John Cisna loved to tell the story of the how my dad once stole a golf cart to get around at the Du Quoin State Fair.
My father, Warren Levicoff, was the photographer at that Illinois institution, and John was in charge of publicity. They were a dynamic duo to be sure–words and pictures, Mr. Responsible and Mr. Carefree. I think John lived vicariously through Dad–Cisna had to be mature and structured, but he could enjoy and appreciate my father’s “question authority” attitude.
And no matter how many times I saw or talked to Cisna in my 15-year career with the U.S. Trotting Association, he always manged to bring up that story–or another equally outrageous memory from their years together at Du Quoin. If we were on the phone, he always sent my dad and my family the best. In person, only a hug would do.
John Cisna died yesterday in the most unexpected of ways–his truck struck by a train at a railroad crossing. I’m not sure what is more unbelievable–his cause of death or the fact that he is dead at all. I’m finding it hard to believe there can still be harness racing without John Cisna, and I am sure I am not alone.
Cisna–everyone called him Cisna, and when he called on the phone his standard greeting was always, “Cisna here!”–was tireless, even at 73, working hard for a sport that is being swallowed by time. It never mattered to him that harness racing crowds kept getting smaller and the sport kept taking a less significant role in sporting life. He worked as hard as ever at every race meet, at every USTA meeting (where he had been a director for 43 years), in every role he played as part of the sport he loved. He never stopped smiling, never stopped promoting, never lacked energy or spirit. It was an amazing gift just to be around him.
My father and I went back to the Du Quoin Fair in 2008 to see Deweycheatumnhow win the World Trotting Derby. It was the first time we had been there since the 1970s when Dad had been the photographer for the Hambletonian, then one of the sports world’s biggest events. Cisna was still working just as hard, but it all stopped when he saw my father, a smile enveloping his whole face as he was brought back to a time not so long ago, when he and Dad were both younger and wilder, and harness racing was still king. The two laughed and reminisced like old friends should, and I was brought into that cozy blanket of memories, warmed by the chance to just be near them both.
Time is a funny road, sometimes slow and bumpy, often far too smooth and fast. Sometimes people take an exit long before it should be their time to get off, leaving the rest of us in a shocked and disorienting cloud of dust. So it is with John Cisna.
I make my living as a writer, but I have no words to say how much I will miss his place in the world, no turn of phrase to explain how much he meant to me and my family, and the sport we all shared.
But I do have a golf cart. And every time I drive it, I certainly expect the spirit of John Cisna to be riding shotgun.