Jim Hodges is the 2024 Lowell Person of the Year

Carrying on a conversation has never been a problem for Jim Hodges. He is famously known for saying that while others may turn to Facebook to catch up with people, “I Meijer.” For Jim, every trip to the grocery store is an opportunity to shoot the breeze with friends and acquaintances among the aisles.

When I sit down with Jim and his wife Chris on a recent morning, Jim regales me with stories from the past while Chris smiles and gently chides that we haven’t got all day. But that is part of Jim’s charm. His friendly and easy-going nature make it seem as though you would surely find his picture next to the word “affable” in the dictionary.

Perhaps the only thing surprising about the Lowell Area Chamber of Commerce’s selection of Jim as Person of the Year is that it didn’t happen earlier. Jim and Chris moved to Lowell in 1982 and have never desired to live anywhere else.

“This is the first small town Jim lived in,” Chris notes.

“I loved it,” Jim is quick to add.

He loved it so much that he has done everything from open a business here to raise a family here to serve as the mayor here. Now retired, his list of volunteer activities is long, and there seems little indication that the 73-year-old will be slowing down anytime soon.

Come for the Job, Stay for the Good Life

Jim and Chris Hodges

Jim and Chris met in 1971 and married in 1973, just days after Jim’s graduation from the George Williams College YMCA Academy. They lived in Schaumburg, Illinois, as well as Port Huron and Pittsburgh before coming to Lowell in 1982, back when it was still a one-stoplight town.

For Chris, who grew up in tiny Sandusky in Michigan’s Thumb region, it was a relief to move from the big city to a smaller community. Jim quickly discovered the joy of small-town living too.

He served as the director of the Lowell YMCA for about 6.5 years before buying a Radio Shack franchise in 1988. The business was located in what is now the Lowell City Mall behind Arby’s, next to a collection of other businesses that no longer exist here: Family Fare, Hinkley Drug Store and R Place restaurant, among others.

The business was sold in 1991, the same year Jim was asked to chair a millage campaign for Lowell Area Schools. Four proposals were on the ballot and two passed, including the one that would bring Lowell its new high school on property along Vergennes Street.

Jim had been elected to Lowell City Council in 1989, and he and Chris were in the thick of parenthood with two boys at home: Jimmy and Ben.

Bumps Along the Way

Jim Hodges, circa 1989

Of course, no one’s life is smooth sailing all the time, and that is true of the Hodges as well. After selling the Radio Shack business, Jim took a job at a dealership on Plainfield where he was fired after four months.

“They were in business to sell cars,” Jim notes wryly. Every four months, the three lowest performing salespeople were cut, and Jim happened to be one of them.

The nation was coming out of a recession, and Jim found himself delivering pizzas and working part-time at Ace Hardware to make ends meet while he searched for a new full-time job.

“We were poor and destitute,” he shares. “I mean that. It was awful.”

Eventually, Jim landed a job at the old high school as a custodian, and Chris started working at King Milling in 1992. Later, Jim was transferred to Alto Elementary School.

“That was one of the best years of my life,” Jim says of his time there, noting that everyone in the building was kind and generous. “No one throws a birthday party for a custodian, but they did.”

It wouldn’t last though as the school district hit financial difficulties, Jim was laid off and it was back to delivering pizzas. He was called back – this time to the new high school – in 1994 and worked at various buildings until 2000.

In 2001, Jim was hired by Amway and worked there until his retirement in the summer of 2015.

One Constant: Public Service

Hodges enjoying a moment at a City Council meeting.

Throughout all this employment upheaval, Jim remained a public servant at his core.

Upon arrival in Lowell, he and Chris became youth group leaders at the Lowell Congregational Church. During their 40-year membership there, they volunteered in whatever capacity they could, with Jim serving as a moderator and deacon as well. Today, they are active members of the Lowell United Methodist Church, and Jim assists with the Lowell Ministry Alliance.

Jim served on Lowell City Council from 1989 to 1997 and again from 2004 to 2017. He was the city’s mayor from 2009 to 2015. At various times – past and present – he has been a member of the Cable TV Board, Parks & Recreation Commission, Look Memorial Fund Committee, and chair of the Board of Review.

