Who would think that writing a poem about an enigmatic figure named Austin (the legendary Pocatello shuffler) would lead to an inspiring friendship with an individual who has won two Peabodys, 21 Emmys and three Edward R. Murrow awards — oh, and a National Commendation from the NAACP. Better yet, this talented lad hails from Pocatello.
A Peabody is comparatively the equivalent of a Pulitzer Prize for books or an Oscar for movies as they honor “the most powerful, enlightening, and invigorating stories in television, radio, and online media.” The University of Georgia Grady College of Journalism for 80 years has awarded only 30 Peabodys a year for exceptional world-wide news stories.
Many area “seniors” remember Austin. He was a walker who, for decades, logged beaucoup miles traversing our frequently weather-challenged valley. Austin was the first person in Pocatello I noticed who wasn’t a member of my nuclear family; why did he stand out?
This enigma plied the streets of Pocatello years before my first retained memories in 1960 until he died on July 16, 1993. The obituary for Austin “Royal” states that he lived in Pocatello for “some 40 years.” I never knew his last name until I began researching this column.
Austin was everywhere during my childhood. He typically looked like a transient hobo. You’d see him in Chubbuck striding intently, and 20 minutes later Austin would zip by Poky High. I began to wonder if he had clones who walked on his behalf to mess with our minds.
Adverse conditions never stopped Austin; he cruised the roadways during all types of weather wearing a trench coat, sporting a shock of grey hair, all while carrying his satchel of books. To the best of my recollection, Austin wore that trench coat year round, always had his satchel, and walked like a driven man.
Rumors abounded about the mysterious Austin. Was he shell-shocked from military duty? Had a woman broken his heart? Was he mentally ill? People dubbed his walks the “Austin shuffle,” and I saw Shuffling with Austin teach shirts being worn in Southern California and Mexico. This quirky fellow had more than 15 seconds of fame, but nobody I encountered ever claimed to actually know his true story.
That mystery inspired me to write a poem, “Shuffling with Austin,” and an abbreviated version was also placed on a literary paver installed in the sidewalk adjacent to Simplot Square. Unbeknownst to me, both poems were posted online.
Years later, I received a random “spam” email from a man identifying himself as Jim Hall. He inquired if I had written a poem posted online about Austin and, if so, could we talk. I couldn’t pass up that request — he had stoked my curiosity.
Our first conversation took place, and I discovered Jim Hall was from Pocatello and had graduated from Poky High four years after me in the fall of 1977. Jim added more details when I asked if I could interview him for this story.
Jack Hall was Jim’s father, and the “Superintendent” for Eddy’s bakery from 1960 to 1975. Jim’s mother, Mary Pulos, was a proud Greek-American who instilled that pride in all of her children about their Athens heritage — sort of reminds me of the movie, “My Big Fat Greek Wedding.”
This Pocatello lad graduated from Idaho State University in journalism, and he eventually migrated to Indiana working for TV stations. While there, Jim met his future wife, Judy, on a blind date.
When Jim saw Judy, he recognized he was clearly out of his league. To break the ice, he commented to her that he understood she repaired lava lamps for a living. Judy laughed — she hopefully still has retained her sense of humor regarding Jim.
After dating several years, some long distance, Judy popped the question to Jim on Leap Year (Feb. 29, 1992). Being Sadie Hawkins day, when “traditional” ladies can ask men for their hand in marriage, I’m sure Jim bubbled effervescent when he probably said yes, are you serious, are you messing with me, and ultimately, have you lost your mind? He reportedly responded, “Yes! Of course, but I believe in long engagements.”
Judy, being a land-use planner, was serious about her “development” proposal, and she and Jim have cohabitated harmoniously for 30 years, and now live in Indianapolis, the hometown of legendary author Kurt Vonnegut.
Infant Jim had started working at Eddy’s at the age of 13 when he got a Social Security card. He had a steady paycheck at that tender age and money to burn. He bought himself a sound camera that allowed him to edit film, and he immediately set about making movies with his best friend, Jake Putnam.
Jim eventually decided that he wanted to create a documentary film. Like me, he had noticed this strange appearing man shuffling throughout our valley. Jim decided to make a film telling Austin’s life story. He was also curious about this solitary figure who had shuffled our streets for years. I had written my poem years after repeatedly watching the cruising Austin, and Jim wanted to create a film while in high school about this enigma. Artistic types do question the why behind the unusual.
Working on that Austin documentary led Jim toward a career in journalism, but he never actually finished the film while in high school. His film footage had sat on his shelf for years collecting dust. Jim was dealt some major health setbacks a few years back and while recuperating decided it was time to finish his pilot project. While conducting online research, he encountered my poem about Austin. Our paths apparently were destined to cross over the walker.
Despite not having personally met, Jim and I have become fast phone and electronic friends. We plan to share Manhattans someday soon since they are our mutually favored cocktail.
Our modest “home-grown lad” has had an amazing career in journalism. He proposed the idea to investigate the pharmaceutical industry for its failure to protect consumer privacy due to the cavalier disposal of confidential information. That reporter’s instinct garnered Jim one of his Peabody awards, and is Mr. Hall’s proudest accomplishment beyond having bedazzled Judy.
The story, fueled by Jim’s acuity, led to beneficial consumer privacy protection throughout America. Despite Mr. Hall’s cumulative success, which includes 50 official film selection honors, Jim hadn’t completed his Austin story when he contacted me; well, he has now.
The short film, titled “Miles to go Before Austin and Me … Sleep,” can be accessed online at this link: vimeo.com/560895079 — Password: Austin. Please enjoy Jim’s cinematic artistry while learning more about Pocatello’s famous shuffling protagonist; it contains a spectacular punch-line.
I’m lucky to have this creative new friend that I’ve never personally met. Someday we will share Manhattans when Jim returns to Pocatello to visit his “proud” family. I want to meet Jim at the Office Bar where I frequently saw Austin come staggering in dripping wet from inclement weather; that seems like an appropriate venue for discussing the mystery of enigmas.
Austin will surely stride overhead in the sky as we banter our stories, and I believe our enigmatic walker will nod his recognizable mug toward two men connected by a quirky guy shuffling to and fro, intent upon wherever it was he needed to go.
Jesse Robison is a Pocatello native educated in Idaho. He works as a mediator and insurance claim consultant, but his passion is public art. Robison has spearheaded art improvements throughout Pocatello, including the Kizuna Garden located at the Pocatello airport, and serves on the Bistline Foundation.