HAYWARD -- Sgt. 1st Class James Grissom, who died of injuries received in battle in Afghanistan, was honored posthumously as a hero, but those who knew the 1999 Mt. Eden High School graduate say that doesn't begin to describe him.
The highly decorated Green Beret died March 21 at the Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany of wounds suffered from small-arms fire on March 18. He was about three days from the end of his deployment, said his father, Jim Grissom.
James Grissom was someone who wanted to help others, his father said. "He always reached out to those less fortunate," he said.
When he was a boy, Grissom befriended Mary Bernados' two nephews, who lived a few houses from the Grissoms.
"My nephews were suffering a lot because their parents were going through a divorce. James, who was 11, would come over every day, mentor them and spend time with them," she said. "He even built a treehouse for them. He would bring tools, wood -- even nails. It was an amazing treehouse. It was pretty spectacular."
Grissom and his family attended Fairhaven Bible Chapel in San Leandro, where Gary and Virginia Caughell taught first-grade Sunday school for several years. Gary Caughell said the boy was smart, even-tempered, with a ready smile and lots of energy.
"He would have a hard time sitting still. You'd look over to where the kids were sitting, and there would be a pair of feet where a head should be because James was doing gymnastics in his chair," he said.
At home, things were never dull, said Grissom's aunt, Julie Hamilton. "James and his dad had a water balloon launcher that could send balloons over the house. They were always coming up with these ideas," she said.
Ruth Dyer, of Castro Valley, attended church with Grissom, though she was a few years older. "What I will remember the most about James is he had a sly smile that I thought only grandpas could give you: half smiling, half winking. He could do that even as a kid," she said. "You could not have that boy smile at you and not smile back and not just totally love him."
At Mt. Eden, Grissom became a member of the school choir, though by chance, said Ken Rawdon, the school's choral director.
"We were doing 'West Side Story' and we didn't have enough white guys; we needed more Sharks. I sent the students out to the campus to find more white kids," Rawdon said.
As his father remembered it, "They reached out to James and asked him if he could sing or dance. Well, no, he told them, but they took him anyway."
Grissom stayed and joined show choir, concert choir and men's choir.
"I can't say he was the most awesome singer; he wasn't. But he was probably the most helpful person I've met, student or adult," Rawdon said.
One Saturday, a group of volunteers was scheduled to build a set for an upcoming choir production, but only Grissom showed up. "He told me, 'Don't worry about it, I'll take care of it,'" Rawdon said. The choir director left to run errands, returning hours later.
"By himself, James had completely constructed a facade out of wood, Styrofoam, cardboard, anything he could put his hands on," Rawdon said. "It looked like the facade of Grauman's Chinese Theatre; it was three-dimensional. It was astounding. He did it by himself in about six hours. He was a wonderful artist."
Art classes were where he thrived. Teacher Geoff Landreau said he was a gifted, self-motivated artist who had a good visual eye, earning high marks in advanced classes.
"He designed the mouse pads that a lot of the teachers still have 15 years later," Landreau said.
After high school, Grissom earned an associate degree in computer animation from the Art Institute of San Francisco. The economy had bottomed out, and after not being able to find work in his field, he decided to make a switch, his father said.
"He told us he was going to go into the Army and into the Special Forces, which I thought was weird for an art grad. But he excelled there," Jim Grissom said.
Only 10 percent of the soldiers who enter the Green Beret program graduate. "The odds were against him," his father said. "Becoming a Green Beret was a real credit to who he was and his determination and ability."
After his death, Grissom, who already had more than a dozen medals and awards, was honored with a Bronze Star and a NATO medal.
Besides his father and his mother, Peggy, Grissom is survived by his wife, Angela, of Washington state; his sister, Becca Grissom, of Sacramento; and his grandparents, James and Dorothy Grissom, of Hayward.
When: 2 p.m. April 13
Where: Fairhaven Bible Chapel, 401 MacArthur Blvd., San Leandro
Memorial contributions: May be made to Landstuhl Fisher House, Germany, www.fisherhouse-landstuhl.org; Special Operations Warrior Foundation, www.specialops.org; or The Green Beret Foundation, www.greenberetfoundation.org.