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On James C. McCormick

by James White

The old fashioned eighteenth century idea of the importance of a person’s character has surely taken a beating in twenty-first century America. You seldom hear about a politician’s remarkable character, or an artist’s, a scholar’s, a scientist’s, or a businessman’s. But there are certain individuals we meet in a lifetime who impress us in unusual, even extraordinary ways, people who stand head and shoulders above the rest because of their character.

To give an example of this concept of character, I’ll repeat an incident that the businessman James McCormick experienced one morning at a drugstore in Dallas. Jim, who was crippled and used a wheel chair at the time, had just left the drugstore and gotten the chair back into his van. He maneuvered to the driver’s seat with the help of a pipe welded to the side of the van. He had just gotten in and shut the door when he realized he had dropped a pen that someone had given him on a special occasion. The pen lay on the ground close to the driver’s door.

Jim saw a man walking out of the drugstore and called to him. "Would you mind picking up that pen for me?"

The man glanced down, frowned, then took a moment to pick up the pen and handed it to Jim. He obviously disliked doing Jim the favor. As the man was walking off, Jim noticed that he limped. "Excuse me," Jim said. "I’m crippled and use a wheelchair. That’s why I asked you to get the pen."

The man turned around and walked to the open driver’s window. "I have Parkinson’s," the man said.

"Oh, I’m sorry," Jim said.

"There’s no cure for my case."

"I also have terminal cancer," Jim said. "I’ve had it for four years."

The man didn’t realize that Jim, driving an older model van, was one of the most distinguished businessmen in the country. But the man felt a common ground with Jim because of the important problems both of them faced.

There was a quality in Jim’s voice (which occasionally shook as he spoke) that made people listen and turn to him.

The man hesitated, then asked something that was on his mind. "Who loves you?" he asked.

Jim was surprised. "My family does, and my many friends," he said.

"Well, no one loves me."

After a pause that naturally ensued, Jim said, "I do. I love you." Jim reached out and touched the man’s arm. The man suddenly began to cry. "I’m your friend," Jim said. "You can count on me."

When saying it, Jim experienced the intense sorrow the other man felt, and indeed Jim cared for him. Jim himself began to cry. For a moment, no one said anything.

Then the other man said, "I’m sorry I was rude when you asked me to pick up the pen. As I walked out of the drugstore, I had decided that I couldn’t stand my life anymore. I was going home to kill myself."

The extraordinary in life was actually rather commonplace in Jim McCormick’s. Perhaps this was because he fought the enormous physical odds of surviving polio as an adult, had to learn to talk and walk again, and suffered numerous life-threatening heart attacks. At the end of his life he endured five years with a cancer that doctors said would kill him in three months.

Once Jim, my wife, and I were scheduled to have lunch and were to meet at his office in downtown Dallas. I was surprised that Jim was not there when we arrived, nor did he call or walk through the door in the next hour. Then his apologetic secretary came to us once more and said, relieved, "He’s on his way." During lunch, Jim told us what had happened. It was raining and he was driving down busy Central Expressway. Suddenly, his car engine died. He could not restart it, and he got out, at that time using two canes to assist him. The heavy wind, with rain, however, blew him down, flat onto the expressway. He could not get up. It took forty-five minutes before someone stopped to help him. And so he arrived late at the luncheon.

At another lunch, with only Jim and myself, he said, "I know almost everyone in this room feels sorry for me because I’m in this wheel chair. But I wouldn’t switch places with any of them. The polio changed who I was. I was a better person afterward." I knew that he meant more caring, and this is what gave him character.

I met James McCormick when I started the Texas Center for Writers in Dallas, probably the only private creative writing school in the country, in 1976. One morning I was in my office (part of a rented ballroom space that held the classroom, the office, and a private bath), when the phone rang. "Hello," I said.

"Is this the Texas Center for Writers?"

"Yes, it is."

"I’m James McCormick’s assistant. One moment please. Mr. McCormick is on the line."

"Hello?" I said.

"I’m interested in taking your creative writing course," Jim said, "but I have a question. If I don’t like it, can I only pay for the first class?"

"Yes," I said.

No one else had suggested taking the course on approval. I was very nervous as I walked into the classroom that evening. I was used to walking into a college class with students who had registered, and with a salary paid by the school. This was different. If the students did not like it, they would not sign up again. They might even want their money back.

The moment I saw Jim, my worry about him was dispelled. Instead, I was interested in him. Who was this obviously wealthy businessman who wanted to learn to write fiction and was willing, although crippled, to come to a night class in a hotel not very convenient to where he lived? During that first night, TV reporters were outside, photographing prostitutes who were demonstrating against the police. Jim wore a blazer with a crest, a white shirt and tie. He had a clipped mustache and silvery hair. Six feet tall,he leaned on the silver tipped canes as he walked.There was no question that here was someone who had something special to bring into our class.

That night, in discussing what he would write, he mentioned being a bomber pilot in World War II, having his plane shot down and then, after everyone jumped out, catching onto the gunner’s hand because the gunner’s parachute had not opened. In horror, Jim felt the hand slip through his grasp. The gunner plummeted to his death, and Jim, somehow, ended up in our little seminar, telling us about it. He brought the reality of the situation to each of us. He wanted to write a novel, he said. "You obviously have a lot to write about," I answered.

I didn’t know the half of it. His wife Barbara has made a tape about the early years when Jim, in his twenties, had both bulbar and spinal polio and was in Baylor Hospital for months. He lay in an iron lung, literally unable to breathe. At one point the doctors lost hope and believed he would never take another breath on his own. His wife Barbara, pregnant and with two young children at home, spent day after day at the un-airconditioned hospital when everyone feared she herself might contract polio.

