James Dennis Blackburn, 85, died unexpectedly but peacefully at home of natural causes on Thursday, November 25, 2021, at the side of his beloved wife of 65 years, Miriam.
He was born on September 15, 1936, to James Lee and Ruby Kallenbach Blackburn. He entered the world in the family home near Etterville, Miller County, Missouri, unassisted by a doctor and weighing more than 11 pounds. He was an only child.
J.D., as he was called as a child, spent his youth working on the family farm and going to school in one-room schoolhouses and later in nearby Eldon, where he excelled in both academics and baseball. He also worked at the Eldon Advertiser, doing everything from setting type to reporting and photographing local events. A talented amateur guitar player and singer, he was proud of having been invited to join country music singer Porter Wagoner's band. His mother nixed the proposal.
After graduating from high school at age 16, J.D., now going by Jim, attended junior college for two years before matriculating at Central College, in Fayette, MO. Here he met his future wife, Miriam Shirley Foreman, and they were married on January 26, 1957, immediately upon completing their coursework for graduation.
The young couple moved to Versailles, MO, to pursue their careers in education. After the birth of their first two children, Joni and Mary Anne, they moved to Troy, MO, where Jim pursued his lifelong passion for teaching and education, working at the local high school and taking graduate classes during the summers. In 1970, he moved his family, now including sons James and John ("Fritz"), to Chapel Hill, NC, where in 1973, he received a doctorate in Education from the University of North Carolina. Soon after, Jim accepted a position at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. He eventually moved to Birmingham-Southern College, where he taught future teachers courses in the history, sociology, and philosophy of education.
When he wasn't in the classroom, Jim was an avid student of history, particularly Native American cultures and the American Civil War. Since childhood he had collected and traded arrowheads and other artifacts plowed up in fields by farm implements, and he eventually became an accomplished scholar of the native cultures of the Ozarks.
A strong tradition of storytelling also instilled in him a keen interest in his family history, as he listened to stories by his cowboy grandfather Blackburn of cattle stampedes and encounters with wolves. He also heard tales of his grandfather Kallenbach, who was a Union soldier in the Civil War and died in the influenza pandemic of 1918, as well as his great-great-grandfather Crisp, who was murdered by Confederate bushwackers. Yet another great-grandfather, Anton Nixdorf, practiced medicine in Miller County, including as a Union Army surgeon, and served as a local postmaster for nearly 50 years.
As a young schoolteacher, Jim began spending weekends and summer vacations hunting for early American and Civl War–era firearms, knives, and coins in antiques shops, estate sales, and gun shows, educating himself along the way. He eventually became particularly knowledgeable about colonial-era Kentucky rifles and Civil War side arms and wrote a number of articles for books and magazines about them. At his death, Jim was a highly respected authority on American fixed-blade fighting knives (also known as Bowie knives).
For many years after his retirement from teaching, Jim, with the help of his sons, operated J. Blackburn and Co. Ostensibly a purveyor of fine cigars, pipe tobacco, and smoking accessories, it was packed with antiques and curiosities from his many years of collecting and trading. It also served as a beloved sanctum for gentlemen of a certain age to gather and discuss the issues of the day. An intellectual with a broad base of knowledge, Jim could often be found at the back of the shop in his favorite chair, expounding on everything from Keynesian economics to the relative merits of the Colt model 1860 and Remington Army 44 revolvers. He was also a storyteller whose hilarious anecdotes from his youth—Aunt Helen and the Blacksnake, for example—would have his audience on the floor. On quiet afternoons, he made sure his portable TV was tuned in to Jeopardy!
Jim is survived by his wife, Miriam, his daughters Joni and Mary Anne, sons James and John, son-in-law David Sandlin, daughter-in-law Joy McPeters Blackburn, and two grandsons, Luke Blackburn and James Sandlin. He was deeply loved by all his family and friends and will be cherished in their hearts forever. The family extends special appreciation to his caregiver, Terecita McGee, who helped make his last months more comfortable.
A graveside service will be held at Jefferson Memorial Gardens, in Hoover, AL, on Tuesday, November 30, at 11:00 a.m.
In lieu of flowers, donations may be made to St. Jude's Hospital for Children and the Miller County (Missouri) Historical Society.