At 80, ‘gold jacket’ Stomper is kicking up his heels
If you ever wonder why it’s great to be Catholic, where God is revealed in both the ordinary and extraordinary events of life, look no further than the two Jim Heneghans, father and son, who, like latter-day Clark Kents in a futile search for a non-existent phone booth, live a relatively quiet life in Metairie.
They’re not Jim “Sr.” and Jim “Jr.” – but for purposes of keeping this wild, 610 Stompers romp through the streets of New Orleans straight, that’s what we’re going to call them.
Jim Sr. is 80. Jim Jr. is 54. They both are members of St. Clement of Rome Parish.
Jim Jr., a physician specializing in internal medicine, is in formation to become a permanent deacon of the Archdiocese of New Orleans in 2018.
Jim Sr., a retired physiologist who sings with his grandson in the Sunday Mass choir at St. Clement, is in formation to become a 610 Stomper, following in the gold-sneakered footsteps and striped tube socks of his doctor son.
You can’t make this stuff up.
When Jim Sr.’s beloved wife Helen died of cancer in August 2012, Jim Jr. had just found out that, after having missed the Stompers’ cut the previous year, he had been impressive enough as a dancer and performer to receive one of 12 cherished, red Stomper jackets given out to rookies each year.
The routine that got Jim Jr. into the club came directly from the long-ago tutelage of his mom, who was as strait-laced and reserved as they come except for one thing: as a child she had learned how to stand on her head, and she passed on to both of her sons a show-stopping move that would allow them to stand out in a crowd.
Jim Jr. added a twist to his mom’s routine, stapling a 610 Stompers logo to a part of his wardrobe that could only be revealed when gravity took over.
Voilà. He’s a Stomper.
Jim Sr. was dealing with his wife’s impending death, but his son’s escapades lit a fire deep in his soul.
“I was showing him all the things I was doing with the Stompers, and he told me, ‘You know, that looks like a lot of fun. I think I’ll try out.’”
Jim Jr. treated his dad’s declared intentions with deferential humor.
“I laughed and patted him on the head and gave him a cookie and said, ‘Very nice, Dad,’” Jim Jr. recalled. “It turns out he was dead serious.”
Freed from the daily responsibilities of caring for his spouse, Jim Sr. began accompanying his son on regular trips to the fitness center. He also strapped light weights on his ankles and arms while doing chair exercises at Sunrise of Metairie, the assisted living residence where he lives.
In 2013, Jim Sr. went to the tryouts but got flustered by the tricky dance moves he needed to learn.
“He got a taste of it and found out how tough it was,” Jim Jr. said. “It’s tougher than it looks. I figured that would be the end of it.”
Not. In 2014, Jim Sr. began adding more exercises to his routine. When he tried out a second time, he was one of 45 Stomper hopefuls called back from the original 120 for a second audition. But the Stompers were concerned that he might not be able to make the distance in parades. Undeterred, Jim Sr. added twice-a-week Zumba classes to his regimen.
“Zumba is like exercising to real fast, Latin American dances,” Jim Sr. said. “I go there with a bunch of ladies. It’s hard for this old man to move that fast.”
Finally, the Stompers were convinced, but they still were scratching their heads about how exactly Jim Sr. would fit in. Some of the guys joked they could set up a wheel-chair and strap it to the front of the sound truck, where he could do some seated dances.
“If they did that, they would need an industrial-strength seat belt to keep him down,” Jim Jr. said.
After much deliberation, the Stompers decided to present Jim Sr. with the first-ever Stompers “gold jacket,” a symbol that shows their respect for a man who simply would not act his age. The gold jacket will arrive in November, and Jim Sr. plans to participate in as many Stompers’ events as possible – perhaps even a trip to New York for the iconic Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade.
What will Jim Sr. do when he tries on his gold jacket for the first time?
“Maybe let out a big whoop,” he said.
The other day after practice, Jim Sr. and several of the other 2015 Stomper rookies went out to celebrate their selection and “bend a few brewskies.” All the young kids were asking Jim Sr., “How do you feel?”
“I’ll tell you what,” Jim Sr. replied. “Biologically, I feel like I’m 39, but chronologically, you’ve got to add 41 years to that. I’m not going to tell you what that is. You have to add that up yourself.”
Jim Sr. said his late wife, who was such a helpmate to him during his life, would be thrilled. “Oh, man, she would be so proud and happy,” he said. “I’m sure she’s smiling down on me.”
It was Helen who, through dogged detective work, found a vacant office building in the 1960s that allowed Jim Sr. to expand his LSU biology research lab – on the site that later became the Superdome.
“It’s probably somewhere around the 40- or 50-yard line,” Jim Sr. said.
One day, Jim Sr., with his gold jacket, will be dancing in the exact spot his wife lovingly prepared for him. He met his wife at Mass at the University of Notre Dame. He knows his life is both a love story and a God story.
“That’s why it’s so good to be a Stomper,” Jim Sr. said. “I thank God every night. Here I am, in great physical shape, the best shape I’ve been in since high school when I was a track athlete. Even if I hadn’t made it, I would still be in great physical shape. And then this happened. I really believe the Lord above wants me to be doing this.”