Facing the call to lead

Published 12:00 am Sunday, July 15, 2001

The thrill and challenge grow daily for Forest Persons as he considers humbly the task at hand.

As only the third Natchez Rotarian to become leader of the 43-club Rotary International District 6820, Persons looks ahead to a year that will be like no other in his life, he said.

Persons, who has been president of his own Natchez Rotary and for many years has helped to organize and carry out the annual Christmas auction for charities, began his year-long term as district governor on July 1.

His first big challenge? He and others in the club next week will greet the first Rotary International president ever to visit Natchez in the nearly 100-year history of the club.

&uot;Rick King and his wife are just super people,&uot; said Persons, who met the Kings at a recent conference in San Antonio, Texas. &uot;They requested the trip to Natchez. They asked to stay at Monmouth specifically.&uot;

Entertaining the Kings and showing off Natchez will come naturally to Persons and his wife, Barbara, who will help to show the visitors around town during their three-day stay.

The Natchez club will host a 7 p.m. reception and dinner for the Kings on Thursday at the Ramada Hilltop Inn, where the club usually meets on Wednesdays at noon.

The new Rotary international president has chosen &uot;Mankind is our Business&uot; as the theme for the coming year, and that suits Persons’ philosophy well.

As a customer services manager for Entergy, Persons has had opportunities in his work – as well as in civic organizations such as Rotary – to be involved in humanitarian concerns.

One of the great appeals of Rotary for him, in fact, has been the Rotary emphasis on making the world a better place for everyone to live.

&uot;The PolioPlus program has been so very successful,&uot; Persons said. &uot;By the year 2005 Rotary contributions will reach half a billion dollars to eradicate polio.&uot;

The project, begun in 1985, has allowed more than 2 billion children worldwide to be immunized against the crippling disease.

PolioPlus has been successful not only because of the large sums of money raised for the program but also because of the huge army of Rotary volunteers who have traveled the world to take part in the humanitarian effort.

Persons hopes to bring District 6820 Rotarians and their clubs into similar visible projects in the large area of Mississippi the district covers, from Columbus to Greenville, Waynesboro to Natchez.

&uot;I want us to do something that brings us outside working on a project together,&uot; he said. Raising funds is important; so is the sense of accomplishment members can get from a physical contribution to a cause.

Persons is known among his friends and acquaintances for his lively sense of humor. That trait has worked well for him on the job and in other leadership roles, he said.

&uot;I guess my biggest problems is that I can’t keep my mouth shut,&uot; he said, making fun of his way of joking through difficult situations. &uot;I don’t like to talk in front of a group of stern-faced people. I like to see a smile out there.&uot;

Seeing a smile is no problem if his wife is in the audience, however. &uot;She always has a smile. And that always helps me.&uot;

Persons met his wife when both were young teenagers in Gulfport. &uot;I saw her at church,&uot; he said. &uot;She was 14, and I was 15. She was beautiful and had this long ponytail.&uot; He was smitten. She liked him, too. They dated for six years and married while he was still a student at Mississippi State University, where he received a degree in electrical engineering in 1962.

&uot;I took my last exam on a Thursday and went to work for Mississippi Power & Light on Monday.&uot;

Now a division of the giant corporation Entergy, the company has been his employer ever since that day 39 years ago.

MP&L sent him to work in many Mississippi cities, where he always found himself happily involved in civic affairs, including volunteering with Boy Scouts, Chamber of Commerce, Red Cross, economic development organizations and others.

All of his volunteer efforts outside of his work are possible because of the philosophy of his company, Persons said. &uot;I called my boss before I accepted the position of district governor this year,&uot; Persons said. &uot;I knew it would take me away from my work a good bit. My boss told me, ‘fine; do it.’ They have given me all the time I need.&uot;

Natchez has become home for Persons and his family. He was born in Arkansas and has lived in Georgia, Texas and other parts of Mississippi. &uot;This is where I want to be,&uot; he said. &uot;I’ve lived in Natchez longer than in any other place, and it’s home.&uot;