Remembering an Orvis Rod-Shop Great

Jim West shows off a rod tube that has seen better days in the repair room at the Orvis Rod Shop in Manchester, Vermont.
Photo by Tim Romano, Angling Trade

Now that perhaps there’s a little light at the end of the tunnel, we want to take a moment to remember a man who was an institution at the Orvis Rod Shop in Manchester, Vermont, for many years. Jim West, the first person at Orvis to make a graphite fly rod, passed away on March 19th (unrelated to the current pandemic). Jim played a huge role in Orvis’s being “ahead of our time since the beginning,” and consequently had great influence on the fly-fishing landscape–even while very few people outside of Orvis knew his name.

Jim was a beloved figure at the rod shop, and lots of folks have good stories about him–including the time that he accidentally backed his truck into the pond at the flagship store, to the delight of his coworkers. We asked some of the Orvis associates who worked with him over the years to share their thoughts:

Tom Rosenbauer:

Jim was my neighbor, and he would often catch me sneaking around in his backyard as the river behind my house also runs through his. Although we only lived a half mile apart, I didn’t see much of Jim because he was a very private person, happiest I think driving his riding lawn mower around or building a greenhouse for his wife, Sheila. What I remember most was his uncompromising dedication to Orvis rod customers. If a customer had a special request, no matter how unusual or even unreasonable, Jim would make it happen–often without any  paper trail, as from his long years in the rod shop Jim knew how to get things done no matter what the official procedures said. He probably drove up the blood pressure of many accountants over the years, but he sure kept customers loyal and happy.

Jim hanging out outside the rod shop with his Bud.

Paul Fersen, former Orvis Senior Writer:

While I’ve broken a few rods on fish, admittedly, the majority of the rods I’ve broken over the years were due to my stumbling, bumbling, and stupidity. I would sheepishly bring the rod to the shop for repair with some embarrassing explanation, and inevitably Jim would smile and reassure me in his quiet way that it would be fine, and even more importantly, that he was happy to help. With all he had to do, he could easily have been short–“Just leave it there”–or given me well-deserved grief, but that was not Jim’s way. He was talented, kind, humble, and exuded that quiet confidence that always left me feeling better walking out of the shop than I did walking in, no matter what the situation. That’s a rare quality these days. He was a craftsman, a gentleman, and a friend.

Pam Champine, Orvis Rod Repair Supervisor:

Bud was Jim’s beer of choice, and we would all chip in for his B-day or Christmas. He never wanted to accept it from us, but always gave a smile and eye roll that told you he appreciated it. “Dedicated and customer-centric” would best describe Jimmy’s work ethic . He was happiest when he was helping customers. And if he couldn’t help, he knew someone who could.

Most stories I have are ones that probably shouldn’t be put into print, but I’ll share one that still cracks me up. Jimmy and Willie Knight rented a U-Haul to pick up a shipment of graphite out of state.  This was back when Vermont’s Civil Union law first took effect. Our night-shift crew slapped a HUGE poster board on the back of the truck before they left that said “Just Married in VT”. They got a ton of honking and waiving on the way and couldn’t figure out why till they got to their destination. We laughed all day thinking about those two and their confused faces!

Jim was always ready to help. Here he is during the annual Green-Up Day in Vermont.

Norm Bowen, Plant Manager

Jim was co-worker and a great friend. He and I are the only ones who could get lost heading to Sandanona for the guide rendezvous. At the end of the day, we were asked if we wanted some game meat, and Jim said, “I don’t want any, but Norm will take some, plus what you would have given me.” He was always that generous.

One time, the rod-shop team went to fish the upper Connecticut in drift boats. We startedat around 8:00, just as it started pouring rain. At every bend in the river, Jim would say, “Where the hell is that bridge we get out at?” We ended up getting off the water at about 5:00 p.m., after hearing Jim saying “Where the hell is that bridge we get out at?” about 100 times.

I enjoyed fishing on Cape Cod with Jim. We would hook up with Warren Marshall, our guide and friend, and head out. Jim would  fly cast for maybe a half hour and then just sit and watch. I would fish for the rest of the day, and when I would hook a nice bass, I would hand the rod to Jim to bring in.

