Longtime Resident Still in Love with Jena

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Before the "Jena Six" case, the small sawmill town was pretty much off the map. Jack Willis, a columnist for the Jena Times, lived in the town for 60 years. He reflects on his life there and why there's still so much to love about Jena.

MICHEL MARTIN, Host:

And now for another perspective. We thought it would be good to hear about Jena from someone who loves the town. We were directed to Jack Willis, a columnist for The Jena Times. He spent 60 years of his life there. Here are his reflections.

JACK WILLIS: I had always been very close to the educational system in the Jena area, especially with the mother who I knew at age 6 she wanted to become a school teacher and did just that for 27 years in Norman Rockwell community I grew up in and received a bulk of my education.

I was born in Good Pine, Louisiana, on March 26, 1936. My family moved to Jena, Louisiana, the parish seat of La Salle(ph) Parish in 1939, where my mother, Alice Guerin-Willis taught first grade at Jena elementary. To avoid the expense for a babysitter, I attend in her class beginning when I was three years old. I spent three years in a room located in a three-story brick building known as Jena Elementary.

On January 22, 1942, the elementary school caught fire and burned to the ground. And since we lived only about a mile from the school, which was situated on the high hill, all I remember was the intense illumination from the rich (unintelligible) pine used in the building construction and my mother softly crying. Even though the nation was embroiled in World War II, intense preparations were hastily made by the La Salle Parish school board, to come and bring enough building materials to erect four rectangular structures containing four classrooms per building.

Using these buildings plus converting the gymnasium and agricultural building to classrooms, we managed to continue the whole class. We managed to continue the whole classes until the night of February 14th, 1944. That's when the high school gymnasium burned to the ground. And again, my most vivid memory of that tragedy was hearing my mother crying in grief again.

The present town of Jena originated from a community known as the Hamphill(ph) Creek settlement. And from the orders of the U.S. Postal Service we're renamed Jena to Jena Germany, which really translated from German, just pronounce Yana(ph), as supposed to mean seat of learning where the first school having been erected in 1869. With the La Salle Parish school board again, hard pressed to find several classrooms after the 1944 fire, they were able to obtain the facilities of the Jena First Baptist Church and the Nola(ph) Memorial Methodist Church. In 1946, construction began on a two-story brick elementary school on the site of the old school building and the next year I saw the school board pick a new site for Jena High School in North Jena.

Classes were first held in September of 1948 at JHS when I was in eighth grade. And I enjoyed five great years in the main academic building and adjoining facilities, graduating in May 1953.

I had two sons who attend Jena High School, one graduating and both joined the U.S. Navy. I remarried in 1980. My wife's youngest daughter by a previous marriage was totally involved in all facets of high school activities, being the captain of the Dance Line and cheerleader, among those notable achievements. Even though in 2002, I moved from Jena, some 35 miles distant to a larger town because of health issues concerning my present wife and me, it broke my heart to hear that the academic portion of the school building that I played at in at 11 years old. While it was being constructed, had been deliberately torched on November 30, 2006.

So, this reflects how I feel about conditions today in Jena. I believe this racial strife that has gained national attention will be resolved. The power of technical(ph) curses have been broken. And the faculty and staff can get on with the task they've been assigned to accomplish. That being, to see that every student at Jena high school receives an excellent academic basis to utilize which will enable them to take their rightful place in society.

The phoenix that is Jena High School will rise from the ashes.

MARTIN: Jack Willis writes a column called Grassroots and Cockleburs for The Jena Times. It's a weekly newspaper in Jena, Louisiana.

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