Where to begin?
We first met Jim the Painter in 2004, when my husband’s colleague introduced us.
Jim Romaine lived most of his life in Gloversville, N.Y., but, as he told us, 1993 was one winter too much for him and he moved south to Alabama. He often spent the warmer months in the Washington, D.C., area, working as a painter and handyman.
In 2004, he painted our son’s bedroom for little more than a song. We fell in love with him. In 2006, at the age of 76, he painted the exterior of our three-story house, doing things on a ladder that a 20-year-old would find daunting.
I got to know him well in 2006, as he was with us right after our nephew was diagnosed with cancer. He provided a listening ear and a warm heart. After that, we got on his schedule regularly for painting, repair and carpentry projects. He spent Memorial Day weekend of 2009 remodeling my office, and there’s not a day I walk in here that I don’t stop to admire and appreciate his work. He was with us for a while last summer.
We’ve been thinking about Jim a lot lately, as my husband and I struggle awkwardly to paint our kitchen. We have a list of other jobs for him this spring.
Most of all, we’ve been looking forward to seeing Jim again. He’s a special guy. I’ve never seen him without a wide smile on his face, always laughing, and an almost-halo-like glow that radiates about him.
I often overheard Jim conversing with our cats while painting or hammering away; he’d say something, they’d answer him back and he’d laugh hysterically. I didn’t always know what he said; it sometimes began with, “Kittycat, let me tell you,” much like Art Carney in Harry and Tonto.
Jim loved to tell us of recent hang-gliding adventures and about the days when he was in a U.S. President’s honor guard (I can’t recall which president). He talked about his longtime girlfriend, Arvella, and how he looked forward to seeing her after his extended time here. She was wheelchair-bound, so it would have been difficult for her to join him on his trips.
Wednesday night, I suggested to my husband that we call Jim and make sure he was all right after the tornadoes ravished many parts of his state. Before we had a chance to call, we received an e-mail from my husband’s colleague through whom we had met Jim.
Sadly, Jim the Painter did not survive the tornadoes. He had gone in to Arvella’s house to get her, but getting her to safety proved difficult, given her disability. Instead, Jim took her back into the house, which was then swept up in the oncoming tornado.
When rescuers arrived, they saw one of Jim’s hands sticking out from the debris. The other hand was still clasping the hand of Arvella, who perished alongside him.
It is evident that, at 80 years of age, Jim died as he lived. Humble, loving and using his strong and able body to help others.
I hope it won’t offend my readers to share that my husband used to wonder if Jim was Jesus having come back to live among us. He was just that kind of man. I don’t know if Jim was religious, but he definitely had an aura—of love, gentleness and humility. And, no matter how hard the work, a smile never left his face.
It crushes my soul to think about the end of Jim’s life on Earth. In fact, oddly, I’ve never sobbed so hard for the death of anyone as I did yesterday upon hearing the news. I imagine confidently that he was greeted with the words, “Servant, well done.”
I’ll remember Jim whenever I walk into my beautiful office. I’ll remember his smile. And I’ll keep “Jim the Painter” in my phone forever.
You can read a news account of his heroic final act here, and watch an interview with his daughter, which aired yesterday on his hometown news station.