James "Jim" Blackburn Jr. '59 November 29, 2021 2:16 PM updated: November 30, 2021 3:38 PM
James Harvey Blackburn, Jr.
April 20, 1937 - June 17, 2021 (age 84)
James Harvey Blackburn Jr. was born at home in Tioga Louisiana in April of 1937. The family moved to Houston after his father returned from fighting in Europe. Jim Blackburn attended San Jacinto High School and to hear him tell it he got into his share of trouble. He enrolled at Texas A&M which at the time was an all-male school with a military academy format. His experience at A&M really shaped his character. He cherished opportunities to be a part of something larger than himself; a sports team, a unit, the armed services. He had an instinct for seeing the possibility the potential in others, even if they didn't always see it in themselves. He particularly enjoyed coaching managing and mentoring many of those people to realize that potential.
Jim graduated from A&M in 1959 with a degree in Computer Science and was commissioned in the United States Air Force. The Air Force sent him back to A&M for a Master's degree in Meteorology, and he spent 20 years in assignments that took him to Greenland, Vietnam, Europe, and other destinations.
He told a lot of stories and if you were around him long enough you would certainly hear those same stories over again. He loved to be the center of attention, and from all his stories you would think that he'd done everything but the electric chair and seen everything but the wind. My son pointed out something to me that I never really noticed at the time, in his final years most of my father's stories were about his children and his grandchildren. My son reminded me that this more than anything reflected my father's priorities. All of his stories considered, I think he ultimately had what he wanted most, simply a relevant life.
He told a lot of stories about his time serving in Vietnam. I think his service in that conflict for a time reinforced his sense of purpose and his quest for a relevant life. However, as the years passed and more the truth of that terrible war became public, I think it hurt him deeply. The sense of betrayal and loss left him with a restless emptiness. He found some peace in his faith, but he could never quite escape the shadow cast by that time. Maybe that's why he talked so much about his experiences in Vietnam, it was his way of trying to chase away those shadows.
To my father, relevant meant making a difference whether it was to an individual, a team, the armed services, or his country. My son said my father was the kind of person you could call at any time and say I need a dollar. My father might reply, “but I only have a dollar.” The next day he'd call you back and say, “Okay, I got you two dollars but don't ask me how I got the second one.”
If you had a dragon to slay there was nobody you wanted beside you more than Jim Blackburn. Dragon slaying was kind of his thing. No matter how fierce the dragon, no matter what the score was in the game, it was never about winning or losing. It was about giving his best effort every single moment. I think if I’m successful at all in my life, it's because that's what he expected from me and consequences be damned.
In his last assignment in Ramstein Airbase, he led a team that did something his Commanding Officer had told others couldn't be done. While it was a technical success, it had political consequences. When my father transitioned to his final military assignment in Birkenfeld, the members of his team gave him a mug with a cartoon on it, a dragon with an evil smile. The dragon was standing over a knight with a broken lance and a battered singed armor with the tagline ‘some days the dragon wins. My father the dragon slayer had a certain appreciation for damsels, whether or not they were in distress.
In his senior living residence, he met Colleen. The two of them shared a two-bedroom suite for a few years until health issues forced them apart. Yep that's right, my 80-year-old father was shacking up in his final years. My father faced a lot of dragons, particularly with regard to his health. I’m proud to say that when he faced his final dragon, that this time I was by his side. I can tell you that he didn't quit the battle he just ran out of fight.
I spent the past couple of weeks going through my father's files and records and I found photos, documents, and the stories. From so many times in his life, particularly when he was a young officer in the Air Force, in those pictures I can really see the vitality of his spirit and the fire in his eyes. I wish I’d known him back then, I think he was a bit of a gambler a bit of a pirate. I see him differently now, and my final memories of him will always include the strength and vitality of his spirit.
Jim Blackburn was laid to rest in the National Cemetery in Houston, Texas on June 27, 2021 with Military Honors provided by the US Air Force. It was pouring down rain for most of the morning. It's somehow fitting that we sent a meteorologist to the good Lord on a day with torrential rains.
I have this image of my father sitting next to Noah saying did I tell you the story of how hard it was raining on the day I was laid to rest and Noah is smiling because he's already heard the story probably more than once.
Video honorarium can be found online at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HRG-uyw0m8U