Good Neighbor - March 2017
From handshakes to haircuts, this dynamic retired businessman spends his days doing for others and "paying back."
- story by Anna Hirshfield
At the age of 15, with dreams of becoming a priest, he began attending seminary. One of his assignments was cutting the hair of fellow students who were not allowed to leave the campus. Collins was given no training, he was simply handed a pair of scissors. What began as a student’s task would later in life became a vocation.
As part of his training for the priesthood, Collins was sent to Chicago to teach high school at DePaul University Academy. Eventually deciding that he wanted to pursue teaching outside of the priesthood, Collins returned to New Orleans. He was 27 years old, owned one suit and didn’t know how to drive a car. With a characteristic resourcefulness, he obtained a job as an accountant for Shell Oil at their Chalmette Norco facility, where he worked for six years.
Meanwhile, friends introduced Collins to Patsy LeBlanc. The couple dated for two years before marrying.
Collins eventually accepted a job at Industrial Enameling in Bay St. Louis. The move to the Bay was an easy one for him. His family had rented cottages on the coast during the summers when he was growing up and he’d always felt at home there.
In 1964, Jim and Patsy built a house on Highland Drive, the home where Collins still lives. Their three sons – James, Jr., Brennan and Michael – were raised there. All three boys attended and graduated from St. Stanislaus.
When Collins was offered a job opportunity to become CEO of Goodwill Industries of Southeastern Louisiana, located in New Orleans, he accepted the job. However, he believed that raising his family in the Bay and having his sons attend St. Stanislaus was a top priority. Rather than move his family back to New Orleans, he commuted each weekday - for 27 years.
The organization prospered under the leadership of Collins. Gross sales of the New Orleans Goodwill store was $400,000 a year when he took the helm, but it was still losing money. During his time there, gross sales rose to $6 million a year.
Heading Southeastern Louisiana’s Goodwill operations was a legacy of sorts for Collins. His father had worked as Chairman of the Board for the same organization.
“One of the main goals of Goodwill is to help people get jobs who would normally have a harder time getting them than most,” he says. “Whether it’s because of a physical or mental disability, or someone who’s just gotten out of jail, our job is to help them.” He believes this, in turn, helps strengthen the community.
During his career as CEO with Goodwill, Collins returned to college, this time for a master’s degree. Attending school at night after work, he obtained his MBA in Personnel Management from Tulane University.
Despite his busy life as a father, executive and graduate student, Collins still found time for cutting hair.
“Having three sons gave me a built-in clientele,” he jokes.
Retiring from his CEO position in 2000 at the age of 70, Collins quickly became bored. “I learned you have to retire to something and not from something,” he says.
He accepted a job as vice president of marketing for Goodwill of South Mississippi, where he worked for another 17 years (with one year spent as CEO). Collins retired for a second time in 2015, this time at the age of 85.
But this dynamo hardly whiles away his hours idly. Each day starts with waking at 5am and attending early mass at Our Lady of the Gulf Catholic Church. Then he drives to his main “job” at the Hancock Food Pantry, where he works most mornings from 8am to noon.
Afternoons are spent divided between volunteer jobs. He may be found at Hancock Medical working at the front reception desk. Or serving on the board of St. Vincent De Paul Society, a relief organization. He’s become the Bay’s traveling barber, and cuts hair for free at the Hancock County Senior’s Center, the King’s Kitchen, and the St. Augustine Seminary. Collins has been cutting hair now for 70 years.
In addition, he’s still a vital part of the Goodwill organization, serving as secretary/treasurer of the Southeastern Association of Goodwill, which oversees nearly 30 stores throughout the region.
Collins’s wife, Patsy, passed away in 1993, so every evening he has supper with neighbors Dr. Sidney and Mary Doug Chevis for supper every evening - except on Thursdays, when he takes them out for dinner. His sons Brennan and Mike, who lives just a block away, visit often. Clearly there is no shortage of love or companionship in Jim Collins’s life.
His oldest son whom he affectionately refers to as “Jimmie,” has been living in Paris where he works for a pharmaceutical firm. A few years back, Collins visited his son so that they could celebrate Thanksgiving together. While he enjoyed the time spent with his eldest, he is not eager to return. He found the aggressive driving habits of Parisians unsettling.
“It’s like they want to kill each other,” he says, smiling.
Always feeling at home on the coast, Collins was especially happy to return to a town of kindhearted neighbors and decent drivers. He jumped right back into his volunteering schedule, eager to continue working.
“Everything’s never gonna be perfect for anybody. You’ll always have challenges. There are people who have more challenges than me so I want to give back to them.”
Collins warmly acknowledges the notion that people are always able to contribute in some way or another.
“Whether it’s a handshake, a smile,” he pauses and laughs, “or sometimes a haircut.”
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