When Jim Ponder retired from the FBI in 1976, it sure wasn’t because he was ready to kick up his heels. In fact, he kept working, in a sense.
“I think it drove my mother crazy,” said Terry Ponder, the eldest son of Jim and Margaret Ponder. “She’d be trying to keep the house straight, and he’d have his files all over the place.”
During Jim Ponder’s 30-year career with the Bureau, the South Carolina native matched wits with Klansmen, Soviet spies and mob bosses. He and his family lived all over the country, and he worked on cases that were often in the local and national spotlight.
Ponder was one of the FBI agents who tracked James Earl Ray when he came through Atlanta in 1968. Three years before that, acting as the FBI’s liaison with local law enforcement, he was at Atlanta police headquarters downtown when a wrecker hauled in the car of Mary Shotwell Little. Little vanished Oct. 14, 1965, and the case has been called Atlanta’s most famous missing persons mystery. Her body was never found, and it was the only case Ponder worked on that was never solved, he told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution in 2004.
“I have a personal interest in this case, ” Ponder said at the time. “I got to know Mary’s family. We never gave them an answer, and that bothered me. It still does.”
Ponder continued to look into that case and others when he retired. He and the missing woman’s family kept in touch and even exchanged Christmas cards for more than 40 years.
“He still had his theories about that case,” said Terry Ponder, of Birmingham, Ala. “Until the very end, he had his theories.”
James O. Ponder died in his sleep June 29, in Birmingham, at the retirement residence where he’d been living the last few years. He was 92.
A funeral is planned for 11 a.m. Saturday at Briarlake Baptist Church, Decatur, with burial to follow at Floral Hills Memory Gardens. Floral Hills Funeral Home, Tucker, is in charge of arrangements.
Ponder, who had served in the Navy during World War II and been wounded in the D-Day invasion, graduated from Newberry College and midshipman’s school at Northwestern University. He later went on to play professional baseball in the Tri-State league.
“I’m really not sure how he got to the FBI, because he was thinking about playing baseball,” his son said.
Before Ponder started his career with the Bureau, he started his family with the “love of his life,” his son said. Ponder and his wife, Margaret, had been married for 49 years when she died in 1992. The two met when she was 13, and he was 16. She had his love until the day he died.
“He would go to the cemetery at least once, and sometimes twice a day, when he was able,” his son said. “And, if you mentioned another woman to him, he’d hit the roof. And even as recent as a couple of years ago, if you mentioned her name, or if he mentioned her name, he’d get a little teary.”
That fact doesn’t surprise Betty Harding, the widow of one of Jim Ponder’s colleagues, Charles Harding. She said Ponder was one of the most caring men she’s known.
“Had it not been for Jim, I don’t know what I would have done when my husband passed,” she said. “He was just so compassionate.”
“He was a gentle man, who happened to carry a gun every day for his job,” Terry Ponder said.
In addition to his son, Ponder is survived by a second son, Robert Ponder of Orlando, Fla.; daughter Barbara Roan of Birmingham; 10 grandchildren; and five great-grandchildren.
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