A Great Man Died Today

James Irl Downes 1936 - 2010

James Irl Downes 1936 - 2010

I’m sure many great men and women died today, most of them unknown by most people because they led quietly significant lives.  Let me tell you about one of those great people, my father, James Irl Downes.

My dad was born in Oklahoma in the middle of the depression.  He made it to 8th grade before leaving school and going to work.  By the time he was 17, he had built a small oil well servicing business.  As a minor he wasn’t allowed to sign for anything legally or have his own checking account.  The adults that he trusted to take care of the money and business matters ultimately let him down.  They didn’t buy liability insurance and when a man on his crew was seriously injured my father lost it all.

Soon after, he enlisted in the Navy and was on a ship headed for Korea.  He told me many stories about his time on shore leave in the Navy.  He spent a lot of time in Japan on leave, fell in love with the people and the food.  Looking back, I’m not surprised dad was able to make friends with people from a completely different culture.  He never met a man or woman with whom he wouldn’t try to have a friendly conversation.

Dad only told me about his non-shore leave time during the Korean war once.  It was late one night, after he had been out with my mom.  I don’t remember why, but for some reason I was awake when they came home.  Dad had an occasional taste for Chivas Regal and had enjoyed a few on that particular evening.  That night he told me what his contribution to the war effort was.  My dad and his shipmates went from skirmish to skirmish to retrieve young soldiers and marines and make sure they got home.  One of his jobs was to make sure none of these young men that gave all were separated from their dog tags. I’ll spare you the details, but he told me all of them.  I think he did it so I would know that war is not glamorous or pretty but at times necessary.  That was the only serious conversation about the war I ever heard him tell.  It’s my experience that those who have done heroic things in war, larger or small, don’t spend their time telling others.  I’m always suspicious of those that brag about their service and expect homage.

Once out of the Navy, he went back to work in the oil fields and ended up in Willcox, AZ where he met a young waitress in restaurant. He always told me he fell in love at first site.  He was 26 and Lillian Kay Witt was 17.  They were married in 1963.  To dad his family was everything.  My mom, two sisters and I were always his priority.  I think his early business success set him on a lifelong entrepreneurial quest.  He worked for others when he had to, but always hated it.  His “jobs” were just brief interludes between the next big idea. The big ideas never really worked out completely, but the only difference between he and Donald Trump was hitting the big one.  In true American capitalist fashion, he got frustrated but never gave up.  Never.

Dad’s greatest quality was that he adopted people, collected loved ones.  When he worked at New Mexico Institute of Mining & Technology, he adopted students.  He invited them over for dinner at his and my mother’s table and treated them like his own.  He was proud of them when they did well on their tests and graduated.  He loved my sister’s friends especially Tita who he really considered another daughter.  He continued adopting people when he retired.  In Carlsbad, NM he met an amazing woman, Chris and adopted her and her two kids.

In fact, he fought through his past year’s battle cancer relentlessly.  Through the pain and discomfort dad continued to adopt people.  He met several fantastic, giving people through Ambercare, the hospice agency that helped my family greatly in the past six months.  Denise, his nurse for the past several months, was so special to him.  She helped him stay comfortable and he allowed her to help him where he wouldn’t let his family.  Bob, the chaplain helped him find peace in his final months.

A great man you never heard of died today at 4:35 mountain time.  The people he loved and who loved him where all there as he started his next journey.  Thank you for living a significant life dad, but most of all thank you for teaching me how to be a man, even in your death.


About Larry Downes

Son, brother, husband, father, boss, mentor & friend. Believer in unfettered personal liberty. Occasional host on 93.1 WIBC in Indianapolis.

3 Responses to “A Great Man Died Today”

  1. Dear Larry and family,

    I am deeply saddened to learn of the loss of your dear father. Thank you for sharing this beautiful tribute in honor of a life obviously well lived. It is clear, your father was an interesting, unique gentleman. While mere words cannot ease the pain you are enduring, may it be comforting to know others genuinely appreciate the wonderful story you have shared with us today and share in your loss. Please know you and your entire family are being held very close in thought and prayer during this difficult time. Heartfelt condolences. †

    Warmest regards,
    -Debra Jo

  2. Larry,

    We are cousins, but have never met. I am your dad’s Aunt ‘lena’s daughter, so your dad was my first cousin. Mother is 89 and lives with me. She has had a really tough couple of years due to a staph infection we think she got at the hospital, but her mind is sharp.

    I heard from Linda about your dad Wednesday evening, and again today from Lavern. I told Mother a little while ago and could tell it shocked and hurt her. We all still miss M.B. so, and Pat’s death last year was a shock to us all.

    I never met your dad, but please know that our thoughts and prayers are with you and all your family.

    Kindest regards,

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