Military, newspapers, farms Rountree’s lived three lives

Published 12:00 am Friday, May 24, 2002

VIDALIA, La. – By his own admission, Percy Rountree Jr. has led three lives: military man, newspaperman and plantation man.

It’s difficult for him to decide which of those lives he has loved better. Instead, Rountree just shakes his head in wonder that he has managed to do so much that he loved in just one lifetime. And one can tell from the gleam in his eye that it’s not over yet.

Rountree will say proudly that he was born and raised in Vidalia by his mother, a schoolteacher, and his father, publisher of the Concordia Sentinel, Concordia Parish’s weekly newspaper.

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His grandfather, J.L. Rountree, founded the newspaper in 1882 after purchasing the parish’s previous newspaper, the Vidalia Eagle. Rountree’s father Percy Rountree Sr., took over the paper in 1920 after returning from World War I.

As Rountree put it, “I was raised in the newspaper business.”

And many of his relatives were, too. J.L. Rountree’s oldest son, Willie Rountree, left to run a weekly newspaper in Tallulah, La. One of his nephews later bought the Tensas Gazette.

And Percy Rountree himself left for Louisiana State University – where he majored in journalism.

While in Baton Rouge, Rountree worked at the university’s newspaper, the Daily Reveille, as well as the Morning Advocate and the State Times. But he also needed extra jobs to help pay expenses, so during the summer he worked for the Agricultural Adjustment Administration, drawing maps of cotton fields for the agency to use when administering federal farm programs.

Two other Concordia natives, Judge W.C. “Billy” Falkenheiner and the late Ed Schiele, served as “chainmen” on the project, measuring fields at ground level from Vidalia south to the Shaw community so Rountree could draw the maps.

“That was just before they began using aerial photographs for that kind of thing,” he said while relaxing in his farm office.

He gestured to a framed photograph on the far office wall, an aerial photo of the 1,450-acre Whitehall Plantation tract his family owns and uses to raise mostly cotton, corn and cattle.

Also during his time at LSU, Rountree served in the Reserve Officers Training Corps, or ROTC, working his way up to cadet battalion commander.

When he graduated from LSU in 1941 at age 20, he was commissioned in the Air Force to serve in World War II, even though he was still one year shy of the minimum age to be commissioned.

From there, Rountree left for Kelly Field in San Antonio, Texas, where he trained for one and a half years – and, on weekend pass, married sweetheart Jean Rountree. The two have now been married 58 years and have had two children, five grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.

After training, Rountree served in the Eighth Air Force in Scotland and England for almost three years before returning to Sioux Falls, S.D.

“But 10 days from the time we were to leave there to fly to Okinawa, we dropped the bomb on Japan, and the war was over,” he said.

Rountree admits that he enjoyed the military life, as can be evidenced by the thumbed-through military histories and novels on his office shelf.

But with daughter Jeanie still small and son David on the way – and with the opportunity to manage the Concordia Sentinel back home – Rountree decided to retire from active duty in April 1946 at the rank of major. He continued to serve in the Reserves for 20 more years.

The end of World War II saw the beginning of a “boom” in economic development, public works and public facilities in the Miss-Lou, making it an exciting time to be back in the newspaper business, Rountree said.

“After the war, International Paper and Armstrong (Tire) came to Natchez,”&160;Rountree said.

There was the building of the ring levee around the parish.

“The Ferriday Rotary Club, being the only civic club in the parish at that time, publicized the importance of the levee and did a lot to make it happen,”&160;he said, referring to a club of which he is a past president and 55-year member.

Then there was the development of the only hospital on this side of the river, which became Riverland Medical Center. ”

When it was built, it served Concordia, Catahoula, Tensas and Franklin parishes – quite a large area,” Rountree said.

Back then, newspapers were produced using hot metal linotypes, not the computers of today. But producing a newspaper the old-fashioned way was not that difficult, he said.

“All the dailies (newspapers) printed that way, too – and they only had one day to do it,”&160;Rountree said.

But publishing the Sentinel wasn’t the company’s only concern. Forty percent of its business was commercial printing, and it also printed the Tensas Gazette on Tuesdays. At that time, the Sentinel was printed on Thursdays for distribution on Fridays.

At the same time, however, Rountree still raised cattle on land in Concordia, Catahoula and Tensas parishes.

“I enjoyed the Sentinel and liked the customers and fellow workmen I&160;dealt with,” said Rountree, who sold the newspaper to current publisher Sam Hanna in 1966.

“But I still loved the outside, and when things got hot and heavy in the newspaper business, I could always go to the cattle range. The cattle didn’t give me any trouble at all,” he said, laughing.

Rountree admits that of all of the things he’s done in his life, he most loved developing and selling farm land and raising various breeds of cattle – Brahman and Shorthorn, Angus and Santa Gertrudis – for milk, beef and cross-breeding.

Perhaps that is not surprising, given Rountree’s love of adventure – hunting and shooting sports – and the Old West, as evidenced by several wild west paintings that hang in his office.

“But then soybeans went to a higher price, and people starting farming them more,”&160;Rountree said. Also, the initial investment required to raise cattle is higher than it used to be.

Rountree bought Minorca Plantation in 1969, followed by Whitehall Plantation three years later, and still co-owns Whitehall

“I’ve always loved agriculture, every since I was a little boy,”&160;Rountree said, looking out the window of his office, onto his far-flung fields. “I still do.”

In addition to Rountree’s other careers – the military, the newspaper business, and agriculture – he also served for 20 years on the Vidalia Board of Aldermen, starting in 1968.

In that time, Vidalia made many public works improvements now taken for granted, including hard-surfacing gravel roads, installing an updated sewage system, digging deeper water wells, installing gutters and sidewalks and improving telephone and electric service.

And Rountree also took on a number of other business and civic duties throughout the years.

He was involved in establishing the first Vidalia Chamber of Commerce.

He served as president, then board chairman of United Federