Rupert Howell’s column

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Travis was county icon for 50 years

Perhaps no one around over the many years he served in public office had the full concept of county government like James “Mr. Jimmy” Travis did.

He died last week at age 96.

Travis served as Panola County Sheriff and Tax Collector, before the collector’s office was combined with the tax assessor’s office. He would later be elected to the Board of Supervisors for four terms where his impact was felt throughout the county. At the death of incumbent David R. Craig, he was elected at age 81 to serve again on the supervisor’s board filling that unexpired term.

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Travis fit the mold of a Southern sheriff. He was a towering man who wore a white Stetson and his presence could be felt whenever he walked into a room. His Southern accent had a hint of Tennessee twang that enlightened even the most mundane conversations.

He was born near Ripley, Tennessee and moved to Batesville with his family as a child in 1921.

“My father drove a Model T Ford … to Batesville … while my mother, two sisters and I came by train,” he wrote in the History of Panola County Mississippi (Panola County Genealogical and Historical Society, 1987).

Mules, horses, cattle, feed and household goods came by train. Their farm was located on Highway 35 south and west of Batesville.

The neighbors came with wagons and helped them move to their new farm. In three years the family was growing 120 acres of strawberries that were shipped by train to several northern cities. He would later help his father establish one of the largest dairy herds in Panola County.

In his obituary notice his family members wrote that he offered himself as a candidate for sheriff, “with the intention of evenhandedly enforcing the laws of the state and county.”

In those days alcohol was illegal not only in Panola County but in the State of Mississippi. Among his priorities were enforcing the laws prohibiting alcohol. Many of us old enough remember Travis making a statement with deputies destroying the confiscated brew and spirits into large barrels on trucks parked between the county jail and the courthouse in Batesville in 1957.

His experience as tax collector  may have had an impact on how much was spent after he was elected to supervisor. If you look up the definition for “fiscal conservative,” James Travis’s name is probably mentioned. Not only did he know where county expenditures were made, as a landowner he knew from where they came.

Although he represented Beat Five, his influence and connections were much broader. Rarely did an issue get voted down that Travis pushed and rarely did an issue pass that Travis was against.

Although he didn’t serve as board president, his influence appeared superior to others on that board. On many occasions he would work on the political side of road projects that weren’t encompassed in his district, assisting with getting right-of-way from former constituents he had befriended while holding county-wide office.

During his earlier service as supervisor his Beat was comprised most of the Cities of Batesville and Sardis which were the largest population centers in the county. He could use those voter numbers like a mandate with other board members to get his projects and favors put on the front burner.

His spats and disagreements were tempered by a lady who came into his life early on.

“…I first saw Mildred… at a basketball game,” he would write.

He would later ask his sister to invite her to a senior party. She came with a group of seniors from Pope.

“… But I took her home after the party–and the day was February 22, her 14th birthday. Two years later … we were married,”  Mr. Jimmy wrote.

She would “soften” his heart and the hearts of others during the next 72 years including this newspaper editor who was the recipient of homemade cookies following occasions of disagreement between the official and the scribe.

Another influence on his life was his long association with First Baptist Church in Batesville, the church he attended until his health would not permit.

“I give thanks to the Lord, for His guidance and during my life,” he wrote in 1987.

(The Panolian Managing Editor Rupert Howell grew up in Batesville and was assigned to cover the Panola County Board of Supervisors for approximately 20 years beginning in the mid-70s. Information for this column comes from his recollections, the History of Panola County and an obituary notice submitted by the Travis family)