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Published: April 06, 2006 09:20 am    print this story   email this story   comment on this story  

Maverick coming home

By Ed Montgomery
THE NORMAN TRANSCRIPT (NORMAN, Okla.)

NORMAN, Okla. James Bumgarner, now James Garner, will be 78 years old Friday.

He was born April 7, 1928. The proud father, Weldon, said the birth occurred in the back room of the Denver Corners store east of Norman that the father operated.

Memories differ on when the family moved to Norman and Jim reported for his first class at Wilson Elementary school on North Peters Avenue, but he’s coming to Norman a day early for the ’89er Days festivities to help Wilson alumni celebrate the 75th anniversary of their first school’s founding.

Garner will participate in the dedication of a heroic statue of himself April 21, and be grand marshal of the Norman ’89er Day parade April 22.

He will arrive Thursday at Max Westheimer Field by private jet plane. His party will include his wife, Lois, their daughters Kim and Gigi, James’s older brother Jack and Shirley Fonda, a family friend and widow of Henry Fonda. James and Henry became good friends when they both played the lead role in the Caine Mutiny Court Martial on the stage.

Bill Saxon, prominent University of Oklahoma alumnus who went all the way through school with James and is probably his best friend, will drive up from Dallas to join the party.

James’ mother, Mildred, died when he was 5. His younger brother, Charles, and his father also are deceased.

James left home when he was 14 and worked at odd jobs, then joined the Merchant Marines. Later he helped his father in some businesses in California until he became the first Oklahoman called up for the military draft in the Korean War. He served in the 24th Infantry Division and was awarded the Purple Heart Medal.

He stayed in California after he left the service and got the breaks in television and motion pictures that led to his becoming one of the most popular and successful actors of his time. Among his most popular roles were those in "The Maverick" and "The Rockford Files."

He has remained close to his Norman and Oklahoma roots and has been inducted into the Oklahoma Hall of Fame and received many other state and local honors to go with his national professional awards. He also has been involved in many humanitarian efforts.

Although he attended OU only briefly, he donated $500,000 to make possible the first endowed faculty chair in the OU School of Drama.

Much of the material for this article comes from interviews with Roy Hamilton and Bob Goins, Norman residents who knew James at Wilson and have remained close to him. They also are on the committee planning the reunion and 75th anniversary. Charles Goins, Bob’s father, was the first janitor when Wilson opened in 1930 and kept that job for 29 years.

Hamilton, who played for OU football coach Bud Wilkinson and basketball coach Bruce Drake, remembers both James and Jack as outstanding athletes. In his one year of competition at Norman High School James finished second in the discus and third in the shot put against athletes from the state’s largest schools. He played halfback and did the punting for Norman High and was a good golfer in his younger days and one of the most popular amateurs in Bing Crosby’s old Pebble Beach tournament.

Jack, a pitcher, played professional baseball in the Pittsburgh Pirates farm system before becoming a professional golfer.

Goins said the Bumgarner family lived in several places in Norman. One was in a white two-story house across Gray Street from the main Norman post office. That house shows prominently in one of the pictures in the James Garner display that will continue through April at the Norman Public Library.

Hamilton and Goins recalled that both Jack and James attended a ballroom dancing class taught by the well-known Norman teacher Marie Keeling.

Under protest, they emphasized.



Ed Montgomery writes for The Norman (Okla.) Transcript.

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