Adoption and foster parenting have forever shaped the long and rich life of James “Jim” Humphrey. At 79 years and counting, the towering former farm boy lives his Catholic faith with the same fortitude and generous hospitality that defined his childhood on a Montana farm.
Married at age 21, he and his wife Myra were unable to conceive but eager to become parents.
When they heard that a newborn baby was expected to be available for adoption, they drove 400 miles to Helena. Returning with their day-old son, Steven, was the beginning of family life for the young couple.
Today, Humphrey’s tidy Wasilla home remains a version of the “domestic church,” welcoming friends and the children he has either adopted or raised through foster care.
Humphrey sat down with the Catholic Anchor to share his journey of faith, and the experience of adoption and foster parenting over the past half century.
The eldest of four sons, Humphrey recalled growing up with a faith-filled mother who urged him to both daily prayer and a strong work ethic.
At age 15, he lost his mother to cancer when she was 42. Witnessing her final words, “Oh, how beautiful,” struck Humphrey to his core.
“Her saying that, those words changed my life — to become a Catholic,” he said. “That meant there was something beyond normal daily life.”
Returning from Kansas to Montana by train after his mother’s funeral, he met two nuns, who gave him rosaries and taught him how to pray. He was catechized during his high school years, and later baptized in Montana.
After working as a foreman with the Great Northern Railway, Humphrey accepted a position with the Alaska Railroad in the summer of 1968. Along with his wife Myra and son Steve, Humphrey “spent two winters at the tunnel doors” of Whittier, overseeing accessibility and maintenance for the world’s longest highway tunnel.
He later worked with the railroad north of Fairbanks, where he and his wife Myra adopted their infant daughter, Roxanne. Moving to Wasilla in 1975, they joined Sacred Heart Church.
Raising children in Alaska was “the best thing I could have ever done,” Humphrey reflected. Fishing, hunting and tending his one-acre lot filled the family’s leisure time.
His son Steve recalls the material sacrifices made on their behalf, in order to provide them comfort and stability. The elder Humphrey worked hard but also took time to pitch baseball games for his children, catching hardballs in his bare hand, while they used mitts.
While Steve later fell into substance abuse during high school, bringing sorrow to Humphrey and his wife for many years, he turned his life around 11 years ago. Now unshackled from addiction, Steve offers aid to others. His own teenage son is discerning confirmation and Steve serves in the same Knights of Columbus council as his father.
Of his prodigal son’s redemption, the elder Humphrey summarized with wry pride, “He turned out to be a pretty good boy.”
Building a family through adoption was not a particularly unique challenge, according to Humphrey, who views hardship with a kind of resolute cheer.
A wholesome character comes from being a good Catholic, he advised.
“You don’t have to have a wild life,” Humphrey said. “Go to church, follow the church rules, keep the Ten Commandments.”
Humphrey spent more than 20 active years with the Knights of Columbus, particularly enjoying his time in the kitchen for holiday meals hosted by the Knights. He speaks with joy about celebrations involving children, leading processions in full regalia for the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts over the years, and preparing confirmation retreat dinners.
Although still physically towering, and capable of driving himself to Mass, Humphrey’s daily life has slowed down as he pushes 80. When not busy with commitments outside the home, he now welcomes visitors.
His legacy is visible. His stepson serves with the Alaska National Guard as a flight mechanic. His grandson Eddie lives with him, tending to the mail and household chores after coming home from work, and adopted son Steve sees his duty to his father as a natural progression, coordinating everything from hunting trips to medical appointments.
“He put that time in for me, a lifetime of it — now it’s my turn,” Steve said.
Humphrey says he appreciates the relative bustle of company, especially after being widowed for the second time in 30 years with the death of his second wife Greta in 2016. Together they were foster parents for four sons, all teenagers.
“It feels good to have someone to talk to,” adding that he prays the rosary daily for his kids, the family members he has buried, as well as for the visitors who drop by regularly.
When it comes to his philosophy about adopting children and charitable volunteering, he holds to the simple Gospel.
“Hey, that is life!” he said. “You do it because it needs to get done. There are so many kids who need strong family life.”