Jim Lepage, former Vice President of Orvis Rod & Tackle:

Jim was the king of rod repairs. Jim prioritized guide and lodge rod repairs, especially in season, because he knew that people’s livelihoods depended on those rods. He got to know many in the Orvis-endorsed family, and he would make sure they had their rods back in a couple days. Period. He became so well known that, for a few years, we would bring Jim to the annual Orvis Guide Rendezvous, and when we introduced him he would get a standing ovation for his dedicated work on repairs for that community.

Shawn Combs, Orvis Head Product Designer:

Jim West was my first true friend at the rod shop. He taught me a lot of things but most importantly, he showed me the importance of customer service.

Jim’s legacy is one of excellence in craftsmanship and a dedication to customer service, and the folks working in the Orvis Rod Shop strive to live up to his example to this day.

12 thoughts on “Remembering an Orvis Rod-Shop Great”

  1. Jim was one of the reasons I loved my job in Manchester… always with a wry smile and quick to support our team. I can’t tell you how many times Jim made me and the staff at the Flagship store heroes in the eyes of our customers. He was happy to be the man behind the curtain but understood customer service and the Orvis Core values better than anyone. I missed him a lot when he retired and I was greatly saddened to hear of his passing.

    1. Jim was always customer-centric and a great team player. What I’ll also never forget was his encyclopedic, savant-like knowledge of every rod model the shop ever turned out. Guide sizes and spacing, wrap colors, reel seat inserts – Jim knew it all by heart and was always gracious and willing to share. RIP Jim.

  2. He sounds like a great guy and representative of all the people I encounter at Orvis, in the stores and thru stories,chats, emails and on the phone. I know everyone there will miss him and at the same time carry on the great tradition of service to the fisherman and fishing.

  3. Jim was a champion for going above and beyond. He was always there for the customers and he was there for the other employees. Jim was always especially there to help a certain dumb kid from the store whenever he was wandering around the rod shop looking for a specific order or item (He tended to get lost). I’ll always be grateful for his smile and his patience. He was a great man.

  4. I was very sad to hear of Jim West’s passing. Jim was a great guy and would do anything to help others. He did many favors for me to help my customers. He was the “go to” guy with the “can do” attitude at the rod shop. Thanks Jim, I know you will be missed. My condolences to his family and friends.

  5. Jim helped me get an early Orvis graphite rod blank, and helped me set up the guides etc. He was a very kind and generous man. Made a big impression on me as a kid getting into fly fishing. Later when I got into guiding and teaching, Jim was always willing to answer my questions. He was a wealth of knowledge. Blessings.

  6. Jim personally saw to the repair of more of my rods than I care to admit, and he always took good care of every customer with whom I needed help. When I reminisce of my time working in the flagship store – and the little red box that preceded it – Jim’s face is one of the first that come to mind. He’ll be well and truly missed.

  7. Grateful to hear stories of a life well-lived during this time. Orvis is a better place it would seem, for having Jim on the team.

  8. One word In my book describing Jim West is HUMBLING. I ran a youth outreach program for New England Fly Tyers for 16 years. I needed rods for 10-12 students every year and Jim West answered the call. He made sure they were equipped with reels , lines and carrying cases. After a few years they would just show up. I became friends with Jim over the years and enjoyed his knowledge of the rod art and especially his companionship . If they change the company name from Orvis to WEST pretty much the Industry and customers would know why and it would be Greatly excepted. A very unselfish And kind human being . I will miss him greatly. Thank You Orvis for sharing him and Sympathy to all his Friends and Family

  9. I am sadden by the news of Jim’s passing. I spoke to him regularly about many of the broken rods I had sent him. Some were broken by my clients and others by me. After awhile, it was a bit embarrassing but he was a true gentlemen and always a had a couple of minutes to talk.

  10. Sorry to hear about Jim. I returned a broken clearwater rod and he replaced it with a new helios, no charge. I thanked him and pledged to buy enough from Orvis to make it up. That is customer service.

  11. The rods he designed were legendary… and still are. The old Orvis Graphite Henry’s Fork, All-Rounder, Far and Fine, Limestoner… and so many others. I had occasion to deal with him in my Tenure at Orvis. When nobody could give you and answer or a solution, you called Jim. He was the essence of positive can-do Orvis customer service. He was a joy to speak with. RIP Jim. We miss you!

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