James Wright Tribute by Steve Haines

James Wright Tribute

Goodbye Mr. Eastland

By Steve Haines, steve@sales-r-up.com 


James T. Wright, Mr. Eastland, passed away on January 29th, and with his passing went the greatest enthusiast, ambassador, and salesman for Eastland that I have ever known.


The first influence that James had on my life was when I was a child growing up on Foch Street in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s. The time of day wasn’t that important to me as was the time my grandparents, Jack and Ann Jernigan, would get home from work each workday, before school age I was left to the care of my great grandmother Pearl Davis, and each afternoon I waited for the 5:00 whistle at the cleaners to signal that within a few minutes they both would be home. I did not know it was James running the whistle mind you, but I did realize the significance of it.


The second impression James had on my young life was the nice package that he delivered to us each week. I can still remember clearly seeing James, or one of his delivery boys from the laundry he and Lee owned, drive up beside our house and get out and bring a very nice brown paper wrapped package and sit on our back porch full of my granddads white work shirts, the ones with a big Oldsmobile globe on one side and his name on the other.


By the time I was in Little League I was starting to connect some dots in relation to people I would see around town and how they were involved in other things outside of the work or the usual places I might run across them. The ball field where we played our Little League games, just below high school hill, was just that, the ball field, heck I don’t think I was aware that it even had a name until many years later (Wright Field). But I do remember two very important things from the time I played little league for the Comets, first if you were able to retrieve a fowl ball and bring it to the concession stand you were given a free snow cone, and second, it was very special to be chosen to run the lineups to the announcers and scorekeeper who sat on top of the concession stand. And that is where I was able to witness James talking on the public address system, now that was a big deal, connecting the voice to James probably is where I realized that this person was different, in a lot of ways. And looking back, why was James still hanging around the little league field when I was there, Jim, his son, wasn’t playing and he did not have grandkids yet? Wow, was he there four nights a week, minors two nights and majors two nights?


Connecting the dots? Santa Clause, who came to downtown each year just before Christmas in one of Eastland’s best fire trucks, had a voice that seemed very familiar, very familiar. Two events at Christmas each year were very revered by me as a young child and through adolescence, as a small child the night they turned the Christmas lights on downtown, an in my teens, the weekend when Santa would first arrive. Sure, I had figured out the Santa deal, but even so I would usually hang out a portion of the time on Saturday’s at my grandmothers workplace, Harelik’s Department Store, because I knew that at some point Santa would show up and I would have a much greater chance for a more intimate meeting with him. Mr. Eastland was the absolute best Santa that I have ever known. No one loved engaging people more than James, and it showed. It did not matter what age you were, everyone wanted a chance to be noticed and to be given some candy by Santa, my granddad was a rather reserved man but it was always funny to watch James talk to him as if he was ten years old and to watch how it made my grandfather laugh, truth is that he looked forward to seeing Santa as much as me. When I learned the true identity of our Santa it was then that I started to understand how important James Wright was to Eastland.  


James Wright, Mr. Eastland, was a part of the culture that if you wanted something done for your community you had better be willing to not only develop the idea, but also be prepared to work and spend untold hours getting the project accomplished. There was no point in waiting for someone else or some agency to do it, that wasn’t even considered. And he always wanted to have fun in the process of whatever he was working on, or for.


In the 1970’s the Eastland’s Chamber of Commerce needed a shot in the arm. They needed a fully dedicated chamber manager; they needed a Mr. Eastland, the only problem was that they could not afford a Mr. Eastland. That is unless you could find one that brought with him an office, office furnishings, and a person who wasn’t totally dependent on the meager salary that the Chamber could pay. Luckily, they found all of that in James Wright. I can honestly say that I believe James was the absolute right man for the job and I believe he proved that over the many years that he ran the chamber, and I consider myself fortunate to have been able to witness and be a part of a good portion of his tenure.


With Mr. Eastland running the Chamber so began an economic development renaissance in Eastland. Maybe James doesn’t deserve all of the credit, but I would argue that someone had to be the cheerleader, salesman, and organizer, and that without a person with James ability no momentum would have ever been achieved. Mr. Eastland brought all of those qualities to the Chamber and to the work he did on behalf of Eastland, time and time again I watched him pull together the right people that needed to be involved in order to make things happen that would have otherwise never gotten off the ground. He knew where all of the assets were that Eastland needed to prosper and he knew exactly what buttons to push in order to get the action that was needed. And boy, could he dazzle a new commercial prospect that was looking at Eastland for expansion or possible relocation. Mr. Eastland was a salesman of the highest caliber, and thank goodness he was selling for Eastland.


