Thank you for gathering here today to commemorate the life of James Dabney Gills, or as we all knew him, Jimmy. He was a rolling stone, a man with many phases to his life. There were ups and downs, but always with a spirit of perseverance throughout.
For many of us, our recent memories of Jimmy are of his struggles. Unfortunately, after the death of his parents, those of us who knew him saw a changed man. He couldn't recover from their loss and their ever-present support, he became a bit like a ship without an anchor. Undoubtedly, his reunion with them is our biggest comfort today.
Jimmy had many wonderful memories of his early life. During his school years, every day started at the family breakfast table where his parents, oftentimes aunt Mamie, his sister Frances, affectionately called Sissy, and her daughters, Lisa and Kim. Every morning, Lisa, Jimmy, and Kimmy walked to school together up Lancaster Avenue. Being typical teenagers, they often pleaded with his mom to drive them to school, but this plea was denied excepted on rainy days. Growing up, Jimmy spent most every day with Lisa and Kim. Frances insisted Jimmy attend Grace Evangelical Lutheran Church and go through confirmation with her girls. Kimmy and Jimmy were confirmed together, and there were many memories of Sunday school and church every Sunday. He graduated with Kim, her “big bad Uncle Jimmy” keeping her under his wing. The three have many memories together of pitching their tent in the backyard of the house in Wyomissing; trips down to the farm, where they would go fishing with Uncle Weldon, or play in the hay bales and on the tobacco trailers. Kim fondly recalls swimming at the Shillington Pool, fishing at the Porky in Shillington Park, Attending Community Days and going to the Shillington Movie Theater. Every summer, all the grandchildren from out of state would visit, and Jimmy’s mom and aunt Betty would take the 7 kids to Hershey Park. When CB radios fell into fashion, Dad, aka Johnny Reb, and Mom, aka Liberty Bell, became quite active in the community. They hosted gatherings at their home nearly every weekend, and attended CB rallies in the summer months, all of which were a family affair. Perhaps the most memorable childhood adventure for Jimmy was when he went with Frances and her family to California. This was the first time for any of them to fly in an airplane. They drove the California coastline from San Francisco to Tijuana, Mexico. The highlight of the trip was getting to meet the lead character of Emergency!, Roy DeSoto. As Jimmy ventured out on his own, his love of traveling continued. His favorite places were Charleston, South Carolina, Virginia Beach and Assateague Island, as well as regular visits to the farm in Virginia. We know one of his regrets later in life is not getting back down to the farm to see everyone one last time. We take solace in knowing he is now with many of them who have passed before him - his parents, John and Helen Gills, his sister, Frances, and his many aunts and uncles from the farm, most especially uncle Tommy.
Circumstances changed often in Jimmy’s life, but the constant for him was the excitement of cars. Jimmy loved cars and everything to do with them. He spent hours in his dad’s garage in Shillington with his brothers, Robert and Joe Larry. He loved Nascar Racing, especially Dale Earnhardt. He also loved Maple Grove Raceway for any event from drag racing to swap meets. Anything to do with cars and the road, he was driven by it (pun intended.) He loved acquiring cars to fix up, the bigger the challenge the better. There was nothing like the thrill of the hunt for a part for his latest project. He would scour junk yards, the old fashioned way before auto parts websites! His love of cars was much like his love of life: he had to start from scratch a lot of times, but he was always optimistic and eager about every opportunity.
The phases of his life were marked by the cars he owned at the time. Everyone from Governor Mifflin High School remembers Jimmy’s Jeep, a Golden Eagle CJ-7, his first beloved car which his dad gave him. He was always cruising around Shillington and taking people for rides. It’s a wonder he could afford the gas, but the work ethic of his parents was instilled in Jimmy. His first job was at Shillington Restaurant, working his way up from dishwasher to cook, while Kimmy bussed tables. He later carried on the Gills legacy working at V&S Sandwiches.
When he went on to work at Baldwin Brass, everyone in the family was gifted beautiful things, true to his generous nature. Jimmy’s favorite job was his next, baking at Tom Sturgis Pretzels. It allowed him to buy his first brand new car, a Chevy Cavalier. This started the diehard question: which is better, Chevy or Ford? The debate raged between Jimmy and his dad, even crossing state lines into the family farm in Virginia. Jimmy always dreamed of getting his hands on an old classic car put out to pasture at the farm whom Jimmy affectionately dubbed “Christine”, after the Stephen King novel.
Running a close second to cars was Jimmy’s love of animals. His childhood was surrounded by them. Queenie and Shade, the family dogs, a multitude of fish tanks in the living room, and the guinea pig housed in the kitchen who alerted all whenever the refrigerator opened. Number one of course was the cat that cemented his favorite animal of all time, Nicky, the white and grey tuxedo rescue cat, who he got for his birthday from Frances at around age 7. There was rarely a conversation you had with Jimmy that wasn’t about his next car or his next cat.
Music was a staple in the Gills household. It started with his parent's Johnny Cash records, and watching countless episodes of Hee Haw and the Grand Ole Oprey. The Monkees band was an inspiration for the cousins, and they even went so far as to imitate the band in the basement! With Lisa as Davey Jones, Jimmy as Mickey Dolenz, cousin Johnny as Michael Nesmith and Kim as Peter Tork. Kim said she particularly remembers getting a pair of cowboy boots because Jimmy really loved Willie Nelson & Waylon Jennings… this definitely worked for the Peter Tork look, as well! As he matured classic rock was his go to. The Doors, Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, Lynyrd Skynrd were among his favorites. Later in life, a key inspiration for his own recovery journey was Scott Weiland of Stone Temple Pilots. Jimmy always looked to musicians for inspiration.
Jimmy never met a stranger. Once you started talking to him, he considered you a friend. His kind disposition and easy smile made you instantly like him. He had an uncanny ability to remember people, faces, and conversation details. Once you met Jimmy, you were never forgotten. No matter how little he had to give, he was always generous and thoughtful. He always had a Matchbox car or a handmade craft for his niece and nephews. Perhaps no story tells it better than how, after conquering a year of sobriety, he celebrated his success by gifting his sobriety coin to his nephew Tristan. This treasured possession is a tangible symbol of Jimmy's love and respect for his family, who motivated him and stood by his side.
In many ways Jimmy is a victim of the pandemic. The suffering of increased isolation, for the social butterfly that he was, took its toll on Jimmy's mental health. He had less access to the community support he became reliant on, and the overall uncertainty of life in these times weighed heavily on him in recent months. As we recall these beautiful memories of Jimmy’s unique personality, it would be Jimmy’s wish for each of us to leave here with a smile, as our wish for him is to be at peace.