James W. "Jim" Jessee
“…we were responding to John F. Kennedy’s call to ‘ask not what your country can do for you,’ but ‘what you can do for your country.’ We were inspired by this and wanted to make that real.” —Jim Jessee, on the early days of CAVE
In the back yard of Jim and Nelda (Meline ’66) Jessee’s Chico home—overseeing the eggplants and tomatoes and zinnias—sits a white ceramic owl, one of two which once perched above the doors of the old Chico High building. When that building was demolished in 1960s, Jim’s friend Bob Edgington (’66) rescued the owls from the rubble. “[The owl] migrated over the years to our garden,” says Jessee. “It represents a little bit of our love for that old Chico High School building.”
Jim’s affection for the old building is not surprising: his grandparents moved to Chico in 1906, and Jim’s father was one of eight Jessee brothers who attended Chico High. Until he was ten, Jim lived in a farm labor shack in north Chico. He clearly recalls the day his father moved the family into a home built by Tony Santos and purchased through a Cal Vet loan. Moving with his family into a home of their own was a significant experience for Jim, an “important milestone,” which motivated him to spend much of his adult life volunteering in the not-for-profit housing sector.
While all Jim’s cousins excelled in ITEC, fabrication, and agriculture, Jim was the self-described “odd man out”, the “egghead” who got good grades and was class speaker at his Chico High School graduation in 1966. “Yet there’s a hidden mechanic in me,” Jim claims.
In 1967, while a student at Chico State, Jim began volunteering for the newly established Community Action Volunteers in Education (CAVE). From 1971-73, he served as CAVE’s director. According to Jim, CAVE differentiated itself from other groups by a focus on action, and a simple approach to community service: identify a problem, come up with a solution, and tap into the resources of students and the community. “We were liberals, yes, but not necessarily radicals,” he recalls. “We wanted to engage the system.”
In 1973, Jim helped found one of CAVE’s spin-off programs, Community Housing Improvement Program (CHIP). Originally called the Chico Housing Improvement Program, CHIP was founded to address a housing crisis by helping to renovate substandard housing; the focus now is on building homes for low-income families. While Jim calls CAVE the “cornerstone” of his education and the “best job” he has ever had, he says that CHIP is the program that has resonated with him the most. He is still on CHIP’s Board of Directors: “They’ll have to tell me when it’s time to leave,” he laughs.
After graduation—and following a year Jim and Nelda spent in Macedonia—Jim went to work at CSU Chico, retiring last year as Director of Academic Publications, Facilities, and Database Services. He is active in several local history groups, co-authoring the book A Small Corner of the West and organizing other publications on local history. His interest in Jessee family genealogy has led to his creating the national Jessee Historical Foundation, and he publishes a semi-annual newsletter.
After an entire adult life serving a wide and thankful community, Jim Jessee might deserve a break. But given his energy and commitment to service, it would be surprising if he took one anytime soon.
In the meantime, the white ceramic owl will watch over the zinnias.