During his tenure as a councilmember and mayor, Jim oversaw significant projects such the creation and expansion of the riverwalk, the development of the Lowell Area Fire & Emergency Services Authority and perhaps most importantly, the installation of a stoplight at the intersection of Bowes/Alden Nash and Main/Fulton.

In fact, Jim identifies that light has his single biggest accomplishment in the city. For many younger residents, the light has simply always been there, but the intersection looked much different prior to the completion of the new high school up the road.

At that time, Bowes Road met Main Street at a 45-degree angle. There were some motel cabins where the current medical building is, and the Harold Zeigler car dealership was on the opposite corner. Meijer, Walgreens and Mercantile Bank were all yet to come. Cars on Bowes and Alden Nash had stop while vehicles on Main and Fulton flew by going anywhere from 55-70 mph in Jim’s estimation.

“Even grown adults would have a heck of a time getting across,” Jim says. With an influx of high school students on the way, Jim saw a serious problem looming. “I said we need to fix that before anyone gets killed.”

However, with the township, city and state all having jurisdiction over parts of the intersection, it was a tough sell. “I got pushback, pushback, pushback,” Jim remembers. It took extensive behind-the-scenes activity to bring all the parties involved to the table and work out a solution that softened the angle of Bowes Road and installed the light.

“It was a photo finish,” Jim says, but the light was up in time for the opening of the high school, and potential disaster was averted.

Team Player for the Community

Jim Hodges and former City Manager Dave Pasquale at a previous Riverwalk Festival

Outside his government activities, Jim has been a member of the Flat River Outreach Ministries Board of Directors, the Schneider Manor Board of Directors, trustee for the Schneider Manor trust fund, and a volunteer tax preparer with the Volunteer Income Tax Assistance Program. He and Chris are election workers.

Whether it was a Jail or Bail fundraiser for the March of Dimes or the Move to Main capital campaign for LowellArts, Jim has always been willing to donate his time for a good cause. In between his jobs, public service and volunteer activities, Jim even found the time to earn a Master of Public Administration degree from Grand Valley State University in 2000.

As a longtime member of the Lowell Rotary Club, Jim was president from 1990-’91. He also holds the distinction of bringing the first female member into the club. In fact, opening doors for women to take a seat at the table in Lowell’s government is a point of particular pride for Jim.

“I appointed more women to boards and commissions than all previous mayors combined – or since,” he says.

No One is a Stranger for Long

After more than 12 years on a waiting list, Jim and Chris finally got the call that they were next in line for an apartment at Schneider Manor, and they recently moved in. Not surprisingly, Jim has quickly made new friends with the neighbors.

Growing up, Jim’s dad was the assistant director of the Michigan Department of Mental Health. Even at a young age, his father would let him tag along to meetings with legislators, and Jim remembers being in the gallery at 2:30am and watching as the state income tax was passed.

Perhaps those early observations of his father talking to people of various backgrounds modeled for him how to carry on a conversation with anyone at anytime. Or perhaps it is something innate, something in the Hodges genes.

Chris relates how their grandson James, who is only six ( “…and a half,” Jim corrects me), seems to have a similar gift for making friends with everyone he meets. He heads to the playground and a short time later can provide the names of every person there.

Whether learned or genetic, both grandfather and grandson seem to share the same ability to strike up a conversation and put others at ease.

Still Charmed by Lowell

Bob Pfaller and Jim Hodges (l to r) prepare to hand out lunches to Schneider Manor residents to mark the community’s 50th anniversary in 2020.

While some bemoan Lowell’s growth, for Jim, it’s the perfect size: “Big enough to get things done, but small enough to know everyone.”

By and large, he finds most people here still make eye contact, smile and say hello to each other. “People tend to be very positive and get things done,” he says is the prevailing attitude in Lowell.

So long as there is only one high school, Jim thinks Lowell will continue to be a small, unified town. He notes that when communities have more than one high school, that’s when you see divisions start to creep in.

Looking forward, he hopes the community will continue to grow – “Hats off to the Chamber of Commerce,” he says. “There are hardly any vacant storefronts.” – and that local leaders in both the city and townships will continue to work together.

It can be hard to remember that Jim was once a transplant who grew up in Lansing, so intertwined has he become in the fabric of the community. After a lifetime of volunteerism and public service, he is a most deserving recipient of the 2024 Person of the Year honor.

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