At 104, Pearl Harbor survivor Navy Lt. Jim Downing was a confidant of presidents and a star of national television. From talk shows to a profile in Time magazine, Downing was feted as the second-oldest man who endured the events of Dec. 7, 1941. But Downing, who died from complications after surgery Tuesday, loved talking with school kids the most.
Even in the last months of his life, Downing would roll into classrooms and gymnasiums aboard his electric scooter. He did as much listening as talking.
"He really wanted to hear from these kids what they were interested in," said friend Brett Clark.
What Downing delivered to the students was an experience branded on his mind. He was ashore when Japanese planes struck the unprepared American Pacific Fleet in an attack that plunged the nation into World War II.
"The first thing I experienced was surprise," Downing told the students during a 2016 visit to a local high school. "The next thing I experienced was fear."
Downing dodged strafing planes to make his way to his stricken ship, the USS West Virginia.
The battlewagon had suffered hits by seven torpedoes and a pair of bombs. Her decks were ablaze, and she was sinking.
Armed with a fire hose, Downing sprayed saltwater on ammunition stored on the deck to prevent further explosions.
He also undertook a more personal mission.
Downing was the West Virginia's mail clerk, and he knew most of the 1,400 sailors aboard.
As he spotted the bodies of some of the 105 men killed on the West Virginia, he committed their names to memory. Some were recognizable. For others he had to check identification tags.
"I went around memorizing as many as I could with the intention of writing their parents," he said.
After the attack, Downing wrote to as many families as he could, relaying his belief that the sailors killed in the attack were heroes.
"It's the type of story you're only going to hear a couple of times in your life," said friend Josh Steinfeld, who accompanied Downing on trips around the country in recent years.
Downing had another story he told often. It was about finding faith.
He joined the Navy at 19 in 1932. Three years later, he found faith by hearing the testimony of the man who would change his life, Navigators founder Dawson Trotman.
Clark said Downing, known as Navigator No. 6 by the worldwide nonprofit headquartered in Colorado Springs, came to his faith by seeing the examples of others rather than fear of damnation.
"He tells the story of hiding some cash in the Bible aboard ship," Clark recalled. "He figured no one would pick up a Bible aboard ship."
Downing sailed through World War II aboard West Virginia and was commissioned as an officer after the war, commanding the supply ship USS Patapsco through the Korean War before retiring from the Navy in 1956.
Downing went from fighting for his country to fighting for souls, moving to Colorado Springs and joining the Navigators. He held several positions for the ministry, from head of its bookkeeping to leading its evangelism in Europe and the Middle East.
He announced his retirement in 1983, but Downing never quit working. From public speaking to sharing Scripture, the sailor kept underway.
He wrote his a book in 2007. Another, the autobiography "The Other Side of Infamy," was published two years ago, giving Downing the Guinness record as the oldest male author of a new work.
He met Presidents George H.W. Bush, George Bush, Barack Obama and Donald Trump along the way.
But it was those kids who kept him going, friends say.
Downing had a knack for mesmerizing children one-10th of his age. Steinfeld remembered taking Downing to a school in St. Louis on a Friday afternoon. He was told the kids would be restless and bored. It had the makings of a disaster.
"He said, 'I got this' and pulled out that plastic arm," Steinfeld said.
The arm was almost as well known as the sailor. Downing bought it on the Internet to draw kids in. He would ask a student for help rising from his scooter. The student would pull, coming away with a rubber hand.
"Nothing lit him up more than going to a room full of kids," Steinfeld said. "That's why he was doing what he was doing."
Downing is survived by six children and nine grandchildren. He is preceded in death by his wife, Morena, in 2010 after 69 years of marriage. Arrangements are pending.
Contact Tom Roeder: 636-0240