By Tom Holmes
Jim King's highest academic degree is a high school GED. How he went from stocking shelves at a National Tea store to being the director of elderly and disabled housing for the Oak Park Residence Corporation for the last 14 years is a story about learning on the job and in the classroom of life.
With 68 percent of Oak Parkers holding a bachelor's degree or higher, it's a story that fewer and fewer people in this town know from personal experience.
"I admire Mr. King so much," said Deidra Patterson, program coordinator in one of the three buildings he supervises, "because he started out in the trenches. It's not the Oak Park way, but it's a good way."
When you walk into King's office at 21 South Blvd., he probably won't be wearing the "corporate uniform" (suit and tie). Instead he'll be dressed casually and probably wearing one of his Marine Corps baseball caps. On the north wall, a small mouth bass, walleye and large mouth bass are mounted. Pictures of his family fill a table, and a small display case on the east wall contains Marine Corps memorabilia.
When asked about the Khe Sanh cap, he replied, "I was going to OPRF High School, and halfway through my senior year, December of 1966, I dropped out and joined the Marines. I walked into the post office on Lake Street, and, against my mother's wishes, I signed up and volunteered for Vietnam. I didn't hate school. What I wanted was something different, some kind of adventure.
"My job in Vietnam," he said, "was heavy weapons: recoil-less rifles, flame-throwers, grenade-launchers. I'd get attached to a company going out on patrol and carry anything they needed. We did a lot of search-and-destroy missions on the Ho Chi Minh Trail. I was stationed for a while at Khe Sanh where we took 3,000 rounds a month, but the scariest part was going out on patrol. You'd be walking for days and then all of a sudden …"
Aware of all the returning veterans — from Vietnam to Afghanistan — with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, he marvels that he managed to return to civilian life without major emotional scars.
"I think when you're that young, even though you get pretty terrified, you don't think it's going to happen to you," he observed. "A lot of my friends don't handle it the same way I do. I was one of the lucky ones."
"The media," he explained, "make you think that your entire time in war is fighting somebody. It's not the case. There are lots of days of boredom, and then there's sheer terror. It wasn't all bad. We had a lot of good times."
His hitch in the Marines may have satisfied his longing for adventure.
"After returning from Vietnam," he said, "I was stationed at Camp Lejeune in North Carolina. I decided I needed an education, so while I was there I got a GED."
Armed with his diploma and an honorable discharge, King tried his hand at civilian life. He got a job in 1971 at the National grocery store, where he stocked shelves in high school, and worked his way up to manager. The price he paid for that "success," however, was putting in 70-80 hours a week and being a stranger in his own home.
That was a turning point.
"I had gotten married and had a home at 1100 Humphrey," he recalled, "but I never saw my three little kids. I'd get home after they were already asleep and leave in the morning before they got up."
The vet-turned-supermarket manager decided to quit the grocery business and start looking for another way to pay the bills. He spotted a job ad for a maintenance man at The Oaks, one of the buildings he now supervises, and viewed the cut in pay as more than offset by being able to come home every night for supper. The Oaks, at 114 S. Humphrey, was just up the street from his home.
King wasn't sitting under a Bodhi Tree when enlightenment came in 1981, but he did have an epiphany: Professional success was a worthy goal, but relationships were a higher priority.
As he had done in the grocery business, he worked his way up from doing maintenance at The Oaks to managing the building to being promoted to supervisor not only of the 76 apartments at The Oaks with but also the Ryan Farrelly Building's 21 units at 435 S. Humphrey, designed specifically for people with disabilities, and the 19-story Mills Park Tower at 1025 Pleasant Place.
Having a title on his business card, however, hasn't gone to King's head because his heart is where he's primarily coming from.
"Jim has been successful in his position in large part because of his interpersonal skills," said Edward Solan, King's boss and ResCorp's outgoing executive director. "Jim is a very people-oriented person. He makes good connections with people, and they in turn respond well to him."
The literature on management styles calls King's approach "relational leadership," a style that is getting a lot of press lately. If you Google the term, you'll find over 75 sites. In Exploring Leadership, Susan Komives and her co-authors write, "The Relational Leadership Model's emphasis on inclusion involves making every member of the group feel welcome, equal, comfortable, and listened to. It also means encouraging and providing an opportunity for group members to develop skills and knowledge related to their strengths and using language that does not exclude anyone."
King simply refers to his management style as "hands on."
"I'm in my buildings almost every day," he explained. "You get to know these people so well that you know when something's not right with an individual, when they're not feeling well, even when they don't say anything."
The residents of the buildings he supervises seem to like King's style. Rose Grayson, who has lived at The Oaks for 18 years, said, "If you tell him something's wrong with the apartment, immediately it's fixed."
Resident after resident mentioned how King treats them more than what he does for them. Mary Grace, who has lived at The Oaks for 16 years, and introduced herself as the "resident nutcase," said, "Jim's a really funny person. We crack jokes all the time. We be after one another all the time."
Grace then got serious. At building parties, King helps serve the food. "He's a servant," she concluded. "He's down to earth. He and the staff here treat us like family. We can go to them if we have problems."
Grayson recalled the first time she met King. "I parked my car and came inside. He met me, and I just had a feeling with him. When I walked in the door, I felt like I was at home. He really has been like a friend, like a brother."
She used the word "compassion" to describe how he relates to the residents.
"I wanted to move here," she said, "but I have never lived by myself. All my family is gone. When he was interviewing me, I began watering up. I'm a little emotional. He patted my hand and said, 'It's going to be all right,' and I could see that he had tears in his eyes. He is one of God's angels."
King doesn't refer to himself as a self-made man who pulled himself up by his bootstraps. Instead talks about how good the people in his three buildings who work for him are and what a good employer the Oak Park Residence Corporation has been.
Patterson summed up her boss this way: "Mr. King started out in maintenance here, so he knows how things work. I can really relate to him. It's important when you have a director you can relate to because sometimes people have degrees and no experience in the field at all, but they tell you how things should be done without having been in your position.
"I feel really blessed and privileged to be working under him. I've been around for a while, so I know good managers and bad ones. When you make an error, Mr. King always puts himself in the situation. He'll talk about what we did wrong and what we need to do to fix it. It feels really good to know that he's got your back, that he's in this with you."
King, who is nearing retirement age, summed up what he has learned from experience by saying, "You can't teach caring for a senior or a person with disabilities in college. You can teach them all the administrative skills that you need to have. You can get them to do all the paperwork, but you can't teach them to truly care for the people they work with."
Deflecting attention from himself, he said, "My people don't just have job descriptions. They wear many hats. What sets them apart is compassion."