What Would Debbie Do?

Words by Terrell Manasco | Images by Al Blanton

 

The world ended, as far as Jim Woods was concerned, on January 19, 2006. “The first six months I just wanted to die,” Jim says matter of factly, sitting behind his office desk at Jasper Auto Sales. On that cold January day, Jim lost his soul mate. His love. His rock.

The world began one day in 1975 at Oakman High School, when Jim saw his future. Her name was Debbie Walton and Jim was smitten before Cupid ever fired an arrow. Debbie was an eighth grader, Jim was a year younger. The attraction was mutual and soon Jim was catching rides to Debbie’s house to visit. “Her dad and brother detailed cars for Boyd Taylor’s car lot,” Jim says. “I was over there hanging around all the time so I’d go down there and help him. I didn’t have a car. Within a year, I was detailing cars for Mr. Taylor myself. I’d come to Jasper and get them, take them to Coal Valley and clean them up for fifty dollars a car.”

Arnold Woods, Jim’s father, was a well respected mine foreman at Gorgas Number Seven. When Jim graduated high school in 1978, he followed his dad into the mines, working as a scoop operator. “My dad taught me the ropes, and I got my mining papers,” he says. “I filled in as fire boss. I got a lot of overtime.”

Jim says he was taught respect and hard work from a young age. “The first words I remember when I was little was respect and honor,” he says. “And work hard for what you get. Don’t expect people to give you anything.”

When he wasn’t working in the mines, Jim still detailed cars on the side, and on Saturdays he worked twelve-hour shifts at Sides Supermarket.

In 1979, Jim and Debbie were married. They purchased a mobile home and placed it on two acres of land in the Providence community. Two years later their first son Matthew was born. Their second child, Michael, soon followed.

Then one day while Jim was at work, the world shook violently, spinning off its axis. “I was twenty-two when my dad died in the coal mines,” Jim recalls. “He just fell over. We had just trained in CPR. We were a mile inside the mines, and he just had a heart attack. I’m glad I was there because I know everything was done that could be done. That devastated me.”

Now with two small boys, Jim and Debbie planned to build a house. With the money Debbie had saved, they began building on the same property and borrowed twenty thousand dollars to finish it. “I had a huge house payment,” Jim grins. “It was five hundred dollars. Then we found out Debbie was pregnant with twins [Winston and Walker]. I knew then that God’s hand was in this, that He was looking out for us.”

After eight years of working in the mines, Jim was laid off. “We had six thousand dollars saved, so I knew we had house payments for a little while,” he says. “I fell back on what I knew I could do for myself— detailing cars. Bert Crump was a really good guy, one of the old founders of the car business in Jasper. When the mines closed I cleaned up a lot of cars for him for about a year. By then I was getting a hundred dollars a car. I was working day and night.”

Then Jim began to branch out, buying and selling a few inexpensive cars. “Bert had a very good name in Birmingham and had bought hundreds of cars there,” Jim says. “He carried me to Birmingham and introduced me to all the managers. He told them he thought I was more than a detail man and anything I wanted to buy, let me have it, and if I couldn’t pay for it he would. He never had to pay for one. I bought cars I could pay for. Back in those days, you paid for cars once a week, so you could buy from them, make a deal on a car, and have it sold before you ever paid for it. You just write a check, get the title and go collect on it, come back and put it in the bank—so I really worked off other people’s money for a couple of years there.”

The profits were meager at first, perhaps two or three hundred dollars a week. Jim worked out of his house for two years before opening a small lot in Jasper. “I had five cars out front and had one expensive car,” he says. “I wouldn’t even put a name on the place for a year because I was afraid I was gonna go out of business. I bought a lot of cars out of Birmingham and I was still detailing my own cars. My father-in-law, Roy Walton, is the one who really helped me all those years, and he didn’t charge me a dime. I guess he knew if I didn’t make it he was gonna have to feed them boys,” Jim chuckles. “I got a pretty good reputation for having a clean cheap car.”

He was also gaining a reputation for being an honest businessman. As his business grew, Jim had no problem cultivating relationships with wholesale dealers. “I had a dealer in Lexington named Danny Knight, who would come down on a Saturday afternoon and buy every car I had,” he says.

Then he got help from the banks. “First National Bank helped me at this point and let me borrow some money. Jack Allen had confidence in me to do what I said I’d do.”

The business, now named Jasper Auto Sales, was doing well enough to add a few more car lots. With steady income no longer a factor, the Woods family began to enjoy life more, taking trips to the beach and other vacations.

