When you invite Paul James to dinner, chances are he'll arrive with a box of homemade pastries. That's one of the good things about being a blank slate when it comes to subjects for this column. New "friends" are always surprising me. I didn't know Paul was a culinary artist and, being a real devotee of flaky crust and creamy fillings, the revelation made me pretty happy. Those little lemon tartlets looked straight out of Gourmet and they tasted even better than they looked. Paul made light of it and said "If it's in the book and you follow correctly, they turn out right. Baking is just chemistry." It takes an expert to make it sound so easy.
Paul Douglas James II is homegrown Shepherdstown. He was born at City Hospital to Dianne and Gary Charles James, and came home to a house around the corner from where Shaharazade's is today. Paul's sisters, Keron and Alice Anne, completed the James' family. Their grandfather was the owner/editor of the Shepherdstown's weekly Independent News Paper. The Independent newsroom is now The Press Room. As a boy, Paul used to "hang around the newsroom a lot" and says that sparked a lifelong belief in the printed word. "Once you get the news print in your blood it stays."
Gary Charles James was working at Hagerstown Binding in Hagerstown when several serious promotions took him, and his family, to far away places like East Liverpool, Ohio, and Orlando, Fla. "My father told me the hardest thing he'd ever done was leave Orlando the day Disney World opened." Paul said. "He really wished he could have stayed to take us there."
Photo By Michael Theis
The James family always returned to Shepherdstown. Gary had extended family here, which included names like Maddox and Knott, and it had always been their hometown. Paul still runs into "cousins" all the time. He was in the third grade when they moved back from Florida and put down roots on a working farm off Rocky Marsh Run. "We grew crops. Lots of crops. " Paul recalls. "We'd over-plant Silver Queen Corn every year and sell it in Martinsburg." Gary left Hagerstown Binding as a Vice President to start-up a specialty binding and storage business of second hand texts out on Shepherds Grade.
Dianne Gengarella James had always had a special bond with her son. "When I was six Mom thought I'd like to play the piano. We really couldn't afford a good one so she sold her violin and bought me a baby grand." Paul still calls his mom "a very cool lady."
Eventually Dianne did acquire another violin - a Guarneri - and she played with the Millbrook Symphony for years. She also instilled a love of history and travel in her young son; and when Paul was fourteen they went on his first European vacation.Two weeks through three countries and he was hooked.
The following summer Paul went back to Switzerland. At sixteen he was house-sitting in Holland. "The love of history other than from 1776 that's still there and alive" is what drew Paul back to Europe again and again. Language has never been a barrier. Paul has a working knowledge of German, Dutch and Italian and is fluent in French and Spanish.
Melba Ruiga was a student of Guy Frank and when Paul was in his teens he became a student of hers. "Melba was the best teacher I ever had. At our first lesson she asked "What kind of music would you like to play? I'd been taking lessons since I was six and this was the first time my teacher gave me a choice."
When Paul was a sophomore at Jefferson High the family moved to a stately Queen Anne Victorian home on East German Street. "I belonged to the Jefferson High Pop Singers. There were about twenty five of us and we'd do '50s reviews of rock-in-roll. Mary Beth Kilmer was in the group, too." Performing arts were now in his blood singing, dance, theater. He loved them all.
"I was nineteen and going to New York to study acting at Herbert Berghoff Studio when my Dad called me into his office and said "Come in Paul and shut the door."
The conversation, as he remembers, went pretty much like this.
"Paul, are you gay?"
"Yes I am."
"Why didn't you tell me before?"
"I didn't know how to bring it up."
"Does your mother know?"
"Mom hasn't asked she just knows."
"Paul, New York can be a very unfriendly and dangerous place. I'm worried about your safety."
Remembering, Paul said "Now I know it was his way of saying 'I love you.'"
When he returned from New York Paul enrolled at Shepherd University as an English Major. Admittedly, he was an A or F student. "I got an A in the subjects I liked, if I was bored, I didn't do so well." He studied for two years and then left. He regrets that move and plans to return someday and get his degree. "It's something I want to do for me."
The W.B. Lanham Company was a familiar scene in Shepherdstown from mid-80s through the 90s. The full-service catering, bakery and store-front operation located where Stone Soup is today, was owned and operated by Wes Lanham and Paul James. Paul was a legendary pastry chef known for original creations like "Oprah" - a four layer confection of almond, Grenache and coffee cream. Memories of his artistry still remain nine years after W.B. Lanham closed its doors. Today Paul bakes for friends from his home kitchen on South Church Street. Does he miss the shop on E. German Street. "Yes I miss it. It was a beautiful shop, and we had a very appreciative clientele. It was fun."
Though his parents divorced and married others some time ago, Paul remains close and is very proud of his family. Alice Anne is the proprietor of the famous daily-catch shop on wheels, a must-stop on Route 340 when you're lusting for a bucket of really fresh shrimp. Sister Keron is a professional photographer. "A really great photographer " Her brother said, offering his I phone so I could see her Web site for confirmation. He's right. Keron's work is beautiful.
A man of many interests and talents, Paul enjoys the independent films at the Old Opera House, the music and dancing at the Mech and Tony's. He loves baking for friends, the written word and he's an avid gardener. Long-time friend Alice Barkus put it this way "I fancy myself to be an amateur gardener, but Paul knows more about plants than I will ever learn. He has a keen eye for all flora and knows what is blooming or growing anywhere in Shepherdstown."
Paul James is a gentle and learned man with a heart-felt philosophy about life.
"Don't regret what you've done, regret what you didn't do. I've learned from everything I've ever done. Nothing has been wasted.misspent maybe, but never wasted." Then he said with impish charm. "Life what else are you going to do but live it?
- Sue Kennedy is a
former public relations executive and Emmy Award winning screenplay writer.