November 11, 2020

Uncle James would have had COVID-19 advice

For many people, the Great Depression of the 1930s was like fire’s effect on steel—they melted or were galvanized.

The lives of these five children could have melted, but the hard times galvanized them. When their mother died young, they banded together to survive. The second oldest, a daughter, did what their father couldn’t or wouldn’t do—wrap arms around them and create a sense of family.

The ages of the siblings ranged from toddler to old enough to leave home, as the oldest daughter did. The next in line, Sue, became both mother and father, using her telephone operator’s pay to provide. The youngest wasn’t old enough to work, but his two big brothers did, pooling their resources to keep everyone fed and sheltered.

Around 1935, James, the first son, had an idea. He knew education could open more doors of opportunity for him and his brother, who was three years younger. They had no money, so that’s why Martha Berry’s school seemed like the answer to their prayers. There, you could live, work and pay for your schooling, but dirt roads, 350 miles of them, separated Jesup and Rome.

James NeSmith

Undaunted, James whispered his plan to his brother and struck out for Northwest Georgia. For days, he pedaled his bicycle, sleeping and eating where he could. By the time he arrived, Sue had called the admissions office. She instructed: “Send him home.” James pedaled 700 miles for nothing, you would think.

No, it was for something. The experience continued to galvanize him with determination to climb out of poverty. Not once in their lives did I hear Uncle James or my dad grumble, “If only we could have gone to Martha Berry’s school. Just imagine.”

The next ticket to a better life for James was the Navy, but that wasn’t an easy road either. Family legend is that when he tried to enlist, he failed one part of the test—he was too light. He fell short a few pounds. Undeterred, James didn’t have to trek 700 miles. Instead, he walked to Harris Grocery Store and made a purchase, a big buy—a stalk of bananas.

One by one, he peeled the fruit and ate it. With each chomp, the ounces—and eventual pounds—put him over the minimum weight requirement. When he stepped on the recruiter’s scales this time, he was soon singing, “You’re in the Navy now.” And that’s where he stayed for 20 years, earning the highest noncommissioned rank.

Uncle James could have retired young, but he didn’t. His last day with the Navy was on a Friday. The following Monday, he started his new career with ITT Rayonier. After another 20 years, he retired as the mammoth pulp mill’s maintenance planner. But did he slow down?


Uncle James and his wife, Ouida, made laps around Georgia, serving as the state’s Worthy Grand Patron of the Eastern Star. As a volunteer, he labored as if he were getting paid the most money he’d ever made. And when he wasn’t behind the wheel of his Buick, he was working out of the back of his pea-green GMC pickup, hauling supplies to his backyard botanical wonderland.

The Great Recession was steel-mill hot, melting the dreams of millions of Americans. The recovery wasn’t universal. Many still struggle financially. And then comes COVID-19. Our economy and our lives have been crippled, again.

If Uncle James were alive today, what advice would he have for us?

“Don’t give up. Keep on pedaling.”