A couple of years ago, the venerable Bob James, then 93, was attacked by a burglar who invaded his home, pinned him to the floor, held a knife to his throat, and demanded money. As James, who was the mildest of men, told it shortly thereafter, "All I kept thinking was, How do I get out of this?"
This was characteristic of Bob James, who -- both ironically and appropriately -- was the founder of CrimeStoppers, an organization which has done much to take the edge off crime locally. Through the grace of God and his own pluck, James did get out of that tight spot, though he would shortly need emergency surgery to implant several stints in his weakened cardiovascular system. He then resumed his duties in the world, which included liaison work on behalf of MIFA. One of his duties was to recruit speakers to address groups of senior citizens served by the organization. To be called on to do so by the courtly James was an honor in itself.
It was clear in recent years that James was in fragile health, though he kept on showing up on MIFA's behalf and at major social and political functions. As former Tennessee governor Winfield Dunn remembered out loud at last year's Master Meal, an annual gathering of the GOP faithful, "that wonderful Bob James" had virtually founded the modern Republican Party in Shelby County and was certainly its first real standard-bearer, making serious races for Congress in the early 1960s.
Late in that decade, he was elected to the newly constituted Memphis City Council, where he served for some years as a generally progressive and moderating influence. Neither of those adjectives is gratuitous. James' political views were never hardline or even, given his pivotal role in local Republican affairs, especially partisan. In the last several years, he had taken to brooding about what he saw as the growing influence in party circles of those who insisted on socially conservative litmus tests.
In his last years, James did not feel bound by party lines at all -- endorsing both Republican and Democratic candidates for office -- and this caused him some difficulty in GOP ranks. Late last year, there was a move in the party hierarchy to eliminate the Bob James Award, given annually at the Republicans' Lincoln Day dinner for public service. The reason? James had campaigned on behalf of successful City Council candidate Carol Chumney, a Democrat.
Something of an uproar greeted the decision to cancel the award. It was quickly reversed, and, when Lincoln Day came around in February, the Bob James Award was given out as always. At 95, James was on hand to see it done.
Bob James, ever keen of mind and generous of spirit even as his body began to fail, passed away last week. Not even he could go on forever, but, both politically and personally, he gave it a good run.