Jim Dial never saw himself as different from his large circle of family and friends: He liked to have fun, tell a good story and talk to a pretty girl. But the love he inspired in those who knew him and the path he blazed for special-needs children in Newton County tell a unique story.
Dial, who had Down syndrome and was the first special-needs student to graduate from Newton County High School, died Friday morning at the age of 50.
Beloved for his sunny, sociable personality and warm, loving attitude, Dial was well-known across Newton County. He became an institution at the places he loved best: at the Butcher Block Café, where had had lunch every day; at Covington First Baptist Church, where he handed out bulletins at “his door” before Sunday services; and at the Newton County Judicial Center, where delivering the mail was his first and only job and one of the highlights of his life.
Dial was born in 1963 during a time when special-education resources were nearly non-existent. He only weighed 3 pounds at birth and had to stay in the hospital for six weeks.
“When Jim was born, the doctor told me not to bring him home from the hospital, that it would be better for the other children if he didn’t come home,” his mother Shirley Dial recalled Saturday at her Covington home. “I did differently and brought him home and look what happened. I think he blazed a trail for special-needs children in Newton County. I think that was his purpose in life.”
Becky and Guy Evans were instrumental in getting Dial accepted to a special preschool program at the University of Georgia run by graduate students. Newton County paid the cost of the gas needed to transport Dial to Athens, where he learned his ABCs and received speech therapy, Shirley said, and “really blossomed.” Special-education classes came to Newton County soon after that – they were initially only offered at Livingston Elementary, but soon spread to all schools.
Shirley said Tony Molinaro was brought to Newton County to be the school system’s director for special education and befriended Dial and was inspired by him. Dial was the school system’s first special-education graduate and also earned one of the first-ever “Yes I Can” Awards given out by the Council for Exceptional Children.
Friend of judges
In 1999, former county chairman Davis Morgan wanted to help Dial and asked his uncle Eddie Phillips if Dial would like to have to have a job as mail clerk at the Judicial Center.
“Eddie walked next door and said, ‘Jim, how would you like to have a job?’ Jim said, ‘Yes, right now.’ He thought Eddie meant a job at Eddie’s office and he was ready to work right away,” Shirley said. “That was the best thing that ever happened to him.”
Dial took his work very seriously and was always on time and sharply dressed. Morgan intended to help Dial, but many more judicial center workers benefited from Dial’s uplifting presence.
“For me, Jim was just an inspiration as to how we all should live life to its fullest and with his challenges he did that. He was an inspiration on how we should all look at life with or without challenges,” said Superior Court Judge Horace Johnson on Friday.
Dial retired in 2010, leaving a hole in his co-workers lives that’s sure to grow with his passing.
“We already missed him, but we still looked forward to seeing him around. We really will miss him and our hearts go out to (his family),” Superior Court Judge Samuel Ozburn said Friday.
“We’re all heartbroken about what happened. Jim was a very special person and meant a lot not to just me, but everybody at the judicial center. He brought something special every day that he came by our offices. I just think the world of Jim and his mother Shirley and all his family,” he said. “He was a blessing, and we were blessed to have him as long as we did.”
When Dial first went to work at the judicial center, he worked in the office of Superior Court Clerk Linda Hays.
“My heart has a hole in it that can't be replaced; he holds a special place in my heart and the hearts of everyone at the judicial center,” Hays said Friday. “We thought we were going to help Jim; however, as it turns out Jim taught us to see life through his eyes. It didn't take much to make Jim happy. He loved people and they loved him, and he made our days better and brighter.
“I, as well as my staff, will never forget Jim, his bright smile, wonderful personality and all the love in that big heart of his. My life is better and I have been blessed because God allowed Jim Dial to cross my path.”
A full life
Dial wanted to have fun. He wanted to socialize, tell stories, dance, go shopping, ride four-wheelers and take trips to his beloved University of Georgia, and he wanted to talk to and kiss pretty girls.
He even planned his own wedding once, but he forgot to confirm the plans with his intended bride.
Judge Ozburn and some of Dial’s other close friends, Pete Carter, Matt Crowe and Greg Rawlings, would take Dial to sporting events at the University of Georgia, but they soon realize Dial was less interested in the actual basketball or baseball games and more interested in the cheerleaders.
“He loved the girls,” cousin Dana Knight said.
“Sammy and Pete were his boys, but he would much rather be with girls,” said Rhonda Lowe, a first cousin and one of Dial’s best friends.
More than his love for pretty girls or the University of Georgia – he had 27 UGA shirts and had two UGA license plates on his mail cart – Dial loved people.
When he handed out the bulletins at Covington First Baptist, the people who came through his door were always the last to sit down, Lowe said, because the visitors got a hug, not just a handshake.
“He took that job extremely seriously, too,” Lowe said.
It was Dial’s genuine love that touched other people and inspired them to act.
Local pastor Len Strozier told Shirley a story about how Strozier used Dial’s story to speak to a young woman who was considering abortion because her unborn child had a high chance of having down syndrome.
“Len said, ‘I won’t tell you what to do. All I can do is tell you about the most vital member of our church who has down syndrome,’” Shirley said. “The mother called Len and said, ‘Thank you for what you did; we have a perfect little girl.’”
Cousin Paige Alexander credited Dial with helping her children be more compassionate.
“My children being able to see how he was and how we treated him made them be more sensitive to people with needs. My daughter (Alana) actually wants to work with special-needs people. I think they saw he was a special person,” Alexander said.
“The successes Jim had were an underpinning of the understanding and loving home he was placed in. It’s my belief God doesn’t make mistakes” Lowe said. “Jim had a special purpose in life and it was to open people’s minds about handicaps and to show people how to love and be a friend.”