3 Inspired People
Stories Jason Browne | Photographs Masa Henley
Bill Samaras, Columbus
Bill Samaras gets paid to stop and smell the roses.
Overemployed for most of his 83 years, Samaras is a magnet for unsolicited job offers. Good ones, too. He’s cycled through multiple careers and retirements thanks to his gregarious nature and work ethic. Peers want to work with him. Bosses want him on their team.
And that’s exactly how Samaras landed on the groundskeeping crew at Mississippi University for Women six years ago. He was retired and minding his own business, tending to his little two acres in New Hope.
“The gentleman who lived across the street was the director of the company that maintains all the equipment on campus. One day he came over and said ‘You getting tired of doing nothing?’ I said ‘Yeah, why?’” recalls Samaras.
And it happened again. Suddenly septuagenarian Bill Samaras was working alongside 20- and 30-somethings tending 40 acres of The W campus. At work at six in the morning. Watering plants. Taking care of the president’s yard.
“It’s a beautiful place to work. We’ve done an awful lot down there. And I just love the kids. That’s the future of America at that campus,” he says.
Samaras is spoiled at work. He communes with God and nature. He sees the immediate results of his hard work. And he chats with young people living out the most enthusiastic years of their lives.
“When I get tired I stop and sit on the golf cart or go back to the office. The young guys are very helpful to me. The group down there now is probably the finest bunch of young men I’ve worked with in my six years.”
He says his work is more therapeutic than taxing.
“Once you get out there and start working, all the things you’ve been worrying about just kind of disappear. And it’s kinda nice after you’ve done it all to look back at it the next day and be proud of it. If you can’t be happy with your own work, you’re not doing it right.”
John Arnold, Starkville
All John Arnold wants to do is sing happy songs and play with toy trains. At 92 years old, and one year into retirement, he’s earned those simple pleasures. If only because he’s done everything else.
During a lifetime in Starkville, Arnold has been a family man, a religious man, a business man, a sales man, a traveling man, a soldier, an athlete, a Boy Scout, a public servant, a public figure, a volunteer and an entertainer. To this day he continues to be many of those things. And if you tell him that’s a lot of hats to wear, he won’t disagree.
“It sure is. Golly! I’m just an old farmer and dairyman,” says Arnold. “I guess that’s one of the things that keeps me going, I don’t turn things down. Maybe I ought to.”
Arnold is known around Starkville these days as the guy who sings carols on the back of a truck during the Starkville Christmas Parade, the guy who passes out free ice cream to kids at Starkville’s 4th of July fireworks display, the king of Starkville’s 175th Anniversary Parade, the former president of the Pushmataha Area Council (the local, 10-county federation of the Boy Scouts of America) and the guy who sets up his toy trains at the Cotton District Arts Festival each year for kids to play with.
His sprawling business career saw him start out as a dairy farmer — the original Arnold family business — after graduating from Mississippi A&M, but that career soon evolved into furniture rental, furniture production, clock manufacturing, fishing boat motor sales, auto sales and, finally, bus tours. Arnold escorted his last bus trip last November before finally settling down in his Oktibbeha County home with his wife, Mary Ann. Arnold Industries sold all its various stakes and holdings. And John can finally play with his trains.
Arnold loves talking about the history of the American railroad and the science behind locomotives. He’ll show you the various sets he’s bought and the little customized tracks he’s built. And if you’ve got an event that needs an entertainer, odds are he won’t turn you down.
Frank Portera, West Point
Frank Portera has done a lot to be proud of.
As a baseball player, he won the SEC championship with his Mississippi State teammates in ’65 and ’66 before going on to play pro ball for a few years. As a baseball coach, he led his American Legion team to a World Series victory — Mississippi’s only title — in 2002 with players from the Golden Triangle.
But at 70, the West Point native has become something like the Lorax of the Golden Triangle. And he calls his work to create a caring home for animals in distress the “peak” of his life.
“I’m more proud of this than anything I’ve ever done,” says Portera.
Portera grew up an animal lover, but he didn’t become an activist until six years ago when a grass roots movement to get a proper animal shelter built in West Point asked him to be the face of the issue. The group of Clay County citizens had appeared before the city and county boards to bemoan the current shelter, but couldn’t get any traction until Portera signed on.
“That little building is what turned me on to the cause more than anything. It was about 20-feet by 20-feet and housed 28 dogs. The stench was pathetic. I just said we can’t do this. It’s not right. We’ve got to do better,” says Portera.
With Portera on board, the group was able to secure private funding for a new, no-kill animal shelter that has been hailed as one of the best in the state. Mississippi State vet students perform the spaying and neutering.
“It’s the most wonderful feeling in the world. I go to bed at night and think about how far we’ve come,” says Portera.
Soon after putting his name behind the West Point-Clay County Animal Shelter, Portera was approached by a group hoping to begin a rescue program for larger animals. Again Portera jumped at the opportunity and even rented several acres of his personal farmland to the project for a token price of $1 per year. The program has brought horses, donkeys, pigs, chickens and other animals from Clay, Lowndes and Noxubee Counties to Portera’s land to be cared for.
Portera even hosts a free picnic and fireworks display at his home each summer as a thank-you to the community and workers who make the animal shelter and rescue program possible.
“I’ve always been one of the sort of people who speaks what I feel. And I just wish everybody would be more patient and take care of animals, because they can’t speak for themselves,” says Portera.