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Generations of history in 89-year-old man's Palm Harbor home


On June 15, 1919, while Capt. John Alcock and Lt. Arthur Whitten Brown were completing the first nonstop trans-Atlantic flight, James Jenkins was being born in a house on Virginia Avenue.

Today, at 89, he still sleeps in the same room in the same house that was built by his uncle, Joe Bruce, in 1916 under the same sky.

Covering the piano and bookshelves in the family room is Jenkins' life: hundreds of photos of the people who used to live in the house.

Among them are:

• His father, also named James, who died four months before he was born during the Spanish influenza pandemic of 1918-19.

• His mother, Ruth, who didn't believe in eating warmed over food, and died in 1979.

• His beloved wife, Gaynelle, who died in 2004 of congestive heart failure.

She had suffered a stroke a decade before on a Super Bowl Sunday and lost the ability to use her right arm and leg.

He didn't know she was going to pass away that day in 2004. She wasn't feeling well, so he drove her to the hospital. The doctors said she would be able to go home soon.

"I said, 'I'll see you in a day or so, Honey,' '' Jenkins said.

He went home to grab a bite to eat.

She never came home.

He can hardly talk about it.

Her wheelchair still sits on the front porch he enclosed years ago and her spirit is felt everywhere. A decorative sign she hung in the living room saying "Shhh — I'm talking to God'' is still there.

The house is much larger than it was when it was first built. But it is still shaded by the same huge, mossy oak trees Jenkins climbed when he was a barefoot boy.

• • •

Jenkins' grandfather was John Huntley, who fought for the Confederacy in the Civil War.

"He didn't believe in slavery, but he fought for the South,'' Jenkins said.

Jenkins' father, James Jenkins, died at 24 before he had a chance to meet his son.

His widow, Ruth, who never remarried, worked at a citrus packing house to put food on the table.

So did Jenkins, who picked fruit. He also earned money from a paper route and as a teen, peddling fresh fish.

He said he and his friend had a boat and "would drift out 5 or 6 miles (into the Gulf of Mexico) and catch about a hundred pounds of trout. We used to sell them for 6 cents a pound.''

Jenkins attended school at Ozona Elementary, Palm Harbor Junior High, Tarpon Springs High and graduated at 14.

At 16, he bought his first car, a 1924 Model-T Ford. He paid $12 for it.

"The thing needed work,'' he said.

Later, he took classes at St. Petersburg Junior College and Florida Southern College.

But his passion was baseball.

He got paid to play baseball for various companies.

In the spring of 1940, he got called up by the Brooklyn Dodgers, but never played a game because he chipped his elbow pitching and the pain wouldn't go away.

A few years later, he was drafted during World War II, but didn't serve active duty because of a knee injury.

One night at the post office, he ran into Gaynelle Harris, whose father built the Palm Harbor Lumber Co. He said he didn't really want to ask her for a date, but he did anyway.

"I took her to Lakeland for a football game between Clearwater High and Lakeland High,'' he said. "I've still got the program.''

Then he took her to a fancy restaurant.

He fell in love sometime between the first quarter and the entree.

They married in Brunswick, Ga., on Sept. 21, 1946, even though "she thought ballplayers were bums and hoodlums,'' Jenkins said.

The next year, he came home and bought the house he was born in from a cousin for $2,500, fixed it up and had three children, Rozanne in 1948, Linda in 1962 and Janet in 1964.

"I wanted a ballplayer,'' he said, with a laugh.

He worked in highway construction and helped "build U.S. 19 from Chiefland to the Suwannee River'' he said.

"He retired as director of the Pinellas County Highway Department,'' said his daughter, Rozanne Scott of Lakeland.

• • •

Jenkins' world has changed quite a bit since 1919.

He has seven grandchildren and two great-grandchildren and is a deacon at his church.

He lives alone and feeds his two outdoor cats at exactly 6:15 a.m. every day.

He drives his friends to doctor appointments in his 2006 F150 Ford pickup.

"If he sees someone in need he's always there,'' said his daughter Janet O'Harrow, who lives in Palm Harbor. "They taught and showed by example to be good to other people.''

His property full of fruit trees, once quiet, is surrounded by commercial industry. Vehicles speed by on Alt. U.S. 19.

A swing set he built for his children 50 years ago still stands in the back yard, the wooden seats slowly decaying.

He has arthritis in his right leg and right hip and takes a blood thinner.

He's still proud of the house he was born in, which is obvious as he shows visitors his rose plants and well in the back yard.

"I was the first person to have running water in this part of the world,'' he said.

Times researcher Will Gorham contributed to this report. Eileen Schulte can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 445-4153.

Generations of history in 89-year-old man's Palm Harbor home 05/16/09 [Last modified: Monday, November 7, 2011 5:07pm]
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