The May 29 death of James “Jimmy” E. Cusack, a pillar of the West Volusia African American community, was a shock to many.
For most of his 70 years, Cusack was a major influence. He was a community leader from a family of community leaders in Spring Hill, the historically African American area in southwest DeLand. He served on countless governmental and community boards locally, often in the position of chairman.
Cusack is described by those who knew him as “a pillar,” “outstanding” and “a great man.”
“He was a determined and dynamic man, with the ability to make things happen for his community, with a big heart and big soul. He was a pioneer,” said Shilretha Dixon, director of the Spring Hill Resource Center, which Cusack helped make a reality.
“He was instrumental in Spring Hill, with donations from his business to the Neighborhood Association,” Dixon said. “We will not forget his legacy, and we will continue to serve the Spring Hill community as this great man did.”
Cusack chaired the Weed and Seed board, which was entrusted with overseeing portions of about $1.7 million in grant monies intended to revitalize Spring Hill, and was a founding member and current chairman of the Spring Hill Neighborhood Association Inc., the nonprofit that has led the charge for Spring Hill-area improvements for almost 20 years.
A veteran of the Vietnam War, he also served as a commissioner of the DeLand Housing Authority, and as chairman of the region’s Florida Morticians, among many other leadership roles.
“He was everything in this community,” his sister-in-law Dr. Joyce Cusack, a former member of the Florida House of Representatives and the Volusia County Council, said. “It’s just so mind-boggling to think about all the things he did, without reservations, and without doing them for personal gain.”
James Cusack was a deacon for 45 years at Greater Union First Baptist Church, one of the oldest African American churches in DeLand, and the church he grew up in.
As a child, he was a familiar sight sitting between his mother, Ruth Cusack, and his father, Deacon Charles Allen Cusack, in the church pew.
“He was just a little fella,” Joyce Cusack said.
His parents, like him, were lifelong members of Greater Union.
He was shaped by the church, his sister-in-law said, and his church membership fostered his close relationships with some of the most influential members of the community, including Dr. Lancaster Starke, one of the first black physicians in Florida.
“He was always a good boy,” Joyce Cusack said.
James Cusack was elected president of the Student Government Association and was vice president of his senior class at Southwestern when it was a high school before school desegregation.
In his position as head of the J.E. Cusack Mortuary, Cusack helped untold numbers of families through some of the hardest times of their lives.
It was a job he grew up with. His parents both worked at the Arthur J. Mack Funeral Home, a company he later bought from the Rev. Mack.
“You see people when they’re in the worst, in such mental anguish, at those times. He was able to be reassuring and kind; he was good at his craft. And that made a lot of difference,” Joyce Cusack said. “And a lot of times he did it without any compensation.”
The memory of his good deeds will help his mourners, Joyce Cusack said.
“Those are the things that sustain you in times like these,” she said.
The 70-year-old had just celebrated his birthday in April, a milestone for the Cusack family.
“No Cusack, male Cusack, had ever lived to age 70,” Joyce Cusack said. “He lived longer than his parents, his brother, and his son.”
Joyce Cusack’s husband, Charles Allen Cusack Jr., James’ brother, died in 2009.
James Cusack’s only child, Charles Allen Cusack III, named for his brother and father, died in 2017 at age 39 of complications caused by sickle cell anemia.
His son’s untimely death, and subsequent health problems, took a toll, Joyce Cusack said.
But the recent birthday celebration gave the family even more memories, despite not knowing what was to come.
“We had a big celebration, and cooked all of his favorite food,” Joyce Cusack said. “We didn’t realize we were having one of the last family celebrations. But we have great memories and great stories.”
“Many people had relationships with Jimmy, and his institutional knowledge was so great. People trusted him, and all of our community is in mourning because of his death,” she added. “We’ll miss him dearly.”
A visitation and wake service took place June 5 at Greater Union, 240 S. Clara Ave. in DeLand. A funeral service is scheduled for 2 p.m. Thursday, June 6, at First Baptist Church, 725 N. Woodland Blvd. in DeLand.