Few communities anywhere welcome new residents more warmly and enthusiastically than Walker County. As the five profiles below illustrate, all it takes to experience that embrace is a willingness to become involved.
“It’s beyond Southern Hospitality.”
When Bevill State President Larry Ferguson was considering the opportunity to move from his native Eastern Kentucky home, it didn’t take him long to find Walker County area boosters. “We met with Senator Reed, Connie Rowe and former Bevill State President Harold Wade. They were all so jazzed about the area, and they were so passionate about the college and its role in the community.”
Ferguson, who began his tenure with Bevill State this past January, is currently living in a leased house in Jasper—while his daughter finishes-up fourth grade back in Versailles, KY. Needless to say, he knew better than to make any permanent-home decisions without his wife — who’s a Strategic Planning Analyst for the Bon Secours Health System. “The move was not a problem at all for her, because she works from home.”
And while Ferguson admits he’s logged more than a few miles in the past months, back and forth between his two homes, he’s also taken time to discover a little of what his newly-adopted hometown has to offer. “I really like the Black Rock restaurant. And I love Danny’s Downtown Bar-B-Q. They have the best gumbo.”
One perk he’s hoping to take advantage of in the fall is a game in Tuscaloosa. “I’ve always been a fan of Alabama football. After all, Coach Bryant used to coach at Kentucky.”
The family hasn’t decided on a church yet, “but we’ve had many gracious invitations. That’s one of the things I love about the South, and I particularly like about living here. People are so genuinely kind and helpful, it’s beyond Southern Hospitality. I haven’t met anybody I didn’t like.”
Looking ahead to the future at Bevill State, Larry says, “Bevill State is all about enhancing the workforce. After all, workforce quality is the number one challenge for economic development in any community. The good news for us is, we’re very blessed in that regard. For years, Site Selection Magazine has ranked Workforce as the area’s top asset.”
“Bevill State is such an excellent, well-run college. We’re positioning ourselves to be an innovative leader in meeting the needs of our students, our community and business & industry. Statistics tell us that, by 2018, only 30% of the jobs available will require a bachelor’s degree or higher. We’re in the business of providing a future for the other 70%.”
Kevin & Pam Callahan
“This is where our friends are now.”
Four weeks after he sold the business he’d built in his hometown of Memphis, Kevin Callahan realized his career as a retiree was doomed to fail. That revelation came with the help of his wife Pam, whose message to him was simple and direct: “You need a job.” So Kevin started looking for new opportunities.
“I’d driven through Jasper many times when I owned my business. I’d seen the Honda dealership there, and had gotten to know the owner. I’d actually helped him put a value on the store, so I called and asked if he was interested in selling it.” He was. It was the perfect case, Kevin continues, of being in the right place at the right time.
It didn’t take long to decide that Jasper was the right place for both of them. “Growing up, I spent a lot of time in a small Mississippi town, and I didn’t mind the idea of leaving Memphis” which, Kevin notes, can often take an hour of driving time just to get from one end to the other. Pam had grown-up in Fayetteville, Tennessee — and understood what the change of pace would be like. The only question she had about Jasper was, “Where is it?”
In December, 2009, Kevin bought Honda of Jasper — and almost immediately began making friends. “The first week I was there, Torrie Grelle, my Charter advertising rep, took me to a Chamber Breakfast. I’d been told we wouldn’t be accepted in Jasper, but our experience was the exact opposite. Next thing I know,” Kevin continues, “people are inviting me to get involved in other worthy causes, like the Rotary Club of Jasper.”
Pam’s experience was very much the same. “Once I moved to Jasper, I started meeting people. Sharon Hogg with the Arts Alliance was one of the first. Kevin had bought a mule from her (a fundraising project for artsofwalkercounty.org), and I met her at a Community Foundation party. I remember the other people I met that night were all so friendly and welcoming.”
Pam’s involvement with the Arts Alliance (where she’s now VP of the Board) led to other volunteer opportunities. She now serves on the First Fundraising Committee for the Pregnancy Test Resource Center, the Grants Committee with the Walker Area Community Foundation, and the Board of Main Street Jasper. And in her spare time, Pam maintains Kevin’s website.
As the Callahans’ network of community contacts grow, so does their circle of friends. “Truly dear friends,” says Pam — and Kevin agrees. “We still have a few good friends in Memphis. But the truth is, most of the people we call true friends today live right here in Jasper.”
Lamar & Monique Lawrence
“We have something special here.”
In 2011 the Social Security Administration offered Lamar Lawrence the opportunity for a significant promotion, provided he move from Savannah to Jasper. A town he’d never even heard-of before that moment, and one potentially light years, culturally, away from the famously progressive coastal city he’d called home his entire life.
So what was this father of four’s primary concern with moving? “The schools. Living in a comparatively rural area was not an issue to me. And once I learned how good the schools were, I was a lot more comfortable with the idea of moving.” Today, Lamar’s twin daughters (both AP students at Walker High School) are set to graduate in May, and begin their studies at Miles College in the fall.
