Proud Texan ‘JimmyWayne’ Sealy: A founding father of the International Code Council
Jimmy Wayne Sealy (aka, Jim W. Sealy), FAIA, NCARB, HFES, HON ICC — “JimmyWayne” in his proud Texan tongue — was an architect who designed many significant structures during his nearly 50 years in the building industry. But none were more important than the work he and fellow Texan and International Code Council legend Bobby Fowler accomplished in developing one model code and, ultimately, one model code organization.
“Jim’s influence in the design, codes and construction industries cannot be overstated, and he was recognized throughout his career for his superior work representing our industry on many important issues,” said Dominic Sims, CBO, International Code Council Chief Executive Officer, of Sealy, who passed away May 9 at age 84. “An icon of the code development process, he embodied the definition of professional, was admired by his colleagues and leaves a lasting impression on our association and industry. Jim will be deeply missed.”
For more than 47 years, Sealy was actively involved with all three legacy code organizations in the drafting and development of building codes and life safety and construction industry standards. Sealy and Fowler traveled the country in the 1970s and ‘80s to build support for a single model building code. After Fowler’s death, Sealy helped create a joint American Institute of Architects/International Code Council Bob Fowler Memorial Scholarship Fund.
Sealy received many honors for his important, long-standing contributions to the development of U.S. building codes and related standards. He was a consultant to the design, codes, construction and legal profession. He worked with fellow architects, design professionals, developers, building managers and owners. He was so respected in matters dealing with architecture, building codes, fire and life safety standards, general construction, and accessibility issues, that Sealy was called to testify as a professional witness 27 times over some four years; 14 times for the plaintiff and 13 times for the defense. It was his work, along with Fowler’s, that got the building industry thinking there had to be a better way than working with three sets of codes from three legacy organizations, depending on what region of the U.S. you were working in.
In 1975, the American Institute of Architects (AIA) put out a white paper recommending one common model code to keep it from having to prepare documents for Building Officials and Code Administrators International, Southern Building Code Congress International and the International Conference of Building Officials, said longtime friend David Collins, now with the Cincinnati-based Preview Group Inc., which, as Sealy did, focuses on consulting for codes and design. “Jim and Bob Fowler were two of the people who carried that message throughout the 25 years it took to get that done,” Collins said. “His passion about codes and standards became his mission. Jim was a giant of the industry and a giant among men. Maybe not in stature, but he was a person you wanted to know for many reasons.”
Collins worked with Sealy on those AIA committees, helping to make sure the organization’s concerns were part of any combined model code. At times, that meant getting together socially, Collins said, usually with their wives, Sarah Rice Collins and Phoebe Lou Sealy. “They were wonderful times,” Collins said, getting choked up as he added, “We didn’t get together nearly as much as I would have loved to.”
James Ryan, code administrator for Overland Park, Kans., also met Sealy during those early 1980’s meetings on consolidation. “He would introduce himself by saying, ‘I’m Jimmy Sealy, architect from the Republic of Texas,’” Ryan remembered fondly. “He just drew you in; he was fun to be with. He was a mentor to a lot of the younger people, especially architects. He taught me a lot about codes as I watched him during those meetings. He was no-nonsense; he told you what he thought. And you could tell if he disagreed with you.”
And it was easy to tell Sealy’s passion for the codes and what they meant to people’s safety. “One time, he referred a court case to me,” Ryan said. “I looked at it and I said, ‘Jimmy, we can’t win this one.’ And he told me, ‘We are about people. This family needs help. We’ve got to get involved.”
Soy Williams said Sealy got her involved in consulting and codes early on in her career, not long after they met at a code conference, her first, in New Orleans in 1992. Now AIA president, Williams said Sealy was not only her mentor, but she became close friends, practically family, to “Uncle Jim” and his beloved wife, Phoebe Lou. He would advise her on career opportunities, Williams said, including a stint as a Code Council governmental representative in Miami.
Asked what she would miss the most, Williams is quiet for a long time as she struggled to find words. “There is so much. Probably the strong relationship that developed over the years. I saw them at least once a year. I still talk to Phoebe every day. “Sitting around their table talking and eating with other friends was kind of like being at the family dinner table.” Not only was he one of the founding fathers of the single-code movement, Williams said, “next to my own father, Jim was the most influential man in my life, in every respect.”
Ryan said the Sealys didn’t have any children. “Maybe that’s why they treated Soy, me and others like their kids,” he said. “They would do anything for us.”
