With 99 well-lived years to reflect on, James “Jim” Jenson now leads a quiet life near downtown Los Altos.
Moving from Los Altos Hills with his wife, Helen, 22 years ago, Jenson maintained an active lifestyle until recently, and he still enjoys the company of friends and family, walks to DeMartini Orchard and has an excellent memory. Helen died in 2010, but his three children are frequent visitors from their homes in Houston, Sonora and Colorado. Jenson also has four grandchildren and four great-grandchildren.
Born in Almena, Kan., Jenson’s father was the attorney for Gove County. Jenson attended the University of Kansas for college and law school, interrupted by World War II.
“Pearl Harbor was Dec. 7. I signed up with the Navy Dec. 27,” he said, describing a program that allowed him to finish his senior year of college, then undergo training and come out as an ensign.
Jenson was first assigned to a battleship, the USS Nevada, as a gunnery officer. After a trip to the Aleutians, where the Japanese had occupied a couple of islands, they went through the Panama Canal and began a series of trips back and forth between Europe and the United States, protecting convoying troop ships.
Once Europe was secured, the ship was sent to the West Coast, he said, and he was transferred off. He then attended a training school in Coronado.
“I was training to be a spotter, or a forward observer for naval gunfire. I would be attached to the Army,” he said. “I was attached to the 594th JASCO (Joint Assault Signal Company), and at that time it was in Okinawa.”
Jenson flew from Pearl Harbor to Guam, and then went by troop ship to Okinawa, where he and two others joined their unit, after some difficulty. Quartered in “a burned-out Navy house,” from the roof he said they could see Iwo Jima and the kamikaze attacks on the ships there.
“There was a small island off the bank. … We got bombed every night,” he said. “They were signaling the bombers with flashers, where they were and where we were.”
When Okinawa was secured, their group was sent to Panay, Philippines, for training. It was there they got word the war had ended, but transportation home proved a hot commodity.
“There was a song,” Jenson recalled, singing: “I’ll be overseas – always, with the rats and fleas – always. This rotation plan I don’t understand. I’ll be overseas – always, always.”
Life back home
After two or three months in the Philippines, Jenson boarded a troop ship for the 30-day voyage home. He was put up in a hotel in San Francisco while he waited for orders. It was a fortuitous stopover. He ended up dating Helen “for 10 straight nights,” he said. “The last night, we were sitting on the steps and I said, ‘You know, I may never see you again – why don’t you marry me?’ … She said, ‘OK.’”
Once back in Kansas, Jenson went to law school, began practicing law and started a family. After five years, they moved to California, initially Menlo Park. He tried – and later heard – cases for the National Labor Relations Board. He was an attorney for 15 years and a federal administrative law judge for 23.
In 1966, the Jensons moved to Los Altos Hills, where they resided for 31 years. Nearly half their property was apricot trees.
“I got the family involved,” he reminisced. “I built 12 trays, built a little smoke shed to put them in. You smoke the apricots in sulfur. I would do that and then the family would do the cutting and load up the trays. I would put them into the little shed to get sulfurized, then I would take them and put them on the roof to dry. Then we would package them, put them in the freezer, and give them to all our friends at Christmastime.”
He also enjoyed maintaining the orchard on weekends.
“I rototilled the ground, pruned the trees … sprayed them if they needed spraying,” he said. “I took care of them. I loved it. I’ve always liked work.”
He had a dog, Alphie.
“Got him at the pound – he was a great dog,” he said. “I took him (to town) on the weekends. If you live up in the hills here, you always have to go to the hardware store and the plumbing store, and so I’d take Alphie with me. We always stopped at Baskin-Robbins or Clint’s Ice Cream. I’d buy two cones – I’d lick one and he’d lick the other.”
Keys to longevity
After retirement, Jenson took a memoir-writing class at the Los Altos Senior Center.
“You have to read what you write,” he said. “So I had written this part about dating Helen for 10 days and then asking her to marry me. The teacher interrupted me and she said, ‘And Mr. Jenson, how long did that marriage last?’ I said, ‘Well, 59 years so far.’ We were married 66 years!”
In addition to a busy work and home life, Jenson always enjoyed physical activity. He and Helen were avid tennis players, and Jenson was also a big swimmer.
“(Daughter) Paige gave me a membership to the Y in the City one Christmas – that’s when I started swimming. I loved swimming – I would swim a half-mile one day, a mile the next. Throw in a couple of miles of running sometimes. I did a lot of different stuff.”
A last key to longevity? Perhaps the nightly glass of white wine he treats himself to.
Gratitude also seems a binding thread in Jenson’s life.
“My kids take awfully good care of me,” he said.