We meet Jack Kern on a cloudy late summer day at Zurich Youth Hostel. This place has a special significance for him. He had his office here for 25 years. He has been actively involved with Swiss Youth Hostels for 60 years. With a beaming smile and a folder full of memories, he sits at the table in the lobby.
Despite his grand age of 88, he is still fit. He travelled by bus because the native of Zurich lives not far from the hostel in the Wollishofen district. The only thing he finds more and more difficult is walking.
From scouts to Youth Hostels
As a young man, Jack was a proud scout. He led the Zürileu scout unit, which “unfortunately no longer exists”, the 88-year-old thoughtfully recalls. After Jack resigned from his post, he received an enquiry from one of his scout colleagues asking if he would like to volunteer at Swiss Youth Hostels. “My friend thought I was perhaps feeling bored now,” Jack said with a laugh.
This offer came at the time when the Zurich electorate had just approved the construction of Zurich Youth Hostel on 8 December 1962 and the board of the Zurich Youth Hostel Association was expanded as a consequence. These circumstances led to Jack being elected to the Zurich management board at the age of 28. In the past, the organisational structure of SYH was quite different from today. When it was founded in 1924, there were 14 associations in Switzerland – including the one in Zurich – and over 200 hostels.
About three years after the positive vote, the new building in Wollishofen was handed over to the Zurich Youth Hostel Association on 20 December 1965. Jack remained as board member for the time being. Then one day, on 1 January 1969, Ernst Schuler, a true veteran and one of Jack’s great role models, offered him the job of managing director. “Six months after I started the job, he said to me: Mr Kern, you have what it takes. I’m going to hand it all over to you and call it a day,” Jack says with a laugh and continues, “I had a very good relationship with him. Ernst lived to be over 90 and even after his death Jack stayed in touch with Ernst’s wife.
After about four years of Jack serving as managing director, the four-member board of the association founded the Swiss Foundation for Social Tourism on 11 May 1973. He headed it from then on until his retirement. Before the foundation was established, the properties of the association had not been designated for a specific purpose. This changed once the foundation was set up.
After 20 years of negotiations, Jack reaches his next milestone on 1 January 1992: The 14 youth hostel associations merge to form a nationwide Swiss Youth Hostels Association. The head office was opened on 1 May 1994 at Schaffhauserstrasse 14 in Zurich. Where it still is to this day. “This was my biggest success,” Jack says proudly.
Youth hostels around the world
A highlight for Jack as managing director were the international conferences in various countries such as Canada, Japan, India or Ireland. Jack enthuses: “The idea of having a global youth hostel network is really great.”
Due to his commitment, he also enjoyed certain benefits. “Thanks to my connections, I was able to travel to the GDR and back again without any problems and without a visa. That used to be strictly forbidden,” Jack explained, “and because the youth tourists from Germany didn’t have much money, we brought a train full of young travellers to St Moritz so they could cheer on their successful national bobsleigh team.”
From pioneering days to professionalism
There is a world of difference between the youth hostels of yesteryear and today. When Jack is asked how he experienced the change, he says: “I like the fact that I was able to experience the pioneering days of the Swiss Youth Hostels all the way to the level of professionalism that the association demonstrates today.” It was a long path from the simple straw bed in Sulsana to the modern wellnessHostel3000 in Laax.
Furthermore, his family had been heavily involved since the early days: “We often visited youth hostels. Leisure, family and work merged together,” says Jack. His daughter Esther Haug and grandson Tobias Haug are still SYH delegates to this day. Jack still maintains close contact with his former employees.
And which youth hostel is the 88-year-old’s favourite? ”That’s definitely the St. Moritz Youth Hostel!” Jack exclaims. “I was involved in every aspect of this project. From the search for suitable building land and the planning to the completion of the new building. This was the first time we built rooms for two and four people and not just dormitories.” For many years he went on holiday with his family to the Engadine. He invited the former operations manager of his favourite youth hostel to lunch the day after this conversation
Jack Kern’s tireless work continues to this day. On 11 May 2023, the Swiss Foundation for Social Tourism will celebrate its 50th anniversary and in 2024, Swiss Youth Hostels will celebrate its centenary.