“Today, among his worldwide circle of friends and family, stories of his business acumen, philanthropy and antics have become the stuff of folklore – some facts are verifiable, others have been embellished over the years with each re-telling,” according to author Linda Sappington, who was asked by Jay and his wife, Janice Ence, to write Jay’s life story.
In Sappington’s unpublished manuscript, “In the Ring; The Hard Fought, Hard Won, Rags-to-Riches Life and Wild Times of Jay Ence,” available at the Washington County Library’s Special Collections Room, she also describes Ence as a “hard working, honest, God-fearing man,” who is also a husband, father, brother and a peacemaker.
Ence was one of six children born to Mata Gubler and Ernest Reuben Ence. The couple enjoyed each others’ company, set strict standards for their children and worked hard to provide a home for their children. In 1922, their family was one of 11 families who settled the community of Ivins after the irrigation company offered free lots to the first 10 families (actually 11 families got lots, because two arrived on the same day).
At an early age, Jay and his siblings were taught by their father that honesty was the most important virtue a man could have.
In the Ence home, there was lots of love and affection, but not many rules, although Jay’s parents would not take any disrespect from the children. One evening, Jay came home late. “Dad said something as I was coming out of the bathroom. I talked back to him, so he hit me and knocked me down. He was a big man who wouldn’t tolerate any sass from his kids,” Jay said.
When Jay was 8 years old, he was baptized by his father in the font of the St. George Temple, since it was the only church building in town with inside water. The Ence family went to church as a family every Sunday.
“I don’t think I liked church but I went because I knew my parents wanted me there, and what else was there to do in Ivins? Jay said. “I never missed church until I got married, then I became inactive.”
One of Jay’s earliest memory of a childhood prank was when Jay, his brother Floyd and their father were attempting to cross the Santa Clara Creek to get to their farm at Three Mile. At the time, the creek was four to five feet deep and the Model A truck stalled in the river. Water was coming in through the floorboard when Reuben and Floyd decided to go for their team of horses.
When his father got to the other side of the creek, he turned around and hollered, “Jay, don’t you throw those keys in the creek!”
“I hadn’t even thought about the keys, but as soon as he said that, I pulled the keys from the ignition and held them up. As Dad and Floyd watched, I dropped them into the river. Dad was fit to be tied. He was a big man, so he had no trouble grabbing me by the seat of the pants and throwing me into the creek,” Jay said.
Floyd ran after Jay and dragged him out of the water. “Dad was so mad, I still think he might have let me drown,” Jay said. For my whole life, I tried his patience. Dad would say, “Sometimes, I wish Floyd had left you in the creek.”
Another time, his father was cutting Quentin Ence’s hair when Jay struck a match and tossed it onto his brother’s head. “His hair went up in a flash,” Jay said. “Dad dropped the clippers and tried to douse the flames by hitting Quentin’s head…I got my pants whipped for that trick.”
On another occasion, Jay dipped a mop into some hot tar being used as sealant on a boat, and spread the tar all over Quentin’s new bicycle. Then he covered Quentin’s eyes and lifted him onto the bicycle seat. It didn’t take Quentin long to realize he was on the hot seat, Jay said.
Jay also got a whipping from his dad for that prank.
“There wasn’t much to do in Ivins in those days, except chase rabbits, play marbles, ride horses, work and play practical jokes on each other,” Jay concluded.
Growing up on a farm, the family also raised 1,500 turkeys every year and family members helped keep them fed and watered.
One day Quentin and Jay started a pillow fight out near the turkey coops filled with new turkeys. The pillows, filled with chicken feathers, broke and feathers went everywhere. Because turkeys were susceptible to disease, especially when they came in contact with chickens, Reuben Ence was understandably upset.
In addition to whipping Quentin, he came after Jay but Jay ran off, so his father climbed back on his horse, caught up with Jay and lassoed him.
On another occasion, Quentin and Jay were in an outhouse smoking cedar bark wrapped in paper while they kept an eye out for their father. When their father came around the corner of the house, Jay hollered to Quentin, who dropped the cigarette into the toilet.
“It was like dropping it into a gas tank. The entire outhouse blew up. Quentin got out without injury, but it burned to the ground,” Jay said.
In school, Jay admitted he paid no attention in class. It was also in school where he played another prank. He took a cigarette lighter into the classroom on one occasion, held it to the doorknob until the wood around the knob started to smoke. Then Jay “knocked on the door and Mr. Orton, a teacher, opened the door and burned his hand pretty seriously.”
Jay’s first spiritual experience occurred when as a teenager, he wanted a Cushman scooter. He prayed that the Lord would bless him with the desire of his heart. At one point, he took out his life’s savings from the bank, and gave it to his bishop as tithing. Then a miracle happened. His dad was able to get Jay a newspaper route, and he was able to purchase the scooter.
