Editor’s note: James D. Babbitt, co-owner of Jim Babbitt Ford, died Thursday in Sun City at the age of 89. A memorial service will be held Thursday, Sept. 19, at 10 a.m. at the Flagstaff Elks Lodge -- “bring your Levis,” says the family. A formal obituary will appear this Sunday. Bonnie Stevens wrote this profile of Jim Babbitt in 2011 for the Babbitt Ranches Newsletter, and it is reprinted below with her permission.
Jim Babbitt’s life reads like a history book of the expanding West and its connection to a more innocent and patriotic America.
From his youth growing up in a frontier town as part of the Babbitt dynasty, his love of the ranches, his leadership in the Babbitt Brothers Trading Company and his career as an auto dealer, Jim will tell you he’s had a wonderful life.
But he won’t tell you much. And he’s certainly not likely to open the chapter about his three years as a World War II fighter pilot, his 60 combat missions and how he escorted General George Patton by air across Europe and into Germany, from the Normandy Invasion to the end of the war.
Babbitt was born in 1924. He grew up in a modest house on Elm Street and attended St. Antony’s Nativity grade school. It was a time when Flagstaff winters were harsh, groceries were delivered on Babbitt wagons pulled by a team of horses, and hobos were invited into your home for a hot meal.
“We lived three blocks from the railroad tracks. There were a lot of hobos on the train and people used to say our house had a mark on it because they would stop in for a free meal. We weren’t worried about strangers. Nobody thought any differently of anyone and everybody was your friend.”
The town was small then, maybe 5,000 people. As an eighth grader in 1938, Babbitt had all girls for classmates. “I made jokes about being the smartest boy in the class.”
In those days, the centerpiece of downtown was the Babbitt Brothers Trading Company Thriftway Department Store.
“We don’t have a place like that today where you’ve got everything-groceries, shoes, ammunition-and a drugstore across the street.”
Jim had horses as a boy, was interested in the branding and sale of Babbitt Ranches horses and cattle, and had great admiration for the ranch leaders. “Frank Banks, ranch foreman, was the most knowledgeable rancher in the West. John Babbitt, president of Babbitt Ranches, commanded the greatest respect of any individual I can recall.”
DISTINGUISHED FLYING CROSS
During the war, Jim saw the destruction and impact the war had on life in other countries. In his P-47 single engine plane, Babbitt moved across Europe as Patton’s 3rd Army moved. He wore a headset and throat microphone to communicate with troops on the ground close to the front lines.
“It was scary flying and firing with anti-aircraft fire bursting all around, shaking the planes while you are strafing or dive-bombing the enemy.”
Once he had a dead-stick landing on his way back to the allied air strip. This means the engine quits and the plane has to make a forced landing.
He calls General Patton a great leader. “He really led the troops across Europe and moved so fast, he outran his supply line and had to wait for them to catch up because he had run out of gas.”
[Editor’s note: Air Force records show he was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross “for superior tactical skill and strafing attacks on enemy air fields in the face of intense fire” and the Air Medal with 11 Oak Leaf Clusters.]
When the atomic bomb was dropped in Japan, Jim was on a 30-day leave. He was outside the Monte Vista Hotel on San Francisco Street in Flagstaff when he got the news. “We had never even heard of the atomic bomb.”
The war in Europe was over and he was discharged before the age of 21.
Jim’s father, Ray Babbitt, was involved in the mercantile branch of the family company. Jim was a clerk in the grocery store as a teenager. Later he spent his weeks traveling from Babbitt trading post to trading post all over northern Arizona getting orders for supplies.
Travel weary, Jim was ready for a new job when his uncle, E.D. Babbitt, who owned Babbitt Motor Company, asked if he’d want to get into the automobile business. His response was a resounding “Yes!”
Jim bought the Babbitt Motor Company in 1965, after E.D. Babbitt died. It was later renamed Jim Babbitt Ford. He continued to operate the business with co-owner Alan Chan.
In the ‘90s, he and his wife, Marge, used to visit “the girls.” These were six buffalo that Babbitt Ranches brought to Spider Web Camp.
“It seemed like a wonderful thing to have a herd of buffalo, but you couldn’t control them. They jumped over fences, crossed Highway 89 and wandered around on the San Francisco Peaks.”
‘TREMENDOUS, RESPECTFUL PEOPLE’
As a member of the Babbitt Ranches’ Board of Directors for many decades, Jim has witnessed the ranches grow from a cattle operation to what it has become today.
“We were raising cattle and shipping them off. It’s a totally different operation today, managing cattle, land and the natural resources, and public recreation. There was no such thing back then.”
Through it all, Jim has a great deal of pride in the Babbitt legacy. “I am very humbled that there were some really bright, brilliant, wonderful men in the family and the older generation that started it all. They were tremendous, respectful people who were extremely generous within the communities they served. And I’ve had an exceptionally good life. I’ve been so fortunate to have so many wonderful family and friends.