JAMES ROBERT DEAL—”JIMMIE DEAL”
September 17, 1914 – March 11, 2000
by James Robert Deal, II
James Robert Deal was born in Memphis, Tennessee, on September 17, 1914. Everyone knew him as “Jimmie.” Jimmie’s father, Albert Deal, moved from Conover, North Carolina to Memphis at some point.
Jimmie had a grandfather named James Robert Diehl back in North Carolina, who was a hard wood floor layer. “Diehl” is a German word for a type of wood or flooring wood. The Diehls were hardwood floor layers from Germany, conservative Lutherans. “Diehl” is pronounced the same as “Deal.” James Robert Diehl changed his name to James Robert Deal to go with his business slogan, “a good deal more for a good deal less.”
Jimmie’s mother was Ada Mahaffey, who was of Irish descent. Jimmie’s siblings were Albert Deal, Jr., Clara Deal Dellinger, and Eva Deal Westbrook.
During World War I Jimmie’s family moved to Muscle Shoals, Alabama, where Albert took some kind of war related work.
Jimmie’s family loved music. Albert played guitar. Albert Jr. played piano. They all sang in their Lutheran choir. At a young age Jimmie was given violin lessons and taught how to read music. Jimmie was recognized at a young age as having a gift for the violin. His teachers told him he was a virtuoso.
However, Jimmie’s violin playing came to a halt when he was around 11 years old. He wore some shoes that were too tight and developed an infection in his left foot, which moved to his left ankle. Several doctors were consulted, and they recommended amputation. The family called in a well-known Jewish doctor, Dr. Meyer, who believed it was possible to save the foot. He drilled a hole through the ankle and irrigated it regularly with Dakin’s solution, which is made of bleach and baking soda. Recovery was slow, but after a year in bed, Jimmie recovered fully. The hole grew together, but Jimmie had a scar and a depression in both sides of his ankle. When Jimmie volunteered for military duty in World War II, he was asked to stand on one foot. He lost his balance, and the doctor noticed his scars. He was classified 4-F.
Jimmie was not allowed to play violin in bed. After he recovered, some idiot told him and his family that because he had not played for a year, he would never regain his skills. This is of course a stupid myth. Unfortunately, Jimmie and his family believed it. Family finances had tightened, and Albert could not afford a full size violin for Jimmie, so the lessons stopped, and the violin was stored away. Music was Jimmie’s first calling. It is my belief that Jimmie’s loss of his first calling created psychological tensions for him later in life. Jimmie was born left handed. His family or his school teachers forcibly converted him from south paw to right hander. This may have also caused problems for Jimmie.
As a teenager Jimmie helped in the flooring business. He also delivered newspapers. He learned how to box and had to defend himself at times. Jimmie had little interest in school except for music. He took up the drums. The teacher liked him because he could “read the spots,” meaning he could read drum music. As a teenager he joined a Dixieland jazz band and he played drums and sang. He had jobs during the week laying floors with his father and on weekends playing music with the band. Jimmie completed twelve years of schooling but failed to receive a diploma because he took too many band and choir classes and not enough academic classes. It was not until Jimmie retired and studied bonehead English at Mississippi County Community CollegeIs—and got his GED—that he learned how to punctuate and spell properly.
Jimmie made good money working for his father and playing music up and down the “music road,” Highway 61, which runs from New Orleans to Memphis, to St. Louis, to Chicago. In the Summer of 1937, when Jimmie was 23 years old, Deal Flooring Company needed a secretary to type correspondence and bills. Jimmie called Draughon’s Business College and asked for a typist. On a Saturday Jimmie drove downtown and picked up Elizabeth Margaret Abraham. Back at the office it became evident that Elizabeth was just learning how to type. She went through ten pages of expensive stationery to complete each letter. And she was distracted by good looking Jimmie. Jimmie thought she was Jewish and tried to fix her up with a Jewish buddy. The buddy talked with Elizabeth and found out she was Lebanese. He told Jimmie, “She’s all yours.” Jimmie and Elizabeth met the next Saturday but dispensed with the whole idea of typing letters. Thereafter they dated daily. Within a month they were married.
