Longtime Natchez enthusiast named NPT manager

Published 12:00 am Saturday, November 18, 2000

The new operations manager of Natchez Pilgrimage Tours will have no trouble promoting the river city he has come to love. John Saleeby, on the job at NPT since Nov. 1, says his new position is a &uot;dream come true&uot; for him.

&uot;I never had even considered that someone might ask me to do this,&uot; he said.

A native of New Orleans, Saleeby first visited Natchez with his wife, Mackie, in 1980.

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Both of them lost their hearts to to the town, which he unabashedly dubs the &uot;most beautiful small city in America.&uot;

By 1983 they had bought a house.

&uot;We couldn’t really move from New Orleans until 1987, when my office moved from there to Pineville,&uot; Saleeby said. &uot;Then I could commute until I retired in 1992.&uot;

By 1993, he had attended Pilgrimage Tours guide school and had started to escort visiting groups and individuals on tours to antebellum houses and around the city.

The leap from his position as state recruiting sergeant major for the Louisiana National Guard to that of tour guide swept him off his feet on the one hand. &uot;I couldn’t believe I was really living in Natchez,&uot; he said.

On the other hand, sharing history of Natchez and its fine architecture came naturally to him, he found.

&uot;This is an architectural treasure chest, a gem; the range of styles and the beauty of the antebellum houses astound people who come here for the first time,&uot; he said.

In fact, those things astounded him, too, when National Guard business took him to St. Joseph, La., in 1980 and he suggested to his wife that they spend a weekend in Natchez.

&uot;When I was growing up in New Orleans, I remember my mother frequently talking about trips to Natchez to the Pilgrimage,&uot; Saleeby said. &uot;I think she must have come in the late 1930s or early ’40s. And I remember her comments about this pretty little town.&uot;

The Saleebys came for the weekend, tried out two bed-and-breakfast establishments in antebellum houses and were hooked.

&uot;I knew it was time to get out of New Orleans,&uot; he said. &uot;I loved New Orleans while I was growing up, but it was changing and I was increasingly unhappy there.&uot;

They thought about moving to the Mississippi Gulf Coast, where he had inherited some property.

&uot;We tried it. It didn’t take long for us to realize that was a big mistake.&uot;

Natchez has surpassed even their greatest expectations, Saleeby said.

&uot;This town has so many things to offer, and nowhere are there more fascinating people.&uot;

In addition to beautiful and historic houses, there are churches and other historic buildings, he said.

&uot;And right here at our back door we have the most interesting stretch of the Natchez Trace.&uot;

As operations manager of the tour organization, located in the Canal Street Depot, Saleeby will oversee day-to-day business and carry out policies of the NPT board of directors.

His staff members in the two-storied building on the corner of Canal and State streets are knowledgeable and dedicated, he said.

&uot;The big challenge will be outside this building,&uot; he said. &uot;We’ve engaged Paul Nelson in New Orleans to help us with marketing, and I’m super-pleased about that.&uot;

Nelson, a former Natchez resident and an employee of the Delta Queen Steamboat Company, will spend some of his time working on tours to entice New Orleans convention goers to visit Natchez.

&uot;We can create some wonderful programs, connecting with attractions along the way between the two cities,&uot; Saleeby said. &uot;It’s a natural.&uot;

Natchez has had success for nearly 70 years enticing visitors to the city and bowling them over with historic and architectural beauty and abundance, he said.

&uot;Now, though, we are going to try going out and getting them and bringing them here, using some of the larger cities all around us.&uot;

In New Orleans, for example, thousands of people attend conventions each month.

&uot;We’ll tell them to come on up to Natchez and spend a few days,&uot; Saleeby said.

&uot;Natchez is just a short three hours away and the drive is beautiful.&uot;

Four years’ experience with the Natchez Elderhostel program has given him insight into attracting and keeping people in Natchez, he said.

He knows selling Natchez will be an easy part of his job. It comes naturally.

&uot;And I know none of this would have happened without Mackie,&uot; he said.

&uot;We stumbled onto this beautiful place, and she shared the dream.

&uot;We love Natchez enormously.&uot;