The Cleveland native has earned the respect of those who know him as one of the friendliest people in Cleveland. As a longtime member of 100 Black Men of Cleveland and a U.S. Army veteran who was wounded twice in the Korean War, Craigmiles has contributed much to his community and country. He was seen shaking the hand of the 45th Vice President of the United States, Al Gore, a current environmental activist who thanked Craigmiles personally for his support.
But it is his gentle ways and approachable demeanor that endeared so many to a man hard to forget should you ever meet him. Often called, “Long John” or “Big John” during his athletic years at College Hill High School, he played basketball, baseball, and football before leaving school.
“I had some good times there,” he says. But those fond memories were tainted by the memory of the sudden death of his father and nervous breakdown of his mother during his formative years.
Born Jan. 11, 1935, Craigmiles says, “I came from a big family. We owned our own home. My father passed away when I was young. I was just 5 years old. He was a young man — worked hard. My mother had a nervous breakdown. Since we had a lot of uncles and aunts on my mother’s side — and a grandmother — they all pitched in and helped us.”
While his mother was hospitalized, Craigmiles says the family came by and took care of him and his siblings until their mom got back on her feet. That family support — the discipline, advice and structure in the face of tragedy — gave Craigmiles a foundation that shaped the rest of his life. It was also enough to give the teenager pause about what he wanted to do with the rest of his life. Since a war was being waged in Korea, the 16-year-old decided he wanted to serve his country and joined the U.S. Army in 1951 along with three of his friends. Craigmiles admits, “Back then you could lie about your age and get away with it. Beside, I was real tall. They didn’t ask me any questions about my age. So we got in. Two of my friends who were with me in basic training in California said, ‘John, let’s go back home. I don’t like this.’ I said, ‘I’m not going back home! For what? I’m getting three meals a day. I’m learning something and getting paid.’ Two of them came back home. But I stuck with it.”
Being in the 7th Infantry division of the U.S. Army, Craigmiles saw action in no time. Being put on the front line during combat was the most danger Craigmiles says he ever experienced. It nearly cost him his life — twice.
“The first time I was shot in the hip by a sniper,” Craigmiles says. “They sent me to Tokyo, Japan, for about two months to recover. I thought I was going home. Then they sent me right back on the front line.”
This time Craigmiles got his left leg broken in an artillery explosion that proved fatal to one of his fellow soldiers.
“They were throwing big mortar rounds and artillery rounds at us,” he says. “One hit close to the foxhole I was in. It knocked me and another guy right out of there! It killed the other guy.”
After being dragged to safety, Craigmiles received the Bronze Star in combat, and a Purple Heart with star for being wounded twice. He retired as a first sergeant when he left the U.S. Army after 13 months. While he readily admits, “It was rough over there,” the mild-mannered sergeant returned from war with few, if any, mental or emotional scars.
Upon returning to Cleveland, it became obvious his positive approach to life, friendly demeanor and height made it easier for the towering teen to find work than it was for some others.
“Bowater had opened in Charleston and my uncle said, ‘John, they built a paper mill up there in Charleston. I’ll bet you could go up there and get hired.’ So about five of us went over there. A man came out, looked at us and said, ‘Give me that big boy over there! The rest of you can go.’” Laughing, he adds, “They still tease me about that.”
After two years at Bowater, however, Craigmiles visited his uncle in Chicago while on vacation and decided to make the Windy City his new home.
“I was still young,” he says. “When I saw all those bright lights and pretty women I wanted to stay. So I got a job there in the next few days.” One of his jobs was that of being a bouncer in a few nightclubs. Craigmiles insist he never saw any trouble and knew how to stay out of trouble — something he is proud of to this day.
“Everybody liked me up there. They were crazy about me. I got along with everyone,” he says.
After two marriages, having four daughters and 37 years of living in Chicago, Craigmiles returned to Cleveland, explaining, “I got tired of it up there. I’ve always liked it around Cleveland. That’s home. So I returned in the late 1980s. I worked at TVA for a long time. My family taught me early on to stay out of trouble, and I did.”
According to Craigmiles, learning how to get along with others is worth trying, because it is one of the biggest secrets to his being liked and staying out of trouble.
“People who know me know I’m a nice man,” he says. “I’d give the shirt off my back to help others. I get along with everyone — black, white — anyone. I tried to give good advice and be a good friend. So to this day I have a lot of friends.”
Now that he is living at the Garden Plaza in Cleveland, Craigmiles is still walking tall but taking life a little slower and enjoying the blessing of a comfortable life, thanks to another uncle — Uncle Sam.
“The government has been good to me,” he says. “Uncle Sam took good care of me. I love it here at Garden Plaza! It’s going on two years and everyone is so nice. Everyone here is sweet.”
The gentle giant, now 77, says his younger brother, Fred, a retired police officer in Chicago, takes care of his business along with his sister, Rebecca, a retired registered nurse who lives in Baltimore. His daughters and grandchildren remain the joys of his life.