NEW ORLEANS (ABP) — When Jim Blakely faced medical difficulties in recent years and had to be admitted to the hospital, a friend would ask if there was a family member who needed to be contacted.
“I have no one,” Blakely always replied. “You are my family.”
But ask Blakely about his family now, and he ticks off a list that includes a son, a daughter-in-law, a daughter, two grandchildren and even a great grandchild.
Indeed, what alcohol stole away from Blakely for three decades or more, the Brantley Baptist Center in New Orleans, a tenacious daughter-in-law and the grace of God has restored.
Blakely has a family again – the same family he once abandoned and then some.
Blakely's story begins in Massachusetts, where he was living in the 1960s. He was drinking heavily and finding it difficult to hold down a job. The situation was straining his family, which included two small children at the time – a son and a daughter.
“I was destroying everybody around me, …” Blakely admits as he sits at a kitchen table in an assisted living home in New Orleans. “I didn't want to take anybody else down with me, so I decided that everybody would be better off if I just disappeared.
“It's not all that difficult. … I used my social security number. I used my name. I never changed anything.”
Once out of the Northeast, Blakely ended up in New Orleans in the mid 1960s. There, he stumbled upon the Brantley Baptist Center, then known as the Baptist Rescue Center, a Southern Baptist care ministry in New Orleans for the homeless and persons struggling with addiction and other needs.
He met staff member Charlie Holmes there, and with his help, Blakely completed an alcohol rehab program.
“I got sober and stayed sober for a long time, …” he recounts. “I decided that I was going to try to get my life squared away.”
And he did for awhile. Blakely left New Orleans and went to the University of Houston, where he earned a degree in the mid '70s. He went to work shortly thereafter, but then also began to drink again.
“Somehow, I ended up getting back on alcohol,” Blakely says. “Well, I'm not going to sugarcoat it – I chose to drink it. And I promptly went downhill.”
He kept fifths of Wild Turkey in various places. Even at work, he would drink to the point of intoxication and, then, sip whiskey the rest of the day to maintain that level.
“Somebody once asked me, ‘Didn't you ever get a hangover?'” Blakely recalls. “Are you kidding me? I never sobered up long enough to have a hangover. … I was what's known as a functioning alcoholic.”
Then in 1993, for reasons Blakely chooses not to disclose, he decided to get sober again. He left Houston and returned to New Orleans, arriving at a downtown hotel.
“I had no idea what I was going to do,” he remembers. “But with a little bit of luck and the help of the Lord, there was a phone booth on the street corner by the bus stop. I went out there and sat in that little shelter, and I had my bag there.
“And that's when I decided to call Charlie.”
Holmes was not available at the center, so Blakely talked with Executive Director Tobey Pitman. He told his story, and Pitman told Blakely to come to the center. He entered rehab again. And this time, it worked.
Blakely not only went through the center program but ended up staying 12 years, working as a night supervisor for the ministry. He learned a lot, he admits.
“I became very involved with the homeless people,” Blakely recounts. “I had constant contact with them. … And I learned that just because they're homeless doesn't mean they're bad people. Just because they are rebellious doesn't mean they're bad people.
“It's circumstances that has gotten them that way. … They get in trouble and don't know how to deal with it.”
Blakely also learned a lot about himself. He had been reared as a Catholic and always had considered himself Christian. “But not until I got involved at the center and with the preachers that come there did I really learn what it is all about,” he says. “And if I hadn't taken that route, I doubt very seriously that I would be alive today. … But my relationship with the Lord now is as strong or stronger than it ever was.”
Blakely finally left the center and worked on the grounds crew at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary for two years, before suffering a pair of heart attacks in 2000.
Each time, he had to be resuscitated.
The second time, he remembers lying in the hospital bed and overhearing the doctor call the Brantley center to ask if Holmes had been contacted as the listed next of kin.
“He said, ‘Well, you'd better get him here quick because I don't think he's going to make it,'” Blakely recalls the doctor saying. “Well, I was laying there right by the phone, and I made up my mind right then and there that I wasn't going anywhere until Charlie got there.”
Holmes soon arrived to be with his friend, but by then, Blakely had experienced something that convinced him things were going to be okay. Despite its mysterious qualities, he declines to call it a near-death experience, but credits it with showing him that he had something left to do.
Blakely's health continued to create problems — in one year, he was in the hospital more than out of it. But through it all, he maintained contact with his Brantley center friends, and each time that Pitman asked him about contacting family he would say, “I have no one.”
By the end of 2003, however, Pitman knew differently. That November, he received a call from a woman who was trying to locate a long-lost relative. It was not unlike many other calls that Pitman receives in his work, but this time, the woman was seeking a “Jim Blakely.”
Pitman acknowledged he knew more than one person by that name and asked for details. What the woman told him convinced Pitman she was seeking Blakely, and he told her he knew him.
Acknowledging it was the closest they had come in 30 years, the woman told Pitman how her husband – Blakely's son – had searched for his father for 20 years before admitting defeat. She had secretly continued the search for the last 10 years.
Pitman told the woman he would talk with Blakely and see if he wished to reestablish contact. Blakely agreed to write a letter to his son, and Barbara Blakely immediately forwarded a packet of letters and photographs that Pitman delivered to Blakely.
“I was a wreck,” Blakely recalls of that moment.
Then, for the first time in many years, Blakely picked up the telephone and called his son. A few months later – April 5, 2004 – Blakely and his son were reunited.
“I recognized them right away,” he says of seeing his son and daughter-in-law at the airport. “He was bending over, picking up his gear, and I walked up and put my hand on his shoulder and said, ‘You have the right to remain silent.'
“And he turned around and looked at me, and we hugged,” Blakely says of the reunion. “My daughter-in-law cried, and I cried, and he cried.”
Blakely spent several days with the couple – doing “touristy” things around the city and getting to know one another.
“The very first thing my son said to me when we got in the car to leave the airport was, ‘I want to know nothing about what happened – it's a new game,'” Blakely says of the time. “And when I went to bed that night, I thought, I have no right in the world to be involved in these people's lives, none whatsoever.”
But he was.
“It was like I'd never left,” he says. “There were absolutely no recriminations, no hassles. They accepted me at face value for what I did. …”
Blackely has not yet had a chance to reunite physically with his daughter, but he has spoken to her by phone. There are tentative spring plans for him to visit with his son and daughter – both of whom live in the Northeast.
Blakely is now open about his story, offering it as a warning to some and as celebration for the work of God and others in his life.
As he sits at the kitchen table on a misty New Orleans morning, he counts off the good people God has put in his life, beginning with those at the Brantley Baptist Center.
“The time I was with the center was the best time in my last 25 years, 30 years,” Blakely emphasizes.
He also voices concern for so many others who are caught in the same lifestyle he was, insisting that some can be found in the churches themselves.
“The problems that we see coming into the Brantley center, there's some in the churches. And if there isn't anybody there that can call attention to it, the people may be dead before they realize it,” he warns.
It does not have to be that way, Blakely insists. He stresses that there is help available for persons struggling with alcohol, and there is reason for hope.
“I think one of the best things I could think to say is, no matter how bad it looks, no matter what has happened in the past, there are no bridges that can't be rebuilt,” Blakely maintains. “All you have to do is ask for help. ..”