Throwback: Jim Yerkes - Teaching LIfe's Lessons By Example

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Jim Yerkes - Teaching Life's Lessons by Example

February 1995 (2nd issue) pages 4-6

By Nancy Brown

I recently had the privilege of meeting Jim Yerkes and he is indeed a young man of principle and high ideals. He's seventy now, but he's young in every way that matters: at heart, in spirit and in attitude. He has the stamina, still, to accomplish whatever the task at hand.

Jim Yerkes retired from South Hills Health System in 1987 as Director of Food Services. After a long and successful career in the food service industry, Mr. Yerkes found himself unable to stay retired. He sampled a few different jobs before he became the Supervisory Aide at Fort Couch Middle School. He is now starting his fifth year at Fort Couch and has eight responsibilities there, including overseeing the Resource Team, the supply room and a study area, as well as cafeteria duty, assisting the secretaries, doing hall duty and everything else Principal Tom Harshman can think up. He also serves as Nurse's Aide, giving first aid when necessary, keeping records, filing, and maintaining supplies.

A few Fort Couch students added their interpretations of his job descriptions. Paul Kletter says, "He is a helper for our school. He'll help anybody who needs help. Whatever needs to be done, he does it." Beth Namm adds, "He is willing to do everything." The most prevalent sentiment was voiced by Jenny Basista who said, "He is like a grandpa to all of us." Eight official responsibilities and something more: a genuine love for young people and the generosity of spirit to share it.

Jim Yerkes was born in Reading, Pennsylvania in 1924. Typically for him, he remembers growing up during the Depression as "fun, a good experience. We had lots of friends! We had no car; there wasn't money to do anything, but we had fun! Though I wouldn't want to do it again." His first job was at the A & P. He was ten years old and he earned a dime an hour. To supplement that income, he also began to caddy at the age of ten. He earned a quarter for nine holes, fifty cents for eighteen holes, and a five cent soda as a bonus for not losing a ball (applicable only to the eighteen hole round). At the end of a good summer, Mr. Yerkes had savings of about ten dollars, which he used to buy school clothes and shoes.

One day in 1934, barnstormers flew into the fields near his home. Barnstormers were pilots who took passengers on sightseeing flights or performed stunts, traveling an unscheduled route across the country. Mr Yerkes, who had just collected his fifty cents caddying wages (and who we can safely assume, had already enjoyed that bonus soda), wanted very badly to fly in the barnstormers' Ford Trimotor airplane. His offer of fifty cents was refused; the price was $1.50. Undaunted, he waited and he watched. Finally, the plane was boarded for the last flight of the day, but the number of customers had dwindled. The pilots must have preferred Jim Yerkes' fifty cents over an empty seat, so a decidedly patient ten year old had his first flight. It was to be the first of many.

Mr. Yerkes' scrapbooks tell the story of a young man in a small town in America who lived his life with enthusiasm and integrity. He was president of his high school class and was an outstanding football player and golfer. One yellowed newspaper clipping reads: "Jim Yerkes, Williamsport High School junior, took time out from Cherry and White football practice long enough Saturday to administer a 4 and 3 defeat to Chink Eaton in the opening round of the...Fall Golf Tournament."

Other clippings, one of which describes him as a "young 17-year-old husky," tell of his election to Junior Rotary, his work with underprivileged boys, his Honor Key prize. He is described as "a most durable footballer," a golf champion and an academic stand out.

Such was the stuff of Jim Yerkes' youth. It all changed abruptly in 1943.

The day following his graduation from high school, Mr. Yerkes stepped onto a train and went to war. He went first to infantry basic training camp in Greensboro, North Carolina. Although he became a pilot, the Air Force was then a part of the Army, so all men went through basic training first. Mr. Yerkes then went to Syracuse where he flew Piper Cubs as an air cadet. Next, he went to Nashville where a barrage of psychiatric and aptitude tests revealed that he had what it took to be a pilot. One part of the testing was that after just five or six hours of instruction on an unfamiliar aircraft (a PT-17), potential pilots had to be able to take the controls and fly that plane. Failure meant reassignment or demotion. Success meant further training.

In basic flying school, Mr. Yerkes was a member of the first cadet class to fly AT-10 twin engine planes. Later, during advanced flying school, he was among the first cadets to complete training in the B-25 bomber.

Mr. Yerkes was a trained pilot at 19. He was given the choice of flying fighter planes or bombers. He chose bombers because he "enjoyed more engines." Although Mr. Yerkes had been trained for action in Europe, the need for pilots there had been greatly diminished and replaced by a need for pilots in the Pacific Theatre. After receiving additional training in Boise, he shipped out of Pittsburg, California to the Philippines.

When asked how many mission he flew, Mr. Yerkes said, "I don't talk about the war." And he didn't. He did say he bailed out five times. He did say that he was on the island of Okinawa when the Bomb was dropped on Hiroshima. He believes that President Harry Truman saved his life that day and the lives of an estimated 300,000 American soldiers by making that enormous decision. His philosophy of focusing on the positive applies even to something as horrific as war. He said "I learned a lot in the war. I came out of it alive, and I'm glad to be here."

