The Story of a Life


Here’s the story of my Dad’s life that I shared at his funeral last Thursday. My brothers have their own versions of his life story, but this is mine and I’m sticking to it (smile).

To the best of my knowledge, these are the facts:

James Somerville (no middle name) was born on June 17, 1931, in Cross Hill, South Carolina.  As his father would remind him repeatedly in years to come, his birth brought on one of the hottest spells they’d ever had in those parts.  When I close my eyes I can almost picture his tiny mother, Hattie, laboring in a stifling upstairs room to bring him into the world as her husband, Walter, a Presbyterian minister, walked the floors and prayed for a cooling breeze.

Little Jimmy, as he was called, was the sixth son and the seventh child born into that family.  There aren’t many pictures of him.  In one, he is standing with his brothers and sisters wearing shoes with a single strap across the top—“girl shoes”—as we later teased him, a description he didn’t care for at all.  In another he is staring out of the frame wearing wire-rim glasses: his yearbook picture.  He looks so serious, so studious, that you almost have to look at the cartoons he drew for that yearbook before you can see the twinkle in his eye.

He went to King College in Bristol, Tennessee, where word got out that he thought Mary Rice Whiting—“Ricie” as they called her—was the prettiest freshman on campus.  He approached her as she was gathering up her music after playing the piano at a campus event to ask her to the dance.  He had broken his jaw playing football, and had his teeth wired together.  He mumbled, “You wouldn’t want to go to the dance with an old bum like me, would you?”

But she did.

Eventually he asked her to marry him, and she said yes.  But then she began to have second thoughts.  She wanted to be a missionary in China, or maybe Mexico.  She tried to break things off with him while he was away in graduate school but he got in the car to come and talk her out of it.  They went for a drive, and parked the car, and when they had made all the arguments they could it got quiet, and in that silence Ricie was fairly sure she heard God say, “There’s your mission field.”

And so they married, on August 31, 1954, at Bethesda Presbyterian Church in Camden, South Carolina.  The bride was stunning.  The groom looked slightly undernourished, with a bristly flat-top haircut and black horn-rimmed glasses, but happy to be marrying the prettiest girl in South Carolina.  They went to Decatur, Georgia, where he finished up his studies at Columbia Theological Seminary, and then on to Troy, Alabama, where their first two sons, Eddie and Scotty, were born.  From there they moved to Hayneville, Alabama, where little Jimmy was born.  But it was while they were in Hayneville that Jim was invited to say the opening prayer at a meeting of the White Citizens’ Council, formed to resist segregation following the Brown vs. Board of Education decision in 1954.  Dad was fairly sure Jesus would NOT say the opening prayer at the White Citizens’ Council, and therefore declined.  Not long after that the Ku Klux Klan burned a cross in his front yard, and his only comment when he came in from looking at the ashes was, “Sure was a little one.”  But the elders of his own church began to get nervous, and when he got a chance to make a move they encouraged him to take it.

Jim, Ricie, and their three boys moved to Wise, Virginia, where he served as pastor of the Gladeville Presbyterian Church.  It was there that Greg and Gray were born, and there that Jim began to feel called to work with the poor.  In late 1966 he resigned from the church and took his family to Blowing Rock, NC, where they spent the winter in his mother-in-law’s unheated summer cottage.  Jim would build a blazing fire in the fireplace each school day and bang on the brass fire pole, saying, “This is the day The Lord has made.”  His three school-age sons, sleeping in the loft above, were supposed to say, “Let us be glad and rejoice in it!”  But only Scott ever did, leaping out the door of the loft and squeaking down the brass fire pole in his underwear.

The family moved to West Virginia in early 1967, and Jim went to work for the West Virginia Mountain Project—an initiative of the United Presbyterian Church focused on ending poverty in Boone County, West Virginia.  He worked toward that goal for years, living at the poverty level himself and moving his family up and down the Big Coal River Valley—once because the boys accidentally burned down the rental house they were living in while building a volcano in the back yard.  The family settled in an old white farm house on a hill near Racine, West Virginia, where they spent ten mostly happy years.  It was there that Billy was born in 1976, the last of six sons.  But it was also there that Ricie began to feel the return of her missionary fervor, and asked her husband when he had last talked to someone about Jesus.

Not long after that Jim considered following a lifelong love of nature and studying forestry, but he had a vision of Jesus asking him, as he was in the library, “What are you doing here?”  And so he renewed his commitment to ministry, left his work with the poor, and became the pastor of Clothier Presbyterian Church.  Two years later, after his own father’s death, he seemed to feel free to resign not only from the church, but also from the ministry.  He ended up in Buckhannon, West Virginia, in nursing school, which he loved.  After graduation he worked as a rehab nurse in Asheville, North Carolina, and then as a pediatric home health nurse—a visiting grandpa—who made his rounds in nearby Madison County.

