The ‘Miracle Baby’ Kay Coles James And Her Family Celebrate Every December

During the holiday season every year, Heritage Foundation president Kay Coles James marks a “miracle” with her family. But it’s not the Christmas story you'd expect.

By Josh Shepherd Published on December 9, 2018

The crisis unfolded in December 1980. Joyce Ranson remembers it like it was yesterday, though. Arriving at their Richmond home after a long road trip, she saw her husband on the front porch awaiting her arrival. Something wasn’t right.

He had bad news about the daughter of a beloved family friend: “Bizzie is in the hospital, and she may not make it.” It was the nickname given to Elizabeth Joyce James, only four years old and named in part after Ranson.

The girl’s mother is one many today would recognize, especially in the Washington, D.C. area. Kay Coles James serves as president of The Heritage Foundation, a flagship institution of the conservative movement.

Along with past roles at Family Research Council, National Right to Life Committee and Regent University, James has held positions in both Bush administrations.

In a statement this week, James honored her former boss. Yet decades before her rise to prominence, a family crisis shaped her views on the value of life.

Praying for a Miracle

Rewind to the scene in 1980. Joyce Ranson and her husband, longtime mother and father figures to the James family, rushed to the hospital.

They made it to the room where the girl lay between life and death. “Kay and Charles were seated at the end of a long, dark hall on a bench,” recalls Ranson, now 90 years old, in a phone interview. “When Kay saw me, she got up and ran. She fell in my arms and said, ‘My baby girl is dying, Joyce!’”

Her toddler “Bizzie” had contracted tubercular meningitis, an infection of the internal tissues covering the brain and spinal cord. It was often fatal in those days.

“When Kay saw me, she got up and ran. She fell in my arms and said, ‘My baby girl is dying, Joyce!’”

The young mother cried, as her longtime mentor spoke comfort to her. Soon Ranson organized a group from Stony Point Church, their shared congregational home, to come and pray.

Some observers might have found the scene odd. Here was a young African American mother weeping on Ranson’s shoulder, and she a 50-something white woman. It reflects how James found a supportive family in her faith community, a foundation she came to see as essential to society.

From Civil Rights Advocate to Conservative Leader

This past January, nearly 38 years after that harrowing family crisis, Kay Coles James became president of The Heritage Foundation by a unanimous vote of their board of directors. She is the first woman and African American to hold the position, notably following Heritage founder Ed Feulner and former Senator Jim DeMint.

Kay Coles James

Kay Coles James

The think tank founded in 1973 provides analysis on economic, foreign policy and social issues to Washington policymakers. (Disclosure: I worked for Heritage for four years, starting in 2010.) For James, the leadership role represents a culmination of her life of public service.

“She’s had an amazing life,” says Joel Vaughan, chief of staff at Focus on the Family. He’s known James for decades. “Kay has done it all and seen it all. She’s been an educator and administrator, including at the highest levels of American government.”

Several turning points highlight James’ distinctive life story, chronicled in part in a recent feature story. These include her Christian conversion as a high school student and her years at the historic black college Hampton University. Ranson met her when James gave a speech sharing her testimony.

Considering her involvement in the civil rights movement, some wonder when and how her political views shifted. “I truly did not ‘grow into’ the conservative movement or adopt a conservative philosophy at some point in my life,” says James in a phone interview. “I just had the audacity to believe the commonsense, quintessentially American values that I had been raised with by my mother and grandmother.”

“Somehow as the country evolved, those values and ideas became known as conservative.”

When Life Hangs By A Thread

Graduating from college led James into her first job, and the start of her own family. By 1980, she had married Charles James and become a mother of three active children. Now one of them lay helpless in a Richmond hospital.

James saw her daughter briefly flatline on the monitor hooked up to the toddler. Doctors acted quickly, administering a brain shunt and other treatments. All the while, Ranson and her friends from Stony Point Church prayed and found ways to support them.

“I was in a coma for awhile,” says James’ daughter Elizabeth, today age 42. “They let me come home on Christmas Day. The church decorated the house and I got to see it. Then I had to go back.” Her hospital stay ultimately lasted more than two months.

Doctors called her a “miracle baby” when they finally released little Bizzie James. “I had to re-learn walking and all kinds of things,” she says. “But I have no lifelong problems from it, which is amazing.”

Doctors called her a “miracle baby” when the four year-old girl recovered from tubercular meningitis. “I have no lifelong problems from it, which is amazing,” she says today.

James praises the support she received in the hospital from church friends, as well as the critical role her extended family played in her own life. Yet she clarifies her views on child welfare and the family.

“You can count me among those who poke fun at that phrase, ‘It takes a village to raise a child,’” says James. “Do we need strong villages and communities to raise a great nation? Absolutely. But it takes a stable, intact, two-parent family to raise strong children.”

“They are not the children of the state or government — these children belong to families.”

Faith and Family at the Center

Her daughter’s medical crisis amplified James’ drive to help vulnerable lives. She increased her involvement with pregnancy help centers and her pro-life advocacy.

Today, Kay Coles James views that work in context of the wide-ranging policies Heritage scholars analyze, notably religious freedom on which she has often written. “My passion and love for this country, instilled in me at a very early age, propel me to do what I do every single day,” says James.

“We champion the building blocks of strength,” she continues. “These include a free, democratic government and a capitalistic society where growth, prosperity and opportunity are available to all. A key part of that is a civil society where charitable entities thrive. All of these are necessary for a strong and great nation.”

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Her daughter Elizabeth, married to Brandon Level, now has three children of her own — ages nine, 12 and 14. Like most Americans, the extended James family looks forward to Thanksgiving and Christmas every year. Yet they also have a unique annual celebration, as “Bizzie” Level explains.

“December 9 is the day that I flatlined,” says Level. “To this day, no matter what our family is doing, we all gather — my parents, my brothers and our kids. We have a meal together and call it ‘Isn’t It Good to Know the Lord?’ We tell the story of me being in the hospital to pass it on to my kids and my brothers’ kids.”

Beyond American values, the heritage James stands on is clearly one of personal faith.


Watch the video below to learn more about Kay Coles James. Explore more of The Stream’s Advent 2018 coverage, and sign up to receive top stories every week.

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