By ANGIE ALVARADO
Palestine resident James Niles believes that it’s never too late to learn something new.
The octogenarian is living proof of that as he’s realizing his life-long dream of learning to fly a plane.
“To me, flying is more like a journey with no final destination,” James said about his latest endeavor. “As long as it’s enjoyable, beneficial and educational, I will do it.”
James and his wife Cheryl became interested in flying last July after seeing a story in the local newspaper about a free ground school at the Palestine Municipal Airport.
They immediately signed up and in mid-August, both began ground school. After completion, James continued on the path to achieve his dream and started flight school with Bill Campbell of Apex Aviation of Palestine.
“Flight school is so good for our brains because it keeps your mind focused and thinking,” Cheryl said. She plans to follow her husband’s lead and start flight school after the first of the year.
The Niles said they don’t mind the expense of flight school because the experience far outweighs the cost.
“At this stage in life, I can afford it,” James smiled.
“He’s earned it,” Cheryl added. “He’s been a good steward of his resources.”
James takes flying lessons about once a week with instructor Campbell sitting next to him in the 1967 Cessna 172. Cheryl sits in the back seat.
“I just tag along and keep quiet,” Cheryl smiled.
On Nov. 16, James logged his 26th flight with Campbell.
It takes James about 15 minutes to go through the pre-flight check list. Once in the plane, he takes his time checking everything from gauges to doors and windows under the watchful eye of his experienced instructor, before taking off.
Although he has completed more than two dozen flights, James is not quite ready for his solo flight, a feat that will earn him his shirt tail, the prize a student pilot gets once completing their first solo.
Flying at 100 mph at 2,000 feet above the ground, James can handle his plane with little direction from Campbell, who has been a flight instructor for 21 years.
On a recent flight, James goes through several maneuvers as directed by Campbell and completes a few landings and takeoffs.
“He’s probably the oldest person I’ve taught to fly,” Campbell said about James. “But anybody can learn and start flying at any time.”
Once a pilot’s license is earned, it is good for life. The only requirement is a bi-annual flight review, according to Campbell.
After completing his flying lesson, a beaming James heads inside the airport to fix his hair and update his log book.
Coming to Palestine
James retired at age 55 as an internal auditor for the U.S. Army, where his work took him to Oklahoma, Texarkana, Alabama and New Jersey.
“I was with the Army for 33 1/2 years as a civilian but employed by the Army under civil service,” James explained.
The Oklahoma native retired on Dec. 31, 1987, a little over two months after he turned 55.
After retirement, he and his first wife, Jo, moved to Palestine to be closer to their daughter, who was living here at the time and working at Pleasant Hills Children’s Home near Fairfield. Soon, James took a job as bookkeeper at Pleasant Hills.
James said he and Jo searched for a place to live in Palestine and recalled her excited reaction when she first set eyes on their future home. Within three months, the house was theirs.
“I felt like God gave us this house,” James said.
He and Jo, who were married 56 years, spent their time traveling and enjoying life together until she passed away in 2010.
Finding Love Again
James and Cheryl got married on Feb. 5, 2011 at their church, Westside Assembly of God, where James is the pianist, and her mother was the organist for years.
They only dated a few weeks before getting married.
“James wrote our vows,” Cheryl smiled. “He’s a romantic. He hand makes my birthday cards.”
She firmly believes God brought her and James together.
“We attended the same church,” she said.
Cheryl, 62, worked with children as a social worker. She had lived with her mother until she moved to Dallas.
“The Lord just opened it here for me to stay in Palestine,” she said about her courtship and marriage to James.
The couple’s affection is obvious.
“At our age, we celebrate everything,” Cheryl said. “Every day is special for us.”
James smiled at his wife.
“I don’t think I could ever find a better wife. We’re 100 percent compatible,” he said.
The spry 80-year-old still jogs almost three miles every day except Sunday.
“He’s cut back on his running,” Cheryl said about her husband. “He used to run more than that. He’s in excellent shape and takes no medications.”
Cheryl praised how well their families have blended.
“The 3-year-old grandson adores his grandpa. He plays his guitar while James plays the piano, so they play together,” she said.
James has a daughter, Sharie, who lives in Houston, a son, Tommy, who lives in New Jersey; and a grandson. Cheryl has two daughters, Heather and Amber, two grandsons and two granddaughters.
Flying is just one of James’s many interests.
Another one of his passions is collecting and reading Bibles. To date, he owns 58 different translations of the whole Bible, 10 Old Testament and 76 New Testament -- all of which he’s read at least once, cover to cover.
“This is my treasure,” James said, holding a used, leather-bound 1841 English Hexapla, which contains six translations of the New Testament Scriptures.
The former Eagle Scout and den chief proudly shows off his collection of Bibles that fill two large book shelves in his home.
Music is another one of James’ passions. He still plays the piano at his church every Sunday morning and night and then again on Wednesday night. Once a month, he plays the piano for the residents at Trucare Living Center in Palestine.
Years ago, he also enjoyed photography as evidenced by the many photos that hang in his home.
When simply relaxing, James likes to work the crossword puzzles in the local newspaper and in the Dallas Morning News.
Before long, James will be soaring over Palestine on his first solo flight earning his well deserved shirt tail.