Aside from the Queen of England, few people held more titles than James Garton, who died Saturday at the age of 69.
James Wallace Garton, also known as “Jimmy,” “Cootie,” “The White James Brown,” “Mayor of Ninth Street” and “Santa Claus of Columbus,” is remembered as a Columbus icon, a man whose love of life was equaled only by his love of people.
“He loved his family, like all of us do,” noted county supervisor Bill Brigham, who had been Garton’s friend since childhood. “But with Jimmy, it seemed like that love just spilled over to everybody he met, and, let me tell you, he met a lot of people. It seemed like everywhere we went, he’d leave knowing just about every person in the place. He was just like that.
“I remember we used to go to this place called Pap’s in Ackerman. But whenever I showed up without Jimmy, it was, ‘Hey, Bill. Where’s trouble?’ I knew exactly who they were talking about. He just made such a positive impression on people. He never met a stranger. He was like that all his life.”
Services for Garton were held before an overflow crowd Tuesday at Annunciation Catholic Church.
Garton is survived by his wife, Paulette, his son, Carl, daughters Lynn Hooker and Natalie Ward and seven grandchildren.
Although born in Memphis, Garton spent most of his life in Columbus.
Even as a young boy, he was “a spark plug,” recalls Brigham.
“Whenever somebody new came to school, Jimmy was the first to greet them,” Brigham said. “I don’t think anything made him happier than meeting someone new. He always had that big smile, always had this great, positive attitude.”
Throughout his life, Garton loved to hunt and fish. As an outdoorsman, he was also active in scouting. He loved to play golf.
But more than anything else, he was a natural-born entertainer, his friends said, whether it was delighting his children with magic tricks he had perfected or shouting out a warm “hello” to passers-by — friend or stranger, it made no difference — as he sat on his porch, a ritual that earned for him the title of “Mayor of Ninth Street.”
Bobby Patrick, another lifelong friend who regaled those who attended Tuesday’s services with his own stories of Garton’s colorful antics, said his friend was very much “an overgrown boy.”
“He loved children and knew how to relate to them,” Patrick says. “There are so many stories I could tell you.
“When Jimmy was just a boy he lost his two front teeth and he got some bridge work to replace the teeth. Being Jimmy, he figured out a way to make that entertainment, too. He would push those teeth out an stick his tongue through the gap and roll his tongue.
“Well, one day at Mass, a little boy was sitting in front of him, sort of fidgeting, as kids will do. The little boy looks back at Jimmy and Jimmy winks at him. The kid turns around real quick, but his curiosity gets the best of him and he looks back at Jimmy again. So Jimmy pushes those teeth out and rolls his tongue and the kid’s eyes get as big as saucers. The kid turns around, nudges his mom, but when the mom looks back at Jimmy, he’s just sitting there innocent.
“Well, this goes on for a couple more times: The kid looks back and there’s Jimmy rolling his tongue through that gap in his teeth. The boy nudges his mom, she looks back and Jimmy is just sitting there.
“Finally, she just grabs the kid and puts him in her lap so he can’t look back. That’s Jimmy for you. Just a big ole, big-hearted kid.”
The White James Brown
For all his memorable qualities, he is best remembered for his love of dancing. While “dance like no one is watching” is now a popular phrase, for Garton it was more a case of “dance like EVERYONE is watching.” He was a consummate showman on the dance floor and looked the part, too, thanks to the colorful wardrobe he selected for those occasions.
“I remember one class reunion, in particular,” said Brigham, who graduated from Lee High School with Garton in 1963. “We had a little skit or program and Jimmy came out with this outfit, including a cape. He comes out in that cape and starts dancing to James Brown. From that moment on, everybody called him ‘The White James Brown.’
“He just loved to dance. My wife, Allegra, said watching Jimmy do the Alligator was one of her very favorite memories.”
His passion for dancing often drifted into legend, like the story about a dance contest he entered while he was driving through Tennessee on a business trip.
The story goes that as he was driving, he noticed a billboard advertising a dance contest. Jimmy pulled over, went in and asked if he needed a partner to compete in the contest. Told that he could enter as a solo dancer, he signed up and danced, ending his routine with a backflip that earned him the trophy.
“That’s absolutely true,” Patrick confirms. “It was at the Thunderbird Lounge in Memphis.
“Here’s another story. My wife and I and Jimmy and Paulette went to hear Little Richard play one night in Memphis. Little Richard is playing the piano and he’s all dressed out in his regalia and pretty soon, Jimmy got to moving and grooving and carrying on. Little Richard sees that and invites Jimmy up on the stage and he just absolutely steals the show. Later, when Little Richard invites the audience member back up on the stage, he says, ‘I want that man who got up on stage first.'”
Santa Claus and other roles
Each December, Garton teamed up with another much-beloved Columbus figure to play the role of Santa Claus to Edwina “Mother Goose” Williams’ “Miz Claus.”
“He was wonderful,” Williams said. “He loved people, loved being around people, so he was a natural as Santa Claus. He loved being Santa Claus and the children loved him, too. He had a great ‘Ho, ho ho.'”
Santa was not the only role Garton played, though.
“He was a very good actor,” said Brenda Caradine, co-director of the annual Tennessee Williams Tribute.
Caradine recruited Garton to play the role of a cop in the Tennessee Williams Tribute production of Williams’ comedy, “Period of Adjustment” in 2013.
“People would stop me on the street and say, ‘I hear Cootie is in your play,'” Caradine said. “He really helped our audience. He was a big hit. I remember him from other plays, too, like ‘Barefoot in the Park’ and ‘The Odd Couple.’ He really was a wonderful actor.”
Patrick says losing his friend is something that’s hard to take in.
“You know, I lost my mother a couple of years ago and my dad passed away in 1969 and over the years I’ve lost a lot of good friends, but I honestly don’t think I’ve been impacted by anyone’s death like this,” Patrick said.
“Jimmy wasn’t a wealthy man, not in the material sense, but in so many ways, he was the wealthiest man I’ve ever known. He was rich in ways you don’t measure by money.”
Slim Smith is a columnist and feature writer for The Dispatch. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.