You know how sometimes you’ll meet a person and think to yourself or even tell everyone around you, “Oh my gosh, he was the nicest man you could ever want to meet!” Well, That wasn’t my husband.
I’m not saying he wasn’t nice, of course he was, he was nice and got nicer with age, as men tend to do. I’m just saying that “niceness” wasn’t the most overriding quality he left you with when you met him for the first time. He wasn’t out there trying to bowl you over with his charm.
Jim Blanchard was so much more than that.
He was good.
In fact, In all my life I never met a man who was, quite simply, more good.
Because he wasn’t licking you up one side and down the other, blinding you with his sparkle, it would be so easy for an obtuse or distracted person to overlook or even miss altogether the substantive qualities that made him the finest man many of us will ever have had the privilege of knowing.
And I… I had the privilege to be his wife and the mother of his children, I worked for him (although I’m sure if he’s reading this right now, he’s saying my work claim “is debatable!”)
I kept his home, I kept his kids, I kept his bank accounts and I kept his heart. What all of that provided me with was a close -up, behind-the-scenes hidden camera view. A front row seat like no other, into the way this man truly conducted himself in every facet of his life. I never once in all those years saw that man’s character, his integrity or his commitment waver.
And trust me I watched hard.
When I started dating Jimmy, (we were both 18) to use an antiquated phrase, I “set my cap for him” and I’ll just admit right here and now, he was entirely out of my league. He was extremely handsome, remarkably intelligent and possessed a confident James Dean swagger that was both indefinable and irresistible. We had a large group of friends who witnessed this romance unfolding and forecasted “uh-oh this ends badly for this girl”. “She’s bound to get hurt”. “She’s way out of her depth”.
The piece they hadn’t reckoned on was that, oddly enough, Jimmy had a penchant for curly red headed girls. On our first date, we parked out in front of the lakes on the campus of LSU and stared shoulder to shoulder straight ahead at the water talking about life. He had such a reputation as a renegade with a tough guy exterior that I decided to dig deep, “Do you love ANYBODY?” I asked.
He seemed taken aback – surprised and said, “I love my grandmother and my mom.” Some little part of this 18 year old girl was enchanted and enthralled by the raw glimpse of vulnerability and thought, “Ooooh I think I can work with this!” There’s nothing that a teenage girl loves more than a tough outer shell with a soft, sweet center.
Ask any M&M you know…
A few years later, when we were married, there was a bit of a snafu on our wedding day and the cousin who was supposed to transport Jimmy’s beloved aforementioned grandmother to our wedding dropped the ball somehow. After the event was over and we were driving away from the reception, Jimmy got to the end of the pull-through, laid his head on the steering wheel and started to cry. I was of course alarmed as any new bride covered in hopes and rice and future dreams would be. When I asked him what was wrong, he said, “I just never thought I wouldn’t be with my grandmother on my wedding day. Can we go to her?”
But of course we could.
So, he in a white tux, me in a long dress and veil, looking like little bride and groom figurines snatched right off the top of a wedding cake, drove over 2 hours across a dark Louisiana swamp called The Atchafalaya Basin to a small Cajun nursing home where the residents lined the halls cackling and fussing in their native French language – so excited were they to see a bride and groom in full wedding regalia, certainly not your everyday sight in a nursing home.
We turned the corner into his grandmother’s room. She was sitting there in her wheelchair, clutching her rosary beads, head bent in prayer, when she looked up and burst into tears of shock and surprise at the site of her adored grandson as a groom. He knelt on the floor and laid his head in her lap while she made the sign of the cross over him and said again and again, “My Jimmy, my Jimmy you make marry dat girl? You make marry dat girl?”
That scene is burned indelibly in both my heart and my mind. He knew that she sat in that wheelchair all day thinking that she had been forgotten.
And the “peace that surpasses all understanding” enveloped me fully and I knew right then and there that I had chosen well.
