When Jim Blakely faced medical difficulties in recent years and had to be admitted to the hospital, a friend would ask if there was a family member who needed to be contacted.
When Jim Blakely faced medical difficulties in
recent years and had to be admitted to the hospital, a friend would ask
if there was a family member who needed to be contacted.
“I have no one,” Blakely always replied to the query.
“You are my family.”
Ask Blakely about his family now, and he ticks off a
list of people – a son, a daughter-in-law, a daughter, two
grandchildren, even a great grandchild.
Indeed, what alcohol stole away from Blakely for
three decades or more, the Brantley Baptist Center in New Orleans, a
tenacious daughter-in-law and the grace of God itself has restored.
Blakely has a family again – the same family he once abandoned and then some.
Blakely’s story begins in the Northeast – in
Massachusetts – where he was living in the 1960s. He was drinking
heavily and finding it difficult to hold down a job.
The situation was straining his family, which
including two small children at the time – a son and a daughter.
“I was destroying everybody around me, …” Blakely
admits as he sits at a kitchen table in an assisted living home in New
Orleans. “I didn’t want to take anybody else down
with me, so I decided that everybody would be better off if I just
“It’s not all that difficult. … I used my social
security number. I used my name. I never changed anything.”
Once out of the Northeast, Blakely ended up in New Orleans in the mid 1960s.
There, he stumbled upon the Brantley Baptist Center,
then known as the Baptist Rescue Center, a Southern Baptist care
ministry in New Orleans for the homeless and persons struggling with
addiction and other needs.
He met staff member Charlie Holmes there – and with his help, Blakely completed an alcohol rehab program.
“I got sober and stayed sober for a long time, …”
he recounts. “I decided that I was going to try to get my life squared
Blakely ended up at the University of Houston, where he earned a degree in the mid 1970s. He went to work.
He also went back to drinking.
“Somehow, I ended up getting back on alcohol,”
Blakely says. “Well, I’m not going to sugarcoat it – I chose to drink
it. And I promptly went downhill.”
His drink of choice was whiskey.
“I never started out to be an alcoholic,” Blakely explains. “I just liked Wild Turkey.”
He would keep fifths of the brand in various places. “I never wanted to be out,” Blakely notes.
Even at work, he would drink to the point of
intoxication and, then, sip whiskey the rest of the day to maintain
that level. “Somebody once asked me, ‘Didn’t you ever get a hangover?’”
Blakely recalls. “Are you kidding me – I never sobered up long enough
to have a hangover. …
“I was what’s known as a functioning alcoholic.”
But that does not mean Blakely was a nice
functioning alcoholic. “I was not a nice guy before
I got sober,” he says.
Then, in 1993, for reasons Blakely chooses not
to disclose, he decided to get sober again. He left Houston and
returned to New Orleans, arriving at a downtown hotel.
“I had no idea what I was going to do,” he notes.
“But with a little bit of luck and the help of the Lord, there was a
phone booth on the street corner by the bus stop. I went out there and
sat in that little shelter, and I had my bag there.
“And that’s when I decided to call Charlie.”
Holmes was not available at the center, so Blakely
talked with Tobey Pitman, executive director of the Brantley Baptist
Center. He told his story – and Pitman told Blakely to come to the
He entered rehab again.
This time, it worked.
Indeed, this time, Blakely not only went through the
center program but ended up staying on for 12 years, working as a night
supervisor for the ministry.
He learned a lot, he admits.
“I became very involved with the homeless people,”
Blakely recounts. “I had constant contact with them. … And I learned
that just because they’re homeless doesn’t mean they’re bad people.
Just because they are rebellious doesn’t mean they’re bad people.
“It’s circumstances that has gotten them that way.
Usually, it’s circumstances that are outside themselves. They get in
trouble and don’t know how to deal with it.”
Blakely also learned a lot about himself.
He had been reared as a Catholic and always had
considered himself Christian. “But not until I got involved at the
center and with the preachers that come there did I really learn what
it is all about,” he says. “And if I hadn’t taken that route, I doubt
very seriously that I would be alive today. … But my relationship
with the Lord now is as strong or stronger than it ever was.”
In time, Blakely fully embraced Christ – he was
baptized by Holmes at the First Baptist Church of New Orleans.
“I’m not positive, but I think he tried to drown me,” Blakely jokes about his longtime friend.
Blakely finally left the Brantley Baptist Center and
worked on the grounds crew at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary
for two years.
Then, in 2000, he suffered a pair of heart attacks.
Each time, he had to be resuscitated. The second time, he remembers
lying in the hospital bed and overhearing the doctor call the Brantley
Center to ask if Holmes had been contacted as the listed next of kin.
“He said, ‘Well, you’d better get him here quick
because I don’t think he’s going to make it,’” Blakely recalls the
doctor saying. “Well, I was laying there right by the phone – and I
made up my mind right then and there that I wasn’t going anywhere until
Charlie got there.”
Holmes soon arrived to be with his friend – but by
then, Blakely had experienced something that convinced him things were
going to be okay.
Despite its mysterious qualities, he declines to
call it a near-death experience. “I don’t necessarily believe in that,
but the room got bright, bright, bright white light, …” Blakely says.
“And I felt a hand on my shoulder. And a voice said, ‘Not yet, Jim. Not
“I have no idea who it was,” Blakely continues. “I have my feelings.
But I knew everything was going to be all right then, that I had
something that I needed to do.”
Blakely’s health continued to create problems. In
one recent year, he was in the hospital more than out of it.
Through it all, he maintained contact with his
Brantley Baptist Center friends – and each time Pitman asked him about
contacting family, the response was the same.
“I have no one.”
But by the end of 2003, Pitman knew differently.
