CAPE ELIZABETH – When it came to selling cars, there was no one quite like him. But, as some of his automobile dealer colleagues say, that will be only part of the legacy John Pulsifer left.

Pulsifer – known universally as “Jolly John” – died Saturday at the Gosnell Memorial Hospice House in Scarborough, after a brief battle with pancreatic cancer, which was diagnosed in December. He was 74 and lived in Cape Elizabeth.

“He was a generous man beyond anything else,” said Marc Greenberg, owner of Marc’s Motors in Sanford, who learned the business from Pulsifer. “He couldn’t give enough. Anytime someone walked on to his lot asking for a donation, he wanted to do what he could to contribute. He never said no to anybody. He was a great guy with a heart bigger than his personality.”

“He was a kind and giving man,” said David Kennerson, the owner of Norman-David Lincoln Mercury in Westbrook. “He gave to a lot of charities and helped a lot of people. He loved his employees.”

There is no doubt, however, that Pulsifer will be remembered as Jolly John, the personality that Pulsifer adopted many years ago to help sell vehicles and market his dealerships.

Kennerson said the combination of the two sides of Pulsifer – his philanthropic side and his comedic car sales side – was seen in 1992 when, trying to collect diapers for victims of Hurricane Andrew in southern Florida, Pulsifer donned a giant diaper for a television ad highlighting his cause.

“He was so well known, that’s all he had to do (before the donations came pouring in),” Kennerson said.

The way Pulsifer went about selling vehicles, which included such catchy tag lines as, “I’m not jolly, unless you’re happy,” changed the way car dealerships operated in the area.

Pulsifer’s knack for marketing his business benefited not just his auto dealership, but also dealerships across the state and nation.

In 1983, Pulsifer, along with Jim Boldebook, co-founded Creative Broadcast Concepts, a Biddeford-based advertising and marketing agency specializing in automobile advertisements.

Boldebook said he took the news of Pulsifer’s death hard.

“It’s a difficult blow to me, because I lost a very good friend of mine of 30 years,” he said.

Boldebook operates the business, which has grown to include clients from coast to coast, many using tactics drawn from Pulsifer.

“Jolly John really transformed the automobile industry of Maine in the early 1980s with very aggressive marketing that had not been see in the state prior to that,” Boldebook said.

It didn’t take long for other dealerships to note the success of Pulsifer’s schemes.

“He was a huge innovator for Maine, but he also helped dealerships all across the country,” he said.

Boldebook said Pulsifer, who drew customers from all over New England with his television and radio ads, was never shy about sharing the secrets to his success.

“He was always thrilled to go out and share his ideas on free enterprise and being the best you could be,” Boldebook said. “He probably influenced a lot of young folks who emulated his business model over the years.”

“He was also happy to help other people climb the corporate ladder,” he added.

Boldebook said in operating his dealerships, Pulsifer, like his nickname implied, was always upbeat.

“He made it a point to never share anything but optimism with his employees,” he said. “It has an infectious result.”

Kennerson said through his years of friendship with Pulsifer, he couldn’t help but learn from him.

“On a personal note, I am going to really miss him. He gave me a lot of insight into the car business,” said Kennerson, who started in the business in 1974.

“It’s a huge loss for the state and the car sales business in the area,” said Greenberg, whose father Norman was a business partner of Pulsifer’s. “He is a true icon and godfather of car sales in Maine. He epitomized working hard, having a goal in mind and not quitting until you met that goal. He was the ultimate optimist and, I think, will truly be missed.”

Greenberg, who saw Pulsifer just days before his death, said Pulsifer kept his sense of optimism right until the end.

“He told me if he had to do it all over again, he wouldn’t have done anything differently,” he said.

Boldebook said Pulsifer’s first love was Maine, the state where he was born and raised.

“He was a true Mainer,” Boldebook said. “He knew Maine people and loved Maine people. He simply tried to be the best he could be and did his best to make the lives of others around him better.”

After close to 50 years of success in the automotive business – even rebounding after filing for personal bankruptcy in 1991 – Pulsifer last summer sold his last remaining dealership, the Jolly John Auto City in Saco, to Bill Waldron, owner of Portland Volvo and Saab in Scarborough. Pulsifer said at the time that he was looking forward to spending more time with his family, especially his three grandsons, whom he called “the joy of my life.”

“He was a very warm, friendly and giving man,” Kennerson said, “He was a great guy and I am really going to miss him a lot.”

Visiting hours will be held at the Hobbs Funeral Home in South Portland from 3-7 p.m. on Wednesday, Feb. 23. The following day at noon, a service honoring Pulsifer’s life will be held at St. Alban’s Episcopal Church in Cape Elizabeth.

Legendary local auto dealer “Jolly John” Pulsifer of Cape Elizabeth died this week after a battle with pancreatic cancer. He was 74. (File photo)


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