A Life Lived: Jimmy Ritchie was a guardian of history

Published 8:11 am Wednesday, April 5, 2017

James Wayne “Jimmy” Ritchie faced a lot of obstacles in life, but he fearlessly faced each one of them head on. In the end he was a picture of courage, a man who embraced his limitations, and found a way to overcome.

Jimmy was well-known around town as he had a route he traveled almost every day, visiting the staff at the Elizabethton-Carter County Public Library, downtown businesses, and friends along the way.

Jimmy was an avid flag collector and had over 3,000 flags in his collection. He enjoyed the study of flags, and through the years had presented numerous programs on flags, particularly the American flag, this despite the fact that he could not read or write.

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According to Jimmy’s family he suffered meningitis when he was six weeks old, which left him with both mental and physical disabilities. This was where friends and the library staff came in. They helped him with his research. In return, Jimmy became a special friend to the library staff. When the Friends of the Library had their annual book sales in the spring and fall, Jimmy distributed and posted fliers all over town announcing the book sale.

At Christmas, he played the library Santa. “He did this up until about five years ago,” said Ashley Williams, Children’s Librarian. “Because of Jimmy, the library has a Santa costume.”

He was Santa not only at Christmas, but all year long. Even in the summer, he would remind the children at the library, “You’d better be good, Santa sees you.”

Jimmy enjoyed a special friendship with Joe Penza, library archivist. “He was so connected to the community. He visited so many clubs and schools and shared about his flags. He knew so many people, and they knew him. I didn’t know much about flags until I met Jimmy, and he taught me much about the flags of the world. After Jimmy went to the nursing home, he would call and want something printed. I would take it to him and read the print to him, if need be. But, often he already knew about it,” said Penza.

Jimmy had been a resident at Hillview Nursing Home since August, and was visited often by Penza. “I’ve had very few friends call me ‘brother.’ When Jimmy greeted me, he always called me ‘brother,’ and I’m very proud that he thought of me as a brother,” Penza shared.

“One thing he taught me was: Let your flag fly. Be who you are. Embrace who you are and enjoy what you do,” said Penza.

“One of the last times I visited Jimmy was to take something he had asked me to print for him. Before I left he asked me to pray with him which I did. I will miss him,” Penza said.

Jimmy was a member of the North American Vexillological Association, and with the help of his family and friends was privileged to attend many of the group’s conventions. In 2004, when the NAVA convention was held in Nashville, Jimmy submitted the winning flag design for that year’s convention. “He was so proud,” said his brother, Randy.

Jimmy’s interest in flags began years ago when his brother, Teddy, gave him a U.S. flag he had received at the local American Legion Carnival. “Every year at the carnival they would shoot a flag off, and one year Teddy got it. He gave it to Jimmy, and from there the collection began. We always made sure that Jimmy was able to travel to the conventions,” Randy said.

Because of his disabilities, Jimmy was never able to serve his country in the military, but he served in many other ways. He was an honorary member of the Elizabethton American Legion, and attended its monthly meetings.

“Jimmy loved politics. Of course, he was a Republican and didn’t care to speak out on the issues,” said Randy. Jimmy, with the help of his family, was able to attend two presidential inaugurations — those of George W. Bush and George H.W. Bush.

A Black Bottom neighbor, Jean Dolan, described Jimmy as a person with a “sweet, kind heart.”

She often shared her dinner with him and read his mail to him. “He loved cornbread,” Joan shared.

“Jimmy always wanted to help others, and would often take his neighbors’ garbage cans to the street on garbage pickup day. He loved to decorate for Christmas. He would display his Christmas cards, and set up a miniature village in his living room. Jimmy was a good neighbor and will be missed all over town,” Joan said.

Jimmy was a member of the First Church of the Nazarene, and there was a full house for his funeral Saturday. “No doubt he touched many lives,” said Randy.

For his funeral, the church was decorated with flags — a lasting tribute to a man who shared his love for flags with so many — clubs, school children, the library, and community. Those flags became a means for Jimmy Ritchie to share his love and friendship with others as well as his faith and passion for life.

Jimmy Ritchie will be missed.