Almost everyone has a quirky story in their life and Jim Riley’s involves a six-foot alligator. In November of 2011, Riley was driving to Jackson with his daughters. Something caught his eye, and he turned his car around to check it out. In the grass alongside the road, there was an alligator, he told his disbelieving daughters. But it was real. Blackman Township police captured the reptile, and it was taken to an alligator sanctuary in Athens, MI. The Rileys made the national news over the incident.

Riley has served as the pastor of the Eaton Rapids Assembly of God for almost 16 years. He’s been married to Melissa, who is a teacher at Lockwood Elementary, for 21 years. The couple has two daughters, Emma and Allison. Riley also works part-time for Laura DeLong Realty as an office assistant.

“I am there to make Laura (DeLong) and her agents look good,” Riley explained.

He also serves as the police chaplain for the Eaton Rapids Police Department and assists in death notifications and supports victims in crisis.

But Riley’s life hasn’t always been “blessed.” He wasn’t always a pillar of society, he told me.

His childhood involved parental neglect and abuse; he was on his own throughout his teenage years, and he cared for his younger siblings. He made some bad choices involving the law, alcohol and cigarettes.

In my opinion, those “rough spots” are probably what made him the kind of man he is today. I would even venture to say some of the things he has gone through might have caused a lesser person to end up in a bad situation. But it’s just the opposite for Jim Riley. The influence of religion was a true calling and a life-changer for him.

Riley was born in Goshen, IN. His parents divorced, and he ended up living with his father and stepmother. Alcohol use figured heavily into the family breakdown. But at age 12, after observing his father, Jim made a decision for his future. He decided: “I will be the best dad in the history of the world.”

Riley briefly attended Ball State despite not wanting to attend college at all. But due to his lifestyle, which involved alcohol and partying, he flunked out of college.

Riley worked in the family business, a rubber manufacturing factory, with his father and grandfather. He started out sweeping floors but eventually mastered every part of the manufacturing process and became factory foreman.

“It was what I was gifted to do,” he said, and the business flourished.

At age 22, a voice told him he would be saved at the upcoming Christmas Eve service. The sermon he listened to did no such thing, until the very end when the minister requested those wanting to be saved to come forward. He did. Riley describes himself before this as a “horrible, nasty, mean person and a mean boss.” He became a Christian that day and never drank again. He said that he then “dove in to serve God full force.”

Riley served in several churches as a youth pastor, giving up the well-paying job at the rubber factory and disappointing his grandfather. In 2004, he became the pastor of the Eaton Rapids Assembly of God. Riley and his family became close once again.

Laura DeLong has a lot of praise for Riley.

“He’s so smart, funny, detailed, organized, genuine and kind, but what I love the most is his dedication to our community,” DeLong said. “We are very blessed to have Pastor Jim on our team; I hope he stays forever.”

Deb Malewski is a long-time Eaton Rapids resident and regular contributor to this newspaper.