James G. Person became known as the “Grand Marshal” of Bassmaster Classics, volunteering for perhaps the most championships ever and riding alongside numerous champions.
Person, of Jacksonville, N.C., died Nov. 10, three weeks shy of his 75th birthday. Person instilled his love of fishing to his two sons, five grandchildren and his wife of 50 years.
“It wasn’t long enough for me,” his widow, Sarah, said of her time with James. “He always fished. He loved fishing. He also loved volunteering his time to work at the Bassmaster Classic. He only had one week of vacation a year, and he would take that one week wherever the Classic was.”
Person’s interest peaked after attending his first Classic at Virginia’s James River in the late 1980s as a spectator. Through his bass club, Person volunteered to work the 1994 High Rock Classic out of Greensboro, N.C. Most every year after, he ventured to Classic week.
“The last number I remember him saying was 25,” Sarah said. “Nobody else did that. Nobody else does that for his vacation. It’s what he wanted to do.”
Trip Weldon, the longtime B.A.S.S. tournament director who retired in 2021, fondly remembered Person, although he added it’s hard to say if he holds the volunteer record.
“It’s going to be close. We used to talk about that,” Weldon said. “He was a faithful volunteer at the Classic — he loved it and we loved him.”
Person had become such a familiar face at Classics that he was grandfathered in when B.A.S.S. began charging to be an observer in competitors’ boats.
“Everybody who knows James and knows his story probably says, ‘You can’t charge him,” Weldon said. “He was a great human being, had a real quiet demeanor, real easy going.”
Except for two years when he stayed home taking care of his ailing wife, Person was a friendly face at Classics until 2021. After the two nearby High Rock Classics, Person wasn’t certain he’d travel to more but was asked to come work the 1996 Classic on Lay Lake.
“The person in charge of volunteers, the president in Alabama, wrote him a letter and asked him if he would join as a volunteer,” Sarah said. “He had met him in Greensboro, and that’s really why he started going to all of them, from that one invitation.”
Working as an automotive technician, Person saved money for his trips. Sarah said profit from a rental house went into a Classic kitty. It paid off as he was in the boat with a handful of Classic champions, beginning with Bryan Kerchal in 1994. Kerchal was the only B.A.S.S. Nation qualifier to win, and he died months later in an airplane tragedy.
“It hurt (James) so badly when he got killed. That was so devasting for him and me,” Sarah said. “I had met him, too. That was just so sad.”
At the 2016 Classic at Oklahoma’s Grand Lake, Person was interviewed by Tulsa’s Newson6.com. The TV piece noted it was his 20th championship and included a shot of Person’s notebook with a handwritten list of who he rode with as an on-the-water observer. Along with Kerchal’s name were Classic champs Rick Clunn, Mark Davis, Denny Brauer, Jay Yelas, Takahiro Omori, Randy Howell, Cliff Pace and Kevin VanDam.
“Mostly just eyes and ears,” Person said on the report about his duties. “One thing, they can’t get out of the boat.”
Person also drove the tow rigs and launched his angler before settling into their boat. Weldon said it was ironic, him being a mechanic, that one time he missed a turn in Birmingham, got separated from the police escort convoy and the truck he was driving broke down.
“We always watched the Bassmasters on TV, but being able to be up close and personal, that was the excitement,” Sarah said. “Then to be able to ride in the boats. Sometimes they would talk and give him ideas, and sometimes they’d give him a lure or two.”
While it was her husband’s thing, Sarah said she and the boys enjoyed the vacations, too. They flew to the far-off venues like Texas. She would usually drive him where he needed to be, the boatyard or bus, then either head back to bed or sightsee.
“I enjoyed it so much,” she said. “In places like Alabama, I got to do a lot of touring. There were a lot of historic places there I liked seeing. Sometimes we would stay an extra day to visit.
“I enjoyed seeing him happy. That was his vacation and he loved it. It was just about him being happy. I could do anything. But this is what he enjoyed doing, and it was just for him. It was our family vacation. When the kids grew, it was just me and him.”
Sarah knew fishing was in her future even before marrying. After exchanging vows, Sarah said they moved three hours away from their parents in Carthage, N.C., to Onslow County, where he worked on cars while she taught high school English.
“As soon as he got a job and started talking to other guys, he had to get a boat,” Sarah said. “He taught me how to fish. I loved it. He taught our sons how to fish.”
Honoring both their fathers — “Everybody is James in our family” — the Persons named their sons James and Jamel, “an l instead of an s.” Sarah said. “James loves it like his daddy does. He’s still fishing for enjoyment.”
Keeping fishing in the family, Person outfitted his grandchildren with tackle, purchased them North Carolina Lifetime fishing licenses and took them on outings where he taught them to fish. Sarah sent in numerous photos James took of his grandkids fishing.
Sarah said, “When he passed away, that same night, my grandson told his dad, ‘Now you’re going to have to take me fishing. That’s what grandpa did.’”