If Jim Short’s life could be likened to a tire, his treads would be nearly worn out. Yet again this morning, Jim lolls in his swivel chair at Radial Tire in downtown Jasper, chuckling and firing off one-liners, a half-day’s work already behind him. His desk—strewn with papers, monogrammed pens, and a hodgepodge of other items (including lint-swarmed prescription eyeglasses)—is its usual cluttered self. Behind him, various triumphs from the tire world scream through plaques and framed papers. The shhh-ing sounds of an air hose, the occasional clattering of a drill (buh-duh-duh-duh!), the more frequent pinging of a desktop phone—sounds he’s gotten used to—are prevalent again today. In Jim’s world, things appear to be relatively normal. Yes, his bulbous nose will crinkle today from prominent laughter. Yes, he will bat it back-and-forth with some old codger who saunters into the shop, just to say hello. Yes, life is good. But something is terribly, terribly wrong.
Behind the jolly portico of a handsome blue shirt and pressed khakis, the cackling and the amusement, the work-postured day, Jim Short’s body is riddled with cancer.
Jim once told me, “The only difference between me and you is I know how long I’ve got.” Although the prognosis is grim, Jim isn’t as much concerned about length of life as he is the quality of it.
Jim Short grew up on 3rd Avenue in Jasper across from a cedar plant. From a very early age, he could smell work. “My grandparents raised me,” Jim says. “We were struggling. My grandfather had had a stroke by then and was wheelchair bound. We didn’t have any money and my grandmother could stretch a dollar bill until you could see through it.”
As a boy, Jim remembers troop trains snorting through town, hauling joyous soldiers home from World War II. “The neighborhood kids would come out and watch,” Jim recalls. “They’d throw us oranges and apples off the train. We didn’t know the significance of it, but we knew the boys were coming back home.”
The Shorts were so poor that Central School signed Jim up for the free lunch program, but his grandmother was a proud woman and she wouldn’t let her grandson take anything for free. “To take charity in any way was beyond her capability,” Jim says. “So she worked it out with the principal where I went home for lunch every day.”
Feeling as though it was his obligation to help fund the house, Jim went to work at age nine, mowing grass for a lawn care outfit run by Mr. Ralph Kilgore. Jim also nabbed a job at Son Humphries Supermarket, working as a stock boy or in the meat market—“just whatever they wanted me to do.”
Jim attended Central and Walker County High School, but work obligations precluded him from getting involved in school activities in any capacity. “Bobby Songer was the basketball coach when I was in the ninth grade,” Jim says. “One day, he called all of the tall guys in there was trying to recruit ‘em. He said, ‘Any of you who’s not interested in playing, get up and leave right now.’ And I got up and walked to the door and he said, ‘Short? Where are you goin’?’ I said, ‘You said if I wasn’t interested to get up and leave. I’ve got to go to work.’ And I did.”
By the time Jim reached the tenth grade, Mr. Kilgore had gone out of business and sold his mowers to his understudy. Now with thirteen lawnmowers and a staff—coupled with a second job at Son’s and a third job at Shoemaker Auto Parts—Jim was making decent money for the family. Soon, he would have a family of his own.
Jim met his wife Peggy while in high school and they got married the spring semester of their senior year. (State law required a man to be 21 years of age to obtain a marriage license, so Jim’s mother signed for him.) Jim and Peggy moved into an apartment and Jim continued working at Shoemaker as a welder.
“I thought I’d found my career and was going to be a welder the rest of my life,” Jim says. “That was not exactly the way the Lord had it planned.”
Jim was hired by Alabama Power in Tuscaloosa and worked there until he couldn’t afford to work there anymore, the commute putting a massive strain on his pocketbook. Jim was hired by the Pillsbury Company in Jasper after a several-week negotiating process with the plant manager, Mr. George Deadwyler.
At Pillsbury, Jim worked as a supervisor and came in contact with a Birmingham tire company that eventually funneled into the fortuitous opening of a business. “I started running Radial Tire on trucks [at Pillsbury],” Jim says. “Nobody in Walker County had heard of Radial Tire. So I started digging around to see what it would take to get it.”
Jim contacted Preston Trammell, a salesman in Birmingham, who had connections to a Bandag franchise. “Back then, about the only way to retread a tire was the Bandag process,” Jim says. “But I couldn’t hardly get into it. He found out about it, my salesman did, and said, ‘Why don’t we go in together? You run the operation and I’ll do sales.’”
Trammell’s boss, Lynn Strickland, got wind of the pair’s scheme and also wanted in on the action. “He walked up and said, ‘You two yo-yos, I can’t believe this. Y’all ain’t got any money. You need another partner. I’ll handle the inventory and paper,’” Jim recalls.
Thus was the genesis of Radial Tire and Bandag.
