‘Country Jim’ Kirk devoted his life to the community

By BUDDY MARTIN

He was a Hillbilly who came south to Alabama to pursue a spot on Alabama’s football team but would wind up at Florida State University on an accidental career path to broadcasting one busted shoulder later.

It was all about the fascination with the Talking Box.

Back in the hills of Tennessee about a decade earlier, Kirk had seen and heard his first radio through a screen door. Now he was on track to someday own his own radio stations.

Kirk joined a small station in Quincy to work for a man who had ideas of opening one in Ocala. Thus the seeds were planted for WMOP AM, and later, WFUZ FM. He would own them both before finally selling them off.

Jim says he instantly fell in love with Ocala and “I felt like I was born here after one day.” The community has loved him back for more than 60 years.

Back in the day, “research” meant walking the streets and talking with people, not Gallup Polls. During the days prior to launching the new station in Ocala, Kirk engaged folks with friendly banter around the courthouse square.

What he discovered was a thirst for country music, gospel and others voices. He gave them all of it — none more popular than he morning show host, “Country Jim,” who strummed his ukulele, sang, cracked jokes and offered up some Will Rogers-like wisdom.

Playing the uke was something he took up at FSU to impress the girls during his nighttime dormitory serenades which he also turned into a campus political campaign. In essence, Jim Kirk brought that act to Ocala and he sang his songs for over 40 years.

Very few people, if any, were ever more popular in the local media than Kirk. His presence was significant, especially when he started showing up at City Council meetings and rubbing shoulders with city leaders, which he soon parlayed into a high community profile. He lightened the mood of any room.

Kirk became one of them, launching an illustrious political campaign that included three terms as mayor – twice during critical times in the 1960s and again in the 1970s for the bicentennial. He also served two terms as councilman.

Jim married the girl he had met in high school, Elizabeth, known to Ocalans as “Biddie,” and they produced three sons and a daughter, plus five grandchildren. Russell, John and Richard live in Ocala; Deborah Ann lives in Raleigh, N.C. where she is a Presbyterian minister.

For a while, he was seemingly the only Seminole it town, but was never short on guile when it came to firing back at his Gator friends. Jim Kirk’s loyalty to FSU was akin to a three-piece suit that hangs around long enough to come back in style again, so when Bobby Bowden’s reign came in the 1980s and produced championships, Kirk was stylish.

The he became stylish again after the 2013 season when Jimbo Fisher’s ‘Noles won the national championship and quarterback Jameis Winston won the Heisman Trophy. Bragging rights got bigger.

“I’m not only happy about the Seminoles,” Kirk proudly beams, as if sticking the Seminole spear in Marion County soil, a la Chief Osceola, “but I’m happy about Ocala – the hotbed of Seminole supporters.”

And off we go.

Kirk is not only bullish on FSU, but bullish Ocala. He still maintains a small office behind the building of his former WMOP site and can look out his front door at Tuscawilla Park. His office is filled with artifacts from his past – more like a combination of Fibber McGee’s closet and a Jim Kirk Museum – much it mementoes or photos from his FSU past.

If the city goes through as planned to build Linear Park down the railroad tracks of Osceola Avenue there could be a trolley or rail car running right past his door.

“That is an exciting thing, with the walkway downtown,” says Kirk, who turns 87 this year. “They’re going to close this street and lead right to the activities center in the park.”

As he spoke, plans continued to unfold for the new home of the Ocala Symphony, the old Ocala Auditorium, which will be gutted and refurbished as a venue in the heart of the green space. Nearly 50 acres of green space, sometimes referred to as “Ocala’s Central Park.”

Being a preservationist and admirer of all things downtown, Kirk still seethes a little at the demolition of the courthouse and wants no part in the blame or credit of that decision. But he feels downtown has overcome that mistake and is headed in the right direction.

Although there have been some critics about the lack of leadership in the community, Kirk doesn’t agree and thinks it is “doing remarkably well.” He realizes the challenges we face of competing with larger city and hails the idea of the new Ocala 489 industrial park and the new deal with FedEx will attract other “classy” brands.

On sunny days as he putzes around his office, he looks out to delight at activity around the Tuscawilla Pond — fishermen dropping in line, people enjoying wildlife on their lunchtime. “I can sit here and watch it,” he says. “It’s very exciting. And I’m so proud the symphony people have taken over the auditorium. That would have destroyed my faith in humanity if they had taken that building down.”

It’s to say who was more blessed by the arrival of Jim Kirk – him or the community. Even Gator fans can’t deny that.

(Email Buddy at buddyshow@aol.com)

 

 

 

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