BRYAN - James L. Gleason, 87, a longtime employee of La Choy Foods in Archbold who during the early 1970s unwittingly found himself in the role of cultural ambassador to China, died May 21 at his home here.
The death followed complications from prostate cancer, said his son, John Gleason.
Mr. Gleason was born in Williams Center and graduated from Bryan High School in 1937. He enlisted during World War II in the U.S. Coast Guard, and served aboard a submarine chaser in the North Atlantic and Pacific theaters.
Upon returning from the war, Mr. Gleason settled in Archbold, where he took a job in maintenance at the La Choy plant, now owned by ConAgra Foods, Inc. He stayed at the plant for 36 years, later working in the laboratory and quality-control department of the Asian packaged cuisine company, his son said.
Shortly after President Richard Nixon's historic 1972 visit to China, La Choy assigned Mr. Gleason responsibility for helping develop sanitary food canning processes at the company's China-based suppliers of bean sprouts, water chestnuts, and other foods, recalled his sister, Jane Kutzley.
He began making twice-annual trips to the Communist country, often visiting rural parts of the mainland where residents had never seen a man with skin as white or eyes as blue as Mr. Gleason's.
"He was truly in areas of China where they had never seen a Westerner, and the people literally lined the streets to look at him," his son said.
Mr. Gleason typically traveled with two or three other La Choy officials and an interpreter, and the group was always accompanied by at least one local Chinese police official.
They often overnighted at small country inns, where the innkeepers sometimes knocked on their doors to show off their American guests to friends and family, John Gleason said.
"They would literally just stand there and stare at him for a few minutes," he said.
Mr. Gleason found all of this interest rather amusing, and regularly spoke of how friendly and gracious the Chinese were during his visits. His group also made business trips to Taiwan, Thailand, and Hong Kong.
"He said the people were just wonderful to him - they were so kind and accommodating," his daughter said.
Mr. Gleason was director of quality control at the La Choy plant at the time of his retirement in 1982. He moved to Bryan about 15 years ago from Clear Lake, Ind., from where he had commuted to work.
The former Geraldine Grace Lichty, his wife of 49 years, died in 1992. John Gleason recalled how his father was astounded when a group of about 10 Chinese men and women, friends that he had made years ago during his business trips, traveled to Bryan to attend her funeral.
Surviving are his sons, James and John Gleason; daughters, Jane Kutzley and Nancy Nesline, and seven grandchildren.
Funeral services will be private. The Oberlin-Ford Funeral Home, Bryan, is handling arrangements.
The family suggests tributes to the hospice care of Community Hospitals and Wellness Centers, Bryan.
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