James T. McCollum

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James T. McCollum (d/m/year - )

McCollum is the son of John Paschal and Vashti McCollum. His father was one of eleven children, six boys and five girls who were born between 1902 and 1920 on a dirt farm in Southwest Arkansas. All eleven went to and obtained a full college education, over half of whom obtained advanced degrees. His father, a confirmed atheist before he left Columbia County for college, became a scientist. Both the father and grandfather had a commitment to education and were instrumental in inducing the State of Arkansas to place one of four regional boarding schools in Columbia County in order that rural children could be educated. One of those schools is now Southern Arkansas University.

When 8 years old, James attended the Champaign, Illinois, school district and was required to attend a Protestant religious course, When his parents withdrew their permission for his participation the following year in the fifth grade, they did so with the opinion that such a course was inappropriate for public schools. As the only student who did not attend, he was pressured by his peers and his teachers to conform. In fact, he was required to sit alone in a hallway during the religious classes.

Unable to change the school officials' policy, in July 1945, Mrs. McCollum filed a suit, McCollum v. Board of Education of School District No. 71, Champaign County, Illinois, et al. It complained that members of a private religious association, not public school employees, were teaching in what was a violation of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment as well as the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. When the county court ruled against McCollum and the Illinois Supreme Court upheld the lower court, the U. S. Supreme Court heard the case and in an 8-1 decision (March 8, 333 US 203 1948), the high court reversed the ruling and held that the school district's religious instruction program was unconstitutional.

During the trials, Mrs. McCollum described herself as an atheist though later in life used the term Humanist to describe her beliefs.

For nearly 30 years, McCollum had a law practice in Rochester, New York.

Now back in Arkansas, he lives on the farm that has been in the McCollum family for over 140 years. He is majoring in agricultural science at Southern Arkansas University, where he is a PC Technician in Information Technology Services section. His wife - Betty McCollum - was a high school English teacher, now teaches composition and literature at Southern Arkansas University, and holds three degrees: an M.A. in speech and drama, an M.A. in theology, and an M. Div. Currently, she is pursuing a Doctor of Ministry degree from Meadville Lombard Theological School in Chicago.

He founded and is active in the Arkansas Chapter of Americans United for Separation of Church and State. Also, he had been a founding member of the Rochester, New York Chapter. He participates in workshops at Unitarian Universalist functions in the South West Unitarian Universalist Conference on Church/State issues. With his wife, he currently serves on the Unitarian Universalist Association's National Advisory Council.

"My Mother, The Sarge!

Writing about his mother, Vashti McCollum, James described her in "My Mother, The Sarge!"

If all that can be said of Mom was the important contribution she made to US constitutional law in the late ‘40s, she would still be a shining light in the 20th century; for the decision she won before the United States Supreme Court (8 to 1) set the precedent that applied the strictures of the prohibition of the establishment of religion clause of the first amendment to the US constitution to the several states by virtue of the due process clause of the fourteenth amendment. Albeit that decision, written by Justice Hugo L. Black, is currently under intense attack by the radical Christian right, it still stands as a beacon in the annals of US constitutional law to this day, for all cases involving purely sectarian practices in public schools and use of taxpayer money, by states and their municipalities, to fund religious activities, projects, monuments and displays, descend from this case.
In her later years, Mom became an avid world traveler and an accomplished amateur photographer, winning salons at the local Champaign County Camera Club on a regular basis. She was in great demand to present her interesting, informative and entertaining slide shows to all kinds of audiences, including at the Inman, the assisted care facility in Champaign, where she spent her last years. Her travels took her to all seven of the world’s continents. She traveled on whatever conveyance was available, ferries, like the ones we read about in third world countries that turn over and sink, trains and buses filled with peasants and their variety of livestock and worldly belongings, and puddle jumping airlines, sometimes barely clearing the mountaintops over which they fly. She was even trapped in the Amazon jungle for a period, while pursuing an adventure on an historic railroad that, unbeknownst to her, had been discontinued shortly before she arrived. She traveled to places that no longer exist and to others, now too unsafe for tourists to visit. Upon hearing stories of some of her exploits and travails, my father was heard to exclaim, “The woman is fearless!”
It was sometimes difficult to keep up with her, as she was always coming up with another trip to some exotic place or another, many of which were on the spur of the moment. Indeed, I can remember on several occasions where my first wife and I would wake up to a knock on the door early in the morning, to find her on a surprise visit or just passing through on another of her excursions.
Mom was clearly her mother’s daughter and knew how to divine the bargains and travel on the cheap! I still remember my spending a tortuous night at London’s Heathrow Airport, with her, just to save a £20 hotel bill! That two week excursion to Scotland cost the two of us together (food, lodging, transportation and goodies) less than $4,000, including the airfare over and back! Most of her travels, like this one, were on a shoestring.
Most important of all, she was the best mother one could have! She and my father, John Paschal McCollum, her husband of over fifty years, managed to raise three boys and put them through college, (a lawyer, a historian, and a successful businessman), two with advanced degrees and all having made positive contributions to society. A finer tribute cannot be given to anyone!
So, why did I entitle this piece, “My Mother, the Sarge?” Well, she was the disciplinarian in the family – fair to a fault, but there was no mistaking when she was displeased with something we said or did. Albeit I can remember an occasional acquaintance with a flyswatter, generally, all she needed to do was to give us the evil eye and that was that! More importantly, however, she was a consummate feminist and not one to back away from what she held dear - hence the moniker, “The Sarge.”
Albeit she made heavy weather at being a mother, she was an extremely effective one – never missing the opportunity to guide her sons carefully along the straight and narrow. Even though I am nearly 72, she still would correct my English if I had the temerity to utter the phrase, “it’s me” instead of “it is I,” or similar egregious grammatical transgressions. In the last hours of her time with us, she was still admonishing me to lose weight and get rid the rubber tire around my middle.
Her moral credentials were impeccable and unimpeachable; and she didn’t need a supreme being looking over her shoulder to “keep her in line.” Both she and my father made sure that my brothers and I were on the same page. After the family became embroiled in her famous law suit, she would often admonish us to do nothing that would bring discredit to ourselves or the family, as “our detractors are watching.” However, we didn’t really need that admonishment, because our parents were the epitome of good role models.
I often chuckle to myself, remembering her choice comment, “I hope it’s not trivial,” when a prominent demagogue would be outed for some moral or ethical transgression!
Her memorial marker, a copy of which appears on the order of service, proudly proclaims, beneath her name, the citation of the decision of her landmark case: 333 US 203 (1948)
Upon my retirement from the practice of law and move to Arkansas, and her retirement from her world travels, we saw to it that one of us would call the other at least once a week, usually on Saturday morning. Her last travels, with the exception of her last one to help her older sister Helen celebrate her 95th birthday, were to visit us in Arkansas to see her “daffy down lilies,” which each February and March pave our front yard in a sea of yellow. In January she would ask us if the jonquils were blooming yet and then find a way to get here to see them – usually by catching a bus by herself to Bloomington and the Texas Eagle Amtrak to Texarkana, where we would pick her up. She was avidly independent in life, and even in her declining years, to the extent she could manage, she remained such. On her return trips to Champaign, she would insist we leave her at the Amtrak station in Texarkana in the early evening, where she would then wait by herself another several hours for the train. In spite of our reluctance, she was adamant about it!
I sorely miss my mother, the Sarge.