One of my favorite movies is the Frank Capra’s classic, “It’s a Wonderful Life.” Just in case you’re the one person on Earth who hasn’t seen it, it’s the tale of how Clarence the Angel shows suicidal George Bailey how bleak the world would be without him. It’s a powerful movie with an even more powerful message: We change people’s lives whether we realize it or not.
Last night I had the honor of saying a few words about a real-life George Bailey named Jimmy Riley.
Jimmy was a husband, father, man of faith, U.S. History teacher, avid cyclist and firefighter. He was also one of my cancer heroes — and even though melanoma took his life three years ago, he continues to inspire and touch lives. (Mine included.)
I first met Jimmy soon after my own melanoma surgery. After I had finished speaking at Magee’s Relay for Life, a tall, thin man came bounding up to me with incredible energy and a huge grin. He stuck out his hand and said, “Hi! I’m Jimmy Riley and I had melanoma, too. It was 20-years ago and I’m fine! You’ll be fine, too.” And at that moment, I felt my fear melt like an ice cube under the Mississippi sun. A man I had just met said I’d be fine. I believed him.
That was Jimmy. Always positive. Always giving hope.
A few years later I got a call that shocked me. Jimmy’s melanoma, dormant for so many years, had come back with vengeance. But as I hung up the phone, I believed Jimmy would whip it. While melanoma is a tough foe, Jimmy Riley was tougher. Every phone call left me hopeful and inspired. He’d talk about the latest surgery or the new plan of attack. He spoke about the love of his family. The last time I saw him, he told me about a trial drug that had shrunk and reduced the number of tumors in his liver. I knew he would beat the beast.
But the beast had other plans.
On June 14, 2010, Jimmy Riley left behind a beautiful wife, two amazing boys and two devastated communities with holes in their hearts.
Last night Magee honored all firefighters with a new firefighter’s memorial. It was one of Jimmy’s passions to get it built and one of his former students and fellow firefighter, Phillip Magee, took over the project when Jimmy passed. I was able to say a few kind words about a person who had given me hope and lifted me up during my own dark time. I met his family and friends and got to hear more about Jimmy’s amazing life. One story, told by his cousin, really showed me who Jimmy was.
As a EF-3 tornado bore down on Mize High School in 2005, Jimmy saw the approaching storm and quickly got everyone to safety on the first floor. The tornado ripped the top floor of the school building. Miraculously, there were no injuries. For his heroism, Jimmy received the act of Valor Award from the Mississippi Firefighters association in 2005 for his courageous actions after the storm.
To some Jimmy was a hero. But to Jimmy, he was just doing his job. That was Jimmy.
Because Jimmy Riley truly was George Bailey. By his actions, he touched lives. I know my life would have been more empty without seeing his example of faith, hope and optimism. I know Magee and Mize would have been lesser places. Like a pebble thrown in still pond, the ripples his life created are still be felt. Melanoma took his life. It could not take his spirit.
We all should be Jimmy Riley. We all should use our lives to touch and improve the lives of others. That would be an amazing memorial to an amazing man.
To Jimmy Riley: A man who truly lived a wonderful life.