Sam Walton was coming to Eastland! We had a Gibson Discount Center which was one of Eastland’s first big retail crowning achievements during James tenure as Chamber manager, but times were changing, Wal-Mart was growing and rumors had been circulating that Wal-Mart was interested in buying out the Gibson’s store in Eastland. With this knowledge it was not a big surprise when James got the call from someone in the Wal-Mart corporate office that Mr. Walton was coming to Eastland to look at the property. He would be flying in and needed someone to pick him and his companions up at the airport on a specified date and time, they would also need accommodations for spending the night, as they would leave early the next morning. James flew into action.


First, what vehicle would we use to pick him and his associates up in that would be fitting for such an important guest? Grover Hallmark, the Eastland National Bank President and very committed Chamber member, had a really nice van conversion so Grover got the nod for transportation. Second was accommodations, James immediately connected with the manager of our brand new Ramada Inn to get all of the details nailed down for Mr. Walton to spend the night, we were very lucky to have the Ramada because our only other option would have been the old El Morroco motel across the highway, not a good alternative at all. James then assembled the other one or two people he thought he needed to make sure he would have all the bases covered for the meetings he anticipated having with Mr. Walton. All of this took several Chamber meetings to cover because James never missed an opportunity to call a meeting at the Chamber office, and this was big, really big.


If I recall correctly it was late in the day when Mr. Walton and his son flew into the Eastland International Airport in their older twin engine Cessna. Just the two of them, and according to eyewitnesses, neither really looked like the corporate titans that they were. Introductions were made and everyone pilled into Grover’s van. Assuming that the Walton’s would want to go immediately to the property, Grover’s first stop was to be the Gibson store location. Unfortunately, when James went about confirming this with the Walton’s they told James that all they wanted to do was to drive by the location and go on to their hotel, guessing it had been a long day the chamber delegation complied. 


Grover drove by the Gibson store on his way to the Ramada Inn but as he pulled under the canopy in front of the new Ramada to let everyone out Mr. Walton asked about the motel across the highway, The El Morroco. According to James, Mr. Walton asked if staying there would be a problem. So to the El Morroco they went. 

Sam and his son left the next morning without any red carpet treatment, and unfortunately without giving James or anyone else much of any information. But as they say, the rest is history, Eastland got a Wal-Mart and Sam Walton did not over pay for a nights rest in Eastland.


A lot of people, leaders in business, government, and religion, cycled through Eastland during the years that James was Chamber manager. I know a lot of them, and I look back now and think about how many benefited from knowing James and being exposed to his brand of how to get things done. I can honestly tell you that many of them should have spent more time learning from James and less time trying to get to the next career rung. It is now obvious that a lot of them did not capitalize on what James offered to them, but many did, and there is a stark difference.


It was not all business with Mr. Eastland; we had a lot of fun. Who could forget the parades of the early 1980’s and the first Old Rip day? I was lucky to have been a part of helping to create them. Mr. Eastland loved them, and especially the parades where he reigned supreme. Who could forget Mr. Eastland standing on a semi-trailer float on the north side of the square announcing the parade? He knew everyone and never missed a single beat from one entry to another making comments and noting his special relationship with each one. Everyone in the parade looked forward to hearing what comments Mr. Eastland would make about him or her and or his or her organization. 


And who could ever forget the Chamber fund raising Bar-B-Q’s on park hill? With his pit master son Jim and crew, it was a full day of Mr. Eastland at his best. For many years James had me in charge of the serving line, everything we served was home made, that was except for the potato salad, James figured out that Ben E. Keith’s potato salad was pretty good and buying it in five gallon containers would save a lot of time, and money. But, to make it appear homemade I remember Mr. Eastland having Mrs. Eastland, Lee, transfer all of it into large silver serving bowls and sprinkle the top of each with paprika just to give it the right homemade look. It worked I suppose because we always got lots of compliments on the potato salad. James would also have his close friend Wayne Bailey, who was a long time Borden’s Dairy distributor, bring up a truck to hold what needed to be kept cold and also to furnish the ice cream James liked to use for desert. And speaking of desert, just like his Santa Clause job, James absolutely loved to walk around to everyone and hand out ice cream. It was his job, and his job alone, don’t even think about helping. And we didn’t because everyone looked forward to getting an ice cream from Mr. Eastland just as much as they did his candy at Christmas.


No one loved people any more than Mr. Eastland, and especially Eastland people!


At the Chamber banquet in 1978 James T. Wright, Mr. Eastland, was awarded The Golden Deed award from the Chamber along with R. M. Sneed posthumously, and Lewis Tiner. It was a fitting tribute to someone who had done so much for his community, but the fact is that James was just getting warmed up. The 1980’s proved very prosperous, and challenging for Eastland, the oil boom, the bust of the oil boom, high interest rates and a recession, all played a part in creating a very uncertain business climate for Eastland and the country. However, with Mr. Eastland at the helm of the Chamber he was able to keep everyone looking forward, and busy, and that was exactly what we all needed.