Jim and crew opened up shop in the old B.T. Wright Building in Jasper, across from what used to be the Deep South Creamery. Business was good during the first year, but it wasn’t long before both Trammell and Strickland wanted out. Jim eventually bought the franchise for $30,000 and was the sole owner.
In the early years, Jim also rented the back half of Bert Simmons’ building on 20th Street and used it as a warehouse. Jim admits that the two locations were hard to manage, and casually mentioned to Bert that he might be interested in buying the building, an overlong negotiation that resulted in pure comedy.
“Bert and I had a great relationship,” Jim says. “You’d think we were two sore-tail cats the way we talked to each other. I told him one day, I said, ‘Bert, you just need to sell me this place so you don’t have all these problems with me.’”
At the mention of this potential transaction, Bert huffed and walked away. Then one day, right out of the blue, Jim says, Bert came wheeling into the shop, pulled into the middle bay and laid on the horn.
“Bert, we don’t do curb service here,” Jim said, walking up.
“I thought about what you said,” Bert replied.
“Well, I’ve said a lot. What are you talking about?”
“About owning this place. You’re right. I think you need to own this place.”
“How much you want for it?”
“I don’t know. There’s a figure we can agree to.”
Then Bert backed out and left.
“It was three years later…” Jim says now, his voice trailing off in laughter. And for the last thirty years, Radial Tire has been in the same location.
When probed about what he likes about work, Jim says: “Well you know, I like people. I like taking care of people’s problems. I’ve enjoyed working with the employees—and I’ve had some doozies. Apparently that was part of what the Lord wanted me to do. I’ve had several guys come back. There was a guy who retired who came back and thanked me for being hard on him when he worked for me. He said, ‘You were hard on me, but you explained things. If it hadn’t been for you, ‘cause you changed my life, I wouldn’t be where I am today.’ There’s no question, the Lord had me here for a purpose.”
Jim sees the Lord’s fingerprint on all areas of his life. There were times when business was thin and he’d come to work in the morning not knowing how he’d get through the day. Bills were piling up and Jim couldn’t figure how in the world he was going to pay them. Apparently God wasn’t too concerned about mathematics, but rather the inclinations of Jim’s heart. “I’d go to the post office and there’d be a check to get through the day,” Jim says. “Monies that I was not expecting.”
Jim’s faith has helped him to preserve a terrific attitude through the tumult of life. And for Jim, the road certainly hasn’t been easy. He’s lost two daughters, Dawn and Terri, to illnesses and now finds himself in the fight of his life. Doctors discovered cancer in his small intestine, and after a routine check-up of the lungs, found it in the liver. Jim had surgery at UAB where forty percent of his liver, ten inches of his small intestine, the entire gall bladder, and part of the stomach were removed. After surgery, Jim went to M.D. Anderson in Houston for more treatment. Jim suggested to the doctors there that he was not interested in adding one more day of life, but rather that the quality of life while he is here on earth is more important to him. “So I can be of service to somebody,” he said.
A committee of physicians at M.D. Anderson convinced Jim to let them treat him, prescribing a dosage of gleevec to be ramped up over the course of months.
Jim was doing well, until he discovered that that larger dosage made it difficult to function. “I couldn’t make a decision,” he says. “If you’d asked me, you want a lemon or ice cream? I couldn’t tell you. A steak or a hot dog? I couldn’t tell you. That wasn’t living.”
Jim called the doctors and told them he was off the chemo. Rallying now, the team of physicians got together once again and cut the dosage in half. Now Jim takes oral chemotherapy, goes to work, and lives as normal a life as his type of cancer will allow.
Through these experiences, Jim has discovered there is a big difference between business and work. Business is transactional in nature, and work is all about people. Through business, Jim found income. Through work, Jim found purpose.
“There’s a reason that I’m here,” Jim says. “I’m not sure I know—and I don’t think I’m supposed to know why. I’m just supposed to do it, whatever it is.”
Then Jim leans back further, his eyes watering, and in an almost private moment, as if to himself, he says: “It’s gonna be alright. There’s something in the plans. I don’t know what it is. It’s on a need-to-know basis. When the Lord wants me to know, He’ll tell me. It’s in His hands.”
Yes, there will be a day when Jim Short cannot work again. When his body is so dysfunctional and weary that he will have to step away forever from his duties at Radial Tire. When business is over and he won’t make another dime. But Jim’s work will remain, through all the people who have walked through the doors of the tire shop across the years. Through his encouraging life attitude, forged by faith.
Life’s difficulties may eventually take his body, but Jim has refused to let anything take his mind and his spirit. Over seventy-five years, Jim has avoided the greatest sickness known to man: negativity.
“I can look at it one way—‘Boy, life’s tough,’” Jim says. “Or I can look at it the way I choose to—“Lord, I’ve been blessed.’”
For Jim Short, it hasn’t been an easy road. But with the Lord, it’s been drivable. 78
Images by Al Blanton
Originally published in 78 Magazine in Oct/Nov 2016