CHARLESTON,W.Va. — I wasn’t sure how to react when I got the news. I knew it was coming, but when longtime friend and colleague Kay Murray called me Thursday morning it felt as if I had been slugged in the chest.
“Jim died about 15 minutes ago,” she told me sadly.
I couldn’t speak. I didn’t know what to say. Words wouldn’t form. My longtime broadcast colleague and one of my best friends in life, Jim Stallings,was gone. Cancer got him after a year and a few months. The news hadn’t been good for weeks, so I knew the dreaded news was coming. Still, there’s no way to prepare for it. He’s the first close friend of mine to ever die.
I’ll never forget the day I learned he had cancer. It was the opening day of buck season 2014. I was sitting in my tree stand a little after noon when my phone vibrated in my coat pocket. It was so quiet and still in the woods that day, it sounded like a freight train even though it was set to vibrate. It was a text from Jim letting me know I’d have to take over the Entertainment Report on the Morning News for a while. He’d been suffering some headaches lately and decided to go to the doctor to get checked out. The news couldn’t have been worse. He had an extremely aggressive and rare tumor. Surgery was imminent.
Still, we live in an age of modern medical miracles and Jim made it sound as if it was something that would take a month or two, but he’d be better soon and back on the job. I guess that’s why I didn’t worry too much about it at the time.
I’ve always heard a good friend is a guy who would come and bail you out of jail the morning after things got off the chain. But a GREAT friend is one who would be sitting beside you in the cell saying, “Dude, things got off the chain last night.” Jim was definitely the latter. I never missed a chance to go somewhere or get involved with a Jim Stallings production. It would always be fun, there was usually a risk you’d wind up in some kind of trouble, but there was also a guarantee it would make for a great story.
Jim and I entered a pulling contest at the Monongalia County Fair one year. The two of us, both well over 300 pounds, managed to drag a sled filled with close to 1,500 pounds of cinder blocks ten feet. We won first prize and $20 a piece. Our backs ached for weeks.
Jim talked me into joining his bowling team and was adamant about never missing league night. I even left my poor wife at home about to go into labor at any moment just so I could bowl with Jim on league night. We were terrible bowlers and the whole team used the same ball, one Jim bought for $18 at Wal-Mart.
The first time I met Jim was November 1990. I had been hired at West Virginia Radio Corporation only hours before. I walked into the studio to an acrid aroma, there sat Jim, eating a Vidalia onion…..the way most people would eat an apple. He laughed and said, “Payday is next week. Hi, I’m Jim Stallings.” I liked him instantly.
He was hard not to like. He was a big guy with a big personality. I found a kindred spirit in him. He was witty, snarky, quick, and effective in his humor. He uplifted everybody around him and was as quick to laugh at himself as anybody else. He was in charge of Metronews affiliate WAJR-AM and he was quick to defend his radio station. Everything you ever heard on the station had to meet his standard and those standards were high.
I recall early one Sunday morning hearing the closing credits of the Metronews show “The Point After” which for decades was the post game show for all West Virginia University football games. Jim was in charge of running the show on WAJR. The first thing I heard on the air after the show’s close, was a promo commercial for next Saturday’s football game, complete with one of Tony Caridi’s highlights from that day’s game–and Jim’s voice letting us know we could hear it on WAJR next Saturday. He worked around his duties during the show to make sure the station was promoting the next broadcast immediately.
I referred to him as “Cadillac” Jim Stallings on the air. Jim drove an old Cadillac for several years. It was the classic big guy behind the wheel of an El Dorado rolling slow down the highway . He just looked like a “Cadillac.” Although he eventually moved on to other vehicles, he was forever known as “Cadillac” Jim. He once said, “Durango Jim just doesn’t have the same ring to it.”
The name was actually first assigned to him by Jerry Thomas, the President and CEO of West Virginia Toughman. Jim was the longtime voice of Toughman events and traveled throughout West Virginia working as the sound engineer for every fight for years. Jerry would introduce him to those raucous Toughman crowds as “Cadillac Jim Stallings.” It just sounded good coming from a ring announcer at a boxing match.
Much like his attention to detail at the radio station, he was equally proud of his work on Toughman events. He was careful to select the perfect song for each round of each fight based on a fighter’s nickname or with sound effects that reflected the action in the ring. Somebody who appeared scared always got the sound effect of a crying baby. Anybody who’s nickname had the word “dog” in it was greeted with a snarling, barking dog. If a man was introduced as a “logger” by profession, the sound of a chainsaw echoed throughout the arena. If somebody was knocked out, there were the sounds of birds chirping as the referee issued the standing 8 count.
When I was transferred from Morgantown to Charleston in 2000, the Toughman event in Huntington, W.Va. became our annual meeting. I would sit beside him at ringside. We would enjoy the fights, laugh at the foolishness of those around us, and catch-up on all that was happening in our lives and within the company.
I miss him already. I will miss him from now on. He would appreciate my sharing some of these stories with you, then he would make a snarky, off color remark about the whole piece and we’d share another good laugh. That was Jim. That was Cadillac Jim Stallings.