William James Spain Jr.

Published 7:27 pm Thursday, March 10, 2011

In February 1927, William James Spain Jr. (affectionately known to his many friends as “Jimmy”) was delivered into this life “out the backdoor” of his parents’ humble but loving home adjacent to the railroad tracks that his father maintained for the Southern Railroad.

He came of age in the tiny whistlestop hamlet of Drewryville, Va. Jimmy was the sixth child born to his parents, with four more siblings to be added to the family in subsequent years. From humble beginnings, he distinguished himself as an industrious “young man on the go.” He worked the broom, counter and cash register in local stores beginning at age 7, and he excelled in his studies at Drewryville School.

After graduating at the top of his class (of 12), he enlisted in the U.S. Navy toward the end of World War II and served as tail gunner in a PB-4Y2 in San Diego and in the Norfolk Shore Patrol, “…breakin’ ‘em down on East Main Street.”


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Following his honorable discharge from the Navy, he attended the University of Virginia on the GI Bill, graduating with a bachelor’s degree in commerce in 1950. It was at the university where he mastered the new scientific accounting and business management skills that would serve him so well throughout his professional career. He was unfailingly grateful for and appreciative of his education and has always been a strong proponent of education as a means of personal and community betterment.

Jimmy married his wife, Marionette, in the spring of 1949, and they lived in Charlottesville until he completed his schooling. With a pretty young wife, a baby (Hugh) on the way, and a high-powered diploma in his hip pocket, Jimmy returned briefly to Drewryville working in a cotton gin and farm supply company before landing a promising accounting job in the thriving town of Franklin, Va. This led up to taking an even more promising accounting job at the Pretlow Peanut Company in May 1952, where he worked some time before transferring to a position at the Birdsong Peanut Company in Suffolk. Thus began a remarkable 57-year affair with a family and company that he truly loved. At Birdsong, Jimmy soon became protégé of then-company president, the formidable Mr. Harvard Birdsong, who admired his optimistic outlook (tagging him “Sunny Jim”) coupled with a sound business sense.

Another son (Billy) was added to the family just after the move to Suffolk, and Jimmy burnished his reputation as a friendly, fair-dealing and enterprising young executive. He quickly rose through the officer ranks at Birdsong to eventually become president and chairman of the board, positions he enjoyed for more than 25 years. During this period, he proudly announced to friends that he was president of a railroad, the 26-mile Texas Central — quite an accomplishment for a man whose father worked maintaining a section of railroad track.

Jimmy presided over numerous trials, tribulations and challenges to his company while leading an expansion of Birdsong Corporation into national and international markets. During this period of remarkable productivity and growth, a third son (Shea) was added to the family. Jimmy was a tireless promoter of peanuts and peanut products and was instrumental in leading one of the first trade missions to Asia that included a visit to the then-closed society of China.

Concurrent with his busy career at Birdsong, Jimmy held leadership positions in many local community organizations including the Suffolk Jaycees, Lion’s Club, United Way, the Chamber of Commerce, Morgan Memorial Library, the Suffolk Elks Lodge, Oxford United Methodist Church, the Suffolk Community Tennis Program and the Suffolk Racquet Club. He performed many duties for his church, Oxford United Methodist, where he taught Sunday school, led the youth program, and served as chairman of the Board of Trustees. He also greatly enjoyed hosting young adults from the nearby Zuni Presbyterian Training Center in his home following Sunday church services.

At the national level, he helped found the National Peanut Council and the Peanut Administrative Committee to assure quality and safety of peanut products. He presided over the Virginia Peanut Shellers Association for several terms. During recent years, he has been especially enthusiastic in serving as a founding director and an active volunteer for the Suffolk Center for Cultural Arts.

He received numerous accolades over the years, including being named Suffolk’s First Citizen in 1987, being named to the National Peanut Council’s Hall of Fame in 1996, and being awarded the Pioneer of the Year Award in 2007 by the National Peanut Buying Point Association. He was an avid tennis player and loyal fan of the University of Virginia and its athletic programs. Jimmy attended every ACC Basketball Tournament since the late 1950s and was very much looking forward to cheering on his beloved Cavaliers later this week. In the words of one of his favorite old Dixieland jazz band tunes, “Oh, didn’t the Good Brother ramble?”

Perhaps the single descriptor that best summarizes Jimmy’s life is generosity. He was remarkably generous on numerous levels with his time, attention, thoughts, good fortune and love.

Jimmy is survived by and will be very fondly remembered by a large family and many, many friends. His surviving original family members include two sisters, Margaret Covington, of Drewryville, and Jean Jones, of Chesapeake; and his brothers, Charles Spain and wife, Ruth, of San Antonio, Texas, and Tilman Spain, of Isle of Wight County. He is also survived by his immediate family; wife, Marionette Whitehead Spain; sons, Edward Huland Spain and wife, Sharon, William James Spain III, and Shea Meredith Spain and wife, Wendy. His grandchildren are Tammy Aiko Spain, of Oldsmar, Fla., James Huland Ichiro Spain, Nicholas Blythe Spain, Meredith Hunter Spain and William James Spain. His great-granddaughter is Aidalis Aiko Santana, of Oldsmar, Fla.

A funeral service will be conducted Saturday, March 12, 2011 at 11 a.m. in Oxford United Methodist Church, 601 W. Washington St., Suffolk VA 23434, by the Rev. Dr. Woodie Rea with burial in Cedar Hill Cemetery. The family will receive friends Friday, March 11, 2011 from 6 to 8 p.m. in the R.W. Baker & Co Funeral Home and Crematory, 509 W. Washington St., Suffolk VA 23434.

The family wishes to express their sincere appreciation to the many doctors, nurses and support staff of Lakeview Medical Center and Sentara Obici Hospital, as well as the fine ladies of Home Instead for their loving professional care in making his passing as peaceful and comfortable as possible. Per a specific request made by Jimmy in his last days, the family requests that, in lieu of flowers or gifts, donations be made to the Lake Prince Woods Community Fund, 100 Anna Goode Way, Suffolk, VA 23434 or to the Suffolk Center for Cultural Arts Education Fund, 110 West Finney Ave., Suffolk, VA 23434. Condolences may be registered at www.rwbakerfh.com.