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.