Jimmie and Elizabeth lived in Jimmie’s parents’ home on Decatur Street. A friend had moved to California, so Jimmie and Elizabeth followed him to Los Angeles. Jimmie couldn’t play in union bands until he had been a member for a year, so he looked around for other work. He found employment in Hollywood where he put his decorating skills to work as a set designer. Jimmie was put off by the low level of morality he observed in the movie business. Jimmie had a chance to go to work on the railroad. A friend needed work, so Jimmie arranged for the friend to take over his Hollywood job, and Jimmie became a railroad man. He traded positions and worked up to brakeman and conductor. Jimmie really liked the excitement and comradery of working on the railroad. Jimmie and Elizabeth bought a small trailer. They moved whenever the Southern Pacific asked Jimmie to move, from Los Angeles to San Diego to Mexicali.
After his one year waiting period passed, Jimmie started playing with bands. He wrote songs and sang them. However, he was put off by his fellow musicians’ drinking and marijuana smoking. They all wanted him to join in and get high. Jimmie observed that their playing “went to pot” when they were stoned along with their sense of rhythm. He felt that at least the drummer should stay “straight.” And there were the groupie girls who were constantly trying to seduce him. He decided that music “was no life for a married man.” He turned his back on the music business.
As the war was ending Jimmie and Elizabeth returned to Memphis and then to Blytheville. Elizabeth’s father Chadad Abraham set them up in the saloon business down on Railroad Street just south of Ash. Chadad set up three saloons, all in a row, one for himself, one for Jimmie and Elizabeth, and one for Lonnie and Marie Manning. Marie was Elizabeth’s younger sister. All three saloons did a land office business. These beer joints hosted blacks and whites, but they were divided into a white and a black side, which was divided by a U-shaped bar between the two.
Being a strict Missouri Synod Lutheran, Jimmie did not like selling beer. He was on a religious quest for truth. He and Elizabeth visited many different denominations. For a while Elizabeth and I became Lutherans. Jimmie visited many churches and studied late into the night while trying to keep up with his growing business. He drove himself to the point of exhaustion, working all day and studying all night.
Jimmie persisted in his religious quest, despite the fact that it was partially responsible for his health problems. Jimmie always had a bias against higher education. The Church of Christ would allow a man to be a minister without a seminary degree. He decided the Church of Christ was closest to the New testament. Jimmie and Elizabeth were both re-baptized.
When I was a first grader in 1953, Dad accepted a call to preach in the Arkansas farming village of Aubrey, not too far from Memphis. Baptism had to be by immersion. Dad took converts down to the lake and dunked them. In summer he used an oar to kill water moccasins; in winter he used it to break ice. In the Church of Christ, you get to know the Bible extremely well. At Dad’s encouragement I memorized the names of all the Books of the Old Testament and New Testament, the twelve apostles, and the twelve tribes of Israel. Even today I can recite them all, Old and New, apostles and tribes, in one breath. Church of Christ people are very talented musically. Their hymnals are written in do-re-mi shaped notes, which makes reading and transposing music really easy. Church of Christ people are very scholarly in their own literalist way.
Jimmie was a long-winded preacher. His sermons usually lasted close to an hour. He was effective. He doubled the size of the church. Jimmie had two sons with health issues. His $100 per month salary was not enough to cover expenses. He had tripled the weekly contribution, and Jimmie asked for a raise. The farmers could not imagine how we could possibly need more than $100 per week to cover our expenses. So Jimmie had to return to being a businessman. He continued to preach occasionally.
Jimmie went into the sewing machine business, which evolved into Deal’s Fabric Center at 123 West Main. He set up Deal’s Interiors and when Chadad Abraham died and left his Abraham Motel to Elizabeth, Jimmie remodeled it into the Drummer Boy Motel and Restaurant. For several years it was the best steak house in Blytheville. When Jimmie returned to running Deal’s Interiors and leased out the restaurant, it went into decline. Jimmie was good at setting up businesses but not good at sticking with them.
Business was not Jimmie’s real calling. He wanted to do something to help the people of his adopted Blytheville. Numerous times, Jimmie intervened in utility rate cases, receiving no compensation whatsoever and neglecting his businesses, but saving Arkansas residents millions of dollars. He was recognized by Middle South (Entergy) utility gurus as knowing more about their books than their own economists. Once they offered him a fat salary to come over to their side. Jimmie turned them down. Jimmie was allowed to interrogate witnesses before the Public Service Commission, a privilege rarely accorded non-attorneys. This was Jimmy’s last and most important calling, his crusade for “the little man.” Had Jimmie gone to college and law school, he would have been a powerful attorney.
