An Interview with J. David Nall

John David Nall & James Dean (yearbook)

What was it like growing up in Indiana when you did? What are some of your most fond memories of that time?

I remember with great fondness being part of the Fairmount High School basketball team. I say part because by the time the season started I had been eliminated from the team. I was definitely not an athlete! However, we had a really great coach and before he cut me from the team, he went up to my Mother’s classroom and told her that it was going to happen. He then asked her how she might feel if he offered me the position of “Student Manager.” (That is the individual who attends every game, hands the players a towel and water during time-outs, and washes their uniforms and jock straps) She said yes and frankly I loved the position. Thinking back, however, I realized this was an additional burden on my Mother. Our farm home was 10 miles from the school. The position meant that she had to wait around till after practice, nightly, to take me home. This she did without a word of complaint.

What would you say is the most important thing your mother taught you? What did you love about her most? 

My mother was an incredible woman! Her devotion to those she loved was almost incomprehensible. If she believed in you, as she did in Jim and me, and hundreds of others over her lifetime, she would do anything and everything to help, to coach, to provide inspiration and suggestions—all to help them “move ahead” in the building and maintenance of their life and their careers. Her belief in me, that I would succeed in whatever I chose, was awesome…as it was with Jim.

What was it like to attend a school that had 130 students in all four grades? Do you think such intimate classes make for the best learning environment?

Not necessarily. Even in a large school, if they can hire enough qualified teachers to be able to have classes the size of 20 and 25 students it will work. Unfortunately, that is not always possible in this day and age. Having said that, one of the beauties of Fairmount High School’s small size was that you, literally, knew everyone from Freshmen to Senior and you interacted with them all, in many numbers of ways. For example, Jim and I, though Sophomore and Senior, were both members of the Debate Club which, in itself was only about 10 members. This is simply impossible in today’s 400-600 HS student bodies.

Do you think it is imperative that a person be encouraged to always pursue their interests throughout their lifetime? 

Absolutely! The problem of course, is that in many cases there is no one around to DO the encouraging! Jim and I were extremely fortunate to have a teacher/mother who understood the need to constantly encourage us (and many, many others) to follow their dreams. The secret is to find that mentor, follow their advice, and make SURE that the mentor knows and understands your quest for success. That quest comes from within. The encouragement come when it is helped by a mentor.

Did you know Jimmy before high school or did you only meet him then?

I first knew Jim when I entered FHS.

What was he like when you first met him? 

I’m afraid that I don’t have a very good answer. In fact, I don’t remember the first day I met Jim. Remember that was almost 65 years ago.

However, the fact that I don’t remember would probably mean that he was just another Junior that was harassing me and the other 35 or so classmates of mine who had just reported to our first day of High School as Freshmen.

The school tradition was that the “Newbies” were harassed during that entire day by the other 100 or so upperclassmen. I, for example, had black ink pored over my head just outside the second story window of my Mom’s room. Everyone yelled so that she came to the window to see what had been done! As you can imagine, I have NO IDEA who did it, but at least I joined in to the laughter. However, it took a couple of months to grow my hair back out to its natural blond.

Adeline Nall & Jimmy Dean

Adeline Nall & Jimmy Dean

Aside from your similar interests what was it that first drew you to him?

Actually, I’m not sure when our acquaintance began but I’m sure it took place either on the basketball court or in one of the areas that were under Mom’s “Wing,” i.e Debate, Public Speaking, Theater etc. Jim and I were never close friends. We never double dated or met after school, unless it was involving some school sponsored activity in the above areas or basketball.

As the two of you shared like interests, did you ever feel the need to compete with one another?

Not really. Jim was recognized as a good actor. And all the big plays were done by class. In other words, there is the Senior Class Play etc. We did compete in the debate club but that would be expected.

Did you and do you admire his dedication to do the best he could in all things? 

Absolutely! Jim would never give up! Once, during basketball practice (before I was cut) our coach had the first team (of which Jim was a member) play against the second team which I was on.  As such, Jim was assigned to guard me. The coach said, “If any second team member makes a basket, his guard will do 30 laps!” As luck would have it, shortly thereafter, I put the ball in the hoop and Jim then began to run the required laps, to the laughter of everyone! When he finished, he came over in front of me, dropped to both knees, and dramatically with great humor, pleaded that I not do it again. However, he then turned to the coach and asked if he could continue to guard me. He did and expertly! This was Jim. Never give in! It is what made him an excellent basketball player who, even with his small size and limited abilities, developed into a team leader!

What was he like as an individual? 

Jim was not the life of the party. Actually, I would call him shy. He was always in a hurry. He, on his motorcycle, was always on the move. I don’t know who he dated, but I’m sure he did. In a sense he was a loner, but no one would accuse him of that. He knew he was good at what he did. He was a superb artist and his paintings were lovely. He would always go one step beyond! For example, during the second intermission of the Senior Class Play, Mom was presented with a lovely flower. Unbeknown to all (except Jim and Mom) Jim had whisked it away from her and returned it the next morning with a beautiful picture for her…“to keep it forever” as he said when he, privately, gave it back to her. He did not anger quickly, but when he did…look out! You may know the story of his fight with, I believe, Dave Fox, who was taunting Jim during his practice of The Mad Man’s Story in one of Mom’s classes. A fight broke out after class when Jim really lit into Dave. Jim was suspended from school (for three days). In typical fashion, however, they both continued as friends, and Jim, in the Year Book willed his “Anger to Dave Fox.”


