After more than 19 years of great days as leader of First United Methodist Church of Sherman, Rev. Jim Pledger will retire this spring.
Pledger, who turns 66 on Tuesday, said he and his wife Kay plan to move to Fort Worth to become full-time grandparents to their three grandchildren under the age of three.
Though Milo, Caroline and Lila’s “Poppy” means it when he says he and Kay intend to devote their time to making memories with the next generation of their family, Pledger also wants to take some time to indulge in other interests.
“I have some things I want to do, and if I don’t do them when I am a little younger than the general retirement age (in the church) I may not have the opportunity to do them,” Pledger said. Mandatory retirement age from in the Methodist church is 72.
One of those things is writing. In fact, Pledger said, writing was the one thing he most wanted to do as a youngster growing up in rural Arkansas. But back then, he said, when you told someone you wanted to be a writer, they asked you what you planned to do to make a living. So, he pursued his other calling, the louder one, and became a minister. Along the way, he became the first person in his family to attend college.
“What a gift that was,” Pledger said. And he made the most he could of that gift.
“If you are the first one in your family (to go to college) you have got to go as far as you can go,” said the man who holds a doctorate in ministry from Texas Christian University.
“Me and my generation, we honestly thought we could make the world a better place,” he said. Back then the church was still seen as one of the ways a person could make that change, he added. So he took that route.
He started out as a youth director at Winfield United Methodist Church in Little Rock, Ark. He worked in churches in Arkansas and Texas as staff or youth minister before organizing Trinity Methodist Church in Denton. After ten years in Denton, the Pledgers moved to Sherman when he accepted the position as district superintendent in 1990. In that position, he oversaw 69 churches.
“When this church opened up, I came here,” he said. The reasons for picking FUMC in Sherman, he said, were numerous. The couple had two young daughters, Elizabeth and Lindsey, who liked the schools they were attending, and the couple liked the community.
“It was more the pace (that they liked), and the church afforded me the opportunity to do some of the things that I like to do. It just seemed like a good marriage at the first,” he said.
Some of those things he liked to do helped spark projects that have now become mainstays in the community. Those include the Great Days of Service, the Service Academy, an adopt-a-family Christmas mission, and the Grand Central Station Dining Car.
Pledger is the first to say that he did none of those things on his own.
“Everyone has their talents,” he said. “I am a creative person and I have a lot of enthusiasm. I always have 80 million ideas, and by an large they (the church) have done them; and I am sure that, for a lot of people, I have worn them out doing things.”
He said Great Days came to him after a town hall meeting in which a man said someone needed to do something to bring the community together. Pledger thought about that awhile and then called the minister at First Baptist in Sherman. The two talked over coffee at Kelly Square, and Great Days began to take shape.
“I think people want to be kind,” he said “I think my role is to give people the opportunity to express the kindness that they already feel but don’t know how to express. Great Days was as simple as getting up in the morning. It’s simple because we simply gave people a means by which they could be nice to one another.”
The idea behind Great Days, he said, was “if you have got an hour, we can give you something to do that is going to help somebody.”
The organizers found some houses that needed to be repaired and yards that needed to be cleaned, and people from both churches went to work.
“It was almost like Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney, ‘You get the foot lights and I’ll get the barn and we’ll have us a show,’” Pledger recalled.
“So we really flew this by the seat of our pants,” he said. “Rebecca Brown was the first head of that thing. She organized that thing to the teeth, and we kicked it off with a prayer breakfast. We tried to stay away from the things that divided us and did the things that brought us together. And it was fun. It was the highlight of my year.”
He said the next year they brought other churches into the fold. Churches in Denison participated for awhile, Pledger said, and then they started a Great Days of their own. Next they wanted to involve youngsters, but one can’t have children working out in the hot Texas sun unsupervised.
“I got a grant from the (Oliver Dewey) Mayor Foundation to put that (the Service Academy) on, and we do it at Austin College. We rent space at Austin College.”
The Service Academy participants spend their mornings doing Great Days work, “usually the grunt work, painting houses, scraping and cleaning up yards.” Then after lunch, when the heat is too much, they head back to AC for education and inspiration. “We have speakers who talk about a lifetime of service,” he said. After that, the rest of the evening is reserved for supervised and well planned fun.
“It’s great,” Pledger said. “Very organized. Sandy (Garbacik) runs it and has for years and years and years. And she has run Great Days for awhile.”
“Now we have got kids who were campers who are now counselors,” he said with more than a little pride in his voice. “In fact, the majority of the people we have that work as counselors went to the academy at one time.”
Pledger said the Academy was partly motivated by hearing Colin Powell talk about the need to instill service in kids as a value. He said he wrote Powell’s organization and tried to get them to take the Great Days idea on and spread it around to other groups. Powell’s group, Pledger said, seemed more interested promoting the idea of service than instilling it in communities.
When asked what he wanted people to remember about him, he said, “I loved the community. I came here and stayed here. I had a choice of where I wanted to go, and I wanted to go here and I have never regretted that choice. The people have been wonderful to me.”
When he officially turns over the keys to the church in June, Pledger said, he will work at being the world’s best Poppy and at writing down the stories he has collected over the years about the remarkable human spirit that keeps people moving forward despite circumstances that might stop others. He said he doesn’t know if he will get his writing published, though he would like to do so. The point, he said, is just to get it all down so that it can inspire someone else get involved and stay involved in their community.