IF YOU HAVE been anywhere near Lake Pend Oreille this fall, chances are you have witnessed people doing “cannon balls” off docks, boats, or rafts. The reason? It is a tribute to the much-loved Chet French, a 23-year resident of Sandpoint who passed away recently after a long battle with thyroid cancer.
“Chet always did cannon balls,” said his wife Shari of Chet’s fun loving, kid-like spirit. His memorial took place on the water near Rocky Point in August. Shari said before she knew it, her son Tanner and stepson Travis took off their shirts and did cannon balls into the water. “I had no idea it was coming! Then my daughter Kelsey and I jumped in. Me in my dry clean only dress!” Soon nearly 50 people were in the water. It was the perfect tribute and Chet would not have had it any other way, said Shari. And it has not stopped. Friends and family from all over the country are sending Shari videos of their cannon ball jumps in memory of her husband.
Many in this community knew Chet as the owner of Jalapenos Mexican Restaurant, which he and Shari owned for 22 years. And when he was not at the restaurant, he could likely be found at many of the Sandpoint sporting events or recreating at the mountain or on the water.
“Chet had a heart for the youth. Being around them made him happy,” said Shari of Chet’s involvement with youth athletics. “He thought it was important for kids to be involved.”
When Chet and Shari moved to Sandpoint from San Diego, they knew they had found the perfect place to call home. “We wanted to live where we could water and snow ski,” said Shari. They bought a small house in town and Shari had a job as a ski instructor at Schweitzer and Chet with a local company. They had operated two restaurants in San Diego, and after a year in Sandpoint decided to open Jalapenos.
“This was his nirvana,” said Shari of Chet’s love of Sandpoint. Each year on April 11th, Chet celebrated his birthday by going snow skiing in the morning, hitting the lake to water ski in the afternoon, and finishing his day with a round of golf. He was thrilled to live in a place where he could pursue his passions.
Chet was a wonderful father to his four children, but was also a father figure to many in Sandpoint. Shari recalls one teen that was applying for a job at Jalapenos. Chet asked her why she wanted to work there, and she replied that she wanted a job in public service. “He told her to be honest…she needed the money!” laughed Shari as she recalled one of many moments where Chet mentored their employees. “He felt it was his mission to employ young kids, and he felt privileged to be a stepping-stone in these young people’s lives,” said Shari.
An avid basketball fan and participant, Chet played in Spokane’s Hoopfest for 18 years. When his illness made it difficult for him to participate, he chose to volunteer as a referee at Hoopfest, using his breaks between games to take in a Sandpoint game on a nearby court and cheer the young players to victory.
As she recalls her husband’s memorial on the water, Shari said the fleet of boats filled with people who, in spite of windy weather, came to pay tribute to her husband overwhelmed her. “My daughter looked at all the people and told me, ‘Mom, all these people mattered to dad,’” said Shari adding that the support her family has received is a great comfort to her and her children.
As for those cannon balls, don’t expect to stop seeing them anytime soon. Chet and Shari’s former employees are planning a Polar Bear Cannon Ball Plunge this winter in frigid Lake Pend Oreille.
Shari said she is grateful for the community support and the outpouring of love that people have shown her and her family through the years and since Chet passed away.
“I think Chet would be surprised at how much he mattered to everyone,” said Shari.
“He was my quiet giant. He was an awesome guy. I was a lucky girl.”