PORT TOWNSEND — Bill James, a rangy guy with bright-blue eyes, looks as though he just got back from sailing the San Juan Islands.
In fact, he spent the afternoon talking with people who’ve hit rough waters.
James, 69, works at the Olympic Community Action Programs, or OlyCAP, office in Port Townsend, doing what he never thought he would.
The thing is, James was retired from a long career with Anheuser Busch; he was in field sales, traveling across eight Western states, Tucson, Ariz., to Seattle and points between.
But retirement, he said, wasn’t all it’s cracked up to be.
“I was going crazy,” James admitted.
A friend encouraged him to volunteer at OlyCAP, where he would work with clients seeking help with the basics of life: a wintertime electricity bill, replacing a broken water heater, the gas to get to work, clothes for a boy who’s just had a growth spurt. OlyCAP provides this help thanks to the Peninsula Home Fund.
But James’ answer was no.
“My core is business,” he replied, “not social work.”
His friend, who might have seen something in James that he didn’t himself see — yet — said, “Come on. Give it a try.”
James has been volunteering weekly at OlyCAP ever since. He estimates it’s been about eight years, though he doesn’t seem to be keeping track. In these years, James has also become a member of OlyCAP’s board of directors.
“Bill is one of the first people I met when I came to town,” said Dale Wilson, executive director of OlyCAP since September 2015.
“He is just an incredible asset, to OlyCAP and to the community … Bill spends countless hours, just lots and lots of hours helping people,” working at the grass-roots level.
“He strengthens our community, big time,” Wilson said.
James is modest on such matters. He prefers to tout OlyCAP’s staff, saying they inspire him with their listening skills and their empathy for the people who walk into the office.
When pressed, James spoke about some of his own clients, such as the woman whose eyes were puffy, as though she’d been crying.
When she sat down with him, she started to weep again.
“I really don’t want to be here. I stood outside the door for 20 minutes before I had the courage to come inside,” she said.
This woman qualified for Peninsula Home Fund assistance, and he wrote her a voucher — could have been for gas for the car or for prescription medicine — but you’re dealing with a 69-year-old memory here, James said with a smile when a reporter asked for specifics.
It’s people like this woman, he added, that you go the extra mile for. You listen carefully to her situation. Sometimes, there are other resources to tell her about in addition to the Home Fund. The state has LIHEAP, the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program. The county has Jefferson Mental Health Services and St. Vincent de Paul.
“It continues to amaze me how much $20 means,” he said, adding that his people are quite clear about how appreciative they are.
Listening is a big deal, too. There’s a box of Kleenex in the meeting room at OlyCAP, James said, “and I use it. I’m a sap.”
People say fervent thank-yous, but “I’m just the messenger,” James added.
“It’s the community that made this possible. OlyCAP is the funnel for it. I think it’s amazing the communities give what they do.” As a board member, “I know OlyCAP is a responsible steward. I’m really proud to be part of it.”
Even in tough times, people give to the Peninsula Home Fund, he noted, and whether it’s a $10 gift or much more, “it’s used where it’s needed.”
But here he’s been working at OlyCAP for years now, James said with a smile, and still no paycheck.
That’s right, “It doesn’t pay. But I guess it does, in a way,” he said. “The paycheck comes in a different way.”
There was another client he remembers: a man who came in right before Christmas, asking for a $20 voucher. This guy was massive; he towered over James, who is 6-feet-5-inches tall.
He wanted the voucher for a friend, an elderly man living next door.
“We get a lot of people like that,” people who are helping somebody else in need, James said.
This man met the income requirements for the voucher, so James wrote it up for him.
When the client stood, hoisting a big duffel bag over his shoulder, he looked like Port Townsend’s answer to Santa Claus.
Diane Urbani de la Paz, a former features editor for the Peninsula Daily News, is a freelance writer living in Port Angeles.