MARINE CORPS AIR STATION CHERRY POINT, N.C. --
The first time that James Tooker set foot on Marine Corps Air Station Cherry Point, Marines were still flying biplanes here and had just stopped fighting in their dress blues. OK, just kidding, but it was a long time ago, long before many of today’s Marines were even born. It was 1981, and in that same year, a former movie actor by the name of Ronald Reagan was inaugurated as President of the United States; MTV was launched (then as Music Television); and possibly the greatest boxer of all time, Muhammad Ali, raised his massive fists for the last boxing match of his distinguished career.
Although Tooker came here to begin a long career as part of the Cherry Point civil service team, the New Bern native had already lived another life as a U.S. Army veteran who served from 1968 to 1975. After his time in the armed forces, he then worked odd jobs until starting as a trainee aboard the air station in 1981.
Military bases are peppered with guys and gals like Tooker – people who step through the gate in search of many things such as good work, new challenges, an opportunity to serve their country in a meaningful way – people who quietly find their niche in a culture built on camaraderie and semper fidelis.
Tooker’s turn in that cycle eventually took him from a trainee to an air station fuel inspector, a position that would allow him to work alongside many different Marines and civilians over a long stretch of years. And over those years, he would earn friendships that would last a lifetime.
“Whoever was in the shop with me in the tank farm area, I kind of took them under my wing and made sure no one was going to come after them unless they went through me,” said Tooker. “The Marines call me all the time from all over the place telling me that I’ve touched their lives.”
It’s funny how people look back on almost any career and spend most of their time (unless someone was shooting at them) remembering the good times they had and the good friends they made, instead of dwelling on the job, regardless of their professional accomplishments. Tooker, who officially retired Dec. 30, was no exception as he spent time with coworkers during a retirement ceremony, Feb. 10.
“Jimmy used to love eating popcorn,” said Thomas Sewell, a fuels system distributor. “He used to come in on second shift and pop a bag of popcorn in the microwave. One day while he was doing this, the smoke alarm went off. This is Fuels, so when you hear an alarm, you get real serious, real fast.
“Jimmy started yelling at everyone to shut the tanks off and get out to safety,” exclaimed Sewell.
“Well, we looked back and this Marine comes out the bathroom in a cloud of smoke (from an electronic cigarette),” said Sewell. “When the fire department came and happened to smell burnt popcorn, they blamed Jimmy for the alarm. Boy, we didn’t let that down for a while.”
Tooker’s greatest supporter throughout his career here was at his retirement ceremony as well.
“We’ve been married for 45 years,” said Tooker, referring to his wife, Betty.
“It’s 46 years,” Betty interjected.
“We’ve been married for 46 years,” said Tooker, without missing a beat. “I can tell you the first time I saw her – she was walking across a baseball field wearing a tiger-striped shirt with blue corduroy pants and tennis shoes.” He must have gotten that memory right, she didn’t correct him.
She clearly remembered the two-year fuels inspector tour he did in Alaska starting in 1989 – because she went with him. Now, after years of service here, the Tookers have two daughters and three grandchildren.
But Tooker’s family doesn’t stop there. Like many career civilians who spend so much time in this kind of environment, Tooker often treated his Marines like family, especially as he reached the average age of a grandfather to many of them.
“I would bring food in from home, some of Betty’s lasagna,” said Tooker. “I know [the Marines] get tired of the chow hall … her meals are good home-cooking and I know they don’t get that a lot.”
Sharing the Marine Corps’ birthday, Nov. 10, Tooker also personifies the “never leave a Marine behind,” motto.
“It’s not about me, it’s about an individual getting along with other individuals and caring,” said Tooker. “I don’t need a letter to tell me that I’m doing right. What tells me I’m doing right is when the young Marines around me are moving up in rank, and are staying out of trouble. That’s what tells me that I’m doing right.