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Devoted manager at Barney's Motorcycle and Marine

Published Apr. 8, 2012

ST. PETERSBURG — Clyde James gave much of his life to Barney's Motorcycle and Marine. Then he walked away, severed all contact and never looked back.

For decades the store, which had grown into one of the largest independent motorcycle dealerships in the area, regarded him as a valued parts manager with a photographic memory.

He traveled the eastern United States with Ray Hempstead, the store's manager, who was then one of the country's top motorcycle racers.

Then an illness got in the way. Mr. James couldn't work at the same level. The relationship ended, as did long friendships.

Mr. James, a jack-of-all-trades for more than 30 years at Barney's, died March 28 at Hospice House Woodside. He was 63 and had multiple health problems, including Huntington's disease.

Former co-workers say his remarkable memory allowed him to retain part numbers from motorcycle catalogs. On weekends he was part of a Barney's team at tracks in Florida. He also drove Hempstead to professional races as far away as New Hampshire, and worked the pit in adrenaline-pumping races.

"The agony and the ecstasy was always evident," said Beverly Newton, 67, the daughter of the Barney's founder and Hempstead's former wife. Pit crews had 15 seconds or so to clear windshields, top off gas tanks and tighten loose screws. Mr. James shows up in numerous photos in a second-floor museum at Barney's, always as one of a group. The store itself has become a part of local history.

Barney's Motorcycle Sales opened in Bloomington, Ill., in 1946. Its founders, Harry "Barney" Barclay and his wife, Rosalee, relocated to St. Petersburg four years later. Barney's stood across a two-lane Gandy Boulevard from Derby Lane and a restaurant, the only structures around.

Mr. James was born in Springfield, Ill., but moved to St. Petersburg with his family and attended Northeast High School. He started working at Barney's at age 16.

It was a close group, with several employees staying at the store for many years. Mr. James gave it his all, said Hempstead, 72, who retired in 2005 as the store's president.

"You could say, 'Clyde, we've got a guy broke down in Fort Myers, can you go get him?' " he said. "He never had an excuse not to do something."

He worked overtime after a Tampa location closed, leaving the store with 400 trade-ins that didn't run. Employees showed up three hours early or stayed late — or both — to get the bikes running again. The fixer-upper surge took two years, and Mr. James was right in the middle of it.

For several years in the 1980s, he raced on an amateur level. The store added watercraft in the late 1980s and now has additional locations in Brandon and Brooksville.

In the late 1990s, Mr. James started falling down on the job — literally. He seemed to stumble or trip easily.

"If you got too close to him, it was like he would bump into something, an invisible shield, and he would fall over backwards," Hempstead said.

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His bosses asked Mr. James to avoid footstools or stepladders. On a trip to the Dumpster, he fell on his face.

He spent eight months out of work due to a staph infection, said Pamela James, his wife. Doctors would also diagnose Huntington's disease, an inherited disease that causes the progressive breakdown of nerve calls in the brain. Difficulty with balance is one of the symptoms of the disease, which worsens from onset to death over 10 to 30 years, according to the Mayo Clinic.

In 1998, on the advice of an attorney, the company decided to fire Mr. James.

"It was probably the hardest thing I've ever had to do in my life," Hempstead said. "I said, 'Clyde, I can't take you back on. You're just not stable enough.'

"He said, 'I understand.' He got up and walked out. He has never spoken to me since."

Said Pamela James, 61, "It broke his heart. He ate and breathed Barney's."

His mobility and communication declined over the years, but not totally. He still enjoyed television, Rays games and going out to dinner. He kept his prized collection of motorcycles, including three Ducatis, a Ducati jacket and a brown leather jacket awarded by the Motorcycle Hall of Fame, given for his role on Hempstead's crew.

Hempstead said he ran into Mr. James once over the last decade and tried unsuccessfully to engage him in conversation. Maybe if Barney's was still a smaller outfit, Mr. James could have stayed on, he said. It still bothers him.

"I've missed him for the last 10 years," Hempstead said. "I'm a hardcore Christian, and I'd like to see him down the road."

Researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Andrew Meacham can be reached at (727) 892-2248.

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