2008 In Review

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, December 30, 2008




Death of longtime supervisor leads ‘08 stories

By Billy Davis

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In 2007, a year of politics led the front-page news in The Panolian.

In 2008, the death of a longtime politician has topped this year’s news. 

Robert Avant was Panola County’s longest-serving supervisor when he passed away August 8 at Baptist Memorial Hospital in Oxford. He was 58.

“Robert Avant’s political acumen, persistence and experience, along with his patience over the 20 years he served, allowed him to dominate Panola County politics for almost two decades,” said Panolian managing editor Rupert Howell.

A Panola County native, Avant was first elected in 1987 to the District 2 supervisor’s seat. His political influence grew during four terms as a supervisor, and at the time of his death his opinion held sway among mayors, aldermen, school board members, and other county officials.

Avant had said his most important achievement was establishing the North Panola Water Association, which now serves hundreds of homes that previously had no running water. 

Therefore Avant’s death tops The Panolian’s list of 2008 stories, and not just because of the political influence he enjoyed, or his contributions to Panola County. In just a blink of time a new county supervisor, Gary Thompson, was elevated to board president, Avant’s widow Vernice was chosen to fill his seat, and new county administrator Kelley Magee was hired (marking a second top story of the year).

With a single death, Panola County’s political landscape seemed to change overnight.

A second death of a well-known Panola Countian marked yet another top story in The Panolian. William “Son” Hudson was 65 when he died in an automobile accident on September 26.

In a four-vehicle accident, a log truck overturned and spilled its load of massive hardwood logs onto Hudson’s Panola County Emergency Management truck.

Hudson had served as civil defense director, and later Emergency Management director, since 1994.

Hudson was remembered as a “man of integrity” at a memorial service at Sardis Lake Baptist Church, where he was a member.

In other notable stories of 2008, the still-not-opened Rolando Curtis Foods plant in Crenshaw has achieved a rare feat. By failing to hire employees and make a product through the year, Rolando marked its second year as a top news story in The Panolian.

“Rolando-Curtis Foods almost opens throughout the year,” The Panolian reported last year.

A year later, nothing has changed.

On a brighter economic note, the $12 million GE Aviation plant in Batesville was completed. With the building completed, company management hired its first workers and began moving equipment into its cavernous 300,000-square-foot facility.

A grand opening at GE Aviation was held October 23, where Gov. Haley Barbour, citing company officials, hinted that employment at the plant could reach several hundred as production expands.

Barbour had also touted the GE Aviation plant in September, when he encouraged media attending the presidential debate at Ole Miss to report on positive news in Mississippi.

Despite the weak economy, the plant’s production output is expected to remain strong, a company spokesman said in recent weeks.

Other top news stories of 2008 included:

•Tri-Lakes Hospital physician Robert Mayfield was sentenced in March to six years in state prison for attempting to hire a hit man for $5,000.

The hit man turned out to be a Miss. Bureau of Investigations officer, and Mayfield was nabbed January 25 in a sting in the parking lot of Lowe’s.

Mayfield pleaded guilty to a single count of conspiracy to commit murder, which carries a 20-year maximum sentence. Circuit Judge Andrew C. Baker suspended nine years of a 15-year sentence.

Per Mississippi law, Mayfield must serve 85 percent of the six-year sentence.

•In the dramatic setting of the Panola Partnership’s annual reception in Jackson for its legislators, state Sen. Nolan Mettetal, flanked by Governor Barbour and Lt. Gov. Phil Bryant, announced in February his switch to the Republican Party.

Mettetal’s switch away from the Democratic Party had been the subject of speculation throughout his Panola-Tate district following his grueling 2007 re-election challenge from then-fellow Democrat Mona Pittman.

Mettetal’s narrow victory in the Democratic primary election last August endured several months of court challenges supported by the state and county Democratic Executive Committees.

Mettetal borrowed a refrain from other elected officials who have left the Democratic Party to become Republicans: “I didn’t leave the party, the party left me,“ he said to the applause of many who attended the event at Mississippi Trade Mart Building.

•The state takeover of the North Panola School District wasn’t unexpected when Governor Barbour signed an order in April to allow the school district to begin to rebuild its academics with direction from the state.

The state takeover of North Panola had been creeping forward since September of 2007, when the unveiling of student achievement test scores showed declines at North Panola High and Como Elementary.

The drop in test scores then downgraded both schools to Level 1, or low-performing status, and set in motion a reorganization of the school district.

North Panola’s new conservator, Dr. Bob Strebeck, began his new job in May.

Mississippi law allows for the state Board of Education to oversee a failing school district, with the option of appointing a conservator, once the governor declares a “state of emergency.”

•Panola County mourned the death of a popular North Delta School senior when Michael Johnson died January 27 in a one-car automobile accident.

Michael “Mike” Johnson, 17, died on the scene after the car he was driving left the roadway and struck a tree head-on, said Sgt. Leslie White, a spokesman for the Mississippi Highway Patrol.

Johnson was the son of Michael Johnson and Odessa Johnson of Sardis.

The accident occurred about 12:30 a.m. on Highway 315 west of Sardis near Old Panola Road, said White.

 “He was my Little Joe,” Michael Johnson said of his namesake, the youngest of three sons in a family of five siblings.

“My dream was to have three sons, and he was the third,” said the father, likening his three sons, Christian, Albert and Michael to Ben Cartwright’s sons on TV western “Bonanza.”

The 17-year-old was a first-year transfer from North Panola High School. At North Delta Johnson excelled in sports, playing several positions for Green Wave football.

Alcorn State and Delta State were interested in Johnson, and the teenager and his parents were set to visit the Alcorn campus just days after his accident.

•A quick-moving thief stealing a purse and gun from an automobile isn’t news, but what if the thief had two friends, and what if they hit 16 vehicles and never got caught?

“They moved swiftly and silently, like a SEAL team on a night mission,” began the July 3 story that described the hit-and-run theft in the Green Acres subdivision in Batesville.

The thieves took purses, firearms, wallets, iPods, and other items – and all from unlocked vehicles.