Jimmy’s artwork of Adeline Nall’s orchid, on which he wrote “her pride”

Adeline Nall & JD's orchid

Adeline Nall with her orchid from Jimmy

Do you think the fame aspect of his life often overshadows the greatness of who he was as a person? 

Not necessarily. Jim had recognizable talent at FHS. His dedication and determination to move into the theatrical world was not a surprise at all to Mom, who probably knew him best. I believe that the fame aspect of his life was because of the greatness of who he was as a person.

What was he like as a friend? 

As implied above, I think of Jim more as a guy, or an acquaintance, I knew in high school, who with a lot of help (which started with my Mother) became one of America’s all time, finest actors. I remember returning home from college shortly after the release of, I believe, East of Eden, when Jim was in Fairmount visiting the Winslows. (Perhaps you have seen the picture of Jim holding his cap in his hand, rather formally, standing next to a Pig.  I was grinning at him while standing next to the photographer). That day we spent a couple of hours together reminiscing about our days at FHS, his asking me about Wabash College and my current girlfriend.


Are there moments from that friendship that you hold most dear?

Again, I don’t think I would use the word most dear to describe it. However, I do remember, vividly, the period of time that Mom was working with both of us during our joint preparations for the national speech competitions we were both in, and that wonderful day during which we were both competing, and winning, our respective Indiana State competitions. I can still remember arriving home where Jim and Mom were waiting (his competition, which he had won, was in a closer city than mine was). I jumped out of the car and ran toward the front door. Jim leaped over the front porch steps with Mom close behind and the three of us hugged each other because of our combined successes!

What was it like to share a stage with Jimmy?

Well, we only did it once and that was for a Halloween skit named Goon with the Wind in which I played a “Dudley Do-Right” character and Jim, the villain, did as one would expect, a masterful job. Trust me, there was no sharing of the stage! It all belonged to Jim. Every inch of his character was perfectly done from the tweak of his mustache to the delicate pointing of his left hand!

John David Nall & James Dean (onstage)

John David Nall onstage with James Dean in Goon with the Wind

What was that weekend like when you both won state speaking competitions in ’49?

I think I’ve covered most of it above. However, the ongoing preparation for the next stage (which we both, unfortunately, lost) began almost immediately. Literally the next day Mom met with both of us to continue our collective work on polishing our presentations. She was a master at this! Mine was a straightforward presentation. “Speak to the last row in the auditorium, David!” she would say. “Wait for a laugh, should it come, but if it doesn’t, move immediately ahead!” With Jim it was, “As the Madness of your character increases, extend the moment of silence as you stare—widen your eyes—at one member of the audience.” This lady truly was a master in the art of Direction.

Do you have any stories of him you might be at liberty to share with our readers?

I think I’ve provided the best in some of my answers above. However, there is one more that might provide an insight into the appreciation Jim had for my Mom. As you probably already know, after Jim had made it he very strongly urged Mom to give up her teaching profession and move to New York. He went as far as to make sure that his NY agent met and worked with Mom in assisting her to see the right people there to get into the acting profession. There was no reason Jim had to do that. But that was just Jim! Mom was highly honored with his thoughtfulness and consideration, especially since he was on the other side of the nation pursuing a career. Mom DID make it onto the stage of a couple Off Broadway shows, but quickly realized that her talent was on the other side of the camera or in the back of the auditorium. Directing, coaching, and teaching her student to exceed in whatever was their planned profession.

What would you say is the most important thing you learned from Jimmy?

Well as you can see from the above, I’m not sure I can give anything but a qualified answer. Certainly, to feel and thoroughly enjoy the sheer happiness of winning, and I should say, the absolute dedication to perfecting our craft whatever that might be

Do you think Adeline sort of filled a mothering role for him in a way?

It was not so much of a “mothering” role but more of a highly qualified coach and directing mentor.

Did he ever speak to you of Mildred? 

No, never. I didn’t even know her name. It may have been that Jim and I were never that close in our friendship.

Did he ever talk of things like love, life, dreams, death, and the things that matter most? What did he like to speak of most?

Again, Jim and I were never that close of friends (probably the fact that I was two years younger, me being a Sophomore and him a Senior). Actually, I must admit that I really don’t know who his close friends were.

Do you think it is fair to say that he was an even more complex individual than he is given credit for?

While it is quite possible, I don’t think I am qualified to say.

How do you think he would have liked to be remembered if he had any say in the matter?

I, personally, think he would be absolutely delighted to be remembered in the exact way he is being remembered. He is, in my mind and without any qualification, the finest movie actor that the world has ever been privileged to know and see. The fact that so many people keep his memory alive and have great joy in knowing of his short, but splendid, life would make him extremely happy!



A revealing essay Jimmy was assigned to write at Fairmount High:

James Dean's Essay


The above conversation was conducted with J. David Nall, V. P. of Marketing of Aetna Insurance, Int. (Retired). In that role, thanks to the incredible training and education in forensics and public speaking provided by his truly amazing mother, he has made numerous presentations to audiences in the U.S. and around the world. To fans of James Dean, however, he is known as the son of Adeline Mart Nall, the lady who instilled in Jimmy the confidence that he could become an actor. A high school friend of Jimmy’s, as mentioned above, they both won Indiana State Speech Competitions the same weekend in 1949. It is an honor to be able to hear some of those memories recounted fondly by David and to offer them up to you the reader. 



2 thoughts on “An Interview with J. David Nall

  1. Phillip Cohen says:

    You sure work hard to find your information.
    Great article.

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