Jerry Payne is a well-known and beloved native of Fairmount, Indiana. He is, of course, the inspiration behind Jerry Payne Days which features a vintage tractor show. He was the owner of the Shell Service Station, which later became, Payne’s Service. Growing up in that same business he became acquainted with James Dean via the friendship of their fathers. It was an honor to have the chance to put some of those memories down in writing. Many thanks to Mark Kinnaman for taking the time to record his answers for me as I couldn’t be there myself.
Tina Ayres: What was it like growing up in Fairmount when you did? What are some of your most fond memories of those days?
Jerry Payne: It was a wonderful experience. I was born in 1939. I got to finish high school at Fairmount High School. Life was simple then. World War II was over and the Korean War hadn’t started yet. Life was simple. It was simple that I can’t explain how simple it was. Anyone could find a job. I had a friend who worked at the RCA the last two years that we were in high school. Fisher Body came to town. One of his friends said, “They’re hiring at Fisher Body. Let’s go put in an application.” They went to put the application in and as soon as they filled it out the guy said, “Do you want to go to work?” So he worked in two factories the same day, and retired from Fisher Body after thirty years of service.
Tina Ayres: What do you love most about living in Fairmount? Why do you think it has such appeal to so many people from all over the world?
Jerry Payne: The most fond memory was that life was simple then. There wasn’t anything that couldn’t be achieved. If you decided to do something you could get it done. It is the hub of the universe. There is no other town this small in the United States that people from all over the world come to visit. It is a friendly place and life is still simple here. People from all over the world come here and enjoy the simple life.
Tina Ayres: What was it like to see your father at work? What would you say is the most important thing you learned from him? How did it feel to follow in his shoes by running the station yourself? Do you ever miss that?
Jerry Payne: It is the hub of the universe. There is no other town this small in the United States that people from all over the world come to visit. It is a friendly place and life is still simple here. People from all over the world come here and enjoy the simple life. The most important thing I learned from him was honesty. Running the station, it was something I grew up around and doing. We served three generations of people in Fairmount and it was probably the most heart wrenching decision that I ever had to make to decide to close.
Tina Ayres: Is it true that he and Winton Dean were friends?
Jerry Payne: Yes.
Tina Ayres: Do you happen to remember the first time you met James Dean?
Jerry Payne: When his mother passed away he came to our house with his father. We spent time just talking. We were always long time friends with the Deans and the Winslows. My grandfather and his grandfather farmed together as well as having a trucking business together. When James Dean went to high school he parked his motorbike here to keep the kids from messing with it. And when I saw him on the screen it was the same guy I saw at my house or at the service station.
Mark Kinnaman: And you sort of married into the Dean family. Your wife was a Dean right?
Jerry Payne: Yes. She and James Dean shared the same great grandfather.
Tina Ayres: I have heard tell that Jimmy would often stop in with his father when Winton would be visiting your father. How would the two of you pass the time on those occasions?
Jerry Payne: Kicking rocks. We lived on a gravel road we’d go out kick rocks. Took a quarter, we lived close to a railroad track, we took a quarter and laid it on the track, let the train run over it and smash it. We talked about whether or not we liked Lee Riders or Levi’s 501’s. He chose Lee Riders because they had a zipper fly he didn’t like the button fly.
Tina Ayres: Do you have any stories to tell of him that people might be surprised to hear?
Jerry Payne: Not really. He was just like anyone who you grew up with that you saw daily or occasionally and when I saw him on the screen I was amazed at how in “Giant” he was introduced with the same sized lettering as Elizabeth Taylor and Rock Hudson.
Mark Kinnaman: Adeline Nall told me, “If you want to see what Jimmy was like watch “East of Eden” because it is just Jimmy on the screen.” Did you think the same thing when you saw it?
Jerry Payne: Oh yeah. Her direction, she was our drama coach and speech teacher, and her direction is to know your lines, know the position that your stage position should be, and just be yourself. As soon as you do something other than that you will look like you are acting. And he blew Lee Strasberg out of the water at the Actor’s Studio in New York by just being himself and taking the direction as he was supposed to be on the stage or on the screen.
Tina Ayres: Did you ever get to see him the few times he made back to Fairmount after becoming an accomplished actor?
Jerry Payne: Yes. They always had a Sweetheart Dance at the high school on Valentine’s Day or near Valentine’s Day. He came by got some gas. Said, “Are you going to the dance?” I said, “No. I got to stay at the station and work.” The photographer was with him. He introduced me to Dennis Stock. They went to the dance. Many, many of my classmates were there and in pictures that Stock took.
Tina Ayres: How did you feel upon learning of his early passing?
Jerry Payne: My mother was friends with the telephone operator in town. When the Winslows got the call that he had been killed the telephone operator called my mother. I can’t remember what time it was. I was in bed asleep. She came in and woke me up and said that Jimmy had died. So we were the second group of people to know of his passing.
Tina Ayres: What is the one thing about him that you remember most?
Jerry Payne: How do you describe what you know about a friend that you’ve had for many years? He was nine years older than I am and he always treated me as an equal. When you were having a conversation with him he was always on stage. He might laugh uncontrollably while you were having a conversation, or he could cry tears just like that. And he might start crying, but he always wants to know what your reaction would be to what he was doing at the time.
Tina Ayres: How do you think he would feel about the annual festival held in his honor?
Jerry Payne: It is awfully hard to say. I don’t know. I wouldn’t be able to answer that. I wouldn’t know how he’d feel.
Tina Ayres: Why do you think people are still so fascinated by his life?
Jerry Payne: He was good looking, very personable, and when you saw him on screen you were looking at what James Dean would be like if you were talking to him. Our nephew Victor Dean and our daughter Jenny Payne were born on February 8 like he was so February 8 is an important date in the Payne and Dean family.
Tina Ayres: As someone who has been blessed with a long life, what do you think is the key to a life well lived?
Jerry Payne: Honesty.
Tina Ayres: How do you hope to be remembered when your own time comes?
Jerry Payne: I just want to be remembered as plain Jerry Payne.
Mark Kinnaman: Who sold candy to the kids? You told me one time you sold as much candy as you did gasoline.
Jerry Payne: Almost. Sold a lot of candy. The grade school is just a block away and the high school was two blocks away. Sold three musketeers bars to Jim Davis, the Garfield creator. It was always good to visit with the kids when they came through. There are people who have been candy customers here that have told one or two generations after who I am and I have complete strangers say, “Oh hi Jerry.” It makes me wonder how they would know me without me knowing them. That is part of Fairmount’s friendliness. Everybody in Fairmount is very, very friendly and we welcome everyone that we see that comes through town. When the station was open, after James Dean’s death we knew every car in town and anyone that was a strange car would pull up and without them asking I’d say, “Okay, turn here…go out follow main street on out to the cemetery go across the little bridge to the first driveway that goes in, turn right and his grave his right on top of the hill on the right hand side. Fairmount has always been a very, very friendly place to live and as with all little town if you don’t know what you are doing your neighbor does and they will tell you. When the Museum (The Fairmount Historical Museum) was founded by Hugh Caughill and Harry Mahoney, they did research and there are more people from Fairmount who have changed the world, the way it is than any other place per capita in the United States. There has been authors, there have been artists, Olive West is an artist that is known worldwide, and Mary Jane Ward is now being given credit for psychiatry as we know it today from her book “The Snakepit.”