“There just never was a place like Sewanee”: A conversation with the oldest living graduate of the University of the South

Jim_ByHenryThorntonPhoto by Henry Thornton

By Henry Thornton

Junior Editor

Jim Bass is 105 years old, and he is the oldest living Sewanee graduate. I met him in his office in the Pinnacle building overlooking downtown Nashville. “The thing is, back then,” he said of Sewanee, “you just knew everybody, I mean everybody on the whole mountain.”

Big Jim, as he is affectionately called by those that know him, came to Sewanee after graduating from Montgomery Bell Academy in 1928. There are lots of ways to make 1928 seem impossibly long ago. The SEC was founded in 1932. Calvin Coolidge was president. Prohibition was repealed in 1933. “When we wanted some booze, we had to go to the side of the mountain and holler for a few minutes,” he admits with a smile. “The fellas down the mountain would hear us and bring up a gallon of white corn whiskey.” As payment, the students would “just leave the money in the old tree trunk.”

Bass talks with a sort of kindly bemusement of how the world has grown up around him. “I used to be able to see clear to Kentucky,” he said when asked about the view from his office. The word “stalwart” seems to cling to him as if it was invented for his description. It’s the word the Tennessean used to describe him in an article commemorating his 105th birthday this summer. He goes to church each Sunday and he still comes into work 3 days a week.

He works at the prestigious law firm Bass, Barry, and Sims, which his father cofounded. Big Jim has worked there for seventy years and doesn’t seem interested in leaving. His two sons, who are also partners in the firm, are past the standard American age of retirement. He responds with nonchalance when questioned about his work ethic. “My work at the firm is one of the things I am proudest of in my life,” he said. “We started out with a handful of lawyers, and now we have a couple hundred, with offices in Washington, Memphis, and Knoxville.”

Hard work is one of the most noticeable through lines connecting Bass’ accomplishments. He graduated from Sewanee in 3 years and went on to Harvard Law School. Big Jim continued his academic success at Harvard Law School and dutifully returned to Nashville where he joined his fathers firm. American history intervened: “I was exempt from the draft you see, because I had a wife and kids, but I joined up anyway, I just thought that’s what a man should do,” he said matter-of-factly. Bass applied for and received a commission as an officer. He served as the judge advocate for the 104th infantry for three years. “After Europe, we were all set to go to the Pacific,” he said. “But President Truman, God bless him, dropped the atomic bomb.” Big Jim could go back home.

Lots of things still make Big Jim smile. “Those summers were the most fun I ever had,” he said about the Sewanee Summer School courses he took to hasten his degree. “When they brought those girls for the dances that place was humming, those girls loved to come up there.”

Another source of pride is his family, which includes three children, eleven grandchildren, and twenty-seven great grandchildren. Bass thanked God for blessing his life multiple times during our interview.

His stories about old Sewanee are remarkable: Bass was an ATO at Sewanee and amusedly remembers a pledge having to sleep in a tree outside the house. He regularly played cards with legendary Sewanee administrator Dean Baker. “I got tired of hitchhiking to our games against Georgia, so a friend and I bought an old Ford Touring Car for fifty dollars.

“How many students are there now?” he asked me about Sewanee. I give him the answer and he said, “1600? And half of them girls?” He paused and remarked warmly, “I would have welcomed that.”

As our interview ended I asked him how Sewanee, which he visited as recently as a couple of years ago, had changed the most. He said the two biggest changes were the size and the inclusion of women. “I knew everybody, but now you can’t do that. It’s just a different institution than when I was there, but it still has the traditions and characters that it had when I was a student, I don’t think it’s changed that much.”

Bass knows a lot about watching history change all around. “There just never was a place like Sewanee, and I suspect there never will be,” he said.

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