Centenarian Dr. Bill James will be 102 on his next birthday. With nearly 80 more years of life and experiences than myself, James revealed only a snippet of his arsenal of stories in the two hours I sat with him in his home.
From hauling cement in his Model T at 14 years of age for $30 a week to flying over the Himalayas during World War II, James has participated in the creation of modern day America. He's not happy with the results, though, and he has a few soutions to fix his great nation.
In today's installment, James shares some of the experiences that brought him to where he is today.
North Branford Patch: When is your birthday?
Dr. Bill James: July 20, 1910
North Branford Patch: Were you born in Northford?
James: I was born in Rhode Island in North Providence. I didn’t stay there long, I got transferred to Michigan then to Calagary, Alberta.
North Branford Patch: How did you make your way here to Northford?
James: I got the job as superintendent down in Branford and there was a house for sale here so I bought it. After I left the superintendency in Branford, I had a job with the Commission for Higher Education up in Hartford and I was associate director. Really that job has two jobs, which were very, very interesting. One of them I was in charge of state accreditation for all degree-granting programs and colleges in the state and the other one I was in charge of all the state’s student financial assistance programs.
North Branford Patch: Where are your parents from?
James: My mother was from Rhode Island and my father was from Michigan. That was part of the reason I moved up to Michigan after leaving North Providence.
North Branford Patch: Can you trace back when your family came to the United States?
James: Oh, they [parents] were always here. Both of them were part of families that settled here in this country early. My mother is a Daughter of the American Revolution, so she traces her lineage way back. Her family, for a large extent, came from Norwalk. My father’s family I’m not as certain about, but I do know there was a branch up in Chester.
North Branford Patch: What did your father do?
James: I grew up primarily with my mother, but my father was a publicity manager at one time for the Cadillac Motor Company in Michigan. Apparently, he had a very strong background in Latin and Greek. When he was writing articles for publicity, he would write them with words that had Latin backgrounds, as an excercise. Then he would write the whole thing over again in words derived from the Greek background. That apparently amused him very much. He was John William James, popularly known as Jessie.
North Branford Patch: What was your first job?
James: I was a cement heaver and construction worker at the age of 14. Probably my very first job though was as a farm boy. I grew up on some pretty primitive farms up in Michigan. We had no running water in the house, no electricity, we did have a telephone. I did all the work of a farm boy. When our farms were dry, I’d ride a horse out and pasture the cattle out in the fields and I look back on that with great pleasure.
The person who ran those farms was my mother [Dr. May Hall James] and she left the farm to get herself two doctorate degrees, one from Brown in around 1925, which was rather unusual for a woman to get her doctorate degree in those days. Her doctorate degree was in sociology and economics and then she got another doctorate degree from Yale in history and education.
For quite a few years she was a professor at Southern Connecticut here in New Haven, then after that she became Dean of Women at Quinnipiac University.
She was quite active. For about 25 years she was the American head of the Canadian American Women’s Committee.
North Branford Patch: You’ve seen the introduction of an innumerable wealth of inventions over the last 101 years. Which would you say has impacted you the most?
James: That would be difficult to say. I don’t know that I would put any one, it was more the whole development. So many things developed in a hurry and it has been an interesting time.
North Branford Patch: Do you have any memories of the first World War?
James: Oh yes. I was living in Birmingham, Michigan, when World War I was on. I remember the morning the news came. We lived a quarter mile from a car barn. In those days, street cars were quite popular and the cars had tremendous air horns on them and I can remember you’d pull this leather thing and it would blast the air horn and you could hear it for miles.
We awakened in the morning because the car barn people had pulled all the air horns to celebrate the end of the war. I’d been given an old pan and something to hit on it, so I went up to Main Street in Birmingham and I banged on that pan with a whole lot of other people.
North Branford Patch: When and where did you meet your wife, Virginia?
James: At a party my mother went to up in New Britain–our mothers were very friendly so we went to a party with them and Virginia was there. I was probably close to 40, she’s quite a bit younger, by 16 years actually.
North Branford Patch: What is the secret to such a long marriage?
James: I’ve been quite a moderate person in my life. When I went to Europe I didn’t have a drop of liquor. I saw young people getting themselves into all sort of problems. My mother and I were just too damn poor to have problems then.
North Branford Patch: What’s your secret? How can we all live to be past 100?
James: I say to people, be lucky.
In the service, I was assigned to an aircraft mechanics school in North Carolina. I was in a barracks with 42 of us. Just before we finished school, one man got transferred out to go to the west coast to go to a communications school. I got transferred out to go to officer candidate school. I finished that then went to air intelligence school. Then I was assigned to Davis-Monthan in Arizona.
On the train from Pennsylvania to New York, I ran into that other fellow who got transferred out and I said to him, ‘Have you heard from any of the other men?’ He said, ‘Well didn’t you hear what happened to them?'
These guys were trained mechanics to be sent to North Africa. When they got there, there were no planes and no bases. So they were working there as construction battalions waiting for planes to arrive when General Rommel came through with his tank and killed them all.
When I got overseas, I got assigned to a couple of planes and they came to find out I was out on some other duties, so they sent someone in my place and he didn’t come back. You don’t know how many times those things will happen.
When I say lucky, you have to be lucky.
Tomorrow North Branford Patch's Emily Constance will go on to share James' thoughts and inspiration for his book, The Monetarists and the Evolving Crisis: Wake Up, Americans; We Are Losing Our Great Nation.