2010-10-21 / News

Jimmy West living in ‘paradise’ for nearly 95 years

By Geoff Campbell

Jimmy West is greeted by Joanie Taft on his left and Genevieve Currie on his right, who came to his surprise party Tuesday night. Genevieve remembered that Jimmy took her to her senior prom “because he was good dancer.” Photo by Geoff Campbell Jimmy West is greeted by Joanie Taft on his left and Genevieve Currie on his right, who came to his surprise party Tuesday night. Genevieve remembered that Jimmy took her to her senior prom “because he was good dancer.” Photo by Geoff Campbell It is the story of a large life lived in a small town.

Jimmy West was born to a Scottish immigrant mother and a father of Austrian decent, in Jamestown Rhode Island on February 2, 1915, at his parents’ home, on Old North Road.

According to Jimmy, the North Road house did not have indoor plumbing and shortly after he was born, the family moved to a house on Narragansett Avenue where a single cold water pipe delivered water.

By 1920 the West family moved to Cole Street the third of four houses that Jimmy would call home in Jamestown.

The Cole street house, built in 1918 by the Ox brothers had all of the ‘modern amenities’ although, as Jimmy described it, the pipes and wiring were not inside the walls.

Musician Stu Krous, party organizer Marcia Sallum, and Nancy Misto, were among the many guests who turned up at the Narragansett Café Tuesday night to wish Jimmy well. Photo by Geoff Campbell Musician Stu Krous, party organizer Marcia Sallum, and Nancy Misto, were among the many guests who turned up at the Narragansett Café Tuesday night to wish Jimmy well. Photo by Geoff Campbell Life in the 1920s on Cole Street included plenty of farm chores. West described an in-town farm menagerie that included, two cows, hogs, and chickens.

As for free-time activities, West said, “There was not a lot for us to do,” basketball was the only recreation program organized by the town but he said that he didn’t have time for basketball, “I had to work for a living,” Jimmy said. “Curfew was 9 p.m.”

Radio was the only other entertainment or distraction from a life of work and chores, he said. But, he was quick to add that, “I loved growing up in Jamestown, everybody knew everybody else and there was real communication.”

Today, Jimmy lamented, “There is a real lack of communication, people don’t stop to smell the roses, and everything is going too fast…everything is go, go, go.”

West was educated in Jamestown schools and he said that there was one school bus that served the island at the time of his schooling but mostly kids walked wherever they needed to go.

West said that the basement of the Clark school (now the library) was home to two gender specific classes for older middle schoolers: manual training was given to boys and sewing to girls.

It is here, in the basement of the Clark school that Jimmy met Howard Bowen, who, besides being the “manual training teacher” was also a cabinetmaker. Jimmy said that he learned shingling from Bowen and eventually became a carpenter by trade, but not, Jimmy added until he had spent four years as Bowen’s apprentice.

Eventually, West’s work life would include carpentry with the Smith brothers, gardening, electrical work, plumbing, and work as a ferry deckhand. But as a boy, West recalls working for his artist father, who was also an interior decorator and a house painter. Jimmy said that his father paid him 50 cents a week.

Jimmy remembers his father’s words: “I clothe you, feed you, you have a roof over your head, so this is your allowance,” Jimmy added, “I didn’t need much, I could go to the Bijou or the Strand in Newport and see a movie for 25 cents, things didn’t cost much.”

West’s training in all of the trades would serve him well as the onset of the Great Depression made life difficult for all but a very few.

Jimmy finished his sophomore year at Roger’s High School in Newport and joined the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) in 1931. For two years West traveled the country working on projects sanctioned by the Roosevelt administration, he said.

Those who joined the CCC earned $30 a month and they were permitted to keep $5 and to send the remaining $25 back to their family, according to West. He said that his favorite CCC assignment was to Tillamook, Oregon, where he spent six months working on CCC projects.

After his time in the CCC, Jimmy returned to Jamestown in 1935 where he worked as a tradesman. In 1940 he married, Alberta Francis McNair (West) and purchased his current home on Green Lane, he said.

In the early 1940’s as a member of Rhode Island’s Carpenter’s Union, Chapter 76, West worked with Bill and Tom Gilvane to build the USO Center on Conanicus Avenue (now the Recreation Center) and army barracks at Forts Wetherill and Getty in Jamestown and Fort Varnum in Saunderstown.

Among other buildings that continue to carry the workmanship of Jimmy West is St. Mark’s Church. Jimmy added that the hurricanes of ’38 and ’54 created work for the carpenter and his crews, which at one time numbered eight.

Three years after he was married, Jimmy was called to the service and sent to the Southwest Pacific after training.

As an Army Engineer Jimmy was able to “keep his carpenter rating” and the army made good use of his skill set. He was discharged at the end of the war, crossing the Pacific in 14 days on the aircraft carrier Intrepid and once again becoming a civilian on Dec. 28, 1945, he said.

Back in Jamestown, little changed, included lots of opportunities for gathering with friends and neighbors. West recalls the annual Fireman’s Ball and dances at the Portuguese American Club, the Bay View Hotel, The Grange Hall where folks would gather and “dance all night long.”

Jimmy added, “We used to play whist and bridge at card parties and we really communicated with each other,” he said.

Jimmy ran for Town Council once in the 1950’s and after, “telling them exactly what I thought,” wasn’t elected and never ran again.

West said that one of his most favorite jobs was that of deck hand on the Jamestown-Newport ferry, from 1961 to 1969.

West said that he has thousands of feet of 8mm film that he took from the deck of the ferry as the Newport Bridge rose out of the water. He recalls that the 20-minute ride provided time for people to talk to each other and he added that there were days when people would come onto the ferry with a bag lunch and cross the bay several times as they caught up with friends.

When reflecting on the changes that he has seen in a long life lived in one town Jimmy speaks to the power of money, summer people, and the rising cost of real estate. Longtime Jamestown families have moved elsewhere, he said, “I have been fortunate to be able to maintain my home because, he added, “Jamestown is a paradise.”

Pop to his family and friend to many, Jimmy now takes the time to smell the roses and have those conversations that he knows to be so important. Soon he is off to Texas and a warmer winter but when you see him next spring, probably on his riding lawnmower, remember what Jimmy says, take a moment and start a conversation with Jimmy West, you won’t regret it.

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