Jacumin recognized for service to the church, community

by Mike Creswell
  • Jim Jacumin stands before the East Burke High School football stadium which he designed and got built by some 100 volunteers.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014 | 139 days old

Drive around Burke County with Jim Jacumin in his pickup truck and it's clear he loves these foothills of western North Carolina, especially the rich history of earlier times.

A successful engineer and businessman, he has followed Christian principles through many years of service and helping others. He was selected to receive this year's Heritage Award from the Baptist State Convention of North Carolina for his extensive service to church and denomination.

But look at other parts of his life and one begins to see how Christian discipleship has consistently guided him in business, civic service and other areas. Technically he's retired, but his schedule says not really.

On Main Street in Valdese he points to the historic Old Rock School, which is indeed faced with rough-hewn rocks. No longer a school, these days the building is best known as a venue for bluegrass concerts. Jacumin founded and hosted birthday parties for Jesus here for years and raised more than $2 million for the Gideons and their Bible distribution ministry. He has been a Gideon for 35 years.

He tells how school children gathered the rocks for the original building when it was constructed back in 1923.

"They would come to school with books in one hand and a rock in the other hand," he said.

Those historic kids he got preserved in statues further down Main Street in Jacumin Plaza, which he bought and established as a public gathering place, with seats for 220 people and wraparound murals depicting the town's history.

There's also a statue of his father, a farmer and Jacumin's lifelong hero. "He had a third grade education, the smartest man I ever met in my life. I have a degree in nuclear engineering and I've been around a lot of folks who think very deeply. But he had an ability to think through things that astounds me even today," he said.

Across from the plaza was an old building about to be demolished before Jacumin bought and refurbished it as the city's Heritage Arts Center.

Stadium Design
He stops the pickup in front of the East Burke High School stadium, ranked the finest such facility in the state. One local football coach said the 9,000-seat stadium alone gave him a seven-point advantage over visiting teams.

Jacumin is understandably proud of the stadium, a five-year volunteer project he designed and got built with the hard work of 100 or so volunteers. He recalls how a company loaned them an extra large bulldozer for a weekend; they ran it nonstop 24 hours a day to get a big percentage of the dirt moved, only stopping for fuel for the dozer and operator.

They were working against a deadline: For the team to play in the new stadium the next Friday, the lights had to be operational by Monday.

Jacumin had the volunteers assemble the four 80-foot light towers on the ground, then had a crane hoist them into place. He tied the crane hook with a shoestring to make sure the towers were not dropped, which required him to climb to the top of each tower to loosen the string.

Persuaded to omit the string on the last tower, he watched with horror as it fell, narrowly missing him and four others.

They hauled the twisted and broken parts to his engineering company and worked through the night to get the tower repaired and the lights working. Sunday afternoon the crane team came back and raised the last light tower, this time using Jacumin's shoe string insurance plan. The stadium passed inspection on Monday and was ready for the first Friday night game.

Jacumin was not paid for this project, just as he was not paid for other projects such as a swimming pool for the Hildebran-Icard Community Center, the East Burke Community Hall, or ball fields, parks  and playgrounds he helped get built across the county. But he did ask that football games at the stadium open with prayer, a custom officials followed for many years.

Giving back is just part of what he considers right living.

"When I look back at my life, those who come after me, I would hope they'd be able to look back and find me faithful to my Lord, to my family, to my country, to my state, to my community. I've always tried to help when there were needs in any of those areas. I've always tried to step up," he said.

Another phrase that has guided his life: "You can't go wrong doing right."

Bulldozers and other pieces of construction equipment that sit behind his house have been used on projects all over several counties, projects that he never made a penny on. "But it has come back to me many times," he said.

A Man of Faith and Service
A big part of his life has been with Baptists. He was a member for many years at First Baptist Church, Icard, where he served as deacon, Sunday School superintendent and outreach leader.

More recently he is a member of East Valdese Baptist Church in Valdese. He has served on the board of directors of the Baptist State Convention and as a trustee of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary at Wake Forest, NC, one of six seminaries Southern Baptists across the country support through the Cooperative Program. The six schools have a combined enrollment of more than 13,000 students.

"We love Southeastern. It's a perfect example of doing it the right way," Jacumin said. "It's the largest seminary on the East Coast and it's not finished yet," he said. In 2001 he and his wife provided funds for the Jacumin-Simpson Missions Center at Southeastern, named for their parents.

He also served as a trustee of Gardner-Webb University and Valdese General Hospital.

Some would say the best contribution of Jim and Nancy Nell Jacumin to Baptist life was their son, Marty, pastor of Bay Leaf Baptist Church in Raleigh, and active in the Baptist State Convention. They would not slight their daughter, Mitzi Lane, who lives in Hickory, and four grandchildren, of course.

