December 31, 2009 11:52:00 AM
Notable community members who died in 2009 included an unforgettable bluesman, beloved philanthropists, a well-known businessman and an icon in local politics.
Willie King, in international blues artist whose love of community rivaled his love of music, died on his 66th birthday, March 8.
The day before his death, King played the guitar and sang to an adoring crowd in the Omnova Theater of the Rosenzweig Arts Center in Columbus.
An unassuming bluesman, who lived simply in his rural community, King played blues festivals in Europe, appeared in Martin Scorsese’s documentary, “Feel Like Going Home,” and was the subject of a documentary, “Down Home,” by Dutch filmmakers Saskia Rietmeijer and Bart Drolenga of Visible World Films.
In 2005, King was inducted into the Howlin’ Wolf Hall of Fame.
He was recognized by Living Blues magazine in 2000, 2001 and 2003 and was nominated for the traditional blues male artist of the year in the 2006 Blues Music Awards.
King also was a repeated nominee for the W.C. Handy Awards.
Scores of local and out-of-town fans yearly traveled to Old Memphis, Ala., where King lived, for his annual Freedom Creek Festival, which benefited The Rural Members Association — King’s organization sponsoring classes in music, woodworking, food preservation and other African-American traditions.
The Rural Members Association also provided transportation, legal assistance and other services for the needy for the past two decades.
“Every day, he walked, talked and preached about the blues,” said one of his daughters, Esther Eaton of West Greene, Ala. “He was the blues. He looked to the music as a source of strength that helped him through difficult times.”
“Willie will be remembered as an international blues artist, as well as by the love, compassion and generosity he extended to all,” Big Joe Shelton, a local blues musician, who often played with King, said this morning. “He made me strive to be a better man.”
“He was a giant of a man,” said Beverly Norris of Columbus. “Anything he got, he always seemed to be giving out to other folks.”
George “Happy” Oliver Irby, who had been the welcoming face of the Columbus Air Force Base for more than 50 years and one of Columbus’ best-loved philanthropists, died on his 94th birthday, March 27.
Happy Irby began working at the CAFB officers’ club in the early ’50s until his retirement at age 80.
Using the tips he made bartending at the base, Irby began the Happy Christmas Fund in 1952. The fund —carried on by Irby’s children and friends — continues to this day, helping to buy Christmas gifts for needy children and fruit baskets for the elderly.
John Laws Jr., a retiree, who had been friends with Irby since Laws first began working at the base in 1960, called him “one of the best humanitarians that ever lived.”
“He was always doing things for other people. He loved his family, and he really looked after people and he never had any enemies in this world,” Laws said.
“My father, one of the things he wanted to do was make sure everyone had the spirit of Christmas,” said George Hampton Irby, Happy’s son, who works for the city of Columbus.
“He loved Christmas,” noted Pam McKinney, who took care of her father until his death.
George Irby and McKinney, with the help of many who loved Happy, continued their father’s traditions this year, distributing gifts to more than 450 children and fruit baskets to 100 senior citizens.
W. G. “Bit” Thompson, who served as a Lowndes County supervisor for 24 years — 12 of which he was board president — died May 19.
“He was just a prince of a fellow,” said Lowndes County Coroner Greg Merchant.
Those who worked closely with Thompson, remembered him as a man “swift to hear, slow to speak, slow to wrath” (James 1:19).
“I think, in the (eight) years I served with him ... I never saw him get angry,” said Leroy Brooks, District 5 supervisor.
“He was the easiest person to work for,” said Rowena Sykes-Worshaim, secretary to the Board of Supervisors. “If you did something he didn’t like, he would come to you in private. He never tried to publicly embarrass you. Even when he was angry, he stayed in a low tone.
The Board of Supervisors presidency was based on seniority then. And while Thompson — fondly known as “Mr. Bit” — served as president, the board got along like a group of old pals.
“Even when there were disagreements, we were never disagreeable,” said Brooks.
Over the years, Thompson remained close to the boardroom, stopping by the courthouse to visit.
Josh Franklin “Shields” Sims, 90, retired attorney and Army major general, passed away Sept. 30.
Sims enlisted in the Mississippi National Guard in 1936 and served as a pilot in World War II, flying 74 missions. He later would serve as president of the Mississippi National Guard Association.
After returning home from the war, he joined the firm of Sims and Sims with his father, W. L. Sims.
Sims served as attorney for the Columbus Municipal School District for 23 years, seeing the district through integration.
Sims later would serve as president of the Lowndes County Bar Association.
He also served for 49 years as the executive director for the Columbus Housing Authority. He served as president of the Columbus-Lowndes Chamber of Commerce, the Mississippi Association of Housing and Redevelopment Officials, the Columbus-Lowndes Swim Association and the tri-state Division 10 of the YMCA. He has been honored by a plethora of civic groups .
“Shields was a true gentleman and a scholar,” said Dewitt Hicks, a lawyer and friend who often faced Sims in court.
“He was a fun guy, very optimistic on life,” said Jeff Smith, who practiced law under Sims since 1979. “He was raised with a humble background, and he handled his success well. He never met a stranger.”
Fred A. Jones, the president of Columbus Marble Works also known as a longtime collector of cars, died June 10 at age 73.
Jones, who started Gulf States Manufacturing in Starkville (a pre-manufactured building supplier), along with lifelong friend Clayton “Sonny” Richardson of Starkville, earned the nickname “Tycoon” at an early age, when he earned money selling fireworks.
“We yelled, ‘Fireworks, fireworks!’ at Christmas and made a lot of money,” his sister, Hortense Gholson Gholson recalled.
“The world has lost a wonderful person, and I lost a wonderful friend,” said Richardson.
Charles Jerome Younger, a longtime former chancery clerk and justice of the peace, died June 12 at age 78.
Younger served as a Lowndes County Justice Court judge from 1966 until 1983, when he was elected as the Lowndes County chancery clerk.
He retired as chancery clerk in 2002, after which his daughter, Lisa Younger Neese, was elected to the office; she is serving her second term.
“Mr. Younger was a fine gentleman,” said Lowndes County Justice Court Judge Peggy Phillips. “Charles was just an icon in Lowndes County politics, not just in politics, but as a person,” Board President and District 1 Supervisor Harry Sanders said. “He was very well-liked and had no enemies, whatsoever. He was a good fellow, a good man.”
Willis Puckett II
Willis Newbell Puckett II, former owner of Memorial Funeral Home on Columbus, died Oct. 4, deep in the Alaskan wilderness. He was 79.
Puckett was on a bear hunt when a suspected heart attack claimed his life.
He was hunting with guide Joe Klutsch, owner of Katmai Guide Service out of King Salmon, Alaska, when he became ill. Guides attempted to revive Puckett, but were unsuccessful.
“Willis loved the outdoors. He loved hunting. If he had to pick a time to leave this earth, I think this was an appropriate time,” said Waters. “He went out doing what he wanted to do and what he enjoyed the most.”
Puckett had a home in Noxubee County and another in Gulf Shores so he would have options for hunting.