Posted by: Bill Tracy | December 24, 2010

The Real George Bailey

Strange, isn’t it? Each man’s life touches so many other lives. When he isn’t around he leaves an awful hole, doesn’t he?

-Clarence, Angel Second Class

from the movie, It’s a Wonderful Life

Christmas Eve, Friday, December 24, 2010 and millions of people will watch an old movie on NBC TV at 8 PM. It’s a Wonderful Life, first shown in theaters 64 years ago, is the story of George Bailey, a man in crisis and on the verge of ending his own life. One by one, year after year, each of his own dreams had been sacrificed to make life better for other people – his family, his friends, his community, and now it seemed everything was about to be taken from him. He is rescued by Clarence, a Second Class angel who dreams of earning his wings by helping George. Clarence shows George how awful the world would have been if George had never been born, had never made those sacrifices for all those people – and how those very same people would save him if he gave them the chance. “No man is a failure who has friends,” Clarence tells George. For many years, I’ve loved the movie, but the most wonderful thing for me is that I knew the real George Bailey.

Jim Mutchler, circa 1960

This is the Jim Mutchler I knew, around the early 1960s. He was our Scoutmaster. He was the guy with the neat trucks. He was my friend Scott's Dad. And he was always smiling no matter how bad things might seem to me!

The real George Bailey, for me, was Jim Mutchler of Runnemede, New Jersey. While he faced life tragedy as we all do, he never thought of suicide. Better than George Bailey, Jim found joy in the sacrifices he made for others. Jim died in the spring of this year at age 93, sadly before I could get back there to tell him how much I respected him and how much his life had meant to me. He will not be memorialized as a great man. When the newspapers and television broadcasters do their stories of the people we lost this year, Jim Mutchler will not be mentioned. And yet he was one of the finest human beings who ever lived. He was a strong and unassuming leader who had a positive impact on thousands, maybe millions, of lives. For those of us who knew him, he was among the greatest of men.

For me, as with countless other kids who grew up in Runnemede, Jim was the Scoutmaster of Boy Scout Troop 117. All that I derived from Scouting, and that’s a lot, I attribute to him. In a small town full of good fathers trying to teach their children to be good adults, he was a beacon everyone could point to and say, “Watch Mr. Mutchler, and you’ll know how a good man lives his life.” His modest obituary in The Philadelphia Inquirer headlined him as “Oil Company Owner, Volunteer.” Some of us volunteer once in a while. Jim’s life was defined by such service. Jim laid down his life for his friends, one day at a time. “Volunteer” is understatement.

Birthday celebration

December, 1996, Jim's 90th birthday, celebrated with the Runnemede Lions. Wife Eleanor is in the foreground.

As a livelihood, Jim started and ran a little heating oil company, Timbercreek Oil Company. In the cold months, he delivered heating oil to his customers and kept their heaters working. In the warm months, he did maintenance and repairs and whatever else to keep life and limb together. I know at least one summer he tried life as a carny. He put together a couple of carnival attractions and toured the local carnival circuit. But his real love was Scouting and the local Lions club and just being available as a friend, and worker, whenever he was needed. Frank Thatcher, an attorney in Runnemede since 1959, knew and worked with Jim in the Lions for over 40 years. He said: “Jim lived his life giving to others.  Jim operated Timbercreek Oil Company and I know personally that if someone needed oil and had no money he would deliver.” This point about accommodating people who had no money was made by others in the town who knew him well. Like George Bailey in the movie, it looks like Jim was a mystery to his more profit-oriented business competitors.

No one will ever know all the things Jim Mutchler quietly did on behalf of other people. For Jim, a good life was about the doing, not the talking. One great story emerged after his death, and I’m sure it’s typical of the experience hundreds of other people had. Joseph Broski is now a retired Lieutenant of the New Jersey State Troopers. He wrote after Jim Mutchler’s death:

“Mr. Mutchler was my scout master 40 years ago and I had the utmost respect for him and still do to this day. He had a genuine warmth and strong moral character. He taught us all what was expected from a scout. In addition to the skills of knot tying and pitching a tent, he taught us respect – for the Earth, God and each other. I remember being on a trail and stopping to listen to birds with him. I remember comfort as an 11-year-old boy (with tears) carrying a backpack in the rain and that everything would be all right. I remember reverence for God on a Sunday morning, around the campfire after breakfast, Mr. Mutchler saying spiritual words.

“I want to share a story. I was a 17-year-old with low self-esteem and not thinking I was smart enough to go to college. It was my belief that the best thing for me to do was join the Marines after high school. Obviously my mother did not like that idea – but who listens to mothers? I saw Mr. Mutchler at a July 4th event at the ball field and he asked how I was doing and what I was planning after high school. I expressed my interest in joining the Marines. He shook his head and thought I would be better off going to college and was sure that I was smart enough. We had a nice talk and I decided to follow his advice and go to college. I studied Criminal Justice and became a New Jersey State Trooper, retiring with 25-years service in 2004.

