As his wife remembers it, Jim Pickett was a leader, through and through.
“He simply motivated people,” Cherie Pickett says, grinning at the thought of the years of Jim’s post-career work.
“People wanted to work for him. I’m not sure he knew the gift that he had, but he liked to do good.
“That was a life worth living.”
Jim Pickett, a longtime leaders of several Sequim-area civic groups, died Nov. 15 of stage 4 kidney cancer.
He was 81.
After a 33-year career in education in Galveston, Texas — including the last 10 as superintendent — he and Cherie moved to Sequim in 1993 and wound up spearheading a number of key community groups, serving as president or executive director of a half-dozen local nonprofits.
His work with Citizens for Sequim Schools, the grassroots group that advocates for public school funds, helped the passage of a $25-million bond in 1996 that funded construction of Sequim Middle School, an expansion of Sequim High School and other school facilities.
His passion for those in need extended beyond Sequim and beyond schools: his four decades-plus service with Rotary groups led him to that group’s work to purchase ShelterBox units for those hit by disasters. His promotion of the group was the most in program history, raising more than $320,000 for the international disaster relief effort.
“He told me once he felt what he was really good at was recognizing a problem,” Cherie said. Soon after, she noted with a laugh, Jim wasn’t interested in doing the work to fulfill the solution, so he’d lose interest and go on to the next thing.
“He was well loved in this community,” Cherie said, noting that only now, as friends and associates relate their stories in his passing, does she fully understand how he touched people.
Born in Wharton, Texas, Jim Pickett grew up in the nearby small town of Iago. An active youth, he joined 4-H and the scouts, earning an Eagle Scout honor.
He played some football at a junior college, and then graduated from Lamar University with a major in history. He went on to earn a master’s in education from the University of Houston.
After two years of teaching, Jim was drafted into the U.S. Army at age 22 and served stateside for two years. He joined the Army reserves as a commissioned officer, retiring as a colonel in the medical service corps as a hospital administrator after more than two-and-a-half decades of reserve duty.
Pickett spent his professional career in education, starting at a school in Houston and eventually working his way up to superintendent of the Galveston School District, where for 10 years he supervised a staff of about 1,200 overseeing the education of about 10,000 students.
Jim and Cherie met during a military war exercise at Fort McCoy, Wisc., and not long after the two married.
After nine years in Galveston, Jim took a medical retirement and the two came to Sequim in 1993, moving close to Cherie’s parents.
“He had been out here; he liked it,” Cherie recalled. “(He) never got warm, though.”
Already a member of Rotary groups in Texas, Jim now had the time to get involved — and a community that was in need of some extra involvement.
Cherie recalls attending a Citizens for Sequim Schools meeting.
“They had just failed a bond and a levy; everyone was down,” she remembered. “I told Jim, ‘You’ve got to join this group.’”
The volunteer effort he helped lead earned a passing grade from voters in 1996.
Pickett couldn’t get away from the classroom or education for long — he worked as a substitute teacher and in his spare time he taught an AARP Safe Driving Course to Sequim-area seniors for six years — but along the way, a number of community nonprofits sought his leadership. He served as president of United Way of Clallam County, the City of Sequim’s Parks Advisory Board, Friends of Sequim Library and as the first president of the Sequim Education Foundation, to go along with his term as Sequim Sunrise Rotary president.
He was elected to the Clallam County Charter Review Commission and served as volunteer Executive Director for the Dungeness Valley Health and Wellness Clinic.
He also got involved with the Olympic Peninsula Trails Coalition, Friends of Sequim Library, and with Cherie worked with a team at Volunteer Hospice of Clallam County that delivered medical equipment and other supplies for four years.
For some of those efforts he was awarded the Clallam County Service Award in 2007 and Sequim-Dungeness Chamber of Commerce’s 2010 Citizen of the Year honor.
But it was his work with Rotary groups that consumed much of his volunteer efforts — nearly 50 years in all.
After serving on Rotary groups in Texas starting in 1971, Jim joined the Sequim Sunrise Rotary Club in the early 1990s. There, he eventually served as president (1998-1999) and Assistant Rotary District Governor of seven clubs in Clallam and Jefferson counties.
And then, there was ShelterBox, a program that Jim though was the “crowing achievement” of his volunteer life, Cherie said.
He became an ambassador for ShelterBox USA, a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization that with the help of Rotary clubs across the world provide emergency shelter to those affected by natural or man-made disasters. He was the top ShelterBox fundraiser in North America for two years, with more than $320,000 attributed to his presentations in Washington state.
In May of 2017, after 46 years with Rotary groups, fellow Rotarians honored him with the Distinguished Service Award — his second such honor.
Cancer takes a toll
In 1991, Jim got a diagnosis of cancer he’d battle the rest of his life. Renal cell cancer had developed in his body and he had a kidney removed that year. After a year of treatment his cancer was declared clear, but about two years later, when the couple moved to Sequim, the cancer returned.
Pickett had a long stretch of remission, and it allowed he and Cherie to enjoy bike touring trips of New Zealand and Vietnam, Amsterdam and Paris.
On a 2013 bike trip on Vancouver Island, however, Jim fell off his bike onto a rock. An ensuing x-ray found a tumor on his pancreas. It was later found that his renal cell cancer had returned.
Treatment, including drugs and radiation shrunk the tumor to almost nothing and he was okay for another couple of years, but it came back once more, Cherie said.
“He never had any pain,” she said. A friend who is a gastroenterologist said that Jim was extremely lucky in that sense, she said.
Drug treatment seemed to deplete the otherwise active man, leaving him struggling to read, focus or even pick up his feet.
Still, Cherie said, even as they moved into a new home at Quimper Village in Port Townsend for their last two years together, he kept a positive attitude.
“I believe my biggest change is that I don’t spend as much time worrying about the little issues and controversies that are around us on a daily basis,” Jim told Araya Sol, for a Quimper Village newsletter. “If something bothers me, I will try to address it and then not spend countless hours worrying about whatever decision was made. I often ask myself, ‘Will this be important five years from now?’ and if it is worth my limited time to waste hours thinking about it … I just don’t think many of the qualify as ‘The end of the world as we know it’ decisions.”
Said Cherie, “Jim Pickett was the bravest man I know.”
Jim is survived by his wife, daughter Denise Stewart and son-in-law Christopher, and their daughter Ella.
At Jim’s request there will be no services, and in lieu of flowers the family encourages support of the Sequim Education Foundation, the Sequim Free Clinic or ShelterBox USA via the Sequim Sunrise Rotary Foundation.