Jimmie circulated petitions to force the City to municipalize its electric service, which could have cut rates in half, but the forces against him were insurmountable. Because of Jimmie, state law was changed to make it virtually impossible for cities to buy out their electric companies. Jimmie ran for mayor and for city council, always showing well, but never coming close to winning. He was not part of the political elite.
Jimmie accumulated adversaries. Electric company employees feared they would lose their jobs if the city took over the electric company. His businesses were boycotted. During his last race for mayor, gray-bearded and 76 years old, he offended a county park board employee, who formerly had worked for the electric company. The man became enraged when he concluded (incorrectly) that Jimmie was gathering petition signatures on the fair grounds—a constitutional right, by the way. The man fisted Jimmie in one eye, knocking him out of the race. Jimmie sued his assailant and the park board, and I went down to Arkansas and tried the case in 1995, Deal vs. Sanders. The Little Deal stood up for the Big Deal, and we won a judgment against them. “We should have listened to Jimmy,” is what many say of him.
Jimmie Deal had another heart attack just after Christmas, 1999. He spent months in the Baptist Hospital, trying to make a recovery. He had a feeding tube in his stomach. A dialysis machine was doing the work of his failing kidneys. He was breathing almost pure oxygen. He declared to Elizabeth it was a “good time to die,” and the kidney dialysis machine was disconnected. Fortunately, I was able to spend time with Dad just before he died. Billy Boone and I sang hymns and read scriptures to him. Mom and Jimmie regarded Billy Boone as his third son. I reminded Jimmie of the many people who admired him and the good he had done.
How do you measure success in life? Jimmie was certainly not wealthy. In fact, he died owing a small fortune on credit cards. He invested in penny stocks, gambling that he could make a big profit and make us all proud of him. He had a weakness for buying into get-rich-quick schemes. He bought thousands of dollars worth of pay telephones, none of which was ever installed. He bought into multi-level marketing programs, but he never had the time and energy to build a “downline.” I remember his buying a thousand dollars worth of diet cookies. He ended up eating them himself. He was always trying to get me to get involved in his money making ideas.
Jimmie wanted to die a success in business. However, business was not his real calling, and he was doomed never to succeed in business. Oh he excelled in setting up businesses, such as the Drummer Boy Restaurant and Motel, but he tended to lose interest in his businesses and move on to other things. He failed to continue to monitor and manage his businesses, and they tended to decline. He owned rental homes, but he allowed his tenants to get away with not paying the rent and damaging the properties. He was constantly repairing them, only to have them damaged again.
I believe that Jimmie’s lost his way when he gave up on being a violinist. He could have played first chair in a symphony. He lost his way again when he gave up on being a musician in his Dixieland band. He loved music. He tried being a businessman, but it was not his real calling. He was never really interested in it, and so he was fated not to succeed in business. He had a real calling to be a minister. He was offered a scholarship at Harding College in Searcy, Arkansas. He could have gotten the education he sorely needed while at the same time being assigned his own church and supported with a full scholarship. Jimmie could not see the value in higher education and turned away from formal study. He lost his way again by not getting a proper education. Jimmie might have gone onto be a lifelong minister. He might have gone to law school, and he would have been a powerful attorney. Jimmie suffered from lack of education and a prejudice against education. He discouraged his sons from going to college. He wanted us to let him set us up in business in Blytheville. I tried working for him in the Drummer Boy Restaurant, however, I was unable to turn the business around. My brother and I needed to get away from the South.
Jimmie did find great fulfillment in his political work. Although he was not a financial success, there was a more relevant balance sheet. His success was on a personal and spiritual level. In every thing he did his aim was to be Christ-like. Jimmie treated everyone he met with respect. He was generous to all, including needy tenants and employees. He was ahead of his time in rejecting racial prejudice. He did not take himself too seriously and laughed easily. He stood by his convictions despite the financial cost. And so I regard the life of Jimmie Deal as having been a great success.
We shed tears together at the last. I took his shoulders and told him numerous times, “Jimmie Deal, you did well.”
Jimmie Deal, you did well.