Jim “Digger” Williams, a longtime Folsom resident and widely respected volunteer who helped run the town’s signature Fourth of July rodeo for more than 50 years, died July 1 of diabetes complications, his wife said. He was 79.
Mr. Williams was a down-to-earth guy with a colorful personality and an enthusiasm for people that embodied the small-town charm and Old West traditions of Folsom. In addition to a reputation for compassion, he earned his nickname “Digger” as an undertaker and cemetery manager for Miller Funeral Home in Folsom for 21 years.
He was prominent as an ambassador for the Folsom Chamber of Commerce, a city parks commissioner and a longtime host of public concerts at Folsom City Park. He greeted strangers like old friends, did business deals with a handshake and never left home without his cowboy hat.
“He was buried with it,” said Lorin Claney of Miller Funeral Home.
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“I’ve never met a guy like him,” Claney added. “He had an incredible way of being kind and gracious and making you feel welcome. He wanted to talk to people and be engaged.”
Mr. Williams was synonymous with the annual Folsom Pro Rodeo, which draws thousands of people every Fourth of July weekend to celebrate the town’s cattle ranching heritage. He attended and manned a corral gate at the first event in 1960. He went on to oversee preparations as arena boss for many years and served three times as grand marshal.
He was inducted posthumously into the first class of the new Folsom Pro Rodeo Hall of Fame.
“Jim lived in this community a long time and knew the people and the businesses here,” said Joe Gagliardi, chief executive officer and president of the Folsom Chamber of Commerce, which produces the rodeo. “As an ambassador for the chamber, he reached out to welcome new businesses to the area. He was a real connection between Folsom’s past and future.”
The son of a heavy-equipment operator, James Bernard Williams was born in 1935 in Caldwell, Ohio. According to his family, he was born Feb. 21, although his birth certificate said Feb. 26.
“So of course, he celebrated both,” said his wife, Sharon.
Married in 1959, he settled in Folsom the following year and worked as a construction laborer. He started in the funeral industry at Miller in 1968 and later worked at Lind Brothers Funeral Home in Carmichael and Lombard & Co. in Sacramento.
A devout Christian, Mr. Williams attended the Easter sunrise service at Folsom Lake since 1961. When a group of churches that organized the event disbanded, he and his wife led efforts to continue the annual event at the lake’s Beals Point, she said.
“He was a very compassionate man who knew the Lord Jesus and wanted to show Christ to people,” his wife said. “Whenever somebody walked in the door, he so wanted to meet their needs. A stranger was just a friend he hadn’t met yet.”
In addition to his wife of almost 55 years, Mr. Williams is survived by two daughters, Caree Wernick and Sharee; a son, James; seven grandchildren; and one great-grandson.
A celebration of life is set for 10 a.m. July 12 at Rolling Hills Christian Church, 800 White Rock Road, El Dorado Hills. Memorial donations may be made to Twin Lakes Food Bank, 327 Montrose Drive, Folsom, CA 95630.