Published: June 27, 2006
James F. Lettis, 83, auctioneer and former mayor of the City of Oneonta, died peacefully on Sunday evening, May 14, at the Oneonta Nursing & Rehabilitation Center.
Born in Cooperstown, N.Y., on January 7, 1923, James Frederick Lettis was the first of two sons of Donald and Charlotte Hall Lettis. His maternal grandfather, James D. Hall, an immigrant from Scotland, was the Otsego County treasurer in the 1920s. His paternal grandfather, Frederick Lettis, started the first Ford dealership in Cooperstown in 1916. Jim grew up on Susquehanna Street at a time when a boy wore knickers and, if lucky, kept a pony in his back yard. (The pony was named Tricksy and the adventures were many.)
After graduating from Cooperstown High School in 1940, Jim attended Manlius Military Academy. He entered the United States Army in 1942, serving with the 74th Ordnance Base Supply Company in Honolulu as a post exchange manager. While stationed in Honolulu, Jim’s remarkable tenor voice landed him in the chorus of a Special Services production of The Mikado, where he rubbed shoulders with Carl Reiner, Boris Karloff and Betty Hutton. Jim never tired of recalling those days.
After discharge from the Army, Jim took a job with the D&H Railroad in Oneonta. He also worked with Homer Lyons in the used-furniture business. Around this time he began to learn the art of calling auctions from C.W. Peaslee, a well-known local auctioneer. It was a perfect fit. Jim’s trained singing voice enabled him to call an entire auction with ease and without a microphone, and his people skills allowed him to “work” a crowd to everyone’s benefit. In 1952 he started his own business. Jim became a well-known and respected businessman, and weekly visits to the auction became a tradition for hundreds of area residents. Many local homes were furnished in “early Lettis.” When conservation became popular, Jim liked to point out that he had been in the recycling business years before everyone else.
Jim never abandoned his old-fashioned values. In an increasingly impersonal and litigious world, he continued to do business on a handshake. Many knew that Jim Lettis sometimes paid more for his auction merchandise than the items were worth. More than one elderly person in financial straits benefited from these “lapses” in business judgment. After 50 years and thousands of auctions, Jim sold the business to longtime employee Kevin Herrick but he never retired, continuing to sell for Kevin up to the time of his hospitalization in December.
Jim’s political career began in the early 1960s when he was elected alderman from Oneonta’s old Third Ward, a position he held for eight years. Elected mayor of the city in 1970, he was reelected three times, serving a total of 16 years. Jim’s success as mayor was due in no small part to his ability to work effectively with all sides. He firmly believed that once an election was over it was time to shake hands and work together for the common good. After leaving office Jim continued to lend his voice and influence to a number of community causes.
Over the years Jim was an active volunteer and member of many civic and community organizations, including the Oneonta American Legion and VFW. He held hundreds of benefit auctions for local nonprofits. He also gave of his time in more conventional ways and until his final illness was a regular volunteer at Saturday’s Bread. Of the many awards he received in his life, perhaps none so delighted him as having a soup kitchen refrigerator named in his honor.
Jim remained fond of the town of his youth. He and his brother recently established a nursing scholarship at Cooperstown High School in honor of their mother, Charlotte Lettis, who was supervisor of nurses at Fox Hospital for many years. Jim was proud of his Scots-Irish heritage and in later years enjoyed visits to both Scotland and Ireland. He was also an avid Oneonta Yankees/Tigers baseball fan and held a box seat near home plate for many years.
Jim married the late Eleanor Van Buren in 1946 and together they raised four children. He was a loving and supportive father, proud of the accomplishments of his children and grandchildren.
Jim is survived by his wife, Dorey Munch; his brother, Donald R. “Bob” Lettis, and wife, Grace; his children John F. Lettis and his wife, Marion Shapiro, James C. Lettis, Thomas C. Lettis and his wife, Carla, and Margaret A. Lettis; five grandchildren; two great-grandchildren; two nieces and a nephew and their families; and scores of cousins and distant relatives, many of whom live in the area. He also leaves behind countless friends whom he treasured and who comprised the true center and purpose of his life.
Please share your memories of Jim Lettis in the memorial guestbook at www.lhpfuneralhome.com.
5 Church Hill Road / Newtown, CT 06470
Mon - Fri / 8:00 am - 5:01 pm