“It really taught me the Lord answers prayers, even responding to the pleadings of a small child,” he said.
After Jay got married to Janice Esplin, he chewed tobacco and had a difficult time giving it up. He didn’t attend seminary and although his mother wanted him to go on a mission for the LDS Church, he chose to get married instead.
“I don’t think I had a testimony as a kid. I was in this life to have fun,” Jay said.
When Jay was young, arguments between siblings and neighbors were usually solved with fist fights.
“It seems I was always in a fight with someone,” he said. “I never started a fight, but I ended most of them, because I could whip just about anyone. Once I beat an opponent, they never gave me any more trouble.”
Over the years, Jay received many awards and trophies while fighting in Golden Glove tournaments. He was only knocked out once in his fighting career – and that wasn’t in the ring. He was irrigating new crops at Three Mile and had promised his brother Floyd that he would turn the water every hour while Floyd was away on an errand.
Jay had been out practically all night. He laid down, went to sleep and when Floyd returned to the field at 2 a.m., the new crops had all been washed away. Floyd started cussing Jay, so Jay stood up ready to fight, when Floyd “popped me and I went right down. “
Following Jay’s marriage to Janice Esplin in the St. George Temple on April 22, 1954, they had four children: Kevin, Shauna, Rick and Jeff. Ben Shorty, a Navajo boy, came into the family in August 1979 when he was 10 years old. At the time this manuscript was written, the Ence family had 22 grandchildren and one great grandchild.
Quentin and Jay Ence were quite young when they went into business together. They pooled their resources together and bought a fruit stand on Highway 91. They later started selling hay to Anderson Dairy in Las Vegas, Nev.
Then Floyd and Jay Ence went into the turkey business. Later, Quentin and Jay built a feed mill. They also started Ence Brothers Feed and Trucking. Then Jay, along with several other local residents ,formed the Rio Virgin Investment Company.
In 1975, Jay and members of his family founded Ence Construction Company, which became Southern Utah’s largest homebuilder and the second most prolific in the state of Utah. In its 25-year history, the company created more than 3,300 homes. From Ence Construction, they launched multiple construction- related businesses including Ence Excavation and Engineering, Ence Sand and Gravel and Ence Concrete.
“I’ve started many businesses, then sold them,” Jay is quoted in Sappington’s manuscript. “The motivation was to make money and jobs for our kids and for other young people in town. We’ve provided hundreds of jobs so our young people could stay in southwestern Utah. We’ve always worked hard for our money, and spent it conservatively…My philosophy has always been to work hard, be honest and take care of our customers and those on our payroll. We have 30-35 real estate salesmen, and sell 300-400 homes a year, but our best salesmen are our homebuyers. They can make us or break us. If we take good care of them, they are our best asset and our best friends,” Jay said.
Jay and family members also started Clear Vision Cable Company, probably one of the most risky business ventures they started, but Jay always felt good about it.
With encouragement from his wife, and from friends, Dale Gubler, Ken Metcalf and Bruce Stucki, Jay Ence became active again in the LDS Church. He served as Elders Quorum President, as temple ordinance worker with his wife, Janice, as a member of the Dixie College 4th Ward Bishropric and as its bishop, as a first counselor in the High Priests Group Leadership of a Bloomington ward, served as a high councilor, and was bishop of a 25-40 year old singles ward.
He and his wife Janice later served an 18-month LDS mission to New Zealand and the Cook Islands. Returning home, Jay later served as a Washington County Commissioner.
In 2002, he was honored as one of four distinguished citizens by Dixie State College. In addition to his business and religious experience, Jay served for many years on the St. George Lions Club, served on the board of directors of Sun First Bank and was a past member of the St. George Rotary Bowl Committee, First Security Advisory Board of Southern Utah, Washington County Water Conservancy District, board of directors of Dixie Regional Medical Center, board of directors of the Washington County Fair Board, board member of the Washington County Planning Commission and board of directors of the St. George Chamber of Commerce. He was also a past president of the Washington County Racing Association and the Dixie High School Booster Club.
Community improvement projects spearheaded by Jay Ence included the Dixie Downs Race Track, the St. George City Dog Pound Facility, the Jubilee Home of St. George, and the Dove Center. He also facilitated the restoration of the Historic Gubler Home in Santa Clara together with the Stucki family.
He was the recipient of numerous civic honors including the Utah Total Citizen in 1985; St. George Chamber of Commerce Business Man of the Year in 1990; and Chamber of Commerce Citizen of the Year in 1994.
Jay’s philosophy has been that he saw “every day as a new beginning – a chance to start over and do better. “
As for family, he believes the best way to raise good children is by setting the proper example for them to follow. And his idea on work is to “work hard,” “earn your own money” and “never say anything bad about the boss or your co-workers.”