Whether it was a trip across the county, country or globe, the Junette family never went anywhere without bundles of “Play it Safe” coloring books.
Millions of the books, aimed at alerting children of potential dangers, were distributed to more than 60 countries and printed in more than 30 languages — without assistance from a website.
The leader of this nonprofit movement, Mr. Eugene Junette, a prominent Fresno volunteer and businessman, died March 7 at age 84.
Doctors told the family he died of heart failure. Mr. Junette’s wife, Juanita, has a different theory: Her big-hearted husband, a constant champion of social causes, finally gave all of his heart away.
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The family said money earned for Play it Safe went to printing more coloring books. No one earned a penny off the public safety crusade.
Up until a few weeks before Mr. Junette died, the electronics repairman and former private investigator still was fixing television sets and other devices from his home east of Fresno. His son, Mark, laughed when asked if his father ever retired. “It’s that Depression-era mentality of survival. I can’t think of my dad retiring.”
Mr. Junette founded Play it Safe International in 1979, the same year 8-year-old Victoria DeSantiago was abducted while walking home from a Fresno convenience store, then raped and murdered. Victoria’s naked and bludgeoned body was found in a dry creek east of Clovis.
A major Play it Safe message urges children not to accept rides or gifts from strangers. The lives of at least 87 children have been saved by lessons learned from the books’ happy characters, according to reports documented by the Junettes.
“I think what dad really liked about this (the coloring books) is it alerted children to dangers in a nonthreatening, fun way it puts it into their heads without scaring the heck out of them,” Mark Junette said.
Different versions of the coloring books were printed over the years. Those distributed in Hawaii focused on water safety. The Junettes made more than 35 trips to the islands and worked with six governors of Hawaii.
Hawaii Sen. Suzanne Chun Oakland said Mr. Junette had a great sense of humor and a genuine passion for protecting children. “When he spoke, he was sincere, so people knew that he cared.”
His work as chairman of Play it Safe earned him numerous accolades, including an invitation to meet President Ronald Reagan as he signed the National Partnership for Child Safety proclamation, aimed at helping find missing children and preventing their disappearance.
Play it Safe’s success was boosted by two appearances on the Richard Simmons television show in the 1980s. Family said after the first show, Play it Safe received 5.7 million requests for coloring books. It was a humorous scene at the Junette home as mail truck after mail truck dumped loads of letters at their door step.
Fresno police Chief Jerry Dyer said Mr. Junette had a “contagious passion.” When Mr. Junette approached someone to support Play it Safe, Dyer said, “there was absolutely no way you could tell him no.”
“He was so concerned about the safety of the kids and that was refreshing,” Dyer said. “He was a man on fire for a mission, and the mission was keeping kids safe. It’s difficult to find a man with that kind of energy and creativity and passion and doing what he did for the right reason.”
The coloring books started as eight-page booklets printed by the Department of Justice. When the department planned to discontinue them, Mr. Junette took over, helping raise money to continue the printing. Under his leadership, the coloring books grew to 24 pages and spread throughout the world.
“I don’t think a day went by without him thinking of a way he could give back to the world,” Mark Junette said. “That probably drove him more than anything.”
Mr. Junette was raised by his grandparents in Hanford after his mother died within weeks of his birth. He enlisted in the Navy at 17 and excelled in jet propulsion mechanics, which eventually led him to work for North American Aviation and Boeing before opening his own electronic repair business. Early in his career, he also worked as a private investigator for a number of Fresno attorneys.
In a profile about Mr. Junette printed by the Bee in 1985, he shared telling details about his character. Favorite zoo animal: All the baby animals. Most valued material possession: Family photo album. Best asset: Determination.
Mr. Junette helped countless clubs, organizations and causes. He was instrumental in exposing health concerns related to a chemical plant near his home, was a member of the advisory board to the California attorney general and worked with probation staff at Fresno County’s juvenile hall, to name a few. “At one point, dad was involved in 14 organizations and was chairman of seven of them,” his son said.
As a Fresno Kiwanis Club member, Williams said Mr. Junette helped spearhead a program for deaf children at Disneyland and helped children with cerebral palsy.
In Mr. Junette’s last months, Williams recalled a discussion he had with his friend about God as they sat talking on Mr. Junette’s front porch, gazing toward the Sierra.
“I said, ‘Gene, you’ve always been a man of faith. You’ve always been a man of God, Gene,’ ” Williams recalled. “And he looked at me and said, ‘I really have tried.’
“And he said, ‘You see those mountains out there? You know in the Bible it says if you have enough faith you can move mountains.’ Then he said, ‘If we can have enough faith, we could move mountains of obstacles that children have in order to make them safe.’ ”