Those who knew Jim Walters, longtime Gainesville businessman and philanthropist, understand the weight behind his nickname, “Big Jim.”
Kit Dunlap, president and CEO of the Greater Hall Chamber of Commerce, said Walters earned the title from being “larger than life” in every sense of the word.
Walters died at home on Monday, Feb. 22, according to Memorial Park North Funeral Home and his family members. He was 83.
“This is one person who really cared about his community and wanted to improve it and encouraged others to do the same,” Dunlap said. “He did so many things behind the scenes. He was a great friend to me, the chamber, the community, health care, education, you name it.”
Dunlap said Walters has already left legacies in the community by making significant contributions to the J.A. Walters YMCA, Lanier Technical College, Lakeview Academy, the Northeast Georgia Health System, Brenau University and “so many more we don’t know about.”
He was president of Walters Management Co., which provides management and supervision services for financial companies.
Frank Norton Jr., CEO and chairman of the Norton Agency, said Walters was a “tough, hard-charging businessman” who truly cared for his community.
“From a humanitarian standpoint, he asked great questions on boards and had an inquisitive mind,” Norton said. “He poured his heart and sweat into helping the community.”
Walters also served on the state’s Board of Natural Resources for 10 years and was appointed in 2012 to the Georgia Ports Authority, serving at one point as chairman. His service with nonprofits included 40 different organizations.
Giving young people opportunities
John Simpson, assistant head of Lakeview Academy, said Walters not only contributed financially to the community, but gave with his heart. He noted that Walters holds the most consecutive years of coming to Grandparents Day at Lakeview, having attended for over three decades.
“He gave so much to Lakeview, and we’re blessed because of that,” Simpson said. “He gave as a grandfather and as a great-grandfather. He had a huge heart for Lakeview and children in general, and it’s so moving to see that. We’re blessed to have known him, that’s for sure.”
Dana Fowler Miller, director of Junior Achievement of Northeast Georgia, said she saw Walters’ effect on local youth first-hand while he served as the chairman of her board of directors.
She said he played a huge role in the success of the nonprofit, helping reach thousands of kids around Northeast Georgia to teach them financial literacy and entrepreneurship.
Reflecting on Walters’ legacy, Dana Fowler Miller said she has realized that the man didn’t just touch Gainesville and Hall County, but “the whole Northeast Georgia region and beyond.”
“He was one of the most generous, well-respected men this community has ever known,” she said. “There will never be another Big Jim. He was just so dear to my heart, but not just mine, there are hearts breaking all over the state, just mourning the loss of a giant.”
Ray Perren, former president of Lanier Tech, said Walters was one of the first people he spoke to when the college discussed building a new campus.
“Jim Walters was a lifetime supporter of Lanier Technical College,” Perren said. “He loved the idea and encouraged us to move forward.”
Perren added that Walters presented a $1 million gift to help open the new campus and regularly attended many Lanier Tech events. The college even named its allied health building after Walters, dubbing it “James A. Walters Hall.”
“He was just a great mentor as well as a friend,” Perren said. “He loved Gainesville and the people of Gainesville. He loved with action, not just through finances. He was giving of himself and his time.”
Even before the J.A. Walters Family YMCA was built, Amy Kienle, its CEO and president, said Walters has been a giant in his support and promotion to the organization. She said he continued to carry out those efforts up until his death.
“Big Jim has been more important to the J.A. Walters Family YMCA than I could ever adequately express,” Kienle said. “ … Personally, he has been supportive and inspiring to me since my appointment as CEO, for which I am immensely grateful. I am devastated by the loss but know his influence will continue to be evident throughout our Y and the entire community.”
Always made time for others
No matter if someone was the governor of Georgia or a community member who wandered into his office, Walters’ friends and family said he always made time for others.
Dennis Stockton, former publisher of The Times and now a member of administrative staff at Lanier Tech, said he considered Walters a close friend. When he first came to Gainesville to work at the newspaper, he said Walters welcomed him to town and offered to help with whatever he could.
“We didn’t always agree on everything, but I always knew I could get an honest opinion from Jim and that he was going to be straight up about everything,” Stockton recounted.
“He was a great man, and a great asset to the Gainesville community. He had business and personal interests all over, but Gainesville was home and he believed in doing what he could to make it better. We are all going to miss him. He was the kindest, most generous person I ever met.”
Matt Smith, executive board member of the Gainesville Jaycees, describes Walters as a pillar of the community. He said the man served as a role model to many young businessmen in the area, including himself.
“Anytime I went into his office or had a question, he was more than willing to answer the phone or sit down with me in his office,” Smith said. “He was always very helpful. I think more than anything, losing a titan to this community is a big deal, no matter how well you knew him.”
State Sen. Butch Miller, R-Gainesville, expressed that both he and his wife, Teresa, are saddened by the death of Walters, their “larger than life” friend.
“Big Jim has played a significant role in my life,” he said. “He was a mentor, encourager and supporter. He was so insightful and always willing to share his thoughts and wisdom. Most importantly, he was my dear, dear friend.”
Before the pandemic hit, Walters was a regular patron of the piano bar at Luna’s Restaurant in Gainesville, visiting multiple times a week with a group of friends.
Juan Luna, owner of the restaurant, remembers “Big Jim” as a “gentle giant” and someone who was very caring, kind and giving. He said he will tremendously miss the “great advice and encouragement” Walters always gave him.
Gainesville was his home
Although Walters was from Charlotte, North Carolina, his family members said he quickly made Gainesville his home when he moved to the city 51 years ago. If people remember one thing about her father, Jackie Slaughter said she hopes they’ll never forget how much he adored Gainesville and Hall County.
Peggy, Walters’ wife, said she believes her husband devoted so much to the people of Northeast Georgia because he felt like it was his purpose in life. She shared that her husband was able to fulfill his dream of starting a successful business and wanted to help provide similar opportunities for others.
Growing up with Walters as her father, Slaughter said both she and her sister, Kelly Robinson, were taught the importance of giving back to the community.
Just recently, she said Walters helped restore a historical bank in Dublin, Georgia, a town where part of his company is located.
“Dad was a very smart man. He believed in the power of family and community,” she said.
When Walters entered a room, many can attest that he made the space a little brighter.
Dana Fowler Miller said he was a “magnet to a lot of different people,” attracting friends and others with his infectious personality.
She recounted his fondness of using the phrase, “Only in America.”
When asked why he enjoyed the saying, Dunlap said her friend never explained it. But, she believes it’s tied to the opportunities people have in the country, opportunities Walters never took for granted.
“Only in America could you find a Jim Walters,” Dunlap said.