Marty came to faith in Christ at Caraway, the conference center and camp operated by the Baptist State Convention near Asheboro. "It's a special place for us," the elder Jacumin said. He has visited Caraway often for meetings of the convention's Board of Directors and the Gideons.

Recently the Jacumins funded the Jim and Nancy Jacumin Retreat Lodge at Caraway, being constructed this year. Jacumin said the project appealed to him because the new lodge will help the next generation of Baptists across the state to change the world for Christ.

A Thirst for Perfection
Jacumin's thirst for perfection he traces to his early life. He grew up on a farm in the town of Rutherford College. He had six brothers and a sister. He says the younger kids had to eat meals standing up; he says it was either because they were so poor they didn't have enough chairs for everyone or it was a "discipline thing."

"The rule was, if you spilt your milk, you got a whipping. There was no milk spilt in a Jacumin house for 20 years," he recalled.

Money was scarce and times were hard. It was major victory when his father was able to sell the horses and mules and buy a well-used tractor to work his fields.

Since his father had no money to buy plows and other implements needed to use the tractor, he made them.

Jacumin recalls turning the handle at age seven or eight to heat up a forge his father used to fashion pieces of steel into implements. He also recalls the day his father handed him a round piece of steel, five inches in diameter, marked where a cut was needed to make it into a worm gear. "Dad said 'This is our one and only hacksaw blade and I'll warm your bottom if you break it,'" Jacumin said.

Jacumin started cutting with that blade early one morning and worked all day. "I cut that line and didn't break the blade and he was so proud of me. I thought that was the greatest thing I had ever done in my life. He started teaching values right then, I guess. He knew how to use incentives," he said.

The principle of having both rewards and penalties in life was one that Jacumin later successfully applied to his companies.

But his father went beyond making the usual implements.

"He invented a terracing blade that could be rotated on three axes as he drove the tractor. It was new and innovative," Jacumin recalls with pride.

Farmers pull a disk assembly over plowed ground to break up the clods of dirt and make the soil suitable for planting. In those days, this was a heavy metal contraption that required several men to push up ramps onto a trailer for moving to another field. His father devised a pickup carriage with wheels that one man could easily operate, plus the first three-point hitch for the type tractor he had. Farmers came from across the county to see the new inventions. Jacumin determined that he would innovate like that in his work when he got a chance.

Giving Back
One day three men in suits came to the farm from a large company and studied his father's mechanical innovations. They asked lots of questions, tested the new equipment and did sketches. "That evening we thought we were going to be rich," Jacumin recalled.

Instead, the company turned his father's new inventions into products which appeared in their next catalog; all Jacumin's family got was a thank-you note for the visit. When Jacumin figured out later that the company had stolen his father's work, he was upset.

But his father pointed out that, whereas earlier the inventions helped only a few people in Burke County; now farmers across the country could do their work more easily. "That made him happy," Jacumin recalled.

"I picked that trait up and found in life if you will help people and not expect a thing in return, you're just blessed more from it. And that has been my experience in life," he said.

Jacumin worked his way through NC State University through odd jobs and scholarships, earning a degree in nuclear engineering. At first his father told him he should stay on  the farm and make something of himself. But in Jacumin's first year he learned how to case harden steel to make it tougher. When he demonstrated to his father this could make plow points last longer, his father decided maybe the university education was worth something after all.

Nuclear engineering degree in hand, Jacumin first worked with Douglas Aircraft Company, where he helped develop an anti-tank weapon and worked in Lunar Landing Vehicle research.

A Patent on Success
He founded JEMCO, Jacumin Engineering and Machine Company, in 1965 with his brother and two other partners. He later bought his partners out. Then he gave a third of the company to the workers, whose number he kept at no more than 25.

Jacumin gave out bonuses several times a year, but employees late for work got no bonus. Every six months they closed the company and the accountant figured out profits that they all shared. Workers also got expense-paid cruises and a  trip across Europe. Work quality remained high; absenteeism was never a problem.

He was awarded patents on five of his textile and furniture machines and for 31 years sold equipment around the world from a small factory alongside I-40 at Icard. When he sold the company 18 years ago, two-thirds of all the T-shirts made in America were bleached and washed in one of JEMCO's ranges.

Jacumin talks of his business ventures with an engineer's love for details and problem solving. On a visit to Egypt he was fascinated to learn the workers there had never used a chalk line to get a straight line. He had to move a 10,000 lb. bleach machine into a warehouse using only 30 workers and pine poles. When workers refused to put enough bolts into a steam line, he sneaked back into the factory at night and added them himself to assure safety for the workers.

Steam and water requirements were listed in the specifications, but at start-up the plant's utilities were found to be woefully inadequate. The authorities told Jacumin he would not leave Egypt until the machine worked properly.