When he retired, he and Ricie moved to Montgomery County, Maryland, to be near their children and grandchildren, and for a while at least he was almost a full-time grandpa to the large and loving Somerville clan.  A few years later he and Ricie moved to Summerville, South Carolina (no relation), which felt like home to both of them.  But it was there, while stripping a piece of furniture in his tool shed, that Jim apparently inhaled enough toxic fumes to alter his brain chemistry, sending this robustly optimistic and enthusiastic man spiraling downward into a state of severe anxiety and depression.  He struggled with it for years, but it wore him down in mind and body until he ended up here, in Hospice care at Pendleton Manor.  But it was also here that the prayers for his peace of mind were finally answered, and when he took his last breath—just a few days ago—he took it in a state of perfect peace, with no pain at all, and his wife by his side.

Very few people die so well.

But the story of his death is not the story of his life:

  • I have seen this man roll naked in the snow, just to convince his boys that it wasn’t too cold to walk to school.
  • I have watched him fly a hang glider off a sand dune at Kitty Hawk.
  • I have seen him laugh till the tears ran down his cheeks and he slapped the table.
  • I have watched him roll the dice in a game of Monopoly and say, “Seven come eleven, baby needs a new pair of shoes!”
  • I have hiked with him on the Appalachian Trail.
  • I have floated with him down the Big Coal River.
  • I remember the smell of his Old Spice cologne, his Wildroot hair tonic, and his Kiwi shoe polish.
  • I have watched him lather up with Barbasol and puff out his cheeks to get an extra-close shave.
  • I have heard him identify nearly every plant and tree in the woods, and call out the name of every bird that sang.
  • I have heard him sing, “Life is like a Mountain Railroad,” when he headed out to do his chores, or “I’ll Fly Away,” or that Moe Bandy classic,” It Was Always so Easy to Find an Unhappy Woman.”
  • I have seen him work a team of Clydesdale horses.
  • I have heard him clap his hands and say, “OK!” when he was ready to move on to the next thing.
  • I know the sound of his snore and the sound of his sneeze.
  • I have watched him split logs, and chop firewood, and make kindling thin as a matchstick.
  • I have been pinned to the ground, helpless, as he wrestled five of his sons at the same time.
  • I have seen him hug my mother close, and kiss her on the lips.
  • I have run six miles with him on a hilly, West Virginia, road.
  • I know the smell of his sweat.
  • I have heard his voice break when he was doing the funeral of a friend.
  • I have felt the bone-breaking strength of his hug.
  • I have stood beside him in church, both of us trying to outdo the other in hymn-singing.
  • I have seen him look with wonder and love on the face of a newborn grandchild.
  • I have heard him clump up the stairs to my room and say, “It looks like a mule died up here!”
  • I have seen the look in his eye when he says, “I love you,” or “I’m proud of you.”
  • I have heard myself say the same to him.

It’s true: I love you, Dad, and I’m proud of you.

22 thoughts on “The Story of a Life

  1. I cannot imagine a more loving memoir than that — blessings for you, your family and lovely Ricie — how you will miss his physical presence for now, but what wonderful memories for a lifetime, until you’re together again. You look a great deal like that delightful picture of him, and I certainly sense many of his qualities in you. Walk through your grief and loss with the love you’ve always felt from him and from “Our Father-God”.

  2. What a story of love, father to son and son to father. How wonderful if all sons had dads like yours. I know he was special – we can see it in his son.

  3. Jim,

    Thank you for sharing this. The following is a poem by Linda Gleason. I thought it would be appropriate since your father’s life appears to have been “A Life Well Lived.”

    A Life Well Lived

    A life well-lived cannot be defined
    by fame or fortune or things deemed mine.
    It is never secured under lock and key,
    or hidden by a mask of falsity.

    Neither can it ever be bought or sold
    for pieces of silver or bars of gold.
    It is never new; instead ragged and worn
    by continuous use from the moment we’re born.

    Singed by fire and dusted by grace,
    its lessons are learned through the trials that we face.
    The ones who are wise seek the help of a Guide,
    While those with ego, rely on their pride.

    In a world where fortunes are treasured in banks,
    the Savior knows who has knelt to give thanks.
    And those, by far, are the richest of all
    who have heard and shared and answered His call.

    They are the ones sustained every day.
    They rely on the Lord to show them the way.
    He stands beside them in sickness and health;
    His love and mercy are proof of their wealth.

    And when this life is over and they are called home,
    a glorious reunion awaits at God’s throne.
    Where the Father will dance and heaven resound
    as the faithful servant is presented his crown.

    And left here to mourn are people like me;
    though sad, I am grateful He allowed me to see
    that what really matters, the things to hold dear
    are memories made and the love that we share.

    Beautiful lessons are learned in His name
    for the Spirit steps in to kindle the flame.
    Love is never lost; friends are never apart.
    Forever they’re with you, carried deep in your heart.

    ~ Linda Gleason ~
    Copyright © 2008

  4. What a beautiful story. I have often relived my memories of my father who died at age 46. Then there are the memories of my Mom who died last year at 91. They were both very much individuals of their own, but none of us ever would doubt how much they loved each other, their children, and their friends. Your story will become so much more special to you and all those who knew your Dad in the years to come. Thanks for sharing it with us.

