On November 15, in an open casket draped with the American flag, Island activist and resident Jim Bates was laid to rest before more than 120 people in a Hope Church Roosevelt Island service, a church that he helped found. With his passing, Bates leaves behind wife Belen, a seamstress, as well as a strong legacy of advocacy and faith.
A veteran of the United States Coast Guard, Bates passed away on Veteran’s Day after losing his battle with pancreatic cancer. In addition to his work in the church, he was also a president of the Roosevelt Island Disabled Association (RIDA), a member of the Roosevelt Island Residents Association (RIRA) Common Council representing Manhattan Park’s 2-4 River Road building, and the kinetic energy behind the FDR Hope Memorial Committee, which has worked to erect a memorial celebrating FDR’s accomplishments within the context of his disability. For several years, Bates delivered The Main Street WIRE to all of Roosevelt Landings’ 1002 apartments, using his electric scooter as a speedy delivery vehicle.
Jim Bates with wife Belen.
“Everyone knew he was super-rough around the edges and, at the same time, everyone knew that he loved them,” said Lead Pastor of Hope Church Roosevelt Island, Dan Sadlier. Sadlier credits Bates for ensuring the church reflected the unique population and diversity of Roosevelt Island. “There was no way it would be that type of culture if not for Jim,” he says “It would have been a lot of young professionals if not for Jim.” Sadlier characterizes Bates as someone who was motivated by his faith, yet was able to work alongside a lot of people with different beliefs. “That’s hard to come by.”
In fact, Bates had been part of the first Hope Church in Astoria in 2013. “He was there for about six months before talking about wanting one on the Island,” Sadlier recounts. “Part of that was because he couldn’t invite any of his friends, because most churches are not accessible. Jim was one of two people that left Astoria’s church to help me start the one here on the Island.”
Bates served as a vocal advocate for those living with disabilities. After church, at their after-service dinners, Sadlier recalls, “Jim is the guy who would roll into [the] big dinners we would have and say, ‘Dan, move this table and these chairs; this is not accessible,’” says Sadlier.
Sande Elinson, of the Roosevelt Island Garden Club, says that Bates’s advocacy in 2014 was responsible for encouraging more Islanders with disabilities to take advantage of the garden's six handicapped-accessible garden plots, all raised. Today, they are all in use by someone living with a disability. Ultimately, Bates had to give his away so someone else could have it. Now, the group has their first ‘enabled’ person on their board. Elinson says, “It was all Bates.”
Bates’ advocacy inspired him to lead efforts to build a memorial on Roosevelt Island depicting President Franklin D. Roosevelt in a wheelchair. (RIDA protested the Louis Kahn FDR Four Freedom Park design for not portraying President Roosevelt’s disability.)
The completed FDR Hope Memorial will show President Roosevelt in a wheelchair greeting a young girl as she approaches him. She holds both her crutches under one arm, and their hands are close to touching. It’s a moment created to capture FDR’s can-do, can-overcome spirit as it is shared with a young polio victim. The sculptor, Meredith Bergmann, has drawn inspiration from FDR herself and admits to feeling his spiritual presence while she works. The project’s website is fdrhopememorial.org.
A model of the FDR Hope Memorial that will be placed in Southpoint Park. Credit: Fdrhopememorial.org
“Hope was a very meaningful idea for Jim,” said Marc Diamond, chair of the FDR Hope Memorial Committee. “It was Jim who named the FDR Hope Memorial. The scene that the artist has depicted in the sculpture was inspired in part by Jim’s great ability to broadly express grand themes and, in part, simply by the name he gave to the memorial. The hope and inspiration that people will feel when they visit the memorial is very much Jim’s hope and inspiration.”
RIRA President Jeff Escobar described Bates as “one of our most beloved colleagues ... community member, leader, advocate, and stalwart supporter of life on Roosevelt Island. Words cannot begin to express the sadness and sorrow all of us on Roosevelt Island feel at this loss.”