James H. Coots ’63 died on August 31, 2019, in Long Beach, California.
(The following was published in Gathering Us Online by Jennifer Valdez:)
Our dad passed away in the early hours of Saturday, August 31st. He suffered from colon cancer that moved into his liver and after various surgeries and treatments he succumbed to its progression in the comfort of his home, surrounded by family.
My dad knew a lot of people and was a social person but he was also quite private and even folks who were close to him weren’t necessarily aware of his personal history, achievements, or background. I thought I’d throw this story together here for those of you who care to know a bit about Jim, now that he can’t hold it against me.
Jim was raised in Brockton, MA, with his two younger siblings Denny and Ellen. His mother’s family was from Ireland and his father’s family roots date back to the founding of Boston in the early 1600s, immigrants from England and Scotland. His mother claimed “Jimmy” began speaking at the age of six months but said others disregarded her comment because he was her firstborn and she “must have been mistaken.” But he may well have spoken that young as he was identified early on as being both mentally and physically gifted, an identity that shaped much of his early life. Our dad was educated at a private school in Boston, Huntington Prep, which I believe he attended through grade 13, and which, I also believe has since been purchased and integrated into the campus of Northeastern University. An All-American swimmer in high school, he took the train back and forth to school daily and worked at night to pay his tuition. Dad turned down a scholarship to Harvard – the college down the street – for an opportunity to travel out of state where he did his undergraduate work at Bowdoin College in Maine. With a full swimming scholarship he earned a degree in History. Dad recently told my nephew, Kyle, that in those days he dreamed of working in Russian counter-intelligence, which would have made use of his ability to read and write 5-6 languages, including Russian. But Jim never traveled that clandestine avenue due to a fateful summer spent at UC Berkeley, one that ultimately propelled his life’s path westward.
Jim made his first move west to Texas, stationed in the army at Fort Sam Huston. This was in the Vietnam era but he remained stateside because he was enlisted as an athlete! At that time world-class athletes were “housed and fed” at military bases as members of the military – this was before the US openly funded non-professional athletes at Olympic training centers. He was a member of the US Modern Pentathlon team (swim, run, shoot, fence, horse-jump) and trained in San Antonio, competing around the world. He was the point leader for the US going into the ’64 Olympics but fell off a horse and broke his arm just before Olympic tryouts. Somewhere at this point in his athletic career, he set a world record in the swimming portion of the pentathlon, a story he shared with me once in 2017, adding, “It probably didn’t stick very long.”
In Texas Jim met my mother, Annie Yazzie, a Navajo army nurse from New Mexico. After getting married in Albuquerque, they moved a little farther west to Salt Lake City, Utah where my dad earned his Masters and Doctorate degrees in Developmental Psychology at the University of Utah. My older sister, Lisa, and I were born in Utah.
Soon after Jim’s graduation our family moved even farther west to Long Beach, California, where Jim would live the rest of his life. His parents and his sister were already living in Redondo Beach, while two of my mom’s sisters were raising families in Altadena and Hawthorne. We had a solid extended family in Southern California and the weather was a good match for Jim’s love of sports and the outdoors. From bike riding, to hiking and camping, to running and race walking, to skiing and golf – Jim enjoyed life’s physical pursuits. He combined his love of sports with his love of psychology and worked as a self-employed Sports Psychologist. He coached himself, his family, friends and countless professional and non-professional athletes over the years.
I must digress here a moment to mention Jim’s love of music. There’s a giant vein of musical gold running through his father’s bloodline and Jim inherited a healthy dose of it. He grew up with relatives that could “pick up any instrument and play,” and I grew up listening to his father belt out ballads while stretching his fingers into elaborate 1920s jazz guitar rifts on the couch after work. I would imagine my dad grew up around similar scenes. Jim loved and copied early rock and roll, playing in bands in high school and college. He bought his first guitar in Sardinia Italy, probably in the 1960s while competing internationally as an athlete. He played in rock and blues bands and recorded music throughout life. About 10-15 years ago, Jim was lured by the music of Hawaii and delved deep into the ukulele and hula music. He studied the Hawaiian language in order to write songs in the native language and wrote his favorite song, “Ku’u Helena,” a tribute to his second wife Helen, in Hawaiian, played on the uke.
My dad met Helen Tenaka through the Easy Striders walking club he coached for over 25 years. He would say to the end that Helen was the love of his life. They were deeply devoted to one another and thoroughly enjoyed 19 years of marriage, joking and laughing the days away. As a couple, they loved their combined 7 children and 9 grandchildren. They traveled all the time, to the corners of the world but their hearts held a special place for the Hawaiian Islands. Their life was rounded out with a community of good neighbors and close friends. Their final project together was their home, which they redesigned and remodeled during the last two years of Jim’s life. It is a simple home that embodies their appreciation of nature, coastal California design, clean lines, Japanese aesthetic, and a gathering place to be indoors and outdoors with friends and family. Their home will stand for years to come as their legacy and as a reminder of their lives together in Long Beach.