“I not only went to college, but earned a Master degree in Education from Seton Hall University, took classes towards a Doctorate degree and taught as an adjunct professor at the community college. All of this I owe to Mr. Mutchler. I’ve never forgotten his words and will always attribute my success to him. I learned years later that my mother had seen Mr. Mutchler in the supermarket before that July 4th conversation and expressed her dislike for my aspiration to be a Marine. He kept that in mind and with his wisdom was able to reason with me. But that conversation would have been for naught if I did not have a true respect for him. I’m sure my story is one of many who had their life changed by Mr. Mutchler.”

Young Jim Mutchler

A young Jim Mutchler, outdoors, of course.

Where does a man such as Jim Mutchler come from? While Jim’s life was interesting, I don’t see anything extraordinary in what I’ve learned of it. Family, I suspect, had more to do with it than anything. Jim’s grandfather, Thomas T. Mutchler, was a respected physician and minister in Philadelphia in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries. After a big-city upbringing with his strict pastor father, Jim’s father seemed to crave the great outdoors and headed west in search of adventure. His work in the Montana copper mines wasn’t his idea of outdoor adventure so he started hiring out as a guide in the newly created Glacier National Park. He met another easterner out there, a nurse, and married her. So, on a cold, December day in 1916 Jim Mutchler was born in Montana.

Three years later, his family came back east for a visit, and stayed. They wrote to their neighbors out west to sell off their property and possessions, and that closed the Montana chapter. This son of the west was raised amid the farmland and woods of south Jersey. After graduating from high school, he worked his way up to Shipfitter, First Class at the New York Shipbuilding Company in Camden, NJ. He spent the Second World War years building U.S Navy vessels like the battleship USS South Dakota. He was also a member of the U.S. Navy Reserve. During those war years, Jim self-published a newsletter he called the Hometowner, and he mailed it to local servicemen away from home so they could keep up with hometown happenings.

In 1945, Jim took the plunge in real small town style. He married his sister’s friend, Eleanor Price. They were married for 65 years, until Jim’s death. The marriage produced two wonderful sons, Scott and John as well as a family that became an engine of social service in the little Borough of Runnemede.

Troop 117

Troop 117, Boy Scouts of America, somewhere around 1960. Scoutmaster Jim Mutchler is first on the left. Fourth on the left is Jim's son, Scott. I'm the jaunty looking lad, fifth in from the right. Photo courtesy of William Leap and Borough of Runnemede, from Mr. Leap's book, "The History of Runnemede New Jersey 1626 -- 1976.

After marrying, Jim settled into Runnemede for the duration. He began seriously working with Boy Scouts at this point. By 1958, he was so successful as a Scout leader he was distinguished with the Southern New Jersey Council’s highest award, the Silver Beaver. The Boy Scouts of America description of this award says:

“The Silver Beaver Award is the council-level distinguished service award of the Boy Scouts of America. Recipients of this award are registered adult leaders who have made an impact on the lives of youth through service given to the council. The Silver Beaver is an award given to those who implement the Scouting program and perform community service through hard work, self sacrifice, dedication, and many years of service.”

Jim was relentless about his community service. Bill Leap, a Runnemede businessman who wrote the book, The History of Runnemede New Jersey 1626 – 1976, tells a typical story. Runnemede had an annual blood drive, and there was a quota from the county chapter. A woman in town who was a nurse had been organizing and administering the drive each year. She told Bill Leap she wasn’t going to be able to continue and asked if he could find someone else to handle the responsibility. Leap mentioned this to Jim Mutchler one day in passing. From that point on Jim was running the blood drive – and he did it so well the county stopped giving a quota to Runnemede because it would always be exceeded with Jim Mutchler at the helm.

Leap said he thought so much of Jim and his contributions to the community he encouraged the Borough of Runnemede to have an official Jim Mutchler Appreciation Day. He said they did this on January 1, 1996 and honored him with a dinner, speakers, recognition plaque, etc. “He was some kind of man. He was terrific. We need more men like him,” said Leap.

I don’t recall anyone ever saying a bad word about Jim Mutchler. In my memory he wears a perpetual smile. Frank Thatcher said, “He was always good to have a laugh with and most always in good humor. Men like Jim don’t come along very often and now that he is gone he is sorely missed.” Jim’s son, Scott, a lifelong friend of mine, said the same thing when I talked to him last year while his Dad was still alive. “I was really lucky to have him for a father. He never had a bad relationship with another person. He was able to get along with everyone, and if he couldn’t find a way to get along, he just left them alone.”

Scott & Jim

My friend Scott Mutchler with his Dad last December at his last birthday, age 93. Jim was blind by this time, but he's still smiling.

Life today is lived at a very high speed. Few of us can slow it down long enough to discern the people around us who are really making a difference in the lives of other people. I was over 60 before I slowed down long enough to appreciate the stunning impact of Jim Mutchler’s life. I did not get the chance to tell him in person as I had intended. So, I’m telling the world.

David Henry Thoreau said, “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.” Jim Mutchler’s life was one of quiet inspiration. And humble dignity. And compassion. And the fullness of what it means to be a good human being. If you’re lucky enough to have a Jim Mutchler in your life, please tell them how much you respect and appreciate them. If you don’t say it, they don’t hear it – and they do deserve to hear it.

