The story of Timber Jim
Posted by Garrett Staples on May 26, 2016. 0 Comments
To heaven in an instant, Jim Serrill says, is how his 17-year-old daughter Hannah left this life, and 10 years later the thought triggers tears and heartache just as quickly.
He is known more famously as Timber Jim, the first mascot of the Portland Timbers. A tree man by trade, he would hang upside down from the rafters during the game, all while beating a bass drum "like a rented mule," he says.
And to honor Oregon's heritage, he would climb to the highest point in the stadium – atop an 80-foot spar pole at the south end of the field — where his drum was interrupted only by the revving of his chainsaw, which he used to rally enthusiasm for an impending corner kick.
He would stay atop the pole until the Timbers scored.
He has been retired as Timber Jim since 2008, but his presence is still felt at every home game. It is Serrill and the memory of Hannah who are the muse behind what is now a 10-year tradition at Timbers games: the singing of "You Are My Sunshine" in the 80th minute.
"It was Hannah's favorite song,'' Serrill says. "She was the happiest little kid.''
"Timber Jim" talks about his daughter, his granddaughter and the significance of sunflowers
Jim Serrill, otherwise known as Timber Jim, lost his daughter Hannah in a car accident ten years ago. Her fondness for sunflowers spurred the Timbers Army tradition of singing "You Are My Sunshine" during the 80th minute of every home game.
Tuesday was the 10th anniversary of the car crash that took Hannah's life. When the 80th minute rolls around Saturday in the Timbers' game against Chivas USA, Serrill will be there in Section 109, playing defense against a wave of emotion.
He is trying to flip the swell of sadness the song evokes when it reverberates throughout the north end of Providence Park, a practice in perspective that only recently he is winning.
"I want it to be a good thing,'' Serrill says. "For so long, so much attention was paid to her death, and for me it was like going to a funeral every game. I had to find happy in it. So I've let go.''
• • •
Hannah was a bundle of energy and affection, he says, one who loved to dress up Sam, the family bullmastiff, as well as be tugged down the Willamette River behind her dad's boat. She was on the dance team, the soccer team, and she loved flowers, particularly sunflowers.
"She was an AWESOME kid; I LOVED that kid,'' Serrill says. "I was super proud of her. I still am.''
Hannah had become pregnant at age 14, and waited until the third trimester to tell her parents, who were frozen in disbelief.
"You could have knocked us over with a feather,'' Serrill says.
She was determined to have her baby, and when she was 15 she gave birth to daughter Keiana.
"She had a clear vision,'' Serrill says. "Her gift to us was this grandchild, and I love her for that.''
On Aug. 5, 2004, as the Timbers were dismantling the Minnesota Thunder 3-0, at PGE Park, Hannah was reclined and asleep in the passenger seat of a car driven by her boyfriend and father of her child. Near McMinnville, he nodded off, and collided head on with another car.
The impact sent Hannah forward, the seat belt catching her neck, and as Serrill prefers to think, sent her to heaven in an instant. Keiana's dad broke his legs, and suffered other injuries. The driver of the other car broke her pelvis and legs.
Serrill, in the middle of his popular antics to incite the crowd, was pulled aside and told he needed to go home.
"I remember all of the sudden he was gone,'' says Steven Lenhart, one of the original members of the Timbers Army (and no relation to the MLS player). "Everybody thought there was a health issue with him.''
Weeks after Hannah's memorial service, Serrill returned to a Timbers match.
"When I came back, the first thing I did was climb the pole and stay up there.'' Serrill says. "I hauled up all the flowers people brought. There was a huge bouquet. And I brought a sunflower.''
When the Timbers scored, he honored the goal with his customary sawing off a slab from a log.
"I cut the log and then I looked out and everybody is crying,'' Serrill remembers. "Then I just felt like I needed to sing.''
You Are My Sunshine: Timbers Army honors Jim Serrill's daughter
The Timbers Army sings 'You Are My Sunshine' to honor the memory of 'Timber Jim' Serrill,'s daughter, who was killed in a car accident 10 years ago. Serrill stood in the crowd handing out sunflowers to fans in attendance during the 80th minute of the Portland Timbers game against Chivas USA on Saturday, August 9, 2014. Video by Tim Brown/The Oregonian
It turned out to be a moment in Timbers history that would live on.
"He had his granddaughter there, she was real little, and he had her in his arms,'' Lenhart recalls. "And he just led the song. He was pretty emotional about it, and everybody else was pretty emotional because they knew what was going on.''
Through tears, "You Are My Sunshine" made its debut.
"Now, they sing it EVERY game,'' Serrill says.
Added Lenhart: "It became our little piece of history, a ritual. And it's pretty emotional. I think that's why it has stuck.''
• • •
Today, Jim and Diane Serrill hope the song at Timbers games has evolved into an anthem of love and devotion to the Timbers.
Jim wants it to stand for happiness, for good memories, and for family.
It's part of his battle to stay afloat amid a sea of sorrow, and part of his self-awareness that he can't make a difference wallowing in his heartache.
"People can't be around you if you are sad; they can't handle it,'' Serrill says. "My dear friends couldn't deal with it. They didn't want to be around me. I was destroyed. I lost my mind. I was so grief-stricken that I became a shell of myself.''
He quit his job building power lines and went back to trimming trees around power lines.
"You gotta have your head in the game to be a lineman," Serrill says, "and I thought I could kill somebody by not being attentive enough.''
He became an advocate for using seat belts correctly, and for not driving when fatigued. And he has been a pillar of forgiveness with the father of Keiana, who was also the driver who took away his daughter.
"With my faith, forgiveness is not recommended, it's required,'' Serrill says.
Still, when he would give his talks about seat belts and fatigued driving, both would invariably cause him to break down in front of first aid and CPR classes.
"I had to get beyond that,'' Serrill says. "I had to find a way to live. I have a loving wife, two other daughters and four grandchildren. I had to be emotionally available for them.''
One of the ways to change was his view of "You are My Sunshine.''
"It's a happy song, so I use it to think about the good times Hannah gave us,'' Serrill says.
One of those good times is her daughter, Keiana, who is now 12.
"She reminds me so much of Hannah,'' Serrill says. "I call her Hannah all the time, then catch myself. She is truly a gift from God through Hannah.''
When the Timbers did a marketing campaign upon their move to MLS in the spring of 2011, they asked Serrill, the only non-player to be inducted into the team's Ring of Honor, to take part. He chose to pose with Keiana, his arm draped around her neck as they both hold axes.
• • •
Throughout the years, the 80th minute of Timbers home games have meant different things to different people.
Amid the Timbers Army, an animated and spirited section of more than 5,000 at the north end, Lenhart says the song is a favorite among the 12 or so that are performed during any given game.
"It helps that a lot of people know the words, but it does seem like a lot of people have some sort of memory tied to that song,'' Lenhart said. "I've just heard people say stuff like, 'I used to sing that to our kid ...' "
Says Serrill: "The face of a baby when it looks up at you while you are singing that song, it melts your heart. There's just a bond between you two that you can't explain.''
Perhaps that's why the other day, when Serrill was working in the community garden at his Tualatin church, he got an odd feeling.
"I was working there all morning,'' Serrill said. "And eventually I looked up and there's a sunflower there. I had never noticed it before. But there it was, now opened. That sunflower was watching me all morning.
"It felt like Hannah was watching me.''
And that, he says, was a happy feeling.
--Jason Quick | @jwquick