CAPE ELIZABETH — John M. Pulsifer, 74, a legendary car dealer best known as “Jolly John,” died Feb. 19 at the Gosnell Memorial Hospice House in Scarborough as a result of pancreatic cancer.

According to Jim Boldebook of the Creative Broadcast Concepts automobile advertising agency in Biddeford, who created the slogan “I’m not Jolly unless you’re happy,” Pulsifer was a truly happy person. 

“John loved working, loved people and loved seeing people smile,” Boldebook said. “‘I’m not Jolly unless you’re happy’ was not just an empty slogan. He truly loved life, loved Maine and loved America.”

Boldebook knew Pulsifer for 30 years. They started CBC together and worked to fine-tune Pulsifer’s image. Boldebook said Pulsifer was an “ad guy’s dream come true” because he was willing to dress up, act like a comedian and make people laugh. He embraced wacky ideas, dressed as a flower, a leprechaun, a banana and wore a diaper to sell cars and raise money for charity, Boldebook said.

“He became my mentor for business in general and I was fascinated by learning from him,” he said. “I knew there was something very unique and different about the guy. I knew he was a winner.”

Boldebook said as Pulsifer began to buy more dealerships that were heavily leveraged, his business and personal finances were hit by the failing economy. In 1991 he was forced to declare personal bankruptcy.

“He was not a hard-nosed business person and he didn’t want to let his workers go,” he said. “Even with bankruptcy there was no keeping a guy like that down.  I learned from John that if you believe in yourself and your abilities you can walk through life with no fear. A lot of people don’t have that belief system and Jolly John did.”

Pulsifer was born to Edward and Frances Pulsifer and grew up on Brackett Street in Portland in a house that had been owned by his grandparents, the Rev. Herbert and Elizabeth Pulsifer. He attended Hoosac School in Hoosick, N.Y., Trinity College in Connecticut, Bentley College and Portland Junior College, which is now the University of Southern Maine.

He married Paulyne Ouellette on May 5, 1962. They were married for 46 years until his wife’s death in 2008.

Daughter Michelle Gordon said Pulsifer was a “deeply private, sometimes quiet, religious, intellectual man” who was well-versed in English and enjoyed history, movie trivia and reading.

Her parents enjoyed traveling, shopping, attending plays and going to the movies. She said they spent winters in Sarasota, Fla., where Pulsifer took up golf and cooking.

“Dad had an amazing life, filled with adventure and excitement,” Gordon said. “Dad truly slid into heaven, shouting ‘what a ride!'”

Boldebook said Pulsifer never wasted a day in his life and did not believe in negativity.

“There are so many people out there whose lives were improved because of him,” he said. “They may be customers, children, people who benefited from his charitable donations, people who worked for him – all of those people have been infected by his enthusiasm.”

Survivors are Pulsifer’s daughter and her husband, Peter Gordon; grandsons Michael, Christopher and Sam Gordon; brother and sister-in-law Edward and Linda Pulsifer; sister-in-law Marian Ouellette; nephews Ed, Geoff and Jeremy Pulsifer and their families; nieces Lynn DeAngelis and Becky Wetherbee and their families; and a very special friend, Helen Champagne. He will also be greatly missed by his dog Tory, known as his “puppy-daughter.”

In place of flowers, donations may be made in Pulsifer’s memory to the Jolly John Scholarship at Cheverus High School, 267 Ocean Ave., Portland, ME 04103.

Visiting hours are 3 p.m. to 7 p.m. Wednesday, Feb. 23, at Hobbs Funeral Home, 230 Cottage Road, South Portland. A burial service will be held at noon on Thursday, Feb. 24, at St. Albans Episcopal Church, 885 Shore Road, Cape Elizabeth. Interment at Riverside Cemetery will take place in the spring.

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John M. Pulsifer

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