1969. James Wessels in the Army. This photo was taken during a road trip through Germany.
An Untold Life: James Sherman Wessels
EDITORS NOTE: This is the second article in our series 'An Untold Life.' These are stories of people in our community whose lives touched others and whose stories deserve to be told.
By Maggie Nicholson
James Sherman Wessels was born in the winter of 1948, a child of the light. He adored lying on his back, basking in the sunbeams of Washington summers. He frequented Alki Beach as well as a small park on Beach Drive, a favorite for its intimacy and seclusion.
James made a powerful first impression. He was a handsome man, with an attentive presence. He was fun-spirited, but intelligent enough to transition into formality when it was called for. He knew how to keep spirits up and was skilled at making people laugh.
He maintained trees, arranged flowers and decorated for holiday celebrations at his residence, Harbor West: an apartment condominium that juts out above the water, balancing on wooden stilts.
New friends, couples, and even his therapist, took James along on their vacations. He was the type of person you just wanted to have around.
When James laughed, everyone listened. His laughter was loud, abrupt and uninhibited. In conversation, he treated everything brought to the table with reverence.
He loved potlucks and would cook unique dishes, most of which were based off his mother’s recipes. He was especially talented with berries, and often raided friends’ gardens for fresh ingredients. One restaurant he waited at, Rosebud, even served his homemade berry jam on its menu.
A prior chef at Rosebud remembers James dancing and singing ‘The Supremes’ in the kitchen to cheer up those working late.
James graduated from Franklin High School in 1966 and then served in the army. He enlisted to see the world, and served in Paris and Germany.
He participated in many charitable fashion shows, dressing up in fine clothes as well as elaborate costumes. He named his cats after old movie stars, including Diana Ross and Rita Hayworth.
At The Discovery Shop, James priced vintage clothing and created window displays. He was greatly involved in the vintage clothing scene and avidly went “junking.” He had a gorgeous collection of clothes. Elderly women often gave him their expensive fur coats, happy to dress such a beautiful creature, and glad their belongings would no longer lie flat in closets.
He took care to ensure that everyone around him felt comfortable and taken care of. At parties, he knew how to work the room, drifting between conversations, clutching the arms of those in attendance, looking them straight in the eye and saying: “It is so lovely to see you again.”
This habitual greeting grew more pronounced as James aged. He was soon greeting everyone with this phrase, even those he had just met. He meant it earnestly, and spoke with a gravity that quaked in the hearts of those spoken to. It was rare to be acknowledged so sincerely by another person.
When his friend Sharon’s father-in-law, Everett Humble, neared death, James did not shy away. He drove out to visit the bedside where Everett had been unresponsive for weeks. The room was fractured by afternoon light. James sat by Everett’s side, reached out and tenderly took up his arm. Just as James clutched Everett’s wrist, his eyes opened. "Hello," said James softly. Everett blinked in the flooding yellow light and then smiled.
James’ celebration of life was left with only standing room. Vintage glass collectors, jewelry makers, models, fellow volunteers at the Day Star Retirement Home, residents from Harbor West and attendees of his glamorous past parties, flocked inward to remember him. They stood close together and thought of what fun it had truly been to know him.
A friend of James, Eileen Tripp, distributed the following poem around the teeming room:
‘He was born a child of the sun/ He loved to prance on the stage to the admiration of others/ His life was measured by the cupful and not the teaspoon/ He was the producer, director, and star of his own well-crafted production/ My friend James Wessels died over the Christmas holiday/ I hope he is in a place where the sun is always shining, the curtain never closes and the applause is always warm.’
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