Published September 28. 2010 4:00AM Updated September 30. 2010 3:17PM
Jim Hands is a storyteller, and, at 96, he has a lot of stories to tell.
Ask him, for example, the secret to his longevity, and you'll get a story:
"Well, I guess genes as much as anything," he begins, "and I took care of my father's kid sister, and she was 104. She was an incredible gal. She had her marbles right up to the very end. Sharp. She didn't see well, and she didn't hear well. And she was a maiden lady ...
"And I said to Katie, my granddaughter, who was about 11, I said, 'Do you want to go down and see Aunt Edna?' And she said, 'Sure...'
"She had a front room (in the nursing home) where she could see the street, and apparently there had been an antique fire engine parade that day. She said, 'There was a great deal of commotion here, a lot of noise, and I could see red.'
"And I said, 'Well, Edna, they had an antique fire parade.'
"And this 104-year-old gal says to me, with my granddaughter, she said, 'Do you know why they had Dalmatian dogs on the fire trucks?'
"And I said, 'No.'
"And she said, 'Well, that was to show the firemen where the hydrants were.'
"Now that's a hundred-year-old joke. And, of course, my granddaughter didn't know what a Dalmatian was, and she didn't get the joke, and I had to explain the whole thing to her later. And that's one of her favorite jokes today."
Hands' has been a remarkable life, one in which an accidental interview led to a career in the fabric industry, which in turn led to his designing fabrics - for curtains, walls and upholstery
- for clients ranging from the Lincoln Center to the White House.
It began in the depths of the Great Depression, when a young Jim Hands got a job visiting businesses and writing credit reports for Dun & Bradstreet. So it was that he showed up on the doorstep of the mill of F. Schumacher & Co. in Paterson, N.J.
"And they said to me, 'Are you looking for a job?' And I said, 'No, I really wasn't.' But I couldn't get over the fabrics they were weaving. ... It was fascinating," Hands says.
"And he said, 'Well, I need somebody that knows how to draw.' And I said, 'Well, I can draw.' ... And he said, 'Can you draw that?' And he was pointing to a chair that had a design on it, but out the window was the Paterson Falls. It was an incredible view.
"So I said, 'Yeah, I can do that.'
"So he said, 'I'll leave you alone.' And I get my vanishing points and so forth and the window, and I start drawing it - the chair was a squiggle - and he comes back and says, 'That's not what I meant, but you'll do.'"
So Hands, a college graduate, started on the ground floor, learning the business of weaving.
"I had to do it," he says. "You had to know what you were designing, and you had to know what a Jacquard Machine could do."
Hands would go on to become a vice president in the company, to design the curtains for the U.S. Senate and the Metropolitan Opera, to create the fabrics that adorn the walls of the Blue Room, the Red Room and the Oval Office of the White House, to invent a new kind of fabric for the Boeing 707 airliner and to design the upholstery for a line of furniture created by Frank Lloyd Wright.
"He was a bastard, a pompous ass," says Hands. "Don't quote me. There's a cult of people that like those leaky roofs. I'm serious about that. Any architect will tell you, 'My god, he can't build anything that doesn't leak.'"
Hands' brushes with famous people didn't begin there. As a native of Rutherford, N.J., he went to school with the son of the famous poet William Carlos Williams. And when he grew up and had kids of his own, Williams was his children's pediatrician.
"You know," Hands confides, "he wasn't liked in Rutherford. ... He was a very artsy, craftsy kind of guy, and he was always in the Village, and he had quite a few women friends. ... As I think my father would have said, 'He writes dirty.'"
As to Rutherford, Hands is proud that he not only wrote a history of the town, even as he says, "nothing was important in Rutherford, historically," but that Williams contributed a poem to his book. Hands also drew a beautiful illustrated map of Rutherford, which includes a portrait of George Washington over the words "He never slept here."
Rutherford was where he met his wife, Harriet, a musician and food maven who, when they moved to Chappaqua, N.Y., wrote a food column for the Patent Trader, a biweekly newspaper, for 17 years. She also wrote a cookbook titled "More Taste than Money: Fine Food for Lean Budgets."
"Oh, she was a fantastic gal," Hands says. "We had some wonderful times. I was lucky, we were lucky, just lucky ... and she was very witty. ... Everybody knew her because she wrote the column. I was referred to as 'Roomie' because I was her roommate. And she wrote a funny column, and everybody read that damn thing. And the men, of course, they'd razz the hell out of me: 'Here comes Roomie.'"
She died in January 2005.
"She had a heart condition," Hands says. "We are exactly the same age. I had her by nine days, and she was very grateful for that. I used to say she likes older men. We had a good thing going. We were married 65 years, and we went together eight years before that."
Then he changes the subject to his kids, Jim Jr., and his daughter, Debbie, who died at the age of 53. He has a grandson, "Jim Three," and two granddaughters.
And he talks about how he took up cabinet-making after he retired. Almost all the furniture in his home at StoneRidge in Mystic is furniture he made, most of it in the style known as Queen Anne.
"I'm a Queen Anne freak," he says. "Kept me off the streets."
Asked how he's coped with the loss of his wife, Hands says, "My wife was really quite ill. I knew what was coming. I was prepared for it. We had ... we had some ... "
His eyes flood with tears and he disappears for a moment inside himself before clearing his throat and speaking again.
"We had some good talks," he says. "And lots of people don't have that."
Does he have a philosophy of life?
"I've never thought of it like that, but I'm a Christian," he says. "I was always involved with a church."
But, after talking about his changing denominations, he pauses, then says, "I don't know what I believe. ... I have a great fondness for my Sunday school years. ... But I don't know what I believe. I really don't."
Sports: A life lesson
He did, however, learn an important lesson from his years as a high school and then a college athlete. He excelled in football and track, and his football team in Rutherford was a winning team every year.
"We had the best uniforms, the best equipment, the best of everything, because the town," he says, took its high school football seriously. "I remember playing guys that were playing in sneakers because they didn't even have football shoes. This was during the Depression. We had brand new shoes every year. Uniforms. Brand new. We had practice jerseys. God. In the Depression. That's how rabid it was.
"Then I went to Hamilton College. What a comeuppance," he says.
Hands had turned down "I don't know how many football scholarships" because "my father didn't want me going to school to play ball; he wanted me to get an education. That's what you went to college for."
So he went to Hamilton, in Clinton, N.Y., where football wasn't all that important.
"It changed me, too," he says. "I got to like the guys I played with. We couldn't beat anybody, but their attitude toward everything in life ... football wasn't ... They wanted to win, but, you know, they wouldn't break lockers and kick stuff and bitch and scream. They wouldn't. And I all of a sudden found that I liked those guys."
That experience, he says, changed his attitude about life.
"I learned a lot from sports," says Jim Hands.