A Life of Purpose: Remembering Sue Flinn James, St. John’s High School, Class of 1930

While attempting to verify a photograph of the 1940 St. John’s High School football team, I accidentally opened the wrong yearbook and came across this “Class Prophecy” in St. John’s Echoes, 1930:

“Taddy James, as “The Lady Champ Golfer,” will go on an extended vamoose to Africa, where she will have plenty of space and caddies to satisfy her wants.”

It embarrasses me to admit how much time over the last week I’ve spent thinking about Taddy James and her “extended vamoose to Africa.”  For days now, I’ve had visions of Taddy riding a camel through the Serengeti, her golf clubs slung over the beast’s hump. . .Taddy seeking shelter from the oppressive heat under the shade of an Acacia tree. . .Taddy drinking deeply from a canteen. . .Taddy grabbing a pitching wedge and hitting a few balls, while wildebeests and zebras roam freely in the plains below. . .

Sue Flinn James, 1930
From St. John’s Echoes, 1930. Sue Flinn James picture and description above.

Wanting to know more about Taddy James, I continued thumbing through the pages of St. John’s Echoes.  The graduating class of 1930 was a small one, so it didn’t take long before I discovered Taddy’s real name: Sue Flinn James.  According to her peers, James was a “real live-wire” and a “square-shooter” with “a ready grin.”  Charmed by those delightfully out-of-use expressions, I studied James’s picture at the top of the page, a black-and-white headshot of a lovely young woman.  Short, dark hair parted to the right.  Intelligent eyes.  Upturned mouth forming an almost-grin.  Is she amused by a private joke? I thought.  Annoyed by the camera lens? Anxious about sitting still for the photographer?

The picture, along with the Class Prophecy, made me want to know more about Sue Flinn James, or, as her peers knew her, Taddy.

** *

According to EverydayFamily.com, Taddy is a male name meaning “courageous” and “one who praises.”  The name Taddy has a numerology value of 5, which, in numerological terms, means the following: action, restlessness, and experience.

Armed with this dubious information, I went back to the yearbook and scanned the list of accomplishments underneath the name Sue Flinn James.  Censor Lanier Literary Society, ’24. . . Poetry prize, ’29. . . President Poetry Society, ’30.

Poetry.

Taddy liked poetry.

In my younger and more cynical days, I had an aversion to poetry that bordered on phobia.  As an arrogant English major looking to write the Great American Novel, I scoffed at Wordsworth, Keats, and Tennyson, wondering what these so-called geniuses did with the other twenty-three hours in the day after composing a three-stanza poem about leaves in trees.  But now, as I watch my son’s fourth birthday rapidly approaching, and I push hard at forty years on this planet, my views on poetry have softened.  In fact, I now keep a manila folder filled with printouts of poems that have moved me in some way, and my latest addition is “Youth Song,” a poem by Sue Flinn James I found in St. John’s Echoes, 1930:

St. John's, 1930, prize poem,

This simple yet affecting poem reminded me that youth, despite the cynical old adage, is not wasted on the young anymore than wisdom is wasted on the old.  I love that Taddy, at eighteen, is preoccupied with “spring” and “soaring blue” and “freedom,” but that she also has a keen understanding of the all-too-quick passage of time.  How rare for a teenager to have enthusiasm and perspective.  How heart-breaking that she grasps the beautifully cruel way that “life will bind” and “youth—can die.”

When I read those words (and I’ve read them many times now), I am confident that youth was definitely not wasted on Sue Flinn James.

After discovering that Taddy was a member of the Glee Club, All-State Chorus, and on the basketball team, I put away the yearbook and Googled Sue Flinn James.  The first thing I found was a notice from the Florence Morning News dated July 24, 1932 announcing that Miss Sue Flinn James, of Coker College, won a poetry prize.  The poem, much to my dismay, was not included in the notice.  Scrolling on, I found other items from the Florence Morning News that mention James in connection with the Writer’s Club and other organizations at Coker College.

And then I found her wedding announcement in The Index-Journal dated October 29, 1939.  In it, a Miss James was to wed Blanding Clarkson.

But unlike the Class Prophecy and the yearbook picture and the poem, the wedding announcement did not capture my imagination.  My mind refused to budge from the image of Taddy on the Serengeti, a true glimmer of youth’s wonder and perfection.  I did, however, revise the fantasy a bit.  Instead of Taddy practicing her golf swing, she pulls out a leather-bound journal and composes a few lines of verse. . .just a quatrain or two about the splendor of the African plains.

The last item I found online was an obituary in the News and Press:

“DARLINGTON—Sue Flinn James Clarkson, 95, died Thursday, May 15, 2008, in a local nursing home.”

I stopped reading after the first sentence and stared out of my office window.  On the ground right outside my window were gravestones, which were removed, as I understand it, from a local cemetery.  My chest tightened; not wanting to ruin my African fantasy of “The Lady Champ Golfer,” I turned off my computer.

Three days and countless readings of “Youth Song” later, I finished reading the obituary of Sue Flinn James.  I learned that she, aside from graduating from Coker College in 1934, helped bring the Girl Scouts to Hartsville and was a member of the Board of Directors of the Pee Dee Area Girl Scout Council.  She also sang in the choir at St. Matthew’s Episcopal Church, was an active member of the Darlington County Historical Society, and remained married to Blanding D. Clarkson for 61 years with whom she raised children.

***

A big part of my job is doing research on famous (or, sometimes, infamous) residents of Darlington County.  But what about those folks that were never elected mayor or governor? What about those people that didn’t own a 2,000 acre slave plantation, or fight in the Civil War, or start a riot, or appear on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson? What about those men and women who worked jobs and raised families and went to church and did the right things?  Why don’t we spend more time thinking about those people, remembering and telling their stories?

John Updike, one of my favorite writers, once said, “I think I’d be gloomy without some faith that there is a purpose and there is a kind of witness to my life.” Allow me to stand as witness: Sue Flinn James’s life had a purpose.

updike1950_medium.jpeg
John Updike, who said: “. . .I’d be gloomy without some faith that there is a purpose. . .to my life.”

 

 

 

4 comments

  1. Good piece on Sue Flinn James. Very well written. I knew three of the four people pictured in your blog.

    I have a copy of my father’s class prophecy for the class of the St. John’s class of 1922. There were only 11 grades then, and he skipped one of them. That meant he was a freshman at the University of South Carolina a the age of 15.

    You might be interested in trying to find something on a man named Dozier Flinn, a relative of Ms. James. I grew up hearing stories about this man. Apparently he was a brilliant fellow, but something of a rascal. My father said that despite being from a prominent and very respected family, “Dozier Flinn was not admitted to the parlors of respectable Darlington people.”

    Keep it up. You’re a fine writer.

    Paul Howle (old burnt-out newspaperman)

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Nice to meet you, Paul, and thanks for finding the Commission’s blog. I will definitely do some research on Dozier Flinn as I am a fan of rascals.

    When I was growing up, I wanted to be a newspaperman myself, so I am honored by your compliment.

    Max (old burnt-out English instructor)

    Like

    • Thanks, Joni. I want to write more about ordinary folks in Darlington County. Hope you’ll keep on reading!

      Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s