HOULTON, Maine — For Mark Jago, the former headmaster of Greater Houlton Christian Academy, memories of 1st Lt. James Zimmerman are both plentiful and powerful.
Jago watched the 25-year-old GHCA graduate and U.S. Marine, who was killed in Afghanistan on Tuesday, grow up inside the classroom and out on the playground with his five daughters. He helped guide him through some tough academic years and smiled broadly when he turned Zimmerman’s tassel on graduation day in 2003.
Jago has since left the school to serve as Recreational Outreach Center director at Messiah Christian Church in Wells, but geography has not lessened the sense of loss he and his family feel since learning of Zimmerman’s death.
“James was a man who wanted to serve his country, his God and his fellow soldiers,” said Jago, who was headmaster at the private, pre-kindergarten-through-grade-12 Christian school for approximately 16 years. “He was a young man of faith, and the faith he had has placed him in heaven. He was, quite simply, a fine young man.”
Military officials said Zimmerman died Tuesday while conducting combat operations in Helmand province. He was based at Camp Lejeune, N.C., and assigned to 2nd Battalion, 6th Marine Regiment, 2nd Marine Division, II Marine Expeditionary Force.
Zimmerman’s entire family is heavily involved in life at GHCA. Zimmerman’s father, Tom Zimmerman, is the assistant head of the school. His mother, Jane, is a nurse with Visiting Nurses of Aroostook and works with music students at the school. The couple lives in Smyrna Mills.
James Zimmerman’s sister, Meagan Foster, is a fifth-grade teacher at Greater Houlton Christian Academy. His brother-in-law, Nathan Foster, teaches fourth grade at the school. He also has a brother, Christian Zimmerman.
Jago said Thursday that Zimmerman came over to his house a lot when he was younger, describing him as a youngster who was “full of life” and who “had a smile about him that could look mischievous at times.”
“He absolutely loved to play Army as a little boy,” he said. “He was always out in the woods pretending to play survival games. He was just a fun kid, and a young man of integrity. Even when he had done something wrong, he looked me in the eye and owned up to it.”
At GHCA, he said, Zimmerman was a leader in his class, even though school was tough at times.
“School came hard to him, but James worked hard,” said Jago. “He set a goal for himself early of becoming a Marine officer. That goal drove him, so he worked hard to achieve it. His parents were right there with him the whole time, guiding him, encouraging him, praying for him. Tom and Jane Zimmerman lead a God-centered family. Their children are their life.”
At school, he played basketball and soccer, never becoming a standout athlete but always grasping the concept of team, according to Jago. On graduation day, he recalled, Zimmerman had a milewide smile as he gave Jago a firm handshake when he got his diploma.
“We didn’t exchange a word, because we didn’t need to,” he said. “It was the fulfillment of a dream for James. He set a goal to finish and finish well, and that is what he did.”
Ryan Carmichael, a Houlton resident who attended school with Zimmerman during their elementary years, remembered the him as the first friend he ever had.
“He always had a smile on his face, and he made sure that you fit in,” Carmichael said Thursday. “He never left anyone out. He was always active, always doing something, and he was usually making someone laugh.”
Carmichael moved to a different school and lost touch with Zimmerman for a time, but they reconnected by chance recently when Carmichael was working at Maine Maritime Academy in Castine. Zimmerman attended a dance at the school in his Marine uniform.
“We were so happy to see each other,” he recalled. “He was really happy about being a Marine.”
Carmichael said he was “shocked” to learn that Zimmerman had been killed.
“I wish I had gotten to spend more time with him,” he said. “I am proud of him and proud of what he has done for us. I’m proud to say that I had a friend who died to protect us.”
Gov. John Baldacci and members of the state’s congressional delegation reacted Thursday to Zimmerman’s death. Baldacci called him “an American hero,” adding that he would order flags flown at half-staff on the day of the Marine’s funeral.
“His tragic death is a reminder of the great sacrifices required of our men and women in uniform and their families,” said Baldacci, “We will keep Lt. Zimmerman’s family and friends in our thoughts and prayers during this terrible time.”
“I am deeply saddened to learn of the death of Lt. Zimmerman,” said U.S. Sen. Susan Collins. “He served our nation courageously, and I join the people of Maine in being forever grateful for his brave service and selfless sacrifice to our country. My thoughts and prayers are with his family, friends, and loved ones who have suffered this tragic loss.”
“My thoughts and prayers are with the family and loved ones of 1st Lt. Zimmerman, who tragically gave his life while heroically defending our nation in Afghanistan,” said U.S. Sen. Olympia Snowe. “He represented our country in the finest spirit and tradition of Marines who have woven the fabric of America’s greatness from generation to generation and his courageous actions will never be forgotten and stand as an enduring testament to what is best about our land.”
John Bishop, the current head of GHCA, said Thursday that students and staff at the school are already thinking about steps they can take to honor Zimmerman’s memory.
“We have a small, intimate school here, so we are very much like family,” said Bishop. “As a family, we laugh together at times and cry together at times. This is a crying time.”
On Thursday, Jago recalled when he last saw Zimmerman during the summer. He came into church in his Marine uniform.
“I remember that I specifically asked him, ‘Is this [the Marines] what you thought it would be,’” he said. “And he looked at me, and with a twinkle in his eye, said, ‘Absolutely, yes it is.’”