James William Smith was born in Joplin Missouri. His parents were Frederick Orren Smith and Sylvia Lola Oxford. He had one sibling, an older brother Freddie. Jim’s father was in the army and was stationed at various places, including Phoenix, Arizona, where Jim spent his high school years. Jim said that he played chess in high school and at age 18 won the city chess championship in a match that pitted him against a chess master from Los Angeles.
After high school Jim came to California and worked for the California Highway Patrol. He met and married Nan Louise Brown in November, 1965. While with the CHP he became interested in the Berkeley protest movement, and later was asked to write a report about the People’s Park riots. This report was well received, and he was encouraged to enter graduate work at the Wright Institute in Berkeley, even though he had no formal higher education. At the Wright Institute he met Jack Sawyer, who became a lifelong friend and in whose house Jim lived for 18 years. Also at Wright Institute Jim began in-depth studies of Carl Jung.
Jim had a pivotal life experience with his first and only experiment with LSD. He described this as both wonderful and terrifying. Afterwards he began a descent into mental illness which led to the dissolution of his marriage in 1972, and over fifty involuntary hospitalizations in psychiatric wards in a thirty year period.
In the early 1970’s, Jim began attending Berkeley Friends Meeting. Friends from that time will recall him introducing himself as “Marine Corp General James W. Smith, commander of all covert action military forces in the United States,” or alternatively, usually more privately, as “Jesus Christ returned to earth as a mental patient”.. For many years Jim joined others at the Circle of Concern vigil held at the entrance to the University of California, witnessing against the University’s involvement in nuclear weapons development. Jim assisted the director of the Berkeley Area Interfaith Council (BAIC).
Jim applied for membership at Berkeley Meeting in the late 1980’s. It was a challenge for the Meeting to reconcile the peace testimony of Quakers with Jim’s military delusions, particularly since admission to membership is decided by consensus. A series of clearness committees wrestled with this request and met frequently with Jim for about four years. Finally on June 10, 1990, Jim was accepted into membership. The deciding factor was based on the fact that as we would welcome members with physical handicaps we should not create barriers for those with mental instabilities.
Jim immersed himself in a study of religion and spirituality. He read the I Ching several times, and he used (and sometimes overused) it as an oracle for his ideas. Besides attending Quaker worship, he developed a close relationship with the Catholic Newman Center in Berkeley, regularly attending mass there. Jim once described himself as a “Roman Catholic Quaker.”
In later years Jim suffered significant physical health setbacks, including colon cancer that resulted in removal of much of his intestine. About this time his mental condition stabilized under medication, and he had no further psychiatric hospitalizations for the last fifteen years of his life. Credit for this stabilization goes to the Berkeley mental health community, a stable living situation, the support of the Berkeley Center for Elders Independence and, prominently, his long-time therapist. He and his therapist embarked on writing a book that Jim was to title, “The Long Session – Jim’s Recovery from 40 Years of Mental Illness.” There is hope that a portion of this work will be published on the Web.
Following a months-long stay in a convalescence home after a fall, Jim died in the room he had occupied for many years, surrounded by friends. Those who knew Jim found him to be a remarkable, unforgettable human being.