.
"His foreman had a whole bunch of kids and they were all good boys and we got along fine," Verkamp said. "It was very interesting to me. I enjoyed it a lot. So that’s when we moved up to the Grand Canyon in 1936."
The family lived above the store in accommodations that included a living room, kitchen, two bedrooms and a tiny bathroom. A third bedroom was added onto the house years later. A little building in the back housed the store’s power generator, which ran on coal.
Jack eventually took over the business and helped the operation grow to a premier Indian arts and crafts store, running things with his sister, Margaret "Peggy" Verkamp.
Jack met his future wife Betty at the Grand Canyon. She had worked in places like the old Tusayan bar, the building owned by Bob Thurston, the Fred Harvey laundry and Rod’s Steak House in Williams. The couple married in 1960. It was the second marriage for Jack, his first wife being Mary O’Leary.
Verkamp’s was a family operation for a number of years, with Jack saying the best salesperson was his mother. Being interrupted during family meals to help with customers and finding little time for a vacation all became a part of life. Even shoveling snow was an ordeal.
"I remember one year, but I can’t tell you what year it was, seemed like it snowed every day in January," Verkamp said. "We’d get up on that roof and shovel it off. I remember one day, got finished shoveling and I wanted to go downstairs so I just walked off the roof."
Verkamp’s father died in 1944 but his mother and sisters were still there to help with the store. He recalled what it was like during World War II.
"They’d send troops up there for R and R [rest and relaxation]," Verkamp said. "They’d go in there and want to send stuff home and just buy the hell out of everything. Then they’d have to close the store the next day just to pack stuff."
Then there was the big Boy Scout Jamboree in 1953.
"They descended on everybody," Verkamp said. "We had one elderly lady there, she was just the greatest person in the world. I put her out on the front porch behind this table. On this table we had, I think, five items — a pennant, a pillow top for mama, a couple of other items … I had the kids there running back and forth getting her change. It was quite a deal. We used to let so many in and then we’d have to close the door, and then open the door, let them out, let another bunch in."
Over the years, Verkamp met his share of dignitaries, including Minnesota Gov. Hubert Humphrey, who ran for president.
"He came in with a group, I guess mostly family, and he bought a few things," Verkamp said. "He wanted to pay for them with a check, so writes out the check and everything. I said, ‘well could I have some identification please.’ He says, ‘I’m Sen. Humphrey.’ I said, ‘I’d still like to have some identification please.’"
Humphrey complied. Another person who would go on to become famous, singer Roger Miller, worked for Verkamp at one time.
Miller, 17 years old at the time, got a job with Verkamp’s as a clerk, living in a travel trailer in old "Tent City."
"He worked out pretty good until this big influx of Boy Scouts came in," Verkamp said. "I saw him leaning on the countertop talking to a couple of the young girls we had working there, and these guys (Scouts), they were just all over the place, so I got him out of that deal.
"Then after lunch, same thing happened. I said, ‘Roger, you’re fired,’ Verkamp recalled with a laugh. "These old gals were just working their butts off and he was (jabbering) with these young girls. So I just fired him right on the spot."
Miller did come back to visit from time to time.
"First time he came back, he says, ‘I got something to thank you for. I wrote that "King of the Road" when I was in that little trailer. I want to thank you for getting me started on my road,’" Verkamp said.
Verkamp was involved in many aspects of community life over the years. One of his biggest contributions came with the construction of the Shrine of the Ages.
"The whole idea of that was to set up an interfaith chapel at the Canyon where tourists and residents of all faiths would have a place to worship," he said. "That was the basic intent of it. I have to attribute the original idea to Dr. Leo Schnur … a doctor at the Canyon."
Another priest from Williams who came up to preach at the Canyon on a weekly basis was also involved, and then Verkamp came in.
"To basically get it started, they designed one room for the Jewish people, one room for the Protestant folks and one room for the Catholic folks," Verkamp said. "Basically, that was the idea. But if you were Muslin or whatever, you would still have access to it. That was the dream."
Verkamp became president of a committee for the chapel and was in charge of fund-raising. He served as president from 1958-71
Still, he chapel did not turn out the way Verkamp and others envisioned.
"It’s never been built, as far as I’m concerned," he said.
Verkamp was involved in many other ventures, from an early golf course out in Tusayan to helping with a fireworks show to various school projects to leading a March of Dimes fight against polio. He was a member of the Grand Canyon Board of Education, the American Legion and the Knights of Columbus.
Verkamp also enjoyed the little time he could find for recreation. For example, there were the times he, an El Tovar clerk and a National Park Service employee would head down the Bright Angel Trail.
"The three of us would hike every once in a while down to Phantom Ranch and they had that beautiful little pool down there," Verkamp said. "We’d go down there and swim for an hour or two ... it made a nice day off."
Verkamp also enjoyed getting out in the woods to hunt deer, antelope and elk in the lands around the park. Bowling was another enjoyment.
His wife, Betty, said there were not too many of those times for her husband.
"He could have gotten away anytime, but he had to be there to see that things went right," she said. "Workaholic, that’s what he’s been for all his life."