Memorial Day Weekend – Senior Moments In Fernandina Beach

Submitted by Gerry C. Clare
May 28, 2012

Sunday, May 27th at the Peck Center – In spite of tropical storm Beryl,  Willie Mae Hardy Ashley celebrated her 90th birthday with family and friends including Fernandina Beach

Willie Mae Ashley

Mayor Filkoff and former commissioner, Ron Sapp. Ms. Ashley was a teacher at the former William Henderson Peck High School for 20 years. She was an active member of the Peck Committee for many years after the school was closed, in disrepair and became a neighborhood eyesore.

Built in 1927 and closed in 1969, the school was renovated and restored with grants from the Florida Department of State, Division of Historical Resources in 1994, 1996 and 1999, totaling $594,056 with matching funds and resources from the city of Fernandina Beach.  Spearheaded by the late Ele Colborn (committee chair), the  Peck Committee, and  Fernandina Beach community leaders, the Peck Center reopened as a multi-purpose community center in the late 1990’s.

It is home to an African-American library, gymnasium, city offices, Head Start and several non-profits including for many years the Amelia Arts Academy. The auditorium, named for Ms. Ashley, is the locale for many community performers, activities and meetings.

This building is a local treasure as is Ms. Ashley. She was born here in 1922, graduated from Peck High School in 1940 and went on to further her education and become an author (“Far From Home”}, teacher and tireless historian, preserving black history in Fernandina Beach. She still lives here and keeps an eye on the Peck School and its activities.

Second Senior Moment – Memorial Day Activities and Jim Thomas

On Monday, May 28th at the Atlantic Recreation Center – Fernandina Beach hosted the annual Memorial Day celebration once again. However, tropical storm Beryl moved the celebration from the usual location at the Veterans Memorial downtown and caused volunteers  to frantically pull down all the flags set up by the Shave bridge Saturday.
Among the celebrants were the military representatives including keynote speaker, retired

Rear Admiral Phillip D. Smith

Rear Admiral, Phillip D. Smith.  The boy scouts and JROTC from West Nassau CountyHigh School were also part of the ceremony.  Ed Cook presented the music, and Patrick (Doc) Monahan read the names on the Nassau County Roll Call of Honor, followed by Taps and the laying of the wreath at the Amelia River.

Jim Thomas – One of Fernandina’s Finest

Due to the weather and uncertainty of the celebration locale, Jim Thomas and his fellow Marines from the local Everett P. Pope Marine Corp League were absent.  However, following is a brief summary of Jim Thomas’ interesting 91 years in Fernandina, including 14 1/2 years in the Marines and Reserves.
Jim’s first job at 16 years old was at Coca Cola (next to the present FB City Hall).  With 8 boys and 3 girls, his family had a lot of mouths to feed.  His Dad worked for the railroad.  But in 1938, Jim enlisted in the Marines and travelled to Savannah to train, later to Jacksonville , North Carolina and shipped out to Guantanamo Bay Cuba to be part of the 1st Marine Division.  After the war started, he went by train to San Francisco and was a property sergeant on the ship to New Zealand.
His landing in Guadalcanal-the Solomon Islands, is still very vivid in his mind. From the planes strafing the island, to the American ships shooting over his small landing crafts, to the first wave of soldiers landing and then his men and the sinking of his ship behind him as he made the beach, it is real.
As was the bombing by Japanese planes every day at noon, the building of a bridge near the airport and the fact that he was there from August to December of that year.
Returning to Australia and malaria treatment, there was more training in explosives school …and then back to the states when he married Ann Walters Thompson in 1942 and their first child was born, he was stationed at Jax Naval Station.

He was called back in the service to China from 1945 to1947 and to Virginia from 1947 to 1949 building Quonset huts among other things, was in the Jacksonville reserves, and in his spare time he began setting up a small plumbing business.  In 1950 to 1952, Jim was called up to serve during the Korean conflict and headed back to Quantico, Virginia.

Finally he left the service in 1952 and returned to Fernandina to once again operate a plumbing business (once located at 115 Centre Street). He did plumbing, heating, electrical and construction work at Rayonier from about 1952 to 1955. After that  he became maintenance for the county school superintendent. He also served as a county commissioner from 1964 to 1968.

With 4 children growing up, he was active in buying land, buildings and renovating them for friends and family.  He also built the addition to the 1st Presbyterian Church on 6th Street where he once had a home and it is appropriately called the “Jim Thomas Hall”.

In fact, he remembers when Ms. Ashley “made “ him take all the bricks off the stained glass window in Trinity Church that had been covered to protect it during the war.
He retired when he was 85, but continues to be active with the League, his church, his family of 17 grandchildren, 38 great grandchildren and 2 great great grandchildren, and, of course Memorial Day.

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