James R. McAlister z”l
Jim McAlister was my father-in-law. He never met a stranger. He never had a bad word for anyone. He was unique, something of an enigma at times, and I will miss him.
Our first meeting gives some idea of his character. I was travelling to Dallas on business during the time Jim and family were living in Fort Worth. This was in 1988, before Kelly and I were married. I made arrangements to meet with Jim, Glo and Allison (their youngest daughter). We had never met before (I know, pretty brave of me!). They actually insisted on picking me up at the airport and take me to dinner. After getting our signals crossed about where we were to meet (I should have seen this as a sign of future connections!) we finally met up. I had never met this man who was, in every manner different than me, but he walked right up and gave me a big hug. On his face he had, what I would come to know as an almost permanent, smile. The memory of Jim greeting me is indelibly etched in my memory. Truth be told, Glo was just as gracious!
I thought Jim was just being gracious to me because I was marrying his daughter. I’m sure that had something to do with my reception. However, I was to learn that Jim greeted everyone just as warmly. My cynical nature said it was an act – I was wrong. It was neither act, false sincerity, nor simple-minded naiveté – it was just the way Jim greeted others. He had sincere fondness for other people.
Jim had his own way of doing things, especially when it came to things mechanical. His forays into household repairs or ‘construction’ projects even garnered a moniker. We called them “Jim-jobs.” It’s not that he did them poorly – well, that’s not true, he did (them poorly)! Again, my cynicism wrote these off to frugality (he was cheap) or manly pride. These might have played into his reasoning but there was, I believe, something else at work in his reasoning.
A story might illustrate. Shortly after we moved to Indiana in 1996 and began regular visits to the house in Charlevoix, Jim built a tree house for my kids. When we arrived that first summer I could tell Jim was really excited and of course, so were my children. I confess, I was excited too – I never had a tree house when I was little. No sooner did we walk to the back yard were Eli and Hannah already climbing up the tree. Jim was close behind helping little Gabe (who was no more than 3 at the time) up the perch with his brother and sister. My heart stopped. This wasn’t a tree house – it was a tree shanty and a rickety one at that. I bit my tongue and waited what seemed like hours before telling the kids to come down. That evening, in private, Kelly and I told them they were forbidden to use the tree house. Of course, they didn’t understand and we weren’t about to explain (because they would have surely told grandpa). I think Jim figured out that we’d forbidden them to use it and over the years he did make improvements, none great enough to dissuade our parental ban.
So, was it cheapness or manly pride that caused Jim to build the tree house by himself? I think not. I think Jim did projects like the tree house because he wanted part of himself in them. I think he wanted to build the tree house for his grandchildren to show them that he loved them and somehow, involving others might lessen his contribution. Jim put himself into the things he did, just the way he reached out of himself to others. There were no strangers.
We didn’t agree on much. Jim was a conservative Republican, a devout Christian, an engineer, and a militarist. So we rarely talked about these things. For many years our differences bothered me. I don’t think they ever bothered Jim. He took me as is – I’m embarrassed to say I didn’t always do the same. At our first meeting he knew his daughter loved me and that was enough for him. I’d like to think he came to love me also for my character but it really doesn’t matter. His acceptance was unconditional.
Jim was, of course, far from perfect. He hated conflict and did whatever he possibly could to avoid it. This sometimes caused problems for my family and me. But, he was consistent and predictable – he avoided conflict as well at the end of his life as he did when we first met.
I will remember early morning (really early!) golf games with Jim, early enough that we sometimes saw beaver and deer on the golf course. Although a purposeful golfer – that means he walked really fast from shot to shot – he would stop and take time to enjoy the interruptions. He would also take time to offer golf advice. I beat Jim once (pretty sad considering we probably played over 200 times!). While I could tell it bothered him a bit, he was more than gracious. He made sure to tell everyone that I had won. But I never beat him again!
Jim’s funeral in Jonesboro included an honor guard, a group of young Air Force men from the base in Little Rock. When I first discovered their inclusion in the ceremony I was a little annoyed. My thinking was that things military have no place in church or synagogue. I was wrong. The most poignant moment of the ceremony was the playing of taps and presentation of the flag to Glo. It’s not that these have inherent, special meaning to me – they don’t. It’s that they meant so much to Jim. As I watched these young men folding the flag I thought, “Jim would be so choked up right now. He would be so honored and proud that these young men were here to honor him.” And his consideration, his memory, made it special for me.
I know Jim was proud of Kelly, my children and me. I know because he told me so. Jewish tradition does not hold much stock in other worldliness or even heaven as a destination. We do however believe in eternal life. Those who die, live on in the memory of those who loved them. My children will remember their grandfather. Of that I have no doubt. And they will pass on memories to their children. And perhaps, my grandchildren will pass along stories to their grandchildren. In this way, Jim will live forever. I know he will live on in my memory and zichronah livrachah – his memory will be a blessing.