In an essay called "Life’s Illusions," Jim writes of his experience in the iron lung. Suddenly his strong body was taken away and he was completely paralyzed, dependent on the iron lung. He writes of the "catastrophic panic of being enclosed in a small metal tank." He could see only the ceiling. He could not speak. The machine made a continuous noise. He could not eat food or even swallow saliva. He had constant pain from the trickle of blood that came from the sealing collar on the tracheotomy. He had smelly bedsores, narcotic induced nightmares, and a realization that he might die.

McCormick writes:

"With nowhere else to go, I sought the God I had rejected years earlier. ‘God,’ I said, ‘if you will take me from this life, I will find some way to make it up to you. I am helpless, God. I cannot even take my own life and you must do it for me.’ I knew I had become more of a burden to my family alive than if I were dead."

As Jim improved, he said to God, "if you will take this pain from me, I will never ask for another thing. I will lie in this machine for the rest of my life and will ask nothing more of you."

Then, he thought, "God, I appreciate that you took the pain away and I remember my promise, but,. . .take away the craving for the drugs. . .the craving for the dope is worse than the pain. . ." And later, "God, only one little other thing. Please make it so I can swallow again, so I can eat food and drink water, so that I can have these needles out of my veins and this tube out of my neck and my throat. A drink of water is the last thing I shall ever ask of you."

"God," Jim asked later, "if I could only get out of this hospital bed one hour each day and be put into a wheelchair so that I can be taken from this room . .." then "God let me walk on crutches."

Jim writes, "It took several more hills in my life for me to realize that a person who does not hurt, who is not hungry, who can get up from where he is and go to another place, has everything. Anything else he has is a bonus...To this day I never take a drink of water that I am not grateful for my ability to swallow. I never drive by a hospital that I do not say a silent prayer of gratitude that I am not inside or, more importantly, that someone I love is not inside."

Jim survived, became a stockbroker, and over the years gained the highest respect of businessmen such as Ross Perot, Trammel Crow, and the Hunts. His early experience overcoming polio became typical of a theme in Jim’s life-he overcame things. He survived all odds and he did not let difficulties deter what he struggled to achieve.

His backyard in Dallas is an example of this. Today, standing on the terrace of his home and looking out, you see a wide rock garden with Chinese figures, leading down to a beautiful creek. The rocks are large, gathered from many places in Texas, and the plants are carefully arranged. Jim moved most of these rocks into the garden himself, on his knees, his sons helping. He planted or oversaw the planting of the vegetation and designed the sculptured flow of the creek. He would come home from work, go into the yard most evenings and work, then spend hours on weekends. The garden is even more beautiful when you realize the effort Jim took to build it.

His physical difficulties caused endless problems for him. Once, for example, when he and I were discussing a business proposition at a restaurant, Jim suddenly choked. He turned red, then vomited on the tablecloth. We cleaned it up, and continued our conversation as if it never happened.

Jim told me about one Sunday when he was home alone and his wife and children were visiting in Colorado. Jim decided to repair a pipe that ran beneath his house. He told me that he was under the house with a flashlight and the tools he thought he needed, when he felt a shattering pain in his chest. He had suffered a severe heart attack two years earlier. With his family gone there was no way anyone would know what had happened to him. He lay under the house, close to death, in the dark, until he was discovered. And of course, he survived.

His energy and his character extended to his business pursuits. He served on boards of thirteen public, private and civic organizations. After he retired, he was sought often as a consultant. His fee was one thousand dollars an hour, including while he slept.

One morning when I was visiting Dallas, Jim and I had breakfast. Jim began our conversation by telling me he had two things to say. First, that he loved me. Second, that he had terminal cancer.

The bone cancer was one of the most painful kinds. Later, when Jim would admit to never feeling well, he said to me, "Every morning that I wake up, I thank God for the cancer." He meant that by struggling, he was leaning more on God and learning even more about living. During this breakfast Jim showed me a talk he was giving to several business friends whom he met with periodically. Without telling Jim, I later published this talk with a small press I own, and sent him copies for Christmas. The booklet is called "Notes to My Grandchildren." In it, Jim lists forty-three points that pinpoint his philosophy of life.

Three of Jim’s points are:

1) Our lives are not pre-ordained. A loving, caring God in his infinite wisdom, has given you free choice. If you get cancer, God did not give it to you, life gave it to you. The greatness of God lies in the fact that He is the source to turn to when there seems to be no hope. The miracle of God lies in the fact that through His grace the worst events in our lives can become blessings. I don’t believe I ever had a bad thing happen in my life that did not ultimately manifest itself into something good.

2) Don’t wait until you are free of troubles before you believe you can enjoy life. Since you will never be free of troubles, if you wait for that day, you will never be happy. The great discovery is that you can be happy, supremely happy, in spite of problems.

3) Know that doing battle with and conquering problems is one of the great joys of life. No one appreciates and enjoys life like someone who has been to the edge and looked at death.

Concerning that novel Jim wanted to write and told us about that first night in class at the Texas Center for Writers-Jim wrote it. It’s a powerful adventure story called StoneBruise. It sold well, got excellent reviews, and was a celebrated bestseller for months in Texas. Once again, McCormick overcame the odds and wrote and published a successful novel in what has always been one of the longest shots-writing a book.

Jim McCormick died in February, 1995. When I look back on knowing Jim, I’m awed. For one thing, he’s given me the example of a successful businessman with great integrity. For another, he was a remarkable person no matter what he was going to do-he knew the secret of overcoming.