Lt. James Robert Vance

    Jim Vance was born to fly. From the moment he entered the world on December 19, 1944, he possessed an intrepid spirit. The second child of Ruby Bolton and Champ Shepherd Vance of Griffin, Georgia, he arrived joining his older sister Sudy as an early Christmas present. Named for two of his father’s favorite brothers James and Robert, he quickly shed the more formal name of James Robert for the simple one of Jim.

          During the five years he held sway as the only son, he accumulated many legends. Some of this boldness had to have come from the six sons his Grandmother Vance had borne. If one bore the legend of galloping his pony across the porch of the local girls’ school in Abingdon, Virginia, Jim quickly established his own list of tall deeds. At three he piloted the truck home as his father suffering from a gallbladder attack applied the gas. On a trip to Pennsylvania, missing Jim, the family looked up at a small opening in the top of a huge barn to see a little boy waving to them from above. He had to be coaxed down.

          No tree proved too high to climb, and Jim rode many from the top to the ground. Finally, this exuberant energy was harnessed when he started first grade at Orrs Elementary School in Spalding County. He lived for recess and the freedom of the end of the school day when he would walk from school to his daddy’s business, the John Deere dealership located next to the waterworks on Highway 41 N. He delighted in his afternoon chore, which was to drive the tractors into the building at the end of the day. He followed Anderson “Shine” Williams around the building plying him with all sorts of questions. These afternoons were a part of his education.

          When his father built a miniature plywood jeep, it was Jim, who proved to be the better driver. A favorite family picture shows Jim at the wheel and younger brother Champ being towed on a toy John Deere tractor. Five years younger, Champ would soon follow the lead of his brother in many activities.

          Both brothers learned a love of fishing from their father. They loved to camp out, make forts in the woods, hunt squirrels and chase the spotted horse that was part of the animal menagerie at the farm near Orchard Hill. Growing up in the country, the boys had no loss of plenty to do. Jim’s mother even enrolled him in tap dancing lessons. He preferred the out of doors to the confines of a studio.

          He proudly worked hard as a Cub Scout with his mother as the den leader. He would go on to achieve the Eagle Scout and God in Country awards. It was a natural to enjoy camp, and he spent many summers at Camp Thunder in Upson County, first as a camper, then as a counselor. One summer he would canoe for a week across the Canadian wilderness with a group of Griffin friends. On another trip he, his dad, Champ and friend Bobby Cheatham would travel and camp along the Intracoastal Waterway in Florida.

          With a former English teacher as his muse, his mother, Jim studied hard at both Spalding Junior High and Griffin High School. He made good grades, participated in sports and was an all around favorite of his class. He sang in the Rotary’s Boy Choir and excelled as a Royal Ambassador at the First Baptist Church. Football and waterskiing were two of the sports he liked. His senior year, he was president of the Key Club and attended the annual conference in Los Angeles. He also had a part in the senior play, “The Thread That Runs So True.”

          Choosing a college to attend was easy. In 1962, Jim followed in the footsteps of his uncle Attorney General Arthur Bolton and matriculated at North Georgia College in Dahlonega. There he wore his first uniform. After two years at North Georgia, he aspired to become a Rambling Wreck and was admitted to Georgia Tech. He had cousins and uncles who had attended Tech, and he fit right in. It was Jim, who helped rebuild a car for the annual parade for his ATO fraternity. He was a natural as he daily piloted a John Deere green and yellow Model A, his only mode of transportation, around Atlanta.

          Jim graduated in June of 1967, with a degree in Industrial Management. Because of his father’s untimely death in May, Jim came home to Griffin to help run the John Deere business. He then joined a cousin in specialty advertising. However, with the war in Vietnam heating up, Jim joined the United States Marine Corps late in 1967.

          Jim survived basic training at Parris Island, South Carolina, and then was selected to attend Officer Candidate School at Quantico, Virginia. While at Quantico, he met the love of his life. Pamela Tompkins, a senior at Mary Washington College in Fredericksburg, Virginia. It was Pam, who proudly pinned his bars on his uniform when he graduated as a Second Lieutenant.

          With a love of flying born from flights he had made with his father in a Piper Cub, Jim elected to pursue a career as a Marine aviator. He was shipped to Del Rio, Texas, to receive his F-4 Phantom jet training at Laughlin Air Force Base. Pam joined him in August of 1968, and they were wed on August 31st.

          The young couple enjoyed base life. Once again Jim purchased a boat, still pursuing his love of fishing and water skiing. It was Pam, who proudly pinned his wings on his lapel when he finished training. From Del Rio, Jim and Pam were stationed at Laurel Bay, South Carolina. Baby Sally Christine Vance was born on March 16th, 1970.

          Always devoted to his mother, Pam and Jim went to Griffin when he had time off. His last visit home was in June when he painted his mother’s house on St. Simons Island. With his squadron slated to train in Puerto Rico for carrier landings, at the last moment, Jim was asked to fly one of the planes down to the island. Coming into Eglin Air Force Base near: Valparaiso, Florida, on July 23, 1970, the plane malfunctioned. The RIO officer Dennis Keith Hagaman, a former All-American football player, ejected and was killed, and Jim went down with his plane. One of the items returned with Jim’s effects was a tackle box and fishing pole that had been on another plane.

