Near-centenarian recalls olden days, decades of changes in Ocean Beach
by Mariko Lamb
May 29, 2013 | 22019 views | 0 0 comments | 16 16 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Having lived in Ocean Beach 92 of his 95 years, resident James “Wallie” Isom has seen plenty of changes in his beach community, and he has documented much of it.            Courtesy photo
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Inside an unassuming suburban home off Muir Avenue lives James “Wallie”Isom. Although Isom might easily pass for a man in his 70s, this near-native Ocean Beach resident just celebrated his 95th birthday May 14.

More astounding than his youthful vigor is the wealth of experiences Isom has accrued over more than 92 years living in his beloved beach community. In his home is an abundance of historic knowledge that could rival a history museum, with old pictures dating back to the turn of the century, stories to tell of when the old dance hall, bath house and Strand Theatre were part of the social fabric of Ocean Beach, and a life’s worth of experiences spent with the woman he loved and the children they raised.

Before the hustle and bustle of Newport Avenue, before the boardwalk was paved in concrete, and even before Ocean Beach’s iconic pier overlooked the beachfront, there were olive orchards at Sunset Cliffs. There was the Silver Spray saltwater pool on the oceanfront and Mac’s Good Eats on the corner of Newport Avenue and Abbott Street, which has long since been washed away by the tide.

Isom, who was born in Springfield, Mo, settled in Ocean Beach in 1921 with his family when he was just 3 years old.

“The story I heard was that my father and his three brothers all worked for a railroad company back in Missouri, and they were having a strike at the time. I think my father was involved in some strike deal back there, and the sheriff was looking for him, so he took off,” Isom said. “We started out in a Model T Ford, and we got to Denver and it fell apart, so we ended up coming the rest of the way on a train.”

The Isoms originally settled into a redwood home on Long Branch and Ebers streets, just around the corner from where he lives now.

At the time, there were hardly any paved streets or sidewalks to speak of, and just a single streetcar that branched off for a stop at the present-day Masonic Lodge. According to Isom, Ocean Beach was full of eucalyptus trees before the sidewalks and streets were paved in the mid-1920s. Endless poppy fields stretched along Sunset Cliffs and olive orchards spread across the Point where he and his brothers would camp overnight.

Growing up, Isom was the all-American jock at Point Loma High School. His athleticism and love of sports, including baseball, basketball and football, led him to some interesting interactions with internationally recognized names, like Baseball Hall of Famer Ted Williams and renowned English Channel swimmer Florence Chadwick.

“Ted Williams was going to Hoover High School when I went to Point Loma,” said Isom. “Where the junior high school is now used to be a baseball park, and Ted Williams was pitching for the other team during one of our ball games.”

In Isom’s same 1937 graduating class was Chadwick, who he helped train for her landmark swim across the English Channel in both directions.

“She would swim straight out in the ocean, and the lifeguard had me and another fella take the lifeboat and follow her out,” he said. “For one whole summer, I don’t know how many times we went down and followed her out.”

While studying at San Diego State University and working as a supervisor at Convair, World War II broke out, and Isom was called to service. Despite his supervisors’ assurances they could get him out of the draft, Isom was determined to serve his country, which he did as an Air Force paratrooper for four years. After serving in the 13th Airborne Division from 1942-46, Isom decided it was time to return home.

“I was thinking about staying in, but I got leave and drove home with my son, who was two months old. Once I got here, I said, ‘This is it,’” he said.

After working a brief stint as a milkman, Isom found his true calling as a federal firefighter at the Point Loma Naval complex, where he worked for 30 years. Always a leader, Isom took on roles as president of the federal firefighter union, as well as that of fire chief, before retiring as a lifetime member of the local F-33.

Isom and his beloved wife of more than 70 years enjoyed waterskiing, fishing and relaxing at their remote Mexican vacation home with the kids and friends before Bette Jo lost her battle to Alzheimer’s disease three years ago.

Although Ocean Beach has changed tremendously around him, Isom is a fixture in the community, still frequenting the local Margarita’s Family Restaurant with a few other locals and catching a Padres game with his daughter whenever possible.

More significant than the 95 years that number him are the decades of experiences, history and changes seen through his eyes spanning nearly a century in Ocean Beach.

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