John Howell’s Column

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Native son proves it’s never too late to learn French

Last June, old friend Steve Still sent an email. He said he was breaking a promise he had made to a high school French teacher over 40 years earlier.

Steve and I and the girl who would later become my wife had landed together among others in a French I class at South Panola High, he recalled in his email. As that 1964-’65 school year neared its end, Steve continued, he managed to extract from the teacher the promise of passing grade of D in return for his promise never to take French again. The teacher was apparently afraid that the Gallic tongue might not withstand another such assault.

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In last June’s email, Steve confessed that he was breaking his promise. At age 56, he had once again signed up to take French. He sounded as much surprised as I was.

However, this time Steve would be taking French in Quebec, the capitol of French Canada which has become so guarded of its original tongue that even though most in the city are bilingual, speaking French instead of resorting to English has become a matter of pride.

Moreover, Steve would be learning the native tongue of his bride-to-be, Sandra Gravel. The story of their courtship rivals any ever. She was already in the family, so to speak, the older sister of Steve’s daughter-in-law. She came into Steve’s life after he had wrestled through a bout of depression that followed the loss of his first wife, Kim, after her long battle with cancer.

Steve was then spending much time in post-Katrina New Orleans with his son, Jonah, when the casual acquaintance with his son’s sister-in-law grew into a romance with marriage plans.

And plans to move to her city.

When Steve told us late last spring that he would be soon be moving to Quebec and that he and Sandra would marry there the following May, I teased him that he had to spend a trial winter there to prove to her he was man enough to withstand the cold.

Obviously, he passed the test. Steve and Sandra were married in Quebec in May. They honeymooned in Italy and recently visited Batesville. She has since returned to her job in Quebec. Steve will stay for further visiting and to accompany his sister, Jimmie Carol, to the 50th reunion of the Batesville High School Class of 1957 this weekend.

Meanwhile, Steve’s brother David keeps us abreast of developments in Steve’s life with photos. David and his wife now live in Washington, but he often knows more about what’s going on here than we do at the newspaper office.

So it was not unusual for David to pass along a Quebec newspaper account featuring Steve.

“Those of you who live far from Quebec don’t know that Steve is a celebrity,” wrote Denis-Francois Gravel, Steve’s brother-in-law, who had forwarded a copy of the account to David. “Our local newspaper published an article about him yesterday. It was a special section about Elvis Presley.”

What was unusual was that the newspaper, Le Soleil, is a French-language newspaper, and quoted Steve chirping like a bird — in French. On the day that Elvis had died, Steve had been a policeman directing traffic through the downtown Batesville square.

“Puis, une conductrice m’a annoncé ce qu’elle avait entendu,” Steve said to Le Soleil reporter Patricia Sauzede-Bilodeau. “Elle avait les yeux dans l’eau.”

According to, Steve said: “Then, a driver announced me this that she had heard. She had the eyes in water.” For $65 I could have received a more polished version of the translation that the driver of one of the cars hold told him with tears in her eyes the news she heard that day on the radio.

Instead, I will let you read it for yourself and see a great photo of Steve holding the badge he wore on that Elvis-is-dead day in 1977 at If you have trouble connecting to the link, email me at and I will try to forward it to you.

“It’s not easy for us to live in the shadow of a celebrity. It’s a good thing for you that you live in other cities,” Steve’s brother-in-law wrote, tongue-in-cheek, in his email to David.

And in one of those other cities somewhere, there might also live retired former French teacher who would be as surprised as Steve himself at the turn of events after these 40-plus years.