Ironically it was at the beach where the first signs of trouble appeared. “Debbie was a wonderful girl,” Jim says. “She always had checkups, she was physically fit, never smoked or drank. If she had to sneeze in church she would go outside. She was that kind of person. We went to beach a lot. She always wanted to get up in the morning and walk five miles. We’d come back, lay around, then go back and walk five more that afternoon. We were at the beach and she said, ‘I just don’t feel like walking.’ That’s when I knew something was wrong.”

Jim leans forward slightly, elbows planted on his desk, recalling the fateful day in 2004 when he and Debbie heard the two words that changed their lives forever: ovarian cancer.“She hadn’t felt good in several days,” he says. “I took her to the doctor the next week and they found it. Her OB said, ‘I’m so sorry I missed that. I should have caught that when you were here a few months ago.’ There’s really no screening for ovarian cancer, at least there wasn’t back then, until you go in to see what it is.”

Debbie was naturally stunned. “The day they told her she might have ovarian cancer, she cried about ten minutes, and she never cried again after that,” Jim says. “She pulled on her faith, she read all about it. She told me, ‘I’m not gonna make it long, so we need to be preparing for what’s going to happen.’” But Jim refused to accept the death sentence. “I never believed she was going to die, even up to the day she did.”

The cancer was advanced, so Debbie underwent chemo treatments. “Those were terrible,” Jim says, shaking his head. “She lost all her hair and had to buy a wig. The last few months she lost weight, down to a skeleton size, but she still had a great attitude.”

A wry smile appears on his face as he recalls one side effect. “She craved pinto bean soup. I made pinto beans and cornbread every day. That’s all she wanted.”

As the sand in the hourglass ran out, Debbie focused on preparing everyone for what was coming. When doctors said there was no need to continue treatments, Jim was heartsick. Debbie, the eternal optimist, remarked that it could always be worse. Jim questioned how that was possible, and she had an answer. “She grabbed me by the back of my arm and said, ‘It could be one of our kids.’”

In their last months together, Jim and Debbie spent time together and had many heartfelt talks. Jim found himself astounded by her wisdom. “One day I said, ‘Debbie this makes me sick to think you’re gonna pass on ahead of us.’ She said, ‘It’s only a day.’” When he asked what she meant, Debbie referred to 2 Peter 3:8. “Well, a day in Heaven is like a thousand years on Earth. I’ll see you tomorrow…if you do right,” she told him.

Debbie passed away on Jan. 19, 2006. Although his father’s death had left him desolate, this was much worse. “It took me a long time to get over that, but it didn’t hurt near as much as Debbie,” he says. “Debbie was my rock. Even to this day I pull off of Debbie in decisions I make. I think, what would Debbie do? That’s easy. She would do the right thing, whatever. She was ahead of her time. Now I can see that God let her influence me and the boys to prepare us.”

For several years, Debbie had worked as the secretary at Oakman Elementary, and later Oakman High School. She is known for today for her kindness and generosity toward students. “She loved people. She was the most giving, caring person you ever met,” Jim shrugs. “She loved children. If a kid needed money for a Coca Cola…I can’t tell you how many class rings and cap and gowns she bought. She just loved kids.”

Eleven years later, the house looks almost the same as when Debbie was there. “It’s Debbie’s home still,” Jim says. “To this day most of her pictures are still there.” In the dining room hangs a lifelike painting depicting Debbie sitting outdoors in her rocking chair. Behind her is a long, white, sandy beach joining a cerulean blue ocean. “I wouldn’t take a million dollars for it,” he says.

The Woods family’s road back from tragedy has been fraught with unforeseen pitfalls. A year and a half after Debbie died, eldest son Matt and his wife Brandi suffered a loss of their own when their first child, Jaxon, was stillborn. Yet even tragedy often has a way of uniting families. “Watching their mother die, we grew so close together. I’ve always told them, we’re a family.”

If there is one thing Jim is known for, other than selling cars, it’s his benevolent nature. “I’m a firm believer in taking care of the poor and needy,” he says. For several years he has given away free bicycles and toys to small children during the downtown Christmas parade, in memory of his late wife. He has contributed funds to help Walker County schools, and has helped to care for the needs of hundreds of individuals in various situations.

“We try to do something about everybody’s needs that come in here,” he says. “We always try to look at other people’s needs.”

That’s what Debbie would do.   78

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