Living for the Lord


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Posted January 1, 2021 | By Susan Smiley-Height, Ocala Gazette | Photography by Meagan Gumpert

Mentor, civic activist, retired school system supervisor and devout Christian William James reflects on his 100th birthday.

William James outside the home that he was born in in 1921. James celebrates his 100th birthday on January 1. Photography by Meagan Gumpert.

When the sun comes up on Friday, Jan. 1, 2021, William James will open the blinds in his bedroom and pray for all the drivers he sees traveling past his home on Highway 441 north of Ocala. Then he will celebrate his 100th birthday by reading his Bible.

James, the son of Mary and Grant James, was born in a home on the property and now lives in a newer house nearby. He had three younger siblings.

“My father died when I was 12 years old and my mother raised me and the rest of us,” he said. “I was always taught to honor thy father and thy mother that your days may be long upon the land, which the Lord thy God will give thee. So, I learned to honor my mother and everybody else old enough to be my mother or father. That’s one thing I always kept in mind.”

James said he still drives and lives alone, but with a lot of support from family members and friends.

“I’m doing really well at my old age,” he offered.

As for recalling some highlights of his life, he said “I’ve seen a lot more than I can talk about.

“I haven’t had any problems and have friends white and black all over the country. I never smoke, drank or cursed. Not one swallow of wine or whiskey, and I never missed it,” he explained. “I’ve never been in jail, except to visit people.”

He recalls key events over the years, such as man landing on the moon.

“I remember hearing about all kinds of things—good and bad,” he noted.

His faith has remained a very important part of his life and he still can’t wait for Sunday mornings so he can attend services at Mount Tabor AME Church.

“I tried to live a Christian life all my life,” he said. “I’m proud of myself for the life I chose to live.”

He said he has one surviving sibling, his brother Grady, who lives in Chicago.

“I have a cousin who lives next door. She’s like a daughter to me. She cleans my house and calls me every morning and every night. She brings food and whatever I need,” he added.

That relative, Cheryl Hopkins Kendrick, said his reaching the age of 100 is “truly, truly a blessing.

“He is my cousin, but he thinks of me as his goddaughter,” she said. “I take him food and all that.”

As for any life lesson she has learned from him, she said, “He always told me to treat people like you want to be treated and to do the right thing and pray and read your Bible.”

James still raises cattle on his property and right now has six cows and a bull.

“They are all gentle. I feed them light bread over the fence. Even that big bull, who weighs 2,000 pounds, comes right over to eat out of my hand,” he said.

James retired in 1986 after 27 years with Marion County Public Schools. He was the district’s first Black custodial supervisor and oversaw 17 schools. Along the way he mentored students, including during the turbulent years of integration. He said he prayed for the day he could see black and white students under one roof.

“I have had the good fortune of knowing Mr. James for over 40 years,” said Scott Hackmyer, a longtime community supporter and retired educator. “For all those decades, one thing has never changed with Mr. James – he is a gentleman. I recently mailed Mr. James a birthday card and wrote that I hope his second 100 years are as wonderful as his first. He is indeed a fine man.”

James has been accorded many honors over the years. He received the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Commemorative Commission’s Legacy Pioneer Award, had the City of Ocala’s “William James Start!” walking trail on Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue named for him, and was an inaugural inductee of the Legacy Park Community Service Recognition Program.

Cynthia Wilson Graham, a local educator, photographer and author, featured James in her book “Walking By Faith: My Story Collection: William Harding James.”

“He has always helped people in the community with the resources available to him,” she said. “The home he was born in, which is next to his current home, he would use it to store things to give to the less fortunate. He was a volunteer with the Marion County Sheriff’s Office for a while. He is an NAACP member and was involved in the recent Souls to the Polls event. He had his signs and he was encouraging people to vote.”

James remains involved with FLIP FLOP Support Groups, Inc., which works with current and formerly incarcerated individuals and their families through monthly meetings, referrals and services, and providing gifts for children.

“Mr. James is our chaplain,” said Jaclyn Brown, executive director of the organization, who first met him in 2009 at a community meeting at the Ocala Police Department.

“We went to lunch at Golden Corral and now I’m pretty much his caregiver,” she said. “It is so amazing that he is turning 100.”

Brown, along with local banker T.J. Wynn, is helping organize a special celebration for James on Jan. 9 at a venue in Ocala. The event is by invitation only in order to maintain appropriate social distancing.

“He was one of my first clients when I came here and our relationship has become more personal,” Wynn noted. “I am working with family members and we take great care to help protect him. He’s done so much. He’s more like a mentor. We talk two or three times a week.”

James, said he didn’t have any special plans for his birthday, other than to do what he always does, which is to “live for the Lord.”

“I praise the Lord. I read the Bible. I even sleep with it in my bed. This morning, I had a problem with my pump and when a friend came to see about it and knocked on the door, I was laying in bed reading the Bible. I wake up with it; I sleep with it,” he said. “The Lord has blessed me, and I try to bless Him. I’m so proud of my life. I have seen so many different kinds of lives, but I had no fuss, no fights. One of my prayers is to pray for my enemies, if I have any.”