James P. Gooley would sit with a Muriel cigar in his mouth and a history book on his lap and regale friends and family with stories — of his time guarding German war prisoners, of shooting rats “as big as dogs” on the banks of the Pasig River in the Philippines, and of helping poor families on relief in Minneapolis after World War II.

Gooley died March 29, at age 86, but friends and family say his stories will live forever.

The tales were so riveting that his son, Jim Gooley, wrote a 380-page thriller, “Guarding the Ghost,” inspired by his father’s true-life account of guarding German prisoners of war on American soil.

“No one could spin a yarn like [James] Gooley,” said the Rev. Joseph Gillespie, a longtime friend and pastor of St. Albert the Great Catholic Church in Minneapolis. “It was part of who he was and why he was so endearing.”

Born in 1927, the son of a sheet metal worker from north Minneapolis, Gooley came of age at a time when large public programs for the poor were just being conceived. After studying briefly to be a priest, then serving in the Army, Gooley spent three decades as a social worker for city and county social service agencies. He oversaw the Minneapolis Welfare Department in the 1960s, when it was located just a few blocks from Minneapolis’s old skid row, a dense area of charity missions and flophouses that was later demolished.

Back then, dispensing welfare benefits was much less formal. If a poor woman walked in to the city welfare office needing clothes, a social worker would give her a $4 voucher to buy a coat at a local Sears store. Gooley put an end to some of the looser practices, such as staff handing out cash to people at the front desk, said Marilyn Gooley, his wife of 58 years.

When Hennepin County absorbed the city welfare department in the early 1970s, Gooley worked diligently to negotiate favorable terms for the 105 city workers affected — securing pay raises and better benefits, recalled Marv Haas, 86, who worked with Gooley. “[James] was a class act who always took care of his people,” Haas said. “If he had any enemies, I don’t know who they would have been.”

But it was Gooley’s military service, and the stories that arose from it, that many in his family most remember.

There was the time that Gooley returned to his tent in the Philippines to discover that a bullet had ripped through his tent and left a hole in his pillow.

“What kids get today in the movies, we got in the living room,” said Jim Gooley, a development officer at the University of St. Thomas.

Five years ago, the younger Gooley decided to write a thriller based on his father’s brief experience guarding German prisoners of war at Camp Robinson in Arkansas. At the height of World War II, the U.S. held some 425,000 prisoners, mostly German, in more than 500 prisoner of war camps.

In his book, Gooley depicted his father as a German prisoner who escapes from a camp and then spends the rest of his life trying to hide his secret. Gooley surprised his dad with the book on Father’s Day three years ago. “I’m just glad he got to read it before he died,” Gooley said.

In his later years, Gooley helped found “Holy Smokers,” a looseknit group of local Catholics who gather once a month to smoke cigars and swap stories. Gooley was notorious for bringing cheap, 50-cent cigars, which he dubbed “el cheapos,” and telling yarns until well past dusk.

Once, one of the gatherings got so loud that neighbors called police to the Gooley home, according to Gillespie, a “Holy Smoker” member. When the cops arrived, Gooley just handed them cigars and urged them to join the party.


Chris Serres: 612-673-4308