          Jim’s funeral was held in Griffin at Oak Hill Cemetery with full military honors. The flyover of planes with one missing in formation was a tribute to his esprit de corps. Jim Vance truly had slipped “the bonds of earth.”

          In the following years, Pam remarried another “Jim,” who was a Navy pilot. He adopted Sally and was a loving father to her and her two younger sisters, Jamie and Katie Huggins.

          Sally graduated from the College of William and Mary with a B.A. in English, just like her grandmother Ruby Vance. On December 19, 1993, she married Mark Toner She and Mark Toner have two talented daughters. Aimee is a junior at Barnard College in New York and is an acclaimed flutist. Sara is a rising senior in high school who is known for her Lacrosse prowess. What pride Jim would have for the accomplishments of his daughter and granddaughters.

          Buried near First Lieutenant Jim Vance in Griffin is Lt. William Maddox Bolton, his uncle, killed in an air training accident in Midland, Texas, in March of 1942. With only a quarter left to finish at Tech, Maddox left to join the Army at the beginning of World War II. Both uncle and nephew were born to fly.

Defense of Country

            Arthur called and said Mama needed us. I dropped the cleaning rag, grabbed my purse, and drove out to the country on that spring morning so long ago.

Mama, with arms resting on the worn oak table and tears glistening in her eyes, opened once again the wrinkled telegram and read:

“We regret to inform you that your son William Maddox Bolton along with the rest of the crew perished today when their plane crashed at Midland Army Airfield, Midland, Texas.”

“He gave his all,” Mama said and looked up at us – his slow, sweet smile upon her face.

* * * *

Rifles crack in salute. My spine recoils. My feet push at the funeral grass- so fresh, so green, so false, yet grounding.

With ceremony, the color guard lifts the flag, folds and creases it, triangle upon triangle, with the final piece so tightly tucked inside: the red of valor, the white of purity, the blue of justice.

Placed in my hands, the triangle holds for me a collective weight of sorrow. I finger the stars sewn upon the coarse cloth and think for this, I lost a brother and trade now my son- James Robert Vance.

Jets howl overhead, one missing in formation, gone to fly where pilots seek the sun to disappear into the endless sky.     

I clutch the flag to my chest and weep and pray: “Dear God, let me enfold my emotions, tightly tuck my grief within, and just as my mother once so bravely did, uphold all for defense of country.”

Marine 1st Lieutenant James Robert Vance

The best way I know to describe my friend Jim Vance is found in the first six of the Boy Scout Laws: A Scout is Trustworthy, Loyal, Helpful, Friendly, Courteous and Kind. Jim was all of these and more. Voted Most Courteous by his senior class at Griffin High, he was also full of life and a constant ball of energy. Zany, crazy and always into something, but at the same time aware of others and always ready to reach out to help anyone. He could be funny, profane, infuriating, and serious but always with a big smile. Small in stature, Jim was a big man with a good heart who could be trusted. He died in service to the country he loved, and those of us who knew him, miss him more with each passing year.

I first met Jim Vance in 1954 when I joined Cub Scouts and was in his Cub Scout Den. Jim was a year older than I but I was able to join his Den. His mother Ruby was our Den Mother. Jim and I remained friends and had many adventures together, mostly through Scouts. He and I were on the staff for two years at Boy Scout Camp Thunder together and spent 9 days on a wilderness canoe trip into Canada in 1960 with the Boy Scouts. On that trip Jim got his Dad to give us all yellow and green John Deere straw hats to wear out on the lakes. We all wore them with our Scout uniforms and we were so “cool”. Jim and I were also on the Griffin Swim Club together back in 1958. We did not win a lot of meets but we sure had fun anytime Jim was along. His crazy zest for life was evident even at this early age.

Jim’s Dad owned the John Deere tractor dealership in Griffin and I lived on a farm where we had an old John Deere that required a lot of repair. Jim would often come out with his Dad to help work on the tractor. He was a good mechanic and loved working on the equipment. Mr. Vance also sold ski boats at the dealership. He would take Jim, me and several other of our friends up to Lake Lanier. We would camp on one of the islands and water ski all weekend. Jim was always trying to find some new way to “ski” and often ended up deep under water.

Jim and I were at Georgia Tech together and I remember one time we went to watch Griffin High play some Atlanta team in football. Jim’s younger brother Champ was the star receiver on the Griffin team and we went to cheer for him. Camp put on a receiving clinic that night and every time he caught a pass, Jim would go crazy in the stands. He talked about that game for weeks.

Then we graduated in 1967 and I went into the Air Force and he went into the Marines to fly and we lost touch. I remember the day in July 1970 when my mother called me at my Air Force Base to tell me of Jim’s death. It left a hole in my heart and in those of everyone who ever knew him. His daring spirit and crazy zest for life are all present  in that big smile that was always on his face. A good man, good friend and a true patriot gone way too soon.

Lewis Brewer, Jr.
Griffin, GA