That November, he received a call – a woman was trying to locate a
long-lost relative. It was not unlike many other calls that Pitman
receives in his work at the center.
The searches usually are not successful.
This time, the woman was seeking a “Jim Blakely.”
Pitman acknowledged he knew more than one person by that name and asked
for details. The woman responded with Blakely’s full name and birthday.
Pitman was convinced and told the woman he knew the man she was seeking. The news was met with silence.
Then, the woman replied, “If you do, this will be the closest we’ve gotten in 30 years.”
She told Pitman how her husband – Blakely’s son –
had searched for his father for 20 years before admitting defeat. For
the last 10 years, the woman secretly had continued the search. Now, in
2003, she said it finally appeared her Christmas present to her husband
would be a simple pronouncement – “I found your dad.”
Pitman told the woman he would talk with Blakely and see if he wished to reestablish contact.
He immediately drove to visit with his friend.
After small talk had been completed, Pitman moved
from his seat and placed a chair directly in front of Blakely, sitting
knee-to-knee with him.
He told Blakely the real reason he was visiting was that he had received a call from a Barbara Blakely.
Blakely responded that he knew no such person.
“I know you don’t, but Barbara Blakely is married to James Ira Blakely Jr,” Pitman replied.
Pitman recalls how Blakely slumped in his chair, went white as a ghost and was silent for 20-30 seconds.
Finally, Blakely recovered enough to speak. “I knew this day would eventually come,” he said.
Blakely agreed to write a letter to his son – and
Pitman passed on the news. Barbara Blakely immediately forwarded a
packet of letters and photographs that Pitman delivered and watched
“I was a wreck,” Blakely recalls of that moment.
“I was just a wreck.”
Then, for the first time in years and years, Blakely picked up the telephone and called his son.
A few months later – April 5, 2004 – Blakely arrived
at the New Orleans airport at about 3 p.m. Heading into the baggage
claim area, he saw a man and woman and knew immediately it was who he
had come to see.
“I recognized them right away,” he says of his son
and daughter-in-law. “He was bending over, picking up his gear, and I
walked up and put my hand on his shoulder and said, ‘You have the right
to remain silent.’
“And he turned around and looked at me, and we
hugged,” Blakely says of the reunion. “My daughter-in-law cried, and I
cried, and he cried.”
Blakely spent several days with the couple – doing
“touristy” things around the city and getting to know one another. “The
very first thing my son said to me when we got in the car to leave the
airport was, ‘I want to know nothing about what happened – it’s a new
game,’” Blakely says of the time. “And when I went to bed that night, I
thought, I have no right in the world to be involved in these people’s
lives, none whatsoever.”
But he was.
“It was like I’d never left,” he says. “There were
absolutely no recriminations, no hassles. They accepted me at face
value for what I did. … He’s a good guy. And my daughter-in-law is
quite a little detective.”
Actually, as Blakely soon learned, his
daughter-in-law had been successful in her search after stumbling upon
his photograph posted on the Brantley center Web site.
And while the timing was a surprise, Blakely also
indicates it was time for the reunion. “I wanted to make amends to both
my daughter and my son,” he says.
He continues to do so.
He has not had a chance to reunite physically with
his daughter – but he has spoken to her by phone. There are tentative
spring plans for him to visit with his son and daughter – both of whom
live in the Northeast.
Blakely is open about his story now – offering it as
a warning to some and as celebration for the work of God and others in
As he sits at the kitchen table on a misty New Orleans morning, he
counts off the good people God has put in his life, beginning with
those at the Brantley Baptist Center.
“The time I was with the center was the best time in my last 25 years, 30 years,” Blakely emphasizes.
He also voices concern for so many others who are
caught in the same lifestyle he was, insisting that some can be found
in the churches themselves.
“The problems that we see coming into the Brantley
center, there’s some in the churches – and if there isn’t anybody there
that can call attention to it, the people may be dead before they
realize it,” he warns.
It does not have to be that way, Blakely insists. He
stresses that there is help available for persons struggling with
alcohol – and there is reason for hope.
“I think one of the best things I could think to say
is – no matter how bad it looks, no matter what has happened in the
past, there are no bridges that can’t be rebuilt,” Blakely maintains.
“All you have to do is ask for help. But it’s so difficult for an
American male to ask for help. It’s very difficult. We’re all infected
with a psychological disorder called the John Wayne syndrome – I can do
it by myself. And that’s not necessarily so.
“There comes a time when everything you’ve tried
seems to fail. And then, there are only two things to do – go ask for
help and go ask for help, help for the spiritual side from the Lord, as
well as help from knowledgeable people. … But the biggest thing that
you can do is develop a relationship with the Lord and follow through.”
Blakely does not hesitate to warn of the dangers
alcohol presents, insisting that what it robs from one’s life is far
more damaging than the physical toll.
He knows – he has lived it.
He considers all he has missed through the years and tears start from his eyes.
“Birthdays,” he says, making a hard list. “High
school graduation. My son’s discharge from the Marine Corps. Baseball
games. Just being with them. … I missed a lot.
“I missed just having them around, to be able to
hold them when they’re hurting and to have them be able to hold me when
Meanwhile, Blakely does not even have the packet of
letters and photographs that his daughter-in-law forwarded to help him
ease the vacant memories. During his stay in the hospital, someone
broke into his apartment and stole most of his belongings – including
But that is of small concern– he says he will just have to ask for another to be sent.
After all – now, he knows who and where to call.
(The Brantley Baptist Center is a ministry funded
through the Southern Baptist North American Mission Board. For
information on the center and its ongoing ministries, persons may visit
www.brantleycenter.com, call 504-523-5761, e-mail to
email@example.com, or write Brantley Baptist Center, 201
Magazine Street, New Orleans, LA 70130.)