On October 27, 2018, the Gresham family celebrated James William Gresham’s ninetieth birthday at Rocky Creek Baptist Church. Sixty-six guests attended because as his daughter-in-law, Debbie Gresham, fondly remarked, “He has a following!”
Born in 1928 just a hundred yards down the road from where he now resides, James Gresham marvels at the changes in his lifetime. As a child, he played on acres of land with plentiful trees. Even though the Model T car had gained popularity, you could count on your fingers the number of cars passing down the dirt road in front of their house. Now, traffic overwhelms the city’s roads and everyone is in a hurry. He says that people can’t seem to get along with each other these days either. When they get home, children go to their separate rooms and play with their gadgets. Folks need to put down the phones, communicate more with each other, and take the time to enjoy each other’s company.
The Great Depression marked his early years and World War II his youth. Though he did not serve due to his age, James watched his older brother leave to serve in the military during those trying times. He says that people have it good today and they don’t even know it.
James grew up in a family with four children—two girls and two boys. He fondly remembers playing in swimming holes and spending nights with his beloved grandmother who lived just down the road. On such visits, he would do homework, play outside with his slingshot, and of course, eat because his grandmother was a great cook. As a three or four-year-old boy, he went to a place called the Cotton Gin in Simpsonville where he drank his first soda pop and it bubbled right out his nose.
James says that his father was a “common” man who didn’t “put on airs”. One piece of advice from his father that has formed James’ entire life was this—always be honest. In addition, his faith has always been a major part of James’ life. Since a child, he has belonged to and served at Bethel United Methodist Church where his son, Tim, says they called him “King James”. The church relied on him to help out, especially if there was something that needed to be fixed.
On November 23, 1949, he married Ruby, who has been his wife for an amazing 69 years. James laughingly shared that the secret to a long marriage is to do what she says! He also claims that the secret of his longevity, is this wonderful woman he married. According to James and verified by his family, not only is she a good cook, but she tries to serve healthy food. The couple have two sons, Steve, the oldest, and Tim; five grandchildren, one of whom, David Gresham, passed away from leukemia at age eighteen, and one great-granddaughter, Leighton Draz. James immediately fell in love with Leighton, who turned one month old around the time of his recent birthday celebration.
After attending Pliney School which no longer exists and graduating from Simpsonville High School, James began his career as a meter man. Because he enjoyed working with his hands and fixing things, he eventually sought employment at a filling station. In those days, filling stations were full-service, often repairing cars and fixing flats, so James became a skilled mechanic, able to rebuild cars.
Firemen used to drop by the filling station where he worked because they had a coffee machine there. James would listen to their stories and he yearned to become a fireman himself. So, he filed an application with the fire department.
James ended up serving with the Greenville City Fire Department for twenty-nine years, first at the Augusta Road and then at the Pleasantburg station. In those days, to work at a fire department, you had to live in the community where the station was located. The family left Gresham Road in Simpsonville and moved to Greenville so that he could pursue this career. He rode tailboard for ten years and then drove the firetruck. Tim Gresham remembers that he and his brother would sometimes bring their Dad lunch at the fire station. While there, they would spend time playing on the fire truck and conversing with the other firemen who would kid around with them. One of them claimed that chocolate milk came from chocolate cows of all things!
James has several stories from his years as a fireman. Once, he was called in for a downed airplane with people inside. They had concerns about the plane erupting into flames, so the firemen minimized this risk by using foam until the passengers could be safely removed. A fire occurred in McAlister Square Mall on December 12, 1981 which his and other departments battled. The fire raged through the mall’s north wing and ended up damaging at least six stores.
To James, the most important thing about being a fireman, was that people respected you for the work you did, and children looked up to you as an example. James really liked the fulfillment that came from helping people, sometimes on their worst days. He says that he “enjoyed working with these men so much” because they were like a family to him. They ate well, too, sometimes cooking up feasts. Though many of these beloved coworkers have passed away, he keeps in touch and gets together with those who are still around. Firemen didn’t make much money then, so James worked concurrently as a mechanic for a while. He even kept a small shop at home where he stored tools and would help fix things for his neighbors.
James says that he started out in a simpler time—there was only one store nearby. You would go down to the creek to wash your car, so you didn’t have to draw up a lot of well water. If you needed food, you hunted down quail, mourning doves, rabbits, and squirrels. He has tried to share these things with his own children. Tim remembers that his caring Dad would carry each son on his shoulders and tuck their feet into his pockets, so they could get through the briar patches on their many outings.
In 1974, James and Ruby returned to Gresham Road and now reside in a home that he helped build. He proudly says that he installed the plumbing and wiring as well. For James the important thing will always be his home and family. He counts his best accomplishment to be two fine sons. James smiles as he gently cradles little Leighton in his lap and talks to her. “It’s been a pretty good life!”, he declares.♦