Sealy was a lifelong contributing member of many code-related organizations, including all three Code Council legacy organizations, often receiving their highest awards for his contributions. Before just about every building industry group sought him out for his expertise on various issues, Sealy joined one that would have a major impact on him, personally and professionally. The National Institute of Building Sciences (NIBS) was founded in 1974 with Mortimer M. Marshall, Jr., as one of its first members. Sealy would join a little later, and he and Mort became lifetime friends.
Ryan, who served with Sealy at NIBS, said he was no-nonsense there, too. “He really wielded that gavel,” Ryan said. “He’d tell you before the meeting to turn off your cellphone. If it went off during the meeting, it would cost you $50.”
Henry Green, former NIBS president and Code Council board past president, called Sealy a great friend and mentor. Green said his work with Sealy as chair of the Building Seismic Safety Council brought science and realty together. “He was a student of the codes. And he was instrumental in giving a structure to the codes that could be used around the world.”
Sealy loved to show his Southern hospitality, Green said, whether it was at his Dallas home with Phoebe Lou, or while holding court at a local dive, affectionately referred to as “The Club,” over plates of greasy burgers, fries and onion rings. “He was the quintessential charming host, drawing everyone into the conversation at the table.”
Joy Ortiz said she and her husband, though much-less experienced architects, would be treated as equals when they were seated with her father Mort Marshall, her mother and the Sealys. “He said never to be afraid of asking questions,” said Ortiz, president of the Reston, Virginia-based architectural firm founded by her father. “I learned a lot from him when I was on the NIBS board. There are so many different facets to building safety, and he had a handle on all of them.”
Ortiz said she and her father had a great friendship, often sending each other emails. So it was very emotional when Sealy received NIBS’ highest honor, the Mortimer M. Marshall Lifetime Achievement Award, in 2013. “He was such a nice man,” Ortiz said. “He loved to give hugs. Great big bear hugs. And he loved bacon. My Dad would send him messages when there would be a meeting coming up: “Jimmy, there’s going to be bacon. Don’t be late!” Sealy would also receive an award in 2004 bearing another close friend’s name: the Code Council’s Bobby J. Fowler Award, the building code administration profession’s highest honor.
Sealy was very proud of being the only privately practicing design professional to participate in the drafting of the International Residential Code and the International Performance Code. He gave more than 40 seminars on accessibility and was one of the first AIA members to deliver a national talk on the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). He was honored in Dallas for his ADA work, and wrote several published articles on the issue. Advancing to the prestigious AIA College of Fellows in 1993, Sealy also authored many papers on a single master code and contributed the first chapter — “The Purpose of Controls” of Building Department Administration — recognized as the educational primer for the building officials and building inspectors of the United States.
He was a loving husband to his partner Phoebe Lou, who often accompanied him on trips to code hearings. She shared some insights from her late husband: “As family knows, his name is Jim. W. Sealy. Jim is a deviation of Jimmy, not James. His Christian name is JimmyWayne, pronounced all together as one word, as in the Southern version.
“Jim put himself through the University of Oklahoma without any financial help from his family. As newlyweds, we paid off two student loans and a couple of bank loans without outside help. Some of you may not know he joined the U.S. Army in 1955 and was honorably discharged from the U.S. Army Reserves in 1964. He was called up twice but never deployed. Stories of boot camp were funny adventures, as were his birding epistles.”
Collins said birding often was part of the side trips they would take during conferences and meetings. “I remember one day we wound up on a mountain, identifying birds,” he said. “That was a long hike.”
Karla Price Higgs, vice president of member services for the Code Council, said she, Jim and Phoebe shared a love of bird watching. “During one of my first annual conferences, I went into the hearings hall to take photos and listen for a while. I sat in a corner out of the way, when suddenly, some tables got moved around, and I was blocked in, no way to get out without causing a scene right next to the mic! I sat through about two hours of plumbing code hearings, bored out of my gourd. Jim was a couple of rows behind me, chuckling through the whole thing. He started passing me birding magazines to look through until I could be set free. I genuinely loved that old fella.”
Williams said Sealy’s passing is an incredible loss to the industry and personally. Collins agreed. “He set an example,” Collins said, once again getting emotional. “He was the kind of man I always wanted to be: having a strong will, a strong sense of humor and a strong love. And he worked hard.”
Photos of a limited-edition, consolidation belt buckle designed by Phoebe Lou Sealy and provided by the Building Officials Association of Texas. Upon learning that Jimmy and Phoebe did not originally receive one, James Ryan presented Sealy outgoing chairman of NIBS at the time with one of the remaining buckles. The face of the buckle has three telescoping stars, representing the three founding model code organizations, and the back lists first International Code Council Chief Executive Officer William Tangye and Phoebe’s name as the designer.