In 1979 my wife Sandra and I moved in to our first home, directly across the street from Mr. Eastland. And we then became to know more than just Mr. Eastland, we then learned who Mrs. James T. Wright was and how special she was to who Mr. Eastland was and what he represented, and, what he accomplished. Lee was the perfect counterbalance to James, no bull, no frills, just total support and confidence in him. It showed and it was admired. And without her, and without his need and desire for her to be with him, and for him, he would not have been Mr. Eastland. It is that simple.  Lee was able to do all of that for him because of her obvious love, but also, because she was a believer in Mr. Eastland, and as I have learned from Sandra. If not for her believing in me I would not have made much of myself. I watched James and Lee and I saw first hand how and what a committed team could accomplish, not only for themselves, but for their community as well. 


Shortly after we moved into our new home across the street from James and Lee, and running short on just about everything, especially money, I needed a tool of some sort and I thought that James might have one that I could borrow. Lee told me James was in his workshop and to go on back. I did, and when I found James in his workshop I knew immediately that we had lucked out, for in that workshop was two of every tool that I believe Craftsman had ever made. It was absolutely unbelievable, every where I looked, every wall, every work bench, every inch of floor space was covered in tools, and everything had some green on it, which I learned right then and there identified them as the tools of Mr. Eastland. I quickly learned however that getting Mr. Eastland to turn loose of a tool, even for a few short minutes, or a day or two, was not going to be easy. Certain things had to be agreed to, certain understandings had to exist, and heaven forbid if execution of the understanding was not forthcoming. As James rightfully explained the terms and conditions of borrowing his tools, I could hardly control myself, or keep a big grin from forming on my face. James had no idea how well I understood the treasure I had uncovered and how well my parents had enforced the same understandings in me about borrowing anything. Heck, without him saying a word about what he expected I already knew what I had to do in order to retain access to this incredible supply of tools. And from that day forward any tool that I brought across the street was treated as if I were in possession of one of the crown jewels. Needless to say, James never denied me access to any tool or piece of equipment he owned that was readily available. 


James could accomplish more for Eastland in a half day than most could in twice the time. It always riled a lot of chamber officers that James would get very scarce after lunch each day and it was rare that we ever had a meeting after lunch. The fact was that James had to support himself financially in other ways than just his chamber salary. I could not start to list all of the financially rewarding activities James had going, but needless to say, James knew how to turn a dollar and he was very good at it. And a number of people resented James because of it, but not me, I admired him even more.


The details that he put into the construction of the first real Eastland Chamber of Commerce office created a unique and inviting energy for growth within Eastland. Looking back it was amazing to see how important the chamber became after Mr. Eastland took over. You looked forward to meetings because James was always prepared and we always got down to business quickly. He even managed to get Walter Maynard, the local Coca-Cola manager, to furnish the chamber with a very nice ice machine and soda dispenser that James was so proud of. With free soft drinks along with lots of doughnuts and fresh coffee, we were always treated well, and who could forget the hard butterscotch candy that was always available on James’s desk. It was a warm and inviting office and we all gravitated to it, it was what a chamber should be, always. He knew that membership should have its privileges and rewards, especially when you were asking people to give up a good amount of their time. He succeeded in making his members feel appreciated, and needed, and no matter who you were or what you did James would make you feel important to him and to the chamber.


Mr. Eastland, aka, Banco?


Banco, was what all of Mr. Eastland’s grandkids called him, as well as the kids who new him through their friendship with one of his grandkids. From my observations it appeared that Banco was one special person to all of them. He and Lee were usually at their Lake Leon property almost every weekend and when the weather was fitting I know that they were hosting family and their friends on a regular basis. He loved them all and his devotion to his kids, grandkids, and extended grandkids, was very heartwarming. 


Above all else James Wright was a person of deep faith and a person who had a tremendous devotion to his family. James and Lee together were givers, they gave and they supported, sometimes without even understanding how much, or how significant they were to others. I have witnessed them both do amazing things for others without ever expecting anything in return. For neighbors, for friends, and for people who they really did not know well, or at all, they both were people who understood life and who were willing to trust. Finding people who are willing to trust is not easy, but James and Lee were both from the generation that living life without the ability to trust would be unthinkable, and probably, unlivable.


Mr. Eastland was many other things as well, church leader, bible study leader, song leader, musician, auctioneer, veterans officer, antique car collector, craftsman, and most important to me, my friend and my neighbor, and of course, Mr. Eastland. Goodbye Mr. Eastland and Godspeed.