“Big Jim” Wangeman – a love story

Press file photo

Harvest Park Bowl owner Jim Wangeman, right, with Liberty Head Coach Ryan Partridge.

This is a story of perseverance, survival and love — Big Jim’s story.

Jim Wangeman was born May 26, 1938, in Eagle Rock, California, a suburb of Los Angeles. He was the first child to survive for more than a year, after his parents had already lost two sons. Jim himself was only 4 pounds at birth and spent the first two months of life in an incubator. He was not expected to live.  

For most in East Contra Costa County, “Big Jim” is known for bringing bowling into the community. He is the founder and owner of Harvest Park Bowl, but like so many in our community, his passions and journey to who and where he is today lie much deeper.

Though his father, Otto Wangeman, was from Kansas, and his mother, Coralie Delay, grew up in Omaha, Nebraska, the couple found each other in the heart of Los Angeles.

Otto, a star athlete, was recruited to USC and played fullback on the USC football team with teammate Marion Morris, also known as “John Wayne.”

Coralie, a talented singer, like so many young, beautiful girls of the early 1930s, chased her dream and moved to LA on her own to be discovered. For a time, she reached that dream, singing for Paul Whiteman and his orchestra, the most popular band of the 1920s.

Jim’s grandfather, a renowned inventor, worked on the China Clipper, the first of three four-engine flying boats and one of the largest planes of its time — built for Pan American Airways and used to inaugurate the first commercial transpacific airmail service from San Francisco to Manila. His grandmother was active in women’s groups to bring change for women.  

Perhaps this combination of talent, intelligence and perseverance are the ingredients that formulated the survival skills Big Jim possesses to pull him through each of his life’s challenges

From being a premature baby barely surviving his first year of life, Jim, at 7 years old, contracted the crippling, often deadly disease, polio. For one month, he lived in an iron lung, a machine used for patients unable to breathe after the virus paralyzed muscle groups in the chest. Though the pressurized machine is meant to reduce pain, Jim suffered agonizing pain from the disease. From the iron lung, Big Jim graduated to leg braces and for six months worked on walking again.

Like his father, who played four sports at USC as well as professional basketball, Big Jim was an athlete. Though he did not have the agility in his legs, he still was a center linebacker in high school and a powerful force on his team. By this point, he had already lost his father, a police officer with the Los Angeles Police Department, who was injured in the line of duty and suffered a leg injury that ultimately took his life.  

Also like his father, in Jim’s senior year, he was severely kicked in the leg on a play, causing him to pass out.  The injury was so damaging that the shoe of the opposing player cut through Jim’s leg and caused blood poisoning. The blue dye from the shoe had entered Jim’s blood stream. The injury escalated to gangrene and was life threatening.

In the hospital, Jim had died, but at 17 years old, he was brought back to life.

The doctor believed that to save Jim, his leg would have to be amputated. Jim’s mother, a devout Catholic, had already been through this agony with his dad and the injury that killed him.

She replied to the doctor, “Jimmy is in God’s hands. You will not amputate his leg.”

In November 1955, Jim was released from the hospital, both legs intact.   

After Jim’s father had died, his mother remarried and moved the family to Redwood City in the Bay Area. They chose Redwood City because the LA smog was affecting one of Jim’s brothers who suffered from asthma, and Redwood City was known for the best climate and air quality through regional tests. Sadly, Jim’s mother had a massive heart attack in February 1956, Jim’s senior year of high school. She died and left Jim’s stepfather as the appointed legal guardian, after which he took the family money and left Jim to survive on his own.  

With no money after graduation in 1956, Jim joined the Air Force. At first stationed locally in Merced at Castlewood Air Force Base, he was able to marry his high school girlfriend before shipping out to Guam where he served for a year and a half. With no opportunity to return home, it was the Red Cross that notified him when his wife gave birth to their first of four children.

In 1959, Big Jim returned back to the states to be stationed in Riverside, Southern California. It was there he was put in Strategic Air Command and trained to be in the Air Police Unit. At the time, Jim’s goal was to follow his father’s steps to be a police officer.

This duty was perfect, but life’s dreams change.

Instead, with a family now of three children and a wife to financially support, his career path took him to the stability of PG&E. Though he was not truly challenged in his desk job, it paid the bills.  But when his fourth child was born, even this position was not enough to support four children and a stay-at-home mother. It was time to pick up a second job.

In 1968, on Saturday nights, Big Jim became the blue chip clerk for San Jose Fiesta Bowl.   

The story continues with part two here.

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