He recalls a day after the Japanese surrender when General Douglas MacArthur visited his barracks and approached him and some fellow pilots. "Boys," he said, "there's a job that needs to be done but you have to volunteer for it. We need to demobilize the Japanese generals and colonels and admirals by flying them all back to their hometowns." The pilots were willing. Then, General MacArthur added that under the terms of surrender, the Japanese would be permitted to carry their samurai swords and their pistols, while the American soldiers would be completely unarmed. None of the pilots backed out. And, for Jim Yerkes, it was "a wonderful experience. I had the chance to fly into every airport in Japan that hadn't been destroyed. The Emperor of Japan had given orders that we were to be treated with respect and we were. Many of the Japanese officers invited us into their homes for saki after the flights."

After the official end of the war, Mr. Yerkes signed up for another year's duty in Japan and flew C-46's and C-47's carrying mail, food and medicine to the occupation troops.

His next assignment was in Seoul, Korea. To his surprise, he was one of six American pilots who were assigned the job of building an airport. He's the first to admit that he had no idea how to even approach the task. One night at a pub in Kwanjai, he struck up a conversation with a Korean about the possible construction of the airport. The particular Korean happened to have the plans for the construction of an airport at the same site; plans that had been drawn up by Japanese engineers during Japan's occupation of Korea. The place were for sale and the price was a carton of American cigarettes. Given a deadline of six weeks, Jim Yerkes had his airport built in three weeks. He was twenty-one years old.

Mr. Yerkes went home in 1946. He attended Penn State (then the Pennsylvania State College) on the G.I. Bill. He studied Home Economics, or what would now be called dietetics or hotel management. He played on the football team, enjoyed much success on the golf team and joined Sigma Pi fraternity. He remembers Penn State as "a country club."

From his caddying days at the age of ten, through golf in high school, the military, at Penn State and during the 44 years since, golf has been a source of camaraderie and athletic success for Mr. Yerkes. After an especially impressive round at Laurel Valley Golf Club in Ligonier (he shot a 72), the club pro asked him what he could do for him. Mr. Yerkes replied, "I'd like to met Arnold Palmer." So, the club pro made a telephone call and, in short order, Jim Yerkes met Arnold Palmer. An autographed photo signed that day reads, "To Jim, Great 72 at Laurel. Arnold Palmer." Mr. Yerkes has had three holes-in-one during his golfing career and the last time he played prior to this interview, he shot a 71 at Rolling Hills.

Mr. Yerkes wakes up at 5:30 each morning and exercises for fifteen minutes, which he believes is a key to his vitality and energy level. He is at Fort Couch from 7:15 to 3:15 each day. He often walks six or seven miles, sometimes with his wife, Marni. He flies a plane a few times a month (and has a commercial pilot's license), keeps up with his yard work and enjoys his three granddaughters.

When asked what drives him to be at Fort Couch, he says, "The kids!" Most non-adolescents would agree that seventh and eighth graders have somewhat of a reputation for being at a difficult, awkward age. Mr. Yerkes says, "This is the time when the hormones are starting up. This is the shoving and pushing stage. But, I understand that. It doesn't bother me. I understand kids. I'll do anything for them, and they know that. And, they'll do anything I ask of them."

Mr. Yerkes, besides his eight official responsibilities, does countless things for the students and staff at Fort Couch. Principal Tom Harshman says, "I wish I had a hundred Jim Yerkes. Then, I'd be in good shape." Besides managing the cafeteria, he clears trays off the tables as a favor to the kids. He lends lunch money to whomever needs it, keeping an account of who owes what on a small card in his pocket. "They all pay me back," he says. "In over four years, I've never lost a penny."

Mr. Yerkes shares his time and his life with the young people at Fort Couch. He tells them the stories of his youth, of what he's done and people that he's met along the way. He walks down the halls with an energy and vigor rarely seen in men half his age, whistling, arms swinging, looking each person in the eye and saying "hello."

When asked what he would convey to the retired people on the community, he said, "get involved in something. Whether you're a carpenter or a bus driver, find something you like to do and get involved. It keeps your life going. It keeps your mind active. I feel that if I haven't learned something each day, I have wasted the entire day. To me, the day starts out like a sponge just full of water. And, the water is what you do and what you learn; it's your life. And, if's up to you to get it out! To squeeze out every drop! And, I approach every single day like that."

Toward the end of our talk, he mentioned that he had cancer. His is fighting it and he's confident that he'll beat it.

In 1943, as a senior in high school, he wrote a speech that included this:

This year, Senior Day and Commencement Day will be very different from previous ones. A large part of our class after graduation will serve our country in various branches of the armed forces, while even now some are in training and active duty. Thus, they are not able to be with us today We pray that God may shower his rich blessings on them and bring them back to us bigger and better men. May it never be said of us that we have done "too little and too late."

That will never be said of Jim Yerkes, one who most certainly came back a bigger and better man.

2019 update: From Jim Yerkes' obituary YERKES, JAMES HALLOWELL Of Pittsburgh, age 86, on Wednesday, April 20, 2011. Beloved husband of Margaret "Marni" Yerkes; loving father of Jane Harter and Leslie Yerkes; grandfather of Erin Janiak, Courtney Harter, and Lindsay Harter; great-grandfather of Rosemary Janiak; brother of Charles Yerkes of Williamsburg, VA and Barbara Harris of Vail, CO. A Penn State graduate, James worked as a food service manager at local colleges and hospitals. In his retirement, he enjoyed speaking to students about his experiences as a pilot in the Pacific Theatre in World War II. He also enjoyed working as an aide in the Upper St. Clair School District and as a volunteer at St. Clair Hospital.

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