John Quirk Remembered

By May 22, 2012
John Quirk smiling in a grassy field

John Quirk brought the World Cup of show jumping to California.

On April 12, the equestrian community lost one of its most beloved figures when John Quirk passed away four months shy of his 92nd birthday, August 15. To say he was a horseman is accurate―that aspect of his life is being celebrated at the Del Mar Horse Show Hunter Jumper Week, where a new perpetual trophy will be unveiled in his name―but it falls short of capturing his vivid and adventurous journey.

He was a Navy pilot, decorated for service during WW II, an engineer, the publisher of Horses magazine, and the man who brought the World Cup to the West Coast for the first time―specifically to Del Mar in 1992, at the fairgrounds where the National takes place. He then brought it to Las Vegas in 2000, and it was so successful the FEI asked him to do it again in 2003, 2005, 2007 and 2009. “The horse world was only the tip of a very big iceberg….but a warm and gentle and joyous one,” says his wife Tish Quirk, who describes herself as “the luckiest girl in the world” for having “gotten to live his glorious life with him for 47 years.”

While most folks in the equine sphere got to know John as one half of a unit with Tish―who created her own profile as a competitive amateur show jumper, and later as a breeder of sport horses― there is plenty to tell about John Quirk before the two met, although that in itself is quite a good story.

A Love Story Like No Other

“John had come to New York for a San Diego Chargers football game,” recalls Tish. An avid sports fan, he was a minority owner and friend of the team’s major shareholder, Gene Klein, and would sometimes fly to games on the team plane. An engineer by training, Quirk lived in Detroit and owned an automotive engineering firm and, in his “spare” time, wrote novels. “He had a manager in New York, Israel Katz, who was working on getting his books made into movies.”

Katz also represented Tish Moore, who had grown up in New Mexico and attended Stephens College in Missouri, where she was “discovered” by Mademoiselle, which launched a modeling career. “Israel had been aiming me toward acting, even though that was not something I was interested in. He insisted that John and I attend the party for the packaging of the movie Ice Station Zebra, starring for Michael Caine.”

John and Tish Quirk on the lawn in Hoagy Carmichael's backyard in Palm Springs on their wedding day.

John and Tish married at Hoagy Carmichael's home in Palm Springs.

Tish says both she and John were dubious at the prospect of a “blind date,” but that Katz persisted. Finally they “agreed to put in a brief appearance together at the party,” thinking afterwards they would go their separate ways.  “When he arrived to pick me up and I opened the door of my apartment he said ‘You are the most beautiful girl I have ever seen!’ We got in the limousine to go to the party at the 21 Club, and I was fascinated as he talked. I knew he was the man I was going to marry. We were in love beginning that evening, and we still are.”

Two years later, in 1968, they were married and settled down in Beverly Hills. Quirk having become quite successful through patents and engineering inventions was now positioned to pursue his passion for writing and travel, while the proximity to Hollywood was intended to  help parlay his books into movies.

As full as his life was, he made sure to encourage his wife to pursue her own dreams. Tish began riding again, something she had enjoyed as a youth and “the product of five generations of ranchers,” and it wasn’t long before they had bought a few horses and relocated to more equine-friendly environs in Carlsbad.

In 1980 he bought Horses magazine and the two embarked on a global adventure to cover all the major international competitions.  “It was really his gift to me, entering the horse world. He encouraged my riding and showing and he bought me some wonderful horses,” Tish said.

He transformed Horses into a well-read magazine with subscribers in all 50 states and 39 countries. Tish began photographing for the publication and the two traveled widely covering the sport.

A Trail Blazer

John Quirk became one of the first in America to import jumping horses from Ireland, Holland and Germany to the U.S. “He bought Best of Luck, who became the foundation of our breeding program which is now in the third generation of great horses, all descended from that one,” Tish says, noting that he is by the famous Lucky Boy xx, who sired many Olympic champions. She is currently competing the third generation of the successful bloodlines, with the next generations of stallions being prepared.

Black and white image of John and Tish Quirk standing with a beautiful Irish horse.

Irishman John Quirk purchased his first European horse at the Goff's sale in Dublin.

“The legend grew and the friendships grew,” Tish sighs. “John’s dedication to the equestrian sport motivated him as he became a global ambassador for the discipline of show jumping. His reputation was as a visionary and innovator. “He saw things no one else would see, and he would then do them and make them look easy,” Tish said.

He worked tirelessly to bring high-profile jumping events to California’s celebrated Del Mar National, which counts the Del Mar Thoroughbred Club (founded by entertainment troika Bing Crosby, Pat O’Brien and Jimmy Durante) as a neighbor.

His efforts paid off when he was able to convince the powers that be to hold the 1992 FEI World Cup Jumping Final in  Del Mar. It was only the third Final to be held on American soil since the series began in 1978, following Baltimore (1980) and Tampa (1989). It was groundbreaking in that it was the first to be held on the West Coast, then considered a backwater of sorts.

The Quirks had attended every World Cup Final beginning with Gothenburg, Sweden, in 1981. “I thought it was the best event of them all, for the very reason that you had to earn your own way on. You didn’t have to rely on somebody choosing you, or making a team, you won your way on. I liked that,” Quirk told Horse ShowBiz Magazine.

His attention to detail and determination to make the journey to Del Mar as smooth as possible for the horses, resulted in him using his U.S. Navy connections to secure permission for the horse transport plane to land at the Miramar naval airbase, just a few miles away from the event. The horses arrived at the base, complete with a fighter jet escort, and were in their stables at the showgrounds in less than an hour, avoiding the long journey from either San Diego or Las Vegas.

Top Gun

John Quirk in his Navy Fighter Pilot uniform.

John Quirk was a Navy fighter pilot.

Quirk’s time in the Navy was a source of pride and continuing happiness for him. As a fighter pilot he held the record for the number of carrier landings without a wave off, which means having always found the perfect distance (and height) when bringing his Corsair in for a landing on the tossing deck of an aircraft carrier. “John grew up in the Great Depression,  but nothing ever depressed him,” Tish recalls. “His eyes twinkled and he was always full of joy and loved life.”

His wife feels that if he wasn’t quite so dazzlingly smart, his life may have taken a very different course. “He was moved two grades ahead when he was in grade school. That is surely the only thing that kept him from becoming a football star or something like that. In high school, he was always young for his grade.”

Because he graduated early, he spent two years at a junior college because he was too young to attend the Naval Academy. His first novel, “No Red Ribbons,” was about Navy fighter pilots, and he kept many of his Navy friends close through the very end of his life.

John had a massive heart attack as he was leaving the stadium after a great day of friendship and good sport at the final Chargers game of the season on December 18, 2011.  “John died in my arms at home on April 12,” Tish recounts movingly. “He was bigger than life and mine is empty without him.”

John Quirk was cremated and in June the United States Navy will scatter his ashes at sea with full  honors. He will also be celebrated at the Del Mar National Horse Show, which is an Olympic Selection Observation Trial, as well as at the Blenheim Ranch and Coast Horse Show and at other major events throughout the year as the industry spills over with its love for this gentleman of the sport.

It was his dream to see the World Cup return to the West Coast in 2015. There are those working on it. It’s far from a sure thing, but the dream has been set in motion, and it just might happen.

To see more of John Quirk’s life in pictures, click here.

The Quirks were inducted into the Spruce Meadows Hall of Fame in 2006. They're seen here with Spruce Meadows founders Ron and Marg Southern.

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