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Navy Vet, Teamster Spends Golden Years at UM

By Alyssa Schnugg
News Editor

James H. Willis admits he’s been rough on his body during most of his 77 years.

“Thirty years of drinking and smoking took its toll on me,” Willis said recently while sitting outside of a classroom in the School of Journalism and New Media.

Willis is taking courses at the University of Mississippi, working toward a degree he started more than 20 years ago at Ramapo College of New Jersey. He moved to Oxford three years ago and started taking classes last year.

“I like Oxford,” he said. “It’s slower paced. And the people are nicer.”

Greatest accomplishment
The New Jersey native is a U.S. Navy veteran and retired Teamster. However, of his many accomplishments in life, so far he is most proud of being sober for 28 years. Struggling with his alcohol addiction while a truck driver in New Jersey, his boss gave Willis an ultimatum – get sober, or get fired.

“So I got sober,” Willis said. “It wasn’t easy.”

James H. Willis, 77, is working toward a bachelor’s degree at the University of Mississippi.
Photo by Alyssa Schnugg

Willis, known to friends as “Handsome Jim” drives to campus each day and parks at the Veterans Resource Center where he picks up a scooter that was provided by the VRC for Willis to be able to get to his classes.

“Those folks have been very helpful,” Willis said.

Willis’ goal to earn a degree in social sciences started more than 20 years ago and he has 98 credits from Ramapo. After he receives his bachelor’s degree, Willis said he may start on his master’s degree.

Shaky beginings
He served in the Navy from 1959 to 1962 after a judge strongly suggested the idea to his parents.

“I was a juvenile delinquent,” he admitted. “I had to go before a judge at 17 years old for a bunch of minor stuff, nothing serious. And I wanted to join the Navy but my parents had to sign and my father didn’t want to but the judge said, ‘If he wants to go in the Navy, you take him and sign him up.”

Raised with an alcoholic, abusive father, Willis said boot camp had a positive effect on him.

“No one called me stupid, or useless,” he said. “Everyone was crying because they was homesick. I didn’t know homesick. I didn’t miss home.”

Better than bingo
Willis was married twice but never had children of his own. He said he enjoys talking to his fellow students.

“They treat me pretty good,” he said of the younger students in his classes. “Usually the first day of class they think I’m the professor.

“Ya know, a lot of people say, ‘Hey why do this at 77?’ So I say, I’m going to be 77 no matter what, so why not? It’s better than sitting around getting old and playing bingo.”

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