A life lived: Jesse James lived to serve others

Published 9:19 am Wednesday, February 27, 2019

Someone has said: “Your soul is the power and core of who you are. Feed it well.”

Jesse James did a lot of living in his 70 years. He was getting to be an old man some would say, but not Jesse. He was a youngster at heart, who enjoyed a game of baseball, being around young people, building things, going places, and doing for others.

Jesse was never still for very long. There was always something on his list of things to do, and usually it was things to do for others.

Subscribe to our free email newsletter

Get the latest news sent to your inbox

Growing up, Jesse lived in Elk Mills with his grandmother. His parents died when he was just a young boy, and he and his siblings lived with relatives. He attended Hampton High School, where he played basketball for Coach Walter “Buck” VanHuss. Most evenings after basketball practices, he hitchhiked back home to Elk Mills. “Usually it was after dark when he got home, and lots of time he had to walk much of the way. That’s how much he enjoyed playing basketball,” said Jesse’s wife, Carolyn.

Also, when he was in high school, he worked part-time at Motor Parts in Elizabethton, as a bag boy at Smithdeal’s, and often worked in the tobacco fields, either setting it out, cutting, or grading it.

Jesse graduated from Hampton High in 1966, and two years later entered the U.S. Army, serving in Vietnam for a year. While there he was exposed to Agent Orange, which in later years caused him some health problems. He earned the National Defense Service Medal, the Army Commendation Medal, the Vietnam Service Medal, a Bronze Star, the Vietnam Campaign Medal, and the Vietnam Cross of Gallantry.

Jesse was discharged from the military in 1970 and a year later he and Carolyn married. Once he was back home from the service, he found a job at the rayon plants in Elizabethton and worked there for a brief time before he went to work at Eastman Chemical in Kingsport. Yet, basketball was still on his mind as for a number of years he played with several independent leagues, including one with Eastman. He also helped J.R. Campbell at Little Milligan School with the school basketball team.

It was not until his retirement from Eastman that he got a call from a niece asking him if he would lend a hand with her girls team at Hampton. They needed a little help with shooting foul shots. It was a call that Jesse couldn’t turn down. After his niece left the program, Jesse stayed on assisting with the teams and remained for 18 years.

One of Jesse’s legacies was his mission work with the Watauga Association of Baptist and Southern Baptist Convention. He made over 40 mission trips to places like Venezuela and Prince Edward Island, Canada; disaster relief trips to South Carolina and Florida; and enjoyed taking the youth of Union Baptist Church to Townsend, Tenn. “Jesse had a love for missions that was cultivated by his teachers and the pastors at Union Baptist Church. He enjoyed getting teams together, raising money for the trips, as well as gathering needed medical supplies for the trips,” Carolyn said. “He never lost his zeal for missions.”

Jesse served Union Baptist Church as a deacon and when called upon to serve, always answered the call, and church members will tell you he gave his best.

“Jesse was a strong, thoughtful person. He never rushed to judgment. He always thought things through before he acted,” Carolyn shared.

Jesse and his wife had no children of their own, but they raised two of Jesse’s nieces and two others in their family.

Jesse was a collector of people and friends and he enjoyed working with his hands. In addition to his work at Eastman, he enjoyed building houses. He built the house he lived in as well as a number of other houses. He also enjoyed building people through encouragement, coaching and being a friend. “He always instilled in his mission friends and ballplayers the need to be responsible, to honor their parents, and do what they could to help others.”

Jesse James’s voice and hands were stilled on Jan. 29. He leaves a legacy to be envied. It was never about Jesse, but always about others.