So I stood there in that doorway and I thanked our God for the gift of this Great Man, who to the naked eye still looked so much like a boy. And I thanked Our Heavenly Father for whatever rare sliver of wisdom or insight on my part gave me such a bold confidence to pursue him. And then we turned around and drove the 2 hours back to Baton Rouge, packed our car with our wedding gifts and left for Little Rock that night – because Jimmy was in the restaurant business and had to work the next day.
There are hundreds more stories like that. Anecdotes that exemplify the character of this man, his unique leadership style, hilarious stories about his unorthodox approach to developing people, both employees and his own offspring.
I imagine those of us who know the stories and those of you who just want to hear them may sit around for hours laughing and remembering and recounting them. But Fr. Ray said I should probably limit my remarks this morning to 15 minutes or so…
But that’s okay, because I’m pretty sure that on the Seventh Day God said, “Let there be Charlestons and Let there be Mahogany” so that My People can relocate their party.
Early on in our marriage, I took a bible study where I was introduced to the concept of tithing. Apparently, unbeknownst to me and Jimmy, God had issued a mandate, expecting us to give away 10% of our income! All the young wives were encouraged to discuss this with their husbands that very evening. Well I wasn’t worried one bit. I knew we were “off the hook,” as my husband was a very frugal man who would never agree to such an outlandish request, even if it did come straight from The Lord.
But I went ahead and told him about it that night and surprisingly and enthusiastically he said, “you know what – I’m in! Absolutely! Set up an entirely separate bank account and we’ll call it the tithe account. Slice 10% off the top of everything I make from here on out and deposit it in there and we will give it all away!”
But it was the way Jimmy gave it away that was noteworthy. Of course the Catholic Church received from us, but Jimmy very quietly behind the scenes paid his employee’s doctor bills, he paid his cooks’ children’s hospital bills, he paid their immigration fees to reunite them with their families. He gave people cars so they could get to work, made various orphans’ tuition payments and helped other people get back on their feet after a personal life disaster. But it was always very low-key. And, were I to ever utter a word of praise for him in public, he would’ve given me that withering “Jim Blanchard look.” For him, Christian charity was quiet, low key and personal, which is why you never saw us at fancy charity galas. But I must allow for the fact that he also just didn’t like to wear a tux…
Recently, I caught wind of the fact that a few of Tommy’s friends were teasing him about how many kids we had in our family – saying surely Tommy, being number 5, must have been an “accident.” It was all in good fun. I think they just rationally found it hard to believe in this day and age people would purposely have 5 kids. I’m leading with this to try in some way, if at all possible, to illustrate Jimmy as a father…
One day when we lived in Phoenix, Jimmy came to me and said, “I need TO TALK TO YOU. We are missing someone!”
I looked across the playroom at a sea of children’s heads. Our tweenage daughter’s 13 and 10 and our 5 year old daughter and 2 year old son and said, “1-2-3-4! No HONEY, everyone is present and accounted for!”
He said, “That’s not what I mean! I’m talking about when I look over my shoulder as I’m backing our van out of the driveway for mass and I see all those little faces looking back, a very strong feeling comes over me that there’s someone else who’s supposed to be back there, someone who isn’t here yet. I think God has a little soul he’s wanting to give us ….I’m trying to say our family is not yet complete”
I don’t know how another woman walks away from a conversation like that, but suffice it to say, I was pregnant pretty soon after. I didn’t find it necessary to take a pregnancy test right away – I kept putting Jimmy off despite his badgering me. But on Thanksgiving day I guess he couldn’t wait another minute. He busted into the bedroom that morning with a brown bag from Walgreens, handed me the stick – pointed to the bathroom and said, “Go!” I came back and handed him the positive result. He was beside himself with joy, because I guess He wanted to give Thanks on Thanksgiving day.
Some of you may see this as an example of how much we adore our Tommy. And we do. He is undoubtedly cherished. But remember at this point we didn’t even know the kid. This story is really a testimony of the unfathomable joy the other 4 children brought their Dad every single minute of every single day. The man didn’t golf, play tennis, hunt, fish or go to Vegas. If he wasn’t working, he was daddying. The word Daddy was a verb in our house.
I think I would like to conclude all of this by describing to you the last few days of Jimmy’s life.
