My Most Unforgettable Senior

Adoption comes in many forms and guises. While used almost as shorthand for the Christian experience with God (Ephesians 1:5), it also has a practical application flowing from that great Christian virtue of friendship.

Four years ago I met a 90-year-old man who was still running his one-man business enterprise that he had started in 1946. A superb photographer, he had supplied wholesome, photogenic talent for the advertising, entertainment and Christian journalism industries on both coasts, from Life magazine to Seventeen.
If there is any one word that describes Jim (not his real name), it is “entrepreneur.” He started his business at the recommendation of Cecil B. de Mille’s brother after working on a movie with John Wayne and ace director John Ford at the end of World War II. A great judge of character and a fine photographer, Jim has helped train three Miss USAs, a Miss America and six Miss Californias, along with 10 Rose Queens and 57 Rose Princesses for the annual Pasadena, California, New Year’s gala.

I met Jim when a mutual friend asked me to help him write his autobiography. That was in 2009, and the book has been duly written. Along the way I developed a productive, beneficial friendship with one of the most interesting people I have met. It hasn’t always been smooth sailing, but the relationship has settled into twice-monthly meetings over lunch in some of our favorite eateries in Hollywood and Burbank, Jim’s old stomping ground.

There have been a couple of times when Jim’s injuries from falling or a lack of proper nutrition have put his health at risk. But he keeps bouncing back. I have derived great moral and morale benefits from seeing that this 94-year-old is interested—genuinely interested—in me, my wife, our life’s experiences and especially my 41 years as a minister.
There’s a good reason for Jim’s interest in ministry. He has been Head Usher at his local Roman Catholic church for 37 years and shows up at 9:15 each Sunday morning come rain or shine, even with the occasional cracked rib.

In spite of serving as Head Usher all those years, Jim rarely got the chance to sit down and talk with his parish priest, so we have regular conversations about the “process” of church, how ministers think, what they are really like in private, how they feel “called.” I often say to him, “Jim, you are asking questions no one else seems interested in or has the time for,” as I proceed to give him my take on life in the goldfish bowl known as ministry.

Over many forays with my older friend to restaurants, banks and Auto Club offices, Jim has taught me the art of patience. I have had to learn to slow down and live in the moment. “This is where we’re all headed if we’re lucky enough to live so long,” I think to myself as I help Jim navigate leaving the car, climbing the steps to a diner, finding a seat without a long wait—a situation that often sets off his fiery temper. I pity the poor hostess when that happens, but his temper reminds me he is still actively engaged in life. And what a life it has been!

Being a history teacher in addition to a pastor, I am impressed that this is a man whose life has spanned most of the 20th century. His experiences during the Great Depression and tales of how his mother scrimped and scrounged to keep food on the table breathe life into what could be a dull chapter out of a history textbook. I encourage him that his written account can help people struggling with today’s uncertain economy. But it is his life’s career of helping shape, mold and motivate almost 1000 young women without a hint or whisper of scandal along the way that may be his greatest life achievement. The esteem they have for him is perhaps best shown by the many poems and letters they have sent him over the years.

Jim is clearly from another era, another time, but his searching questions about life in the ministry have helped me reflect more deeply on my own calling and life with God. I’ve learned a lot from this 94-year-old devout Catholic who has become a steady friend and who is certainly my most unforgettable senior citizen.


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