During the lean times Santa Claus came every other year to the McMullin house, sometimes even skipping two years in a row. Little Jim McMullin didn’t know any better.
“We lived in extreme poverty. When you have seven people, how far does a loaf of bread go? How far does a dozen eggs go? There might have been people poorer, but I don’t know who they were,” says Jim, now sitting in the comfort of the library at the Lancaster Elks Lodge and talking about his life growing up during The Great Depression. He will soon turn 91 and remembers his full life in vivid detail, even the exact date of every milestone.
The McMullins, two adults and five kids, moved into a storage barn in an East Petersburg alley in 1926; a mere shell of a building, its windows came from a nearby demolished home. The interior was unfinished. Runoff from the roof was the family’s main source of water. There was no electricity, no heat.
“One time we didn’t have any meat on the table for nine weeks,” says Jim in a tone not of sorrow or despair, simply matter of fact. “One time mother came around with a sauce pan and we got two tablespoons of cooked dried corn. That was it.”
Yet, his is not a story of grief. Far from it.
“I didn’t know anything different and we had a lot of happy times,” he says. The family eventually moved into Lancaster City. In 1938, Jim’s father helped build J. P. McCaskey High School and the work gave the family their first annual income over $1,000. Things began to improve; in 1940 their home got a flush toilet, then a manual washing machine and even a refrigerator. Jim did well in school but didn’t really have any plans after graduation. He saw the boys before him going off to WWII, and at 18 he joined the Navy Reserve. In the civilian world he took a job as a general laborer and excelled. He soon became a boss, often being reprimanded for doing the work of the men he was supposed to oversee. The seasonable nature of this work did not suit him, and while still searching for his role in the workforce he spotted an advertisement for the Lancaster City Police department. He took the exam, aced it, and joined in 1950.
“I never said I wanted to be a policeman. I never said I wanted to save the world. I wanted a steady job,” says Jim.
He tells stories of shootouts like they were part of an old, black and white movie—robbers coming into banks three at a time, tellers with secret buzzers, officers going down, bystanders being hit by stray bullets. Although it sounds like Hollywood this happened once on the corner of Duke and Chesapeake St.
Jim joined a contingency of officers who spread positivity throughout the city, being instrumental in Christmas ceremonies, presenting themselves in squared away uniforms, and representing the force at its best. The position gave him the opportunity to travel to Washington D.C., where he met several U.S. Presidents and members of Congress. To the Elks library he has brought with him a photograph of Senator John F. Kennedy riding in a convertible through downtown Lancaster on September 16, 1960. In the photo, Jim is the officer shown on the right, fourth man down, missing his cap—an overzealous fan of the presidential candidate had knocked it off his head. Rightfully, he is proud of this historical photograph.
He retired in 1988. In retirement, Jim has found many ways to nurture his inquisitive spirit, from coin collecting to antique cars, and nothing captures his interest more than botany.
“The only thing I’m not interested in is modern music,” says Jim, and laughs.
He keeps busy as a member of Grave Concern, an organization of volunteers who act as stewards for the more than 600, otherwise abandoned, family cemeteries in Lancaster County.
“We speak for those who can’t speak for themselves,” says Jim. It’s obvious he’s said this before, and believes it.
He is a testament to what one can do for others by simply living a right and dignified life. His service, then and now, is a gift he gives freely. We could call him a protector, keeper of the record, volunteer for the people… or even the Irish Santa Clause from East Pete if he grows his all white beard any longer. His presents— benefits for the greater good—would not come topped with a fancy bow. And they surely would not come every other year.