Three days before he was killed, last Thursday, I was at our daughter’s home babysitting our grandson when Jimmy swung by on his way to work. I let him in, he gingerly took the infant from my arms and sat down in their rocking chair cooing and stroking and loving on him. I sat on the couch beside them smiling and tearing up and thinking ironically that the greatest tragedy of my life was that my mother (who worshipped the very ground Jim Blanchard trod upon) died the day after Luke was born and would never be privy to the beautiful scene I was witnessing. The Great big man in a motorcycle jacket rocking the tiniest little replica of himself. (And Yes- for those that appreciate irony, I was actually sitting there thinking one week ago that was the greatest tragedy of my life.)
At that moment Jimmy snuggled closer to Luke, deeply inhaled his baby scent, looked over at me, I’m not going to say he exactly cried, but his eyes glazed over a bit and he hoarsely whispered, “We got to do this 5 times! 5 times. Man – We were blessed!”
A lot of you know my precious mother died just a few months ago. I think Jimmy and I both thought I would be doing better by now and a little further along in the grief process, but the very day after that, last Friday, my grief was so palpable to him that it seemed to be affecting my health. He sat on the edge of our bed, wiping the tears off my cheeks from a sad dream and said,
“I’m going to take the day off and we are going to stay in our jammie-lammies all day long. I know we have the baby today, so I’ll cart his swing and a stack of bottles and diapers up to the media room and we can binge-watch our Netflix series until Emilie picks him up!”
And that’s just what we did. When Our daughter arrived to pick up her baby, Jimmy ran up to Panda Express and got us some dinner. We were standing in the kitchen making our plates and he asked me if I was feeling better. I answered honestly,
“A little bit. I just feel so lost, orphaned, abandoned without my mother here. She was my everything until the day I met you. In fact, I shudder to think how terrible life would be for me if I ever were to lose you…”
Jimmy paused dramatically to give it all some thought and these are the poignant words of wisdom and comfort that he laid upon my heart:
“Hey I hear that! You know I was reading recently that in those Viking cultures, oftentimes when a Viking warrior died, they just buried his wife alive in the cave with him. I don’t know what those chics did in there all that time, but I would imagine they starved to death eventually!”
I was quiet and pensive for a moment. Sensing my hesitation he added,
“We would definitely get you some Swedish fish and Milk Duds and Coca Cola in there to tie you over for awhile…”
He had a quirky sense of humor, but honestly I don’t think he ever wanted to face life OR death without me.
In the early days of our marriage when Jimmy worked 90 hours a week, I took care of every aspect of his life that didn’t involve the actual running of a restaurant. I selected his outfit for the day, coordinated his necktie, laid out his underwear, brought him his coffee and ran a bead of toothpaste in a straight line down the bristles of his toothbrush while he was in the shower. But somewhere along the line, I dunno, maybe after the 5 kids or after he mellowed a bit, all the tables turned.
Somewhere along the line, Jimmy became solely responsible for:
-Turning on our tv …. I have no understanding how our remote control works
-Keeping track of all of our prescriptions, what I’m allergic to, how many migraine pills I had taken and when I could take another.
-He kept gas in my car, air in my tires and something that has to do with oil.
-Almost every night he brought me home a key lime pie, or a slice of mahogany chocolate cake, unless I was on a strict diet in which case he only brought a container of sour balls.
-He drew my bath in the morning after he made my coffee, but before he woke me up.
-And kept me supplied in those cheater-reader glasses. He was so proud he never paid for them. He got them from from the lost and found at the restaurants.
Saturday night, the night before he was killed I said, “Im congested, I can’t breathe through my nose,” he said, “if I leave right now I can get to Walgreens before they close.”
When he got home he unpackaged the bottle of Afrin , but the main thing is that he stood there handing me the spray and worrying aloud that maybe he should throw out the child proof cap because he didn’t think I’d ever be able to get it open the following week when he was in Kansas City. I told him it was fine – don’t worry about it. As usual, He was right. The very next night after they told me what had happened to my Hero, I sobbed and cried until I couldn’t breathe. Of course I got congested. And when I reached for my bottle of Afrin from the night before I couldn’t get the lid off.