  5. God welcomed Jim as he entered the gates of Heaven, with one of those bone crushing hugs. As they embraced, God whispered to His precious child, “Well Done, good and faithful servant. Well done.” When the family gathered to celebrate a life well lived, his precious boys said, “Thank you” and the world whispered, “Amen.”

  6. This is the example of the relationship we would all like to have with our parents and for our children to have with us! God blessed you both.

  7. Jim! This is precious. Had me laughing and crying all at the same time. And your dad had a lovely smile and kind eyes. I wish I had known him…….

  8. Jim, thank you so much for sharing these wonderful memories of your father.
    I know you are very grateful to God for giving you such a loving and adventurous father.

  9. Jim,
    Thank you for those wonderful words about your dad. That certainly sounds a lot like the Jim Somerville I knew and loved. He was a great friend even though we saw each other only rarely and I will miss him very much Please give your sweet mother a hug for me and give my condolences to all your family.

  10. Jim – Such a great story, honoring your dad. Thanks for sharing such precious memories, which must give you comfort at this time. You and your family have been blessed in so many ways – what wonderful models you had growing up.

  11. wonderful tribute! and as Randy Alcorn likes to remind us – we will have a welcome team in heaven when we arrive at our appointed time – and your dad will be on yours to once again say how proud he is of all that you do…. may you and your family be comforted at this time – and peace and blessings to all.

  12. Jimmy, What wonderful memories I have of your precious family as they led our flock at Gladeville Presbyterian Church!!!! Time I spent as a child playing in the great outdoors with the Somerville and Bays boys will always bring a smile to my face.
    God bless and keep you all. Please give your Mom a huge hug from Becky Bays Massie…..the last time I saw her she called me “Little Becky Bays.” She influenced so many of us in such a great way as did your Dad. Love to you all, Becky

  13. truly a compliment to your father ,i once saw my own husband fly across the snow drifts to stop a fight his children were in with some bullies and he too only had unmentionables on ,I wish I had seen my mother kiss my father ,I always kid around and say “they were catholic” (at least my mom went to church everyday ,but she had 14 children and a few who didn’t make it.your family is blessed to have so many follow Christ teaching people amongst your self’s,Here in the city ,I feel people are hypocrites m,they want your money and if you don’t have any they don’t want much to do with you/ He will be surely missed

  14. Hello, Jim
    I am Lawton Posey, at one time minister to Welch WV First Presbyterian. I did not know your dad well, but I knew of his work and others in the Mountain Project, In fact, Harry Palmer, 93 and my wife Bridget and I eat at Harry’s supportive care place here in Charleston. He was the last director of the faded Mountain Project. I knew others of that crew and was elected Moderator of Presbytery at Colcord Church.

    His work had an influence on me. I ministered to a wealthy congregation, and sometimes to a very diminished congregation in a holler called Bottom Creek and also to a “labor type” church in Welch. I saw all the situations that your Dad worked to change. Also with the Highland Educational Project in Northfork and other places.

    What a marvelous man! And what great sons. You are in Richmond there with the Wet Presbyterians, I think. When I was at Union I worked for Ginter Park Baptist which used the former Grace St. Presbyterian Church.

    I am retired now, and will turn 80 next year. After retiring, I supplied churches and continued writing for the papers here in town and other publications.

    Off to the Olympics, or as I called them to Vaughn Earl Hartsell, The Putinics.


  15. Jim
    I am just now reading this, and like Ann, found myself laughing out loud and tearing up ! What an incredible life story ! Thank you for sharing it with all of us.

  16. Thank you, Jim, for your writing about your Dad. I was a VISTA worker blessed to have worked with your Dad in 1967 for the West Virginia Mountain Project, living in Ashford, West Virginia. A wonderful person to have worked for. My thoughts and prayers are with you and Ricie and the “boys”.

  17. Jim,
    Hello Jim! I was researching St. Andrews friends, when a link brought me to you! I knew you would shine someday. I am delighted to hear of your ministry in Richmond. Your father’s story made me cry. They were happy tears. I could hear your voice as you lovingly spoke his life story. I’m always interested to hear a nurses story. I too am a nurse, retired now to finish raising my two sons. I spent many years in intensive care and heart transplant. You mentioned your dad was a rehab nurse for a time, and I can attest to their patience and positive attitude. What a wonderful father and roll model. He truly made the most of his time here on earth!
    It takes courage to change careers as he did, but what better way to serve the Lord than to go where he sends you!
    Modern technology is a wonderful thing! The web has made contact so easy. It was a delight to read this post and send a note to you! Remember your dad is all around you. He’s in your daughter’s smile, and you will see him again. Sincerely,
    Kathryn Hall Bone Chapel Hill, N.C.

  18. Kathryn: Thank you for this sweet note. It’s great to hear from you! I’m glad that you are doing so well. It sounds like your career and family have been a huge blessing. I remember you fondly, and wish you the very best. –Jim

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