Religious Studies professor Philip Boo Riley remembers Jim Reites, S.J., MST ’71 as a colleague, family member, and friend.
Words on craftsmanship and humility. The blessed chaos of family. A life of the mind and the ache of the heart. A eulogy.
Jim was a friend of mine.
The amazing thing about Jim is just how many people—here and around the world—can say that about him.
From the moment I met him in the first few weeks of my career here at SCU Jim bounded into my life with élan, care, unbridled enthusiasm, support, and curiosity. Jim was a great colleague.
But it was with my family that I spent most of my time with my friend Jim; his life was deeply and indelibly woven into the fabric of my family for nearly 40 years.
In the early ’80s we lived in a cavernous house on Franklin Street, next to the big cross that now is at the entrance to SCU. Jim referred to the chaos that was the life of a family with four kids under the age of 10 as the “divine milieu.” He loved it. He’d come by many evenings, arriving amidst baths, story time and homework, with a brown bag bursting with cookies he had purloined from the Jesuit residence where he’d just finished community dinner.
On Sundays Jim would host us for lunch in the Nobili dining room after the 10:00 a.m. Mass, delighting in our disruptive presence. My kids looked on those lunches like a trip to the White House, and for a while one of my sons discovered a vocation, assuming that life as a Jesuit meant constant access to free cookies, good food, and a recent model Toyota Corolla.
Later those kids—in college and high school, and even later, careers launched and joined by spouses—would entertain Jim over leisurely summer dinners. (Note, Jim was the perfect guest to host in the kitchen; everything, even a simple pb and j sandwich, was “the best ever.”) And Jim would in turn entertain them and their friends. Sometimes we turned to things intellectual, introducing my kids to the life of the mind; sometimes they debated Tupac, something I never got; but more often he’d regale us with stories. Jim loved to tell stories—not all were true, but that is a story for another day.
Christmases included trips to the hills above Los Gatos to cut down the perfect tree; poppers and funny hats; long meals and great conversation; way too many sweaters, Pendletons, and even PJ’s that my kids picked out as gifts for him from Mervyns, Jim praising my daughter Maeve’s Martha Stewart moments in the kitchen, and hours of Jim raising his glasses as he worked 1,000-piece crossword puzzles with my daughter Eliza.
Nobody will remember Jim for his abilities in sports. (Because it involved so much spandex, his 10-year biking career with 100-mile days is something I need to regard as an anomaly). He was, however, a reasonably good skier (but who wouldn’t be if you were 6 to 8 inches closer to the ground than most of us?), and great with chains in a snowstorm on I-80. My family and I tried to engage him in soccer and golf, to no avail; basketball was not an option; but Jim recently showed some promise in Bags, most likely because he could play while holding onto a beer.
Jim and beer. They were a good match. More stories for another time.
Jim introduced my boys and me to backpacking, something they both love today: We hiked the Santa Cruz Mountains, Rockbound Pass in the Sierras with Fr. Fran Smith, Yosemite. For the latter, Daniel, Jim, and I hiked through Yosemite Valley, set up tents, filtered water, hung food in trees out of reach of bears, and made our way to Half Dome.
My fear of heights got the better of me, so Jim led Daniel through the stanchions up to the top, sharing that beautiful scene with a 12-year-old boy. During that trip my dad had died, also at the age of 78, and within a week my family somehow managed to get to Des Moines, Iowa for services. And so did Jim, dropping everything to be with us.
I began remodeling the current family house soon after we bought it, in the late 1980s, and because it still is not finished Jim affectionately called it too the “divine milieu.” I called on Jim for any and all wiring mysteries—he loved a problem, drawing out sketches for three-way switches, complaining about the poor craftsmanship of the previous owner, and reveling in a job well done. Later I was privileged to watch him work on a Habitat for Humanity build and an Amor Ministries house in Tijuana. Wow.
Jim was always there for me and my family—graduations near and far, weddings and birthdays, holidays and weekend afternoons. And now he is gone, a reality I never ever considered. But he has left me—and perhaps you, too—to ponder, with gratitude, humility and love, the words with which I began:
Jim was a friend of mine.
Philip Boo Riley is an associate professor of religious studies at SCU.