I guess the good news is that so many have offered to help me, I may start a sign up sheet for people who want to volunteer to do some of these things.
I recognize a lot of you younger people out there that I know looked up to Jimmy as a kind’ve pseudo-father figure. You may not think I know about each and every one of you because of his reserved public persona, but believe me, he would come home and tell me and tell me and tell me about you. I know he was your role model and your mentor. Believe me when I tell you how much joy it brought him as he witnessed you moving along your upward trajectories through our company or even on to other successes. So many of you were constantly checking back in with him later on your progress. Each one of you mattered to him more than you’ll ever know. Being a part of your lives meant the world to him.
To Jimmy’s only fraternity – the brotherhood of men he worked for (and alongside) Hal Smith, Hank Kraft, Mike Rogers, David Brauckmann. To Gary, Rodney, Jeremy, Brent, Matt, Ryan, Dave, Edd, Jason, Jake, Jay, Cory, the Brads, Charlie and so so many others, I want you to know through the 24 years he was with the company, there wasn’t a day that went by that he wasn’t proud of the manner in which y’all conducted business and what y’all accomplished together. He constantly told me that it meant everything to him to work with men of unparalleled character and integrity. In fact, The night Hal was inducted into the Oklahoma Hall of Fame, Jimmy was honestly beaming as if it were his own personal award.
And to Jimmy’s mother, Mimi, I want you to know that sometimes he would look over at something I said or did or just the way that I handled a situation and say, “I married my mother!” But it was always and only when I had done something or behaved in a way that he found beautiful. He always told me you were a “Saint” and the sweetest woman on the face of the earth. I am so so sorry for your pain in losing him. I hope it gives you some measure of comfort to know he loved and cherished all you did for him his entire life.
Likewise to his siblings, Jimmy was so proud of y’all and your relationships. Every time one of y’all did something wonderful, he would say, “but of course – we are the best!”
To our own 5 children, I would say this: if Daddy had any faults it might have been that he took care of us too well… But what a legacy he left behind in y’all. Each of you is beautiful and smart and nice. But like your daddy, you’re so much more than nice. You are good. Partly because you inherited it and partly because you grew up basking in his shadow as he demonstrated everything he considered to be a teachable moment.
And didn’t he just consider everything to be a teachable moment?
So we will link arms and marshall this army forward without our General. But He left us with one heck of a blueprint. And, Who cares if we don’t know how to put air in the tires, you know what? if we can’t figure out how to get the air in, we can just buy new tires, I think they sell new ones that come with air. And if we don’t know how to replicate Dad’s extravagant Christmas and Thanksgiving dinners, we can just order pizzas.
Because I believe what Daddy did leave us is so much more important. Buried deep in your DNA and life experience is a mixture of strength, resiliency and a strong stubborn Cajun survival streak that can never be denied.
One last final thought- Jimmy and I loved to sing to one another. We sang constantly and sent each other you tube videos of performances or lyrics or songs we wanted the other to appreciate. The very last link he sent me was Styx singing “Don’t Let It End.” Underneath the link he had typed the words, “Man these guys had it going on!” If you have time later and you want your own private moment with Jimmy, pull it up on your phone and listen to it with him.
But Besides rock, we loved the Motown Sound and one of our favorite artists through the years was Gladys Knight. Besides the song that we played in the video last night, (My Life Story) she sings another song we both adored. The only problem is every time Jimmy would serenade me with this particular song, I would burst into tears. Cue the floodworks of sobs and tears. Every. single. time.
So much so that I had no choice but to issue a Song Ban forbidding him from singing it. Which honestly he thought was a little hilarious. He would get all high and mighty and tell me “Tiny Red – you can’t just Willy-Nilly BAN a song!” But because it upset me so much he finally promised me he would never sing it again.
And I’ll never sing it either. Because Neither One Of Us Wants To Be The First To Say Goodbye…
Fair well my love – good-bye…