James grew up in the rolling hills of Sabine, Texas in a country home with loving parents who raised him and his brother John to live a life of hard work, faith, and family. Wood fires heated the home, and the family slept in feather beds with handmade quilts. Without indoor plumbing, they bathed in water from the well. James’ father Charlie kept a pen of outdoor dogs for fox hunting and his mother Ila cooked delicious, farm-raised meals. Aside from home, much of family life centered around McCary’s Chapel Methodist Church.
From the time he could hold a pencil, James was an artist. “I’ve had a pencil in my hand my entire life,” James said. After riding the bus from home for his first two years at Kilgore College, James graduated from Stephen F. Austin State University with a Bachelor’s in Art and a Master’s in Education. “Learning should be lifelong,” James said, “A lot of people turn off their learning machine too early. As long as you’re breathing, you ought to be learning.”
James’ first job out of college was at Huntington High School, where he was the librarian and an English teacher. He then taught art at Silsbee Junior High, Gladewater Junior High, and Gladewater High School.
James met Dora Derr while working in Gladewater. They married in Quitman in 1956, and moved to Tyler, where they started a family and raised four children. Family life centered around their church home of Glenwood Methodist Church. James and Dora volunteered in their kids’ scouting programs, in addition to a variety of team sports - from flag football to baseball leagues.
In Tyler, James worked at Finn Advertising Agency as Art Director, playing a pivotal role there for 25 years, contributing his artistic talents for The Western Company, Tyler Museum of Art, and many other notable clients.
The early 80’s was a period of significant change and transition in James’ life. He married Judy in 1983 at Ghost Ranch, New Mexico, and became stepfather to Amy and Emily. He left Finn and became a freelance advertising artist, where he built a studio at home.
James invited clients into the house, setting up shop at the dining room table. Whether creating a company’s corporate logo or helping design that year’s Rose Festival program, James brought countless ideas to life. He carried out all of these extraordinary works at his drawing board with pens and pencils, a t-square, and his hand, never once using a computer to do his work.
Among the cherished and celebrated of James’ creations are: Programs for the Rose Festival, Pollard Methodist, Marvin Methodist, and First Presbyterian churches, and the famous Greenberg Turkey design. He was a long-time caricaturist for the Tyler Civic Theatre, drawing cast drawings for their theater programs.
Believe it or not, James couldn’t draw everything. “I can’t draw beautiful women,” he said. “They all look like George Washington.”
James handled life’s most significant moments by creating drawings for the people impacted, and those drawings are an indelible gift. Judy has always said that James’s caricatures are “hanging in some of the best bathrooms in Tyler.”
James was an avid and passionate historian. A pillar of the Smith County Historical Society, where he was president, James also edited and published the Award-winning Chronicles of Smith County for over 40 years. In 2008, James wrote a book with Bob and Doris Bowman based on his 30 years of research titled “A Civil War Tragedy.” He also spent decades researching racism and the Ku Klux Klan in East Texas. The Wilkins Collection of James’ research is housed at the Smith County Historical Society Archives.
A long-time member of the East Texas State Fair, James served on the Board of Directors. Never one to boast his VIP status, James did appreciate the free parking awarded to him as a lifetime board member so that he and Judy could have lunch at the East Texas Fair, where he’d dine on a burger from Rodney Kamel and a slice of pie from Trinity Lutheran.
James had his quirks. He stirred his coffee with the end of his glasses, even in a booth at Loggins, much to Judy’s chagrin. He believed in coming home a different way than you arrived. Every day, he chose an object to draw, always honing his craft. He wasn’t good at social constructs, and loathed situations where he was forced to wear a tie. He was a pretty terrible dancer, but made a few exceptions when escorting Amy at Symphonettes, even wearing a tuxedo despite many complaints. He danced at Emily’s wedding because Judy forced him into it.
James spent his final years shedding his curmudgeon skin. If you asked how he was doing, he’d consistently answer, “I yam what I yam.” He loved sitting outside for hours, watching the birds and squirrels, and the last day he was home before entering a nursing facility, James donned his red puffy coat and made his daily walk around the block. He often referred to “life in the slow lane.” Anyone who was with James during his “slow lane” years received a priceless blessing.
The survivors who will miss him the most include Judy, his wife of 37 years; six children and their spouses, Melissa & George Brigman, Chris & Michelle Wilkins, Jonathan & Cheri Wilkins, Dorian & Robert Villa, Amy & Tim Arndt, Emily & Rocky Montez, six grandchildren, Yuri, Ashley, Tyler, Stephanie, Matthew, & Emily Rose; and one great-grandchild, James.
A description that will forever remind us of James can be found in the words of Mary Oliver.
Instructions for living a life:
Tell about it.
As his days on earth diminished, we’d often find ourselves asking James The Big Questions of Life.
“Do you believe in God?” one of his children asked.
“Yes, I do.”
“But how do you know?”
“Just look at a flower,” he said.
Decades ago, we discussed what we would want at our funerals. James’ final wishes were simple: “When I die, bury me with a pencil in my pocket, because I’ll be the last SOB on Earth who knows how to use one.”
A memorial celebration will be held at a future date due to the constraints caused by Covid-19. In lieu of flowers, the family welcomes donations to St. Paul Children’s Services at PO Box 1238, Tyler, TX 75710, or Hospice of East Texas at 4111 University Blvd, Tyler, TX 75701.