Oct. 23, 1922—April 3, 2019
“They came of age during the Great Depression and the Second World War and went on to build modern America—men and women whose everyday lives of duty, honor, achievement, and courage gave us the world we have today.”—Tom Brokaw
Houston Leon (Jack) James was born October 23rd, 1922, in Golden, Okla., to Ella (Summerhill) James and David Erin James, a full-blooded Choctaw Indian. When he was four years old, his father died and he was raised by his mother, grandmother and Uncle Horace in Glover, Okla. They lived on a small plot of land consisting of a house with a wood stove, a shed for animals, a well for water, an outhouse, a fenced pasture and a very large garden. They kept a cow, a calf, pigs and chickens. By the second grade, Jack would be on the edge of what the author Timothy Egan would call “The Worst of Hard Times”—the great “Dust Bowl,” which would ruin the farmlands of the Texas and Oklahoma panhandle and the beginning of the “Great Depression.” It would be a rough road ahead for a Jack.
Prior to his 15th birthday, he signed up for the Civilian Conservation Corps, government jobs for unmarried men between the ages of 18 and 25. He listed his occupation as farmer. The Corps are run by the Army. Jack was trained in truck driving, mechanics and surveying. The primary work for his unit was to plant trees for windbreaks so that future dust storms were less likely to cause erosion. Pay was $30 a month; he sent $25 home to his mother. In two years, he was honorably discharged from the Corps, which was maximum service time.
With the skills learned, he found work as a truck driver near Idabel, Okla. December 7, 1941, “a date which will live in infamy”, per President Roosevelt, Pearl Harbor was attacked by the Empire of Japan. Jack enlisted in the Army in January 1942. At Fort Leonard Wood in Missouri, he began basic training at the age of 19. At that time, he was courting Lillie Whitfield, who had two children, Tommy and Mary Lou Vaught. Jack and Lillie were married on the weekend of June 22nd, 1942, at Fort Leonard Wood. After basic training, he was assigned to Headquarters detail of the Quartermaster Corps. The Corps would supply ammunition, medical supplies, food, water and fuel to support the fighting troops.
On October 13, 1943, the farm boy who had been only a few miles from his birthplace was on a ship in the North Atlantic headed for England. He would celebrate his 21st birthday in England four days after his arrival. The Allies launched the invasion of Normandy. When and where Jack landed on the mainland of Europe was not known, but supplies needed to follow the fighting troops closely. He was awarded five Bronze stars for campaigns in Ardennes, Central Europe, Rhineland, Normandy, and North France. Jack would say in later years, “I never thought I was coming home.”
Back in the states, his wife Lillie packed up belongings for her and the two children and moved to Vancouver. Henry J. Kaiser was starting shipbuilding and was advertising, “Come on out to Vancouver. You can make as much as $10 per day.” Lillie would become a welder working to build assorted ships.
On May 8, 1945, the unconditional surrender of Germany was official. The troops in Europe were being converted to peacekeeping and some, including Jack, were considered for transfer to the Pacific Theater of Operations. In August 1945, atomic bombs level Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Nine days later Japan surrenders. Jack was happy that two ‘‘bombs” could bring closure to the horrors of war. Before Japan had signed the surrender agreement on September 2, 1945, he was on a ship back to the States, taken by a train to Missouri, was honorably discharged and was on his way to Longview, where he would begin his civilian life.
The shipyard had shut down and Lillie and her extended family had moved to Longview. Jack found a job doing manual labor for Longview Concrete Pipe Company the sole provider of premix concrete in Longview. Lillie worked at a local laundry as a seamstress so that the family could save toward the building of a new house and the purchase of a new car, “Their American Dream.”
Jack finally had time to get to know his son and daughter, with whom he had spent no significant time, and also Lillie’s family. There were family movie nights, fishing outings, picnic dinners, and visiting with family. Jack was easy to get to know, kind, gentle, courteous, and he got along well and was liked by all. June 30, 1946, a son, David Leon James, was born. In the summer of 1952 plans were made, a lot purchased on Pacific Way and a new house of brick and block construction began. It would take about 4 years to construct working on evenings and weekends.During the next 36 years, Jack and Lillie would build three more houses in the Longview area and remodel several more.
In 1952, Jack was promoted to Plant Manager of Longview Concrete Pipe Company after nine years of service. He was a member of the Longview Lions and Longview Country Club. He loved fishing for salmon and sharing his catch. He was an avid bowler and participated in many tournaments. Jack and Lillie were early RVers and they owned five different vehicles over the years. They attended U. W. football games for many years. Jack retired from Longview Concrete Company and worked managing concrete plants in Wenatchee and Boise.
Jack and Lillie then returned to Longview and built a home in the Columbia Valley Garden Area in 1986. They would have fruit trees, a large garden, blueberries, and grapes. They became snowbirds and took their motorhome to Arizona for winters and back to Longview for the cool summers.
Lillie would become ill and pass away peacefully in November 2002. Jack would say she was a wonderful wife for the 60 years of their marriage.
Jack would continue to go south for the winters for a few years. His son David gave him a large greenhouse for his backyard, which made the long, wet winters more bearable. His health was good but his mind was beginning to fail. In 2012, he celebrated his 90th birthday when the Longview Presbyterian Church honored him after the Sunday service. Almost all of his longtime friends were deceased. His family that had 26 nephews and nieces living in the Longview area was reduced to just a few. He had nice neighbors, but his life was very lonely. He looked forward to the daily knock on the door from the cheerful volunteers of “Meals on Wheels.”
In February of 2013, it became clear that Jack’s mind was getting worse and preparations by his family were made to provide more assistance. He is asked “What happens when we have to make unpleasant decisions, like giving up driving?” He responds “I’ll do as you say”, and to his credit, he did. His son David volunteered to move in his house to care for him in the winter and he had a friend, Wilma Lake, who spent the summers with him.
Three years passed since it was recognized he needed help and it was time to move him into a memory care facility at Canterbury Gardens. He wasn’t forewarned. He was greeted with a cheerful “Are you ready to go?” He got in the car without asking where he is going. He was driven to the facility and ushered through the locked doors to the dining room. We had a nice conversation over lunch. The nurse came over and was introduced to Jack. I gave him a big hug and told him, “This is your new home and they will take good care of you.” After two days, I return and explain why he can’t live at his home. After contemplation he says, “I don’t want to be here, but it sure is a nice place.”
We begin cleaning and clearing the house for an estate sale, It’s a huge job. A casual sign the window, and a willing and a thrilled buyer arrived within days. Jack doesn’t ask about his house and when he is asked where he is, it is “Oklahoma”—a place he lived for only nineteen years as a youth.
He is comfortable and well cared for by the caregivers at Canterbury Gardens. Finally, it gets to the point he can’t answer any questions about the past, nor names. He is shown pictures and asked to pick out people until he knows no one. I ask him his name and he barks out, “HOUSTON LEON JAMES”, just like he did in army boot camp in 1942. A short time later, he doesn’t know his name. He continued to lose mental and physical abilities and was aided by hospice to make him comfortable until he passed away peacefully on April 3, 2019.
Thank you God for letting Houston Leon (Jack) James be in our lives: Son David James, stepchildren Tom (Judy) and Mary Vaught; grandchildren Rob James, Allen Duncan, Chris Masulo, Karla Grady, Andy Vaught, Dan Vaught, and Kelly Vaught.
A graveside service is planned for 1:00 p.m. April 9 at Longview Memorial Park.