From clowning and cake-baking to camaraderie and commendable works, James Robert Vann has done it all, and he’s done it all well. His work with the Shriners started as a mission to help children in need of medical assistance and has ended up changing the lives of innumerable people — one child, one parade, one adventure at a time.
He’s also touched countless lives while a restaurateur and store owner, carving out a niche that has earned him remembrance in Sampson County history.
Vann has been an entrepreneur in Sampson County for approximately 60 years, his family by his side. He opened the Farm House restaurant in 1973, where he sold his famous gigantic coconut cakes, and closed it down six years ago. After 32 years of success in the restaurant business the Vann family decided they wanted to retire and have the ability to travel more.
According to Vann’s wife, Helen, “My husband wanted the opportunity for more clowning and family time.”
Two years before opening the restaurant came Vann’s Grocery, which was nestled beside the Farm House, making it an easy trek from one business to the other once the restaurant was opened.
Although the Vanns closed the restaurant a few years back, the store remained open until November 2012, when Vann fell and was unable to continue as proprietor. He was placed in rehabilitation at Southwood for six weeks, yet that was still not enough to get him back to where he was before the fall.
“It was after the six weeks at Southwood that the family decided that it was time to pursue a different orthopedic doctor in Raleigh,” said Helen Vann. The physical therapy alone was not enough to move his health forward. Vann’s family has been absolutely instrumental in his recuperation, he said, even after he had other recent surgeries on his digestive system and kidneys.
Vann, whose clown name is Robin, has been a Dunn Shriner Clown for over 50 years. All it took was a friend pulling up in his yard with a request for him to join the Masons to get Vann starting off on his adventures.
He has clowned all over eastern North Carolina as well as all over the country. After his first time at a New Bern Shrine convention , he said he knew it was what he wanted to do.
“The clowns were having such a good time that I decided I wanted to be a clown, too,” he stressed during in an interview at his home.
His time clowning has taken him all over the United States, from Columbus, Georgia all the way to Tacoma, Washington. He has participated in many competitions and has won several awards.
He has spent much of his time working diligently to help provide for children that need medical assistance and have limited financial means.
Vann remembers his son-in-law’s niece, Katy Borum, who had the chance to experience exactly what that meant. She was just a small child, so he asked Katy’s mother to take her to the Shriner’s Hospital in Greenville, S.C. so doctors could examine her legs, which Vann described as having a serious disability.
Vann said when they first arrived, the doctors thought they were going to have to amputate the child’s legs, but the family was determined to make sure that didn’t happen. The Shriner’s Hospital managed to help Katy keep her legs, and only the beginning of the many procedures that she had to endure. The doctors even took out some of her organs and completed back surgery to help with her scoliosis. By all means this was a child that could have never walked or had any semblance of a normal life.
Yet that was not the case for this little girl. After she recuperated, Vann was named the South Eastern President of the Shrine Clown Association in Atlanta. When it was time to receive his Shriner’s Fez, he wanted Katy to have that honor.
“Traditionally a Shriner’s Fez is presented by the wife,” Vann said.
Vann, tearing up, explained that Katy stood on a chair while he got down on his knees, and she placed the Fez upon his head.
“It was all very humbling for everyone there,” according to Helen.
“Katy jumped off into the swimming pool at the hotel, and it just tickled me,” Vann said, a smile spreading across his face. He explained that she was now a freshman at St. Andrews University in Laurinburg, and is thriving at college, something in which he takes great pride.
Vann and his wife have been married for almost 60 years, and he is one of the two last original Dunn clowns. The Dunn Shriners would often participate in as many as 45 to 50 parades at Christmas, sometimes doing two a day. Sometimes they would parade in their trucks, a caboose, a renovated school bus, or even Mr. Vann on his special toilet ride along chair. Often he was caught with a suitcase of raggedy clothes that were tattered and worn, as well as the look and feel of a sad hobo. But don’t let that fool you, he may have looked sad, but he was happy as a clown!
His life, he said, has been full.
The family is planning a Customer Appreciation Day at Vann’s Grocery on Saturday, Sept. 28, from 8 a.m. until noon so the community can have the opportunity to visit and enjoy the friendship, with the family, relationships built over the last 60 years. Everything in the store will be half off during the celebration, the Vanns said.