James “Jim” Lee Caywood, a retired cinematographer, U.S. Army veteran and one of the founding members of the National Alliance on Mental Illness chapter in Tuolumne County, died on March 13 at Doctors Medical Center in Modesto following a six-year battle with leukemia.

Caywood was 81.

“He was a very persistent and tireless advocate for people with mental illnesses,” said Mary Leamy, the current president of the county’s NAMI chapter.

Caywood spent six years from age 12 to 18 living with his family in Yosemite National Park, where his father worked as a hydroelectric power house operator at Cascades.

He and his family, which included his parents and sister, lived in an old road keeper’s house that was built before Yosemite became a national park in 1890. The park was also how Caywood became interested in photography, on which he built his career.

In a 2013 essay titled “Growing Up in Paradise,” Caywood described learning how to fish with his father in the Merced River and backcountry lakes, many encounters with the park’s wildlife, and meeting famed Yosemite photographer Ansel Adams while taking photos of wildflowers in a meadow near El Capitan.

Caywood wrote that Adams’ wife, Virginia, once gave him a shopping bag full of 35mm film, flash bulbs and a signed volume of one of Adams’ books.

During the summer between 7th and 8th grade, Caywood met his future wife, Carol, while both were playing autoharps together in the Mariposa Community Band.

Carol Caywood said they began dating their freshman year at Mariposa High School, but they broke up in junior year because her father, a teacher at the school, was strict and didn’t approve of the relationship.

They rekindled their romance after they both moved to the Los Angeles area for work after graduating in 1955.

Carol Caywood was working as a dental assistant in Culver City and he was working as an industrial photographer for C.F. Braun and Co. in Alhambra while also attending night school at Pasadena City College to pursue a degree in fine arts.

She said they began dating again after she received a letter from him asking her to dinner. They got engaged a short time later.

Jim Caywood enlisted in the U.S. Army after getting laid off from his job in the 1958 recession and was sent to an Army photo school at Fort Monmouth, New Jersey, where he graduated with honors.

With only a few days before he was to be sent to Germany for at least two years, Carol Caywood flew from Los Angeles to New York City and they eloped. The newlyweds spent their two-day honeymoon in the Big Apple.

“We had so much fun seeing the sights in New York and took a carriage ride in Central Park,” Carol Caywood said. “It was almost like being in a movie.”

She joined her husband in Germany, where he served until 1962. He was able to travel throughout Europe shooting documentaries of U.S. military activities for “The Big Picture” newsreels in New York.

While serving in Germany, Jim Caywood took on what he described in his 2013 essay as the most dangerous assignment of his career, filming the construction of the Berlin Wall near the Brandenburg Gate.

He stated that he had other notable assignments while serving in the Army, such as filming President John F. Kennedy touring military bases and music legend Elvis Presley’s press conference when he left the military.

After returning to California, Jim Caywood got a job at Rocketdyne in Canoga Park filming high-speed testing of rocket engines that would later take U.S. astronauts to the moon.

Jim Caywood spent the final 25 years of his career in cinematography working for Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in Livermore, where he shot scientific documentaries in locations in North America and Europe.

“He always had a story to tell about all of his adventures,” Carol Caywood said.

The Caywoods’ two children both suffered from mental illness, which is how the couple became involved with NAMI and other support groups while in Livermore.

Their daughter, Kelley, suffered from bipolar disorder and died in an automobile accident at the age of 22 in 1985. Their son, Chad, lives in a group home in Modesto and suffers from schizoaffective disorder, a condition characterized by symptoms of schizophrenia and mood disorders.

“A lot of people didn’t understand mental illness and they would come in blaming themselves because they thought they had done something wrong,” Carol Caywood said of the support groups.

The couple retired to Sonora in 1997 to a home off Phoenix Lake Road and found other parents in the county who had children suffering from mental illness, so they helped create the local chapter of NAMI a year later with Pat Allopena and Jeanette Lambert.

To this day, the group meets at 6 p.m. on the first Thursday of each month at the St. James Episcopal Church in downtown Sonora.

“We were very committed to making it work and having a place where people can come to share their issues and concerns they are having with their kids,” said Lambert, who is the volunteer coordinator of the David Lambert Community Drop-In Center in Sonora, which is named after her late son who suffered from mental illness.

“It’s a tremendous help for people to share their concerns and learn from one another,” Lambert added.

Leamy, the current president of the group, said the Caywoods brought a personal, unique touch by having a potluck dinner at the beginning of each meeting and encouraging families to bring their loved ones suffering from mental illness.

Jim Caywood also advocated for the development of housing in the county to accommodate people with mental illnesses. Leamy said the group has rented multiple homes and apartments thanks to his efforts since the early 2000s on that front.

Leamy said Jim Caywood was also instrumental in furnishing the rentals.

“He would drive around, ask people he knew and come up with amazing things to furnish these homes so that people who literally had nothing would have a place to live,” she said.

The Caywoods stayed active in NAMI until recently when Jim Caywood’s six-year battle with leukemia took a bad turn after he came down with pneumonia.

Prior to falling ill, Jim Caywood continued his life’s work by documenting the construction of a mobile shower bus for the homeless that’s set to launch next month.

Hazel Mitchell, co-founder of the nonprofit organization behind the bus project, Give Someone a Chance, said the group is planning to use his footage and photos to promote the bus at upcoming fundraisers.

Mitchell said Jim Caywood also helped fund the build-out of the bus, which involved gutting a former county bus and installing two shower stalls.

“He wasn’t a public official, but what he did for the community was remarkable,” Mitchell said. “He never did it to be noticed. He looked at it like this is God’s plan for what I’m going to do.”

Jim Caywood is survived by his wife of 59 years, Carol, son, Chad, sister, Dallas Walker, of Beaufort, South Carolina, and many nieces, nephews and grand nieces and nephews.

A celebration of life is scheduled to be held at 2 p.m., Thursday, at Sierra Bible Church, located at 15171 Tuolumne Road in East Sonora.

Contact Alex MacLean at amaclean@uniondemocrat.com or (209) 588-4530.