Another important concern for Lamar and his wife Monique, who teaches Business Education at Walker High School, was finding a church where they felt at home. They chose Jasper First Church of the Nazarene, in part, because of its outreach to youth in the area. “The folks there really embraced us when we became members, particularly when we got involved in volunteer efforts. Everyone in my family actively volunteers in the community.”
In addition to his work with the church’s Men’s Ministry, Lamar’s volunteer activities and memberships today include: Rotary Club of Jasper, Project Community, Jasper Industrial Development Board, Capstone Rural Health Care Center, and Arc of Walker County—which he serves as a member of the board. “And the thing is,” Lamar notes, “my wife and daughters are more active in volunteering than I am.
“Our support of the community has really had an impact on our family, in terms of the relationships we’ve developed. There are areas in Walker County that we hope to help improve through our efforts, and we’re surrounded by so many people like us in that regard. It’s great seeing the city and the county be so intentional about growth and improvement. We really have something special here.”
Currently serving in a Social Security Administration Leadership Development program in Jacksonville, Florida, Lamar will tell you he misses his family more than anything. But he also misses the town he adopted as home five years ago. “I miss the close-knit feeling of the Jasper community. I miss the small town feel. And another thing,” he says with a smile, “I really miss the small town commute!”
“I feel like part of the community now”
Susan McKinney will tell you she moved from Birmingham to Jasper for one reason: “Money. And a promotion.” She’ll also tell you about her initial experience when she moved to Jasper: “Culture shock. I’d grown up a Big City girl, and I lived just a mile from the Galleria in Hoover. And when I first moved here, everything was different. The size of the town. The things to do. Everything!”
Then things started changing for Susan, who manages of Alabama Power’s business office in Jasper. “Part of my job is community involvement. So right off, I joined Rotary Club of Jasper—which I’ve now served as treasurer for eight years. Through Rotary, I started meeting more people. And nearly everyone I met was involved in the community.
“That’s what really made the difference for me, because I started getting involved and volunteering.” Since moving to Jasper 10 years ago, Susan’s involved herself in a number of local organizations. She joined the Chamber of Commerce of Walker County — serving on the Board for 8 years, and as Chairman in 2014. “This weekend,” she notes, “I’ll be working on the Chamber’s fishing tournament,”
She’s a volunteer for Jasper’s Hope Clinic. She serves the Walker County Community Action Agency — for which she was also a Board member for 8 years. And most recently, she began serving the Arc of Walker County as a volunteer. The best thing about volunteering? “I may have joined all those organizations to help others. But really, I was helping myself.”
And somewhere along the line, Susan says, “I got used to the small town feel.” A new level of comfort and contentment that was due, in no small part, to the people she now calls friends. “The people I know who grew up here are all about Walker County. They’re always so positive, you can’t help feeling the same way yourself.”
Comparing her former life in Birmingham to life in Walker County, Susan concludes, “I just lived in Shelby County. Here, I’m part of the community.”
“God’s doing incredible things here”
In 2015, Adam and Rachel Hicks —Youth Pastors at Christian Life Church in Hoover — began feeling that the Lord had other plans for their careers. “I’d always wanted to be part of a church planting,” says Adam, “and when Rachel asked me one day why I didn’t take a job as church pastor somewhere, I told her, ‘I really want to spend a year working under someone like my friend Andy Heis, learning about church planting — and then think about planting a church.’
“When we started thinking about moving to another church, we began praying that the right city was somewhere near the beach. Then one day, we came to the land of car dealers — Jasper,” Adam says with a smile, “and while we were shopping, we ate at a nearby restaurant. I remember hearing a nearby conversation between a couple who sounded so hopeless, it brought tears to my eyes. That’s when I asked Rachel if God was calling us to move here?”
Four days later, Adam received a call from Andy Heis. “Adam,” he said, “I want you to pray about something: What would you think about spending a year working under me while you plant a new campus for Desperation Church in Jasper?” Two weeks later, Adam accepted the position as the Jasper Campus Pastor. “There’s no question in my mind that God’s hand was at work.
“We think of Desperation church as a place where the Famous and the Nameless can sit side-by-side. It’s a place where you belong. Our church is built on a Small Groups model, and our first one was in someone’s house — where we met for a year. We prayed together in their living room. We did Serve Days together in the city. We did Life together. Now, whenever anyone comes into our church, we try to put them on a team.”
The campus’s growth been extraordinary. Where Adam’s former church had a congregation of about 300, weekly services at Desperation have already reached 750. “It’s been awesome,” Adam says. “And it’s not about me. We have such great leadership in Andy Heis, our Senior Pastor.”
During that year, Adam and Rachel “fell in love with the people and the culture of Jasper. Now, whenever I hear anyone talk negative about this town, I shut-em down. I’ll tell them, ‘one day, people are going to want to move their families here — to be part of the school system, to be part of the life here.”
“God’s doing incredible things here in Jasper. People love this place. And we’ve met so many people that we knew instantly, ‘we’re going to do Life with them forever’. Honestly, I just feel like I’m among my own people.”
Photos by Al Blanton