In 1832, at 18, Jim Ottley served as a cabin boy on a “Man-O-War” ship in the English Navy. Later, he served as a valet for a distinguished English nobleman. Somehow he ended up in Ann Arbor, working for 20 years as a janitor in the two old wings of the main building.
After 20 years as a U-M janitor, he took a “rather sudden trip to England.” When he returned in the 1880s, he was not as able to do the heavy lifting, and was reassigned to the library, where he was given the job of “hat man,” with a modest salary. Still, he took hats and gave checks with a warm greeting and smile, well into his 80s. The students grew quite fond of Ottley, and he became known, affectionately, as “Uncle Jim.”
The pieces of Ottley’s life’s puzzle are mostly missing. Yet what was written about him at the time—not of his travels or family—was quite tender. Apparently the students decided to take up a collection one November in “Uncle Jim” Ottley’s final years, so they could present him with a beautiful, bountiful turkey for Thanksgiving. On that day, “his eyes moistened up a bit, his memory seemed to brighten.”
This man of mystery from England, this lover of the sea, was beloved. In the February 14th 1909 Michigan Daily, there was a small story on page one. It read, “Uncle Jimmy is ninety-five today.”
— Jan Schlain