James Clarke dropped everything and ran into the Long Beach Island ocean to save three boys caught in a riptide. Moments after saving them, he collapsed and died. (Asbury Park Press)

Jane Clarke met her husband, Jimmy Clarke, when she was managing a Bennigan’s restaurant near Union, N.J. in the early 1990s.

After resisting his initial advances, she finally agreed to have dinner with her suitor at the famous River Cafe under the Brooklyn Bridge.

Twenty-five years later, the couple was still very much in love. They’d built a full life together, one that included two kids, a furniture retail company and a summer home on Long Beach Island that Jimmy called his “little slice of heaven,” his wife told the Asbury Park Press.

As they lounged on the beach one Sunday earlier this month, Jane Clarke was suddenly struck by how far they’d come.

“I was sitting there, and I looked over at him and said in my head, ‘This is the best we’ve ever had it,’ ” she told The Washington Post. “And then, within 10 minutes, he was gone.”

The calm was shattered when Clarke noticed that his 15-year-old son and two other teenagers were caught in a riptide about 100 yards off the shore, his wife said. One of the boys was in distress after swallowing sea water, and the other two were struggling to get him back to shore.

Without hesitation, Clarke dropped the book he was reading and dashed into the surf. It didn’t take long for the 55-year-old to reach the teenagers.

“He was like, ‘All right, guys, it’s pretty rough out here,’ ” Clarke’s son, Peter, told the Park Press. “Then we started focusing on getting back.”

A lifelong lover of the ocean, Clarke was normally at home in the water, whether he was boating, fishing or swimming, his wife told The Post.

But as he neared the shore with his son, he stumbled in the waves, and his demeanor suddenly changed.

“He was in fear,” Peter told the Asbury Park Press. “I’d never seen that.”

“That was the first time I’d ever helped my dad in the ocean,” he added.

His wife noticed something was wrong as soon as her husband reached the shore. At first, she thought he was trying to catch his breath, but when the pair locked eyes, it was clear Jimmy Clarke was in trouble.

“The boys were out and then all of a sudden my husband, like, sat down, and I swear, he looked at me one last time,” Jane Clarke told the Asbury Park Press. “I saw his blue eyes. And he knew what was going on.”

What was going on was that Clarke was having a heart attack. Peter tried to perform cardio-pulmonary resuscitation on his dad, but “he was gone after that,” he said.

Minutes after he’d saved the lives of three teenagers, Jimmy Clarke was dead.

The Asbury Park Press reported that the Ocean County Medical Examiner’s office expects Clarke’s autopsy results to take several weeks, but his death appears to stem from “natural” causes.

The Clarkes were in the process of selling their home in Watchung, N.J., the paper reported, but Jane Clarke has lowered the price in hopes of moving on from the place where she shared so much with her late husband. The void left by her husband is a large one, she told The Post, recalling how Jimmy Clarke was always busy but still managed to make time for his loved ones.

“He had so many friends,” Clarke said. “Everyone called him their best friend. If he was out to dinner, he would be the one to pick up the tab. He was very generous.”
She misses him, she said, but takes pride in the fact that his final moments were a sacrifice for others.

“He would not have changed anything,” Jane Clarke told The Post. “He saved his son, and he saved those boys.”

She added: “If he was going to go, that was the way to do it — as a hero.”

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