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Face of Defense: Civilian Remembered for ‘Giant Heart’

By Tim Hipps
Special to American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, Oct. 3, 2008 – Affectionately known as “Big Jim,” James McCrindle had a Paul Bunyan-sized heart when it came time for taking care of soldiers and their families as general manager of the Armed Forces Recreation Center’s “Shades of Green” facility on the Walt Disney World resort in Lake Buena Vista, Fla.

Click photo for screen-resolution image
Affectionately known as “Big Jim,” Shades of Green general manager James McCrindle had a Paul Bunyan-sized heart when it came time for taking care of soldiers and their families at the Armed Forces Recreation Center. His battle with cancer ended June 1, 2008, at the age of 68. U.S. Army photo by Tom O'Meara

(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.

On Sept. 12, Shades of Green General Manager Brian Japak officially assumed responsibility for the center in a ceremony in which the resort’s mortgage was burned, and a plaque was unveiled to honor McCrindle, the only previous manager. Japak had been McCrindle’s right-hand man since Shades of Green Resort on Walt Disney World Resort opened in 1994.

Army Maj. Gen. John A. MacDonald, commander of the U.S. Army Family and Morale, Welfare and Recreation Command, referred to McCrindle – who died of cancer June 1 at age 68 -- as a “mountain of a leader” who crafted a “success beyond success” story into a “soldier and family paradise.”

“We are surrounded by the results of Jim’s lifelong craft and the product of his vision and leadership,” MacDonald said. “We have reasons to grieve, but we have so many reasons to celebrate what a difference one person can make in our world.”

McCrindle posthumously received a presidential citation signed by President Bush and the Installation Management Command’s Stalwart Award for extraordinary achievement, dedication to excellence and inspirational team spirit.

McCrindle was buried Aug. 1 at Arlington National Cemetery, and friends and admirers noted it is fitting that his final resting place is among the servicemembers he dedicated his career to serving.

In 1988, McCrindle became the first civilian manager of the Armed Forces Recreation Center in Europe – known today as Edelweiss Lodge and Resort – when the Army became responsible for the center. Four years later, after the fall of the Berlin Wall signaled a massive redeployment of soldiers and families from Europe, McCrindle returned to America on a temporary duty assignment to help develop an unprecedented plan for an Armed Forces Recreation Center on U.S. soil.

A study conducted at Louisiana State University determined that Orlando, Fla., was the most desired destination. Within four years, land was leased on Walt Disney World Resort property, and Shades of Green opened its doors to U.S. military personnel.

“It is truly a house that Jim built,” said Peter F. Isaacs, who in the early 1990s tasked McCrindle to convert the Cunnard Princess cruise ship into a destination for rest and recuperation leave in Bahrain for troops deployed to operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm.

McCrindle made building inside the Magic Kingdom seem like child’s play – or better yet, a labor of love, said Isaacs, former chief operating officer of the U.S. Army Community and Family Support Center.

“Whenever there was a need to plan, refine or develop a program for the benefit of soldiers, ‘Send me’ was Jim McCrindle’s mantra,” Isaacs said. “He was a leader, a mentor, an educator who left an indelible mark on everyone he knew. He was as comfortable discussing the nuances of food preparation with a chef, or planning building maintenance with an engineer, or carpet maintenance with a housekeeper, as he was discussing the nuances of million-dollar businesses with senior officers and members of Congress.”

McCrindle’s experience as a soldier shaped his commitment to serving soldiers, which became the hallmark of a brilliant life, said Isaacs, who watched McCrindle’s career skyrocket from the moment he become the first nonappropriated-funds civilian employee in the Army’s management trainee program.

“The day I met Jim, I knew I was in the presence of an exceptionally talented, an exceptionally driven and exceptionally brilliant young man, and I was destined to learn more from him than he would ever learn from me,” recalled Isaacs, then a young major in the Army. “For the next 27 years, we worked together in various capacities, and I was proud and fortunate to have counted Jim McCrindle as a friend.”

Charles S. Abell, former principal deputy undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness, donned a Boston Red Sox baseball cap in McCrindle’s honor while speaking at the remembrance ceremony.

“We all know that Jim was very proud of the citrus-tree ownership scam,” Abell said, eliciting a roar of laughter that filled the room. “But he would never admit that it was a scam. I’m sure today that he’s watching us, hoping that we all go walk down to the grove at the same time.”

Abell’s inside joke referred to McCrindle’s plan to build a citrus grove where soldiers could “own” a tree. It is just one of many tall tales about the man, “some true, some that should be,” as Abell put it, adding that “most of what Jim said was true, or it should have been.”

From that adage alone, one almost can envision the type of personality McCrindle exuded.

Abell revealed that McCrindle personally signed more than 2,200 letters of apology to servicemembers and their families because he could not honor their reservations to spend the 2003 holiday season at Shades of Green because the grand re-opening of the resort was delayed until 2004. It was McCrindle’s idea to nearly double the occupancy of the hotel from 286 to 587 rooms, and he felt responsible that the resort could not honor the reservations.

“What a guy,” Abell said. “More ideas than a platoon of folks could come up with.”

Ideas like converting the “19th Hole” lounge into a bona fide restaurant, celebrating Oktoberfest in Florida, planting the citrus grove in which guests could own trees, supporting the Children’s Miracle Network Classic PGA Tour golf event, and perhaps most important, making folks feel at home.

Brian Japak, who succeeded McCrindle as Shades of Green general manager, served as McCrindle’s assistant throughout his 14-year tenure and said he plans to continue the legacy of providing top-notch hospitality.

“Having been enlisted in the Army, he knew all the slang and all the different gestures,” Japak said. “He was quick to pick up on all the military language. Having traveled around to bases in the States and having been on assistance teams in Europe, no matter where they say they came from, chances are he had been on that base and could relate something with them and established that right off the bat.”

Eighteen of 80 employees on the Shades of Green’s opening-day staff in 1994 still work at the resort.

“Clearly, when he passed -- and passed suddenly -- it affected the whole operation here,” Japak said. “He probably knew every person who worked here by name and could relate to them. Fortunately, IMCOM sent down a chaplain’s team for grief counseling, and that really, really helped. The big decisions and the big directions are set, so right now we’re in a refining mode and just looking for opportunities to make it better.”

For some folks, Big Jim’s laugh will continue to echo across the Palm and Magnolia golf courses that surround the Shades of Green facility.

“Jim always saw the humor in any situation,” Isaacs said. “I’m going to miss Jim greatly. The world, for me, is going to be a much drabber place without Jim McCrindle. It will be less interesting without Jim McCrindle. And the thousands and thousands of soldiers and family members who never knew Jim’s name aren’t going to get a chance to thank him for all he did for them.”

MacDonald echoed the sentiment. “I stayed at Shades of Green many times, and as we all felt, Jim treated us not like guests but like royalty,” he said. “In fact, I think he treated our soldiers even better because he knew just how important a few days from the front lines this slice of paradise was.”

(Tim Hipps works in the U.S. Army Family and Morale, Welfare and Recreation Command Public Affairs Office.) 

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