I don’t know if there is a heaven, or if there are angels. If such things do exist, I’m sure Jim Mutchler is there, and I know he’s already quietly establishing a new standard for what it means to be a good angel. Take good care of him Clarence, for he has many friends!

.

Child Jim

Jim Mutchler, probably around 1921. The girl may be his sister Emma.

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Responses

  1. What a fine article about a fine person!

  2. He was my uncle and everything you said and more. His family knew him to be just whom you said, as close as it gets to George Bailey. Just knowing he was there, made our world a better place. He and his wife have been our measure of kindness, Christianity, disposition, Charity, and just plainly like you said what it is to be a good man and husband to a good woman . When he met a situation he used his best judgement, and sense of what was right and fair and what could come out of it to change for the better all who were concerned. You always learned how to make the best choice and felt fed for a long time spiritually and emotionally and you were left with much food for though tafter a converstion with him . He was open to change in this world , without forgetting where the timeless heart with christian values belonged. And although I could never live up to what he lived I never felt judged. He just quietly reminded us all of how things were for him and he made it possible for us to remember how they could be for us. His family honored him. His wife was his true help mate. There was nothing his family didnt do for each other, and in this day of phone calls and e mails they still stay close to each other, in the midst of so much change. I have never met anyone like him, but hope there are more like him, because if we cant find men who embody what you so eloquently described of him and his life, we have forgotten ourselves. And that is scarey.
    He taught me that all we will have in the end of our lives is how we have treated ourselves and each other, everything else is just great scenery, good props, great costumes, and a few great lines. Jim Mutchler taught me life is other people. Loving them, losing them, being there for them, Being thoughtful and kind. I didnt have much of a relationship with my father, and his sons were gracious enough to share him with my brothers and sisters all of our lives. After a devastating house fire they took my youngest brother in. And as i grew he was more than uncle to us. All of my brothers and sisters have memories where he contributed at just the right moment as the writer recounted with the pivotal guidance that changed our lives for the better and is remembered in the same way.He saw us. To understand him is to understand the legacy of both of his parents. He was born on a homestead in Chester Montana. The story you don’t know is why they came from Montana and Blackwood and Runnemede was graced with him. The night my mother was born ( the other sibling in the picture, Martha Jane Mutchler now in a nursing home in Bourne Mass, but just as bright and coherent as him at 92) He and his father were out milking a cow, when lightning struck. It seems Uncle Jim at barely two years old was kicked by a horse and was found next to my grandfatherwho was also unconsious.Not a drop of milk was spilt. There was a hoof print on him and he had to learn to walk and talk all over again and that necessitated the trip back east as my grand mother was a nurse and knew a neurologist at Hahneman hospital and knew he needed one if he was to survive. Grandma lost her milk on the long train ride home and in those days it could have meant the end of my mother. The homesteading stories are enough of a tribute to that generation, especially after their attempt at homesteading in Wyoming which the dust bowl took care of. He survived I am convinced due to the fact that his mother was a nurse, and was as kind as he was because of the injury? perhaps.Perhaps he was just raised right . My grand mother was Pennsylvania Dutch. There was as you noted never an impatient day. Guile or Malice dont exist in the world he lived in, like you said there was enough of us to keep busy with that he didnt judge the ones that couldnt be gotten along with, and the ones that got free oil often paid up when they could, because of who he was. I wish you had know him like we did. But You did. Count yourself fortunate as we were of the gift of having him in our lives all these years. And thank you for writing your story. I have shared it with as many familymembers as I can and am printing it for my mother. The time is short before she sees him again. She didnt make it to his funeral either.But she had him in her life. And that simple fact has seen us all through a lot of our lives. Once again thanks for taking the time for the lovely tribute. I will share it with all the family I can.Patience Lowe, daughter of Martha Mutchler Lowe

  3. If anyone still lives in Runnemede New Jersey reading this. There is a park that Uncle Jim is responsible for creating in Runnemede You can walk to from his house, and he had a dear friend that walked with him often on the mile long paved path in the park for years after he became blind. He continued to help with the rummage sales for the church long after he couldnt see. He wrote us letters, blind, after his wife folded the paper so he could feel the lines , and she corrected a few words, but his pen man ship was mainly legible,and he coherent , even years after not being able to see anything. His wife had a place for everything and everything went in its place, so he could continue to live at home, with her incredible companionship, when most people would have been sent to nursing home for care. He was an avid phillies fan, and after he couldnt see, she watched the game in the lr and he listened to the radio. Then they would talk about it.He often called in to the station, and the announcers knew his voice and called him by his first name. Everywhere he was , he kept the ideals going, even in the baseball world. He loved us all. And we loved him. He lived a better than good life.

  4. This is a beautiful tribute to my great uncle Jim. I would also add that he was a leader in our very large family. Often, heading up camping family reunions with fantastic adventures. I have so many beautiful memories of him!
    Sara

  5. Great tribute. The only way I knew Mr. Mutchler was that (1) he was Scott’s dad, and (2) he delivered our heating oil. Thanks for the memories.


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