3 Inspired People

Stories Jason Browne | Photographs Masa Hensley

RITA USHER, STARKVILLE

Photographed by Masa Hensley.

Photographed by Masa Hensley.

Rita Usher will be the first to tell you that she’s in way over her head at the Golden Triangle Christian Women’s Job Corps in Starkville. But it’s to prove a point.

“Sometimes we’re so overwhelmed that it sends us to our knees. But God connects the dots that we can’t see. By nature, the work should be more than we can handle. Well, we’re there!” she says.

As site coordinator for the CWJC, Usher directs a small band of staff and volunteers dedicated to helping local women learn basic skills that could lead to a fresh start. From simple job skills (using Microsoft Office software, email) to simple life skills (nutrition, money management, Bible study).

“It’s a ministry for unemployed and underemployed women. But some of the people that come to us aren’t even looking for work. They might just be stuck somewhere, and they’re looking for a better path,” says Usher.

As part of the Women’s Missionary Union, an auxiliary of the Southern Baptist Convention, the CWJC does get some funding. But expenses usually outpace funds. And that’s where God comes through, usually in the form of volunteers and donations.

“I have a folder in our electronic records for every semester titled What God Did That We Couldn’t,” says Usher.

The first item on that list was the woman who helped establish the CWJC in the first place. Usher, a longtime Sunday School teacher, and a friend had been praying for a year for a local CWJC site so they could lead Bible study. Lo and behold, a woman who had led a CWJC site in Texas followed her husband to Mississippi State University and set one up.

Approximately 150 women have completed the CWJC’s program since 2009. Thanks to volunteer cooks, clothing coordinators, mentors, office workers, donors, business partners and — whether she’ll admit it or not — Rita Usher.

COOKIE, COLUMBUS

Photographed by Masa Hensley.

Photographed by Masa Hensley.

In the mystical land of Columbus, nestled in the eastern hills, lies the kingdom of Columbus High, home of the magical Falcons. It is there you’ll find the man of legend, keeper of facilities, master of equipment, the conquering hero known as “Cookie.”

“You can go to anybody in the community, and probably in the county, and the same thing will be uttered. He’s a household name. Everywhere I go, people ask me ‘Where’s Cookie?’” says Sammy Smith, CHS athletic director and a 25-year veteran of Columbus schools.

Dennis “Cookie” Bailey has tended CHS athletic programs since before he graduated from Caldwell High in 1987.

“I started in the eighth grade as the varsity equipment manager for the football team,” Cookie recalls. “Then I came back the February after I graduated, and they were kind of shocked. They thought I was done.”

Cookie has always seen it as his duty to watch over Columbus High’s athletic programs. He works with almost every sport. In at 7 a.m. every morning to clean field houses and locker rooms, wash uniforms, set up trainer tables, landscape and paint fields. He even helps in the lunch room sometimes. On game nights he might be on the grounds until 1 a.m. cleaning up.

“I’ll do anything. I love the school,” he says.

And the school loves Cookie. Smith says countless athletes have benefited from Cookie’s preparations and encouragement, but the coaches are the real winners in the exchange. And Cookie has been through 12 in football alone.

“When coaches first get hired, I tell them ‘You need to find Cookie. He’ll make your life a whole lot easier,’” says Smith.

Cookie didn’t set out to become a local celebrity; it’s just something that comes with this level of dedication and longevity. And he’s not done by far.

“Somebody asked me once if I’m ever going to quit. I said ‘never,’” says Cookie.

FRANCES JUTMAN, COLUMBUS

Photographed by Masa Hensley.

Photographed by Masa Hensley.

At 89, Frances Jutman is still cooling off after running 1,000 MPH through her professional career.

“I’m mostly trying to come to terms with retirement. It’s not nearly as much fun as working,” says Jutman from her home in Columbus.

After a childhood on a dairy and cotton farm near Kolola Springs and college at Mississippi State College for Women (Mississippi University for Women today) where she graduated with a degree in business in 1948, Jutman went on a 50-year rampage (albeit a dignified, business-like rampage) that culminated with a victory lap of awards through the first decade of the 2000s. Through sheer force of will, she (figuratively) kicked in the door to the late-20th century Golden Triangle Boys’ Business Club and made herself at home.

“I will be truthful; I was a token woman when the director of the Columbus-Lowndes Chamber of Commerce asked me to chair a committee in 1976. And I knew that. But somebody had to be,” she says.

“I could not do as well as a man could because the VIPs on the board only tolerated me. None were rude or ugly. But over time, most of them came to accept me.”

A quick glimpse at Jutman’s resumé confirms her membership in the Boy’s Club: bookkeeper/exchange clerk/teller/branch manager/loan officer/vice president of marketing and business development at National Bank of Commerce (retired 1992)/president of Columbus Pilot Club/first female president Columbus-Lowndes Chamber of Commerce/campaign chair and first female president of United Way of Lowndes County/charter member of Public Relations Association of Mississippi/charter member of American Business Women’s Association/commissioner of Lowndes County Soil & Water Conservation District/commissioner of Golden Triangle Solid Waste Disposal.

And that’s just a fraction. Jutman also earned prestigious awards from most of those organizations and more than a few others. All in addition to raising a family.

“Growing up on a farm, it never occurred to me that I could not do everything a fellow could do,” says Jutman.