Jacumin went back to his hotel and prayed for Good to give him guidance. "You would think I would be up all night, but I went right to sleep," he said. The next day, after he turned off the steam to part of the machine and ran it slower, it bleached the fabric to a beautiful white. Plant workers called him a hero; Jacumin gave all the glory to God.

That new design, which he developed under pressure, stayed with him. He returned to the United States and designed what he calls the world's most productive bleach range.

He delights in American know-how, telling how a competing German bleach machine cost three times as much, produced half the output and required two engineers to run. "A young girl could run our unit," he says with a laugh. He sold equipment in 13 countries by word of mouth alone.

By the late 1990s, though, it was clear that American companies could not compete very well against cheap labor overseas and he sold the company. He devised a plan in which foundations could help U.S. companies reduce costs to be more competitive.

Politically Active
When government leaders would not listen to him, he ran for state senator and represented District 44 in three two-year terms; eventually he got his bill passed. Half a dozen other states adopted similar measures.

In 2010 his wife's health problems forced him to resign from the senate. Concern over Burke County issues also led him to serve for two terms as a county commissioner.

He was awarded the Order of the Long Leaf Pine, North Carolina's highest non-military award, in recognition of his community service.

Political activism Jacumin sees as a logical outgrowth of his Christian faith. He grieves that churches are going the way of the world today. "Every Saturday morning we pray for pastors to have courage," he said.

"We're just going the way of the world. We have to be men and women of a separated walk. When you're born again, you are a separated person from the world. We've got to start acting that way again. There's a tremendous falling away," he said, pointing to what he regards as the apathy of many Americans on the country's direction.

"If God's people don't get interested in politics, they're going to be the reason we lose our country," he said.

One of his current projects is helping the East Burke High School band get to Normandy, France, for the 70th anniversary of World War II's Normandy Invasion. One of Jacumin's brothers fought in that mighty battle.

Jacumin recalls a dramatic moment when he was giving a speech to veterans of the invasion, in which he quoted John 15:13, "Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends." An elderly man struggled to the front of the room to say that 60 years ago Jacumin's brother had saved his life by carrying him on his back out of a mine field.

Waldensian Heritage
Jacumin stopped the pickup on Church Street in front of the Waldensian Trail of Faith, a history exhibit that draws busloads of school children and church members from across the state to learn about the Waldensians.

The Waldensians were the earliest Protestant group in Italy and France to separate themselves from Catholicism. History texts say the group started in the Middle Ages, while others, including Jacumin, say they started in the first century. Many Waldensians lived in the mountains of northern Italy.

The Waldensians insisted on reading the Bible for themselves and living out their faith as they saw appropriate, rather than following the corrupt Catholic church of medieval times. They endured centuries of oppression, war, attacks and torture because they followed their own interpretation of the Bible. They became the first wave of the Protestant Reformation which ultimately swept Europe.

Closer to Presbyterians or Methodists in church polity, the Waldensians are looked upon by most Baptists as early allies in the historic struggle to follow one's own Christian conscience rather than the dictates of a state church.

Not until 1848 did the Waldensians earn their freedom. As their numbers increased, groups of Waldensians began moving to other lands. In 1893, 29 Waldensians arrived in Burke County and established the town of Valdese. The town was incorporated in 1920 and is considered the world's largest Waldensian colony outside of Italy. Jacumin's grandfather was in the second group of Waldensians who settled in the county.

Years ago Jacumin and some of his brothers visited northern Italy to see their ancestral home. He recalls driving with a pastor as guide far up into the mountains on a dirt road. At a certain site, he experienced an unusual feeling -- he somehow knew just where his grandparents had come from, though he had never been there.

They entered a cave where Waldensians had worshipped in secret during times of repression. Jacumin opened his Bible to Proverbs 29:18 and read the verse, "Where there is no vision, the people perish..."

He says that's when he got the idea of the Trail of Faith.

A simple biographical sketch will list Jacumin as founder and president of the Waldensian Trail of Faith in Valdese. But that's not near enough.

He and other volunteers worked on the exhibit for 15 years. He made repeated visits to northern Italy to make photos and measure several historic buildings which figured prominently in Waldensian history.

He points to a split-rail fence as one of the more recent projects he and his best friend have been working on personally at the complex. The exhibit features a drama recounting Waldensian history and other events throughout the year.

Today the Waldensian church building that stands in the exhibit is an exact replica of the original church, considered the oldest Protestant church in the world. A rock-walled building is a copy of the original, 850-year old Barbi College.

A large cave carved in the hillside represents the cave church in northern Italy where the Waldensians took shelter. Steps up a hillside represent the time when a king ordered the Waldensians to either stay and give up their faith or walk through 120 miles of mountains in the winter to Switzerland and freedom. Though many died along the way, most survived the icy trek. Those who chose to remain the king sold into slavery.

"I ask myself, if I had been there that day, would I have made the right decision?" Jacumin muses.

History will show that Jim Jacumin has made the right decision on many, many days.