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An Angel on Grandin

James Tarpley keeps watch over Grandin Road.
James Tarpley keeps watch over Grandin Road.

The first time I saw the “Angel of Grandin Road,” he was in the parking lot of the 7-11 on Grandin picking up cigarette butts, candy wrappers and old scratch tickets. He was tall, dark and handsome, but very unassuming in his boots and winter cap with ear flaps.

His slightly aged, bony countenance engrossed in street maintenance fooled me for a minute. I knew the owners of the 7-11 were always polite to the homeless and the mentally ill. Funny, how easy it is to judge a book by what you assume is its cover. I thought that the African-American man bent over in his cleaning mission was a destitute, homeless person cleaning the streets for a bit of extra cash.

Boy was I wrong about James Hunter Tarpley, 77, otherwise known by many as the Angel of Grandin Road.

Little did I know that there is an immaculate park for children (a block down from the Memorial Street Fire Station) named the James Tarpley Memorial Park in his honor, and that there are two stars smack dab in front of the Grandin Theatre with his name inscribed on them.

“James is an honorary employee at Valley Bank,” said Susan Stump, a bank executive and president of the Grandin Village Business Association. “We love him as much as he loves us; we’re a black and white family.”

Not too long ago Tarpley chased a robber down the street and held him until the police arrived. He’s ended the careers of a few notorious purse-snatchers in the area, forced teens off the roof of the market, and generally made sure that peace and order is kept throughout the neighborhood.

“We’re family,” said Tarpley with pride in his brown eyes. “I sort of watch out for the neighborhood and the bank, and they work with me too — just like a family. Why, they’re as close to me as my own brothers and sisters.”

Additional “family members” include all those in the Greater Raleigh Court Civic League and other area residents like Wade Whitehead, who has known Tarpley for over seven years.

“James Tarpley stands for all that is good in the world,” said Whitehead.

“He cares about human beings and works to ensure their safety and happiness.  He is a role model for all of us, young and old alike.”

A few years ago, James visited a yard sale that Whitehead’s family was having.  He asked Whitehead’s son to pick out anything he wanted.  His son chose a toy that the family was selling and James purchased it for him at full price.

“James would not take no for an answer,” Whitehead said. “So there was no hope of canceling the sale. My son proudly took his toy back into the house and played with it as if it was brand new.  James has a magic gift to make everyday situations – even including a Saturday morning yard sale – new and interesting.”

The City of Roanoke and many organizations and businesses within the city have given Mr. Tarpley so many awards, medals, birthday parties, and outstanding achievement honorariums over the years that the local media has effectively lost count. Pictures of him in the local news (beaming in one of his Stetsons) might even outnumber photos of Angelina Jolie in the tabloids.

I never imagined that this man who cleans the street could have nearly twenty Davidson’s-brand suits and almost as many shoes as Imelda Marcos lined up in tidy rows in his apartment near the Valley Bank.  He admits that shoes and hats are his weakness. Yet, his primary soft spot is for people.

“I love to make people happy,” Tarpley said from his commodious perch just off Grandin. “I’ll do almost anything for anyone; that’s the way my family was, and that’s the way they raised me.”

Tarpley’s family dates back to at least the 1700’s in Virginia. He was born in ’32 on a farm just outside of Danville, Virginia.

“My grandfather was probably owned by the family of Sonny Tarpley, former Mayor of Salem, Virginia,” Tarpley said. “A lot of people around here recognize the name.”

James Tarpley’s family ran a produce farm in the Danville area until the 1980’s, growing everything from string beans to melons.  The family inherited 700 acres in Pittsylvania County after the Civil War. The 126-year-old Tarpley Baptist Church still stands in Swansonville, Virginia.

“I went to Gretna High School back when it was segregated, then I worked for Trailways before serving in the Korean War,” Tarpley said. “Later I came to Roanoke (about 30 years ago) selling produce. I had also earned a welding license.”

Tarpley was one of nine children reared on the farm in a white clapboard house with a wraparound porch. Today he shares photos of the place where neighbors came from far and wide to visit with his father William Holmes Tarpley and his mother – whose name was, appropriately: Hope Faith Charity Tarpley.

“My family drew people from all around, mostly because of my parents’ kindness,” Tarpley said, describing his mother and father as a warm spot in a cold world.

Sam Oakey wrote “an ode” to Tarpley for his seventy-seventh birthday, referring to him as an angel. Hundreds of letters have poured in thanking the “Angel of Grandin Road” for his many kindnesses over the years. He’s paid for funerals, arranged weddings, planted flowers for the children in the park, dug out Popsicle sticks from a citizen’s commode after a small child had wreaked havoc, helped clean out flooded basements, picked weeds for small businesses, provided counseling for the lonely and depressed, helped the local police, and given faith to the lost.

“I have friends in high places and friends in low places; it makes no difference to me,” Tarpley said.

He’s given loans to the wealthy, who sometimes have no cash flow, and he’s given many a free handout to the poor. His friends include mobsters and hookers along with the faithful.

“I try to see the humanity in everyone,” Tarpley said.

His apartment is a testimony to that philosophy; it’s sort of like a museum displaying not one scrapbook, but many. As I turned the pages, I saw a life dedicated to others, adorned with praises for the man who listens to the sorrows of so many, and isn’t ashamed to pick up their trash as well.

By Mary Ellen Campagna
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