Gainesville lost a real treasure last week, a 94 year old man by the name of James Gainey. Mr. Gainey lived in east Gainesville for many many years, in a house across from Lincoln Middle School. He told me he built that house with his bare hands, right down to laying the concrete blocks one on top of the other. If you frequented the area, you’d know he also drove a beat-up blue pickup truck, the truck being about as old as he. Being a retired truck driver, he savored his wheels. Although his driving skills had declined a little, and I was told that pedestrians would grab their kids and dogs as Mr. Gainey swerved by. Fortunately, his top speed was about 10 miles-per-hour, so you had a lot of time to react.

Mr. Gainey’s favorite place to hang out was the downtown plaza, and he could often be found there on sunny afternoons. In fact I first became acquainted with him there, through my friend Arupa Freeman, who spends a lot of time in the plaza working with the homeless. I would try to chat with him whenever I could catch him out there at the plaza, and through those conversations I found out about his other favorite place in town: The Clock.

For those of you who have never been to The Clock, it’s this 24-hour diner on Main Street. It’s part Perkins, with a twist of Waffle House attitude, and a little bit of Denny’s, if Denny forgot to shave for a few days. Don’t let me scare you off, I mean, it’s got character, which is something a lot of restaurants don’t have any more.

So Mr. Gainey and I would make an occasional trip to The Clock (trust me, I always did the driving), and I got to learn more about him, and really just enjoyed his humor and independent spirit. It was such a nice change from the nursing home, where the complete opposite of independence is the norm. We didn’t have too many of these trips to The Clock, and I regret not doing more of them, but time would slip by and I wouldn’t talk to him for weeks or months. I had just started to reconnect with him this Fall when the weather got cold, and it was clear he was having trouble walking. Something about the change in weather and arthritis and all that – everybody in the nursing home was complaining about it too. I watched him walk back and forth from his truck, hunched over and holding on to handrails or anything else in sight, and I knew it was not a good sign. I feared it could be any day when he would have a bad fall and break something, and spend the rest of his days in the hospital or a nursing home.

It was only a few days after I had these thoughts that I checked my email on Thanksgiving Day, and found a note from Arupa saying that she read in the newspaper that Mr. Gainey had died in a truck accident. I don’t have all the details but I can only assume he was driving.

Oddly though, my first reaction wasn’t sadness, but an amazing sense of gratefulness for having the chance to meet this man, and relief that he had been spared from what surely would have been a loss of independence and some rough days ahead of him. We could all only dream of being as blessed as this guy. At 94 he was still waking up in his own bed, walking out onto his own front porch to take in the sunshine, and getting behind the wheel of his own truck. I even heard a rumor that he bought a motorcycle a few months ago and had been seen riding it with a giant smile on his face. At 94!

I have some additional things to say about my experience at the funeral home the next night, but I’m going to save that for part two of this story. Until then, let’s all take a lesson from James Gainey and enjoy every day we’ve got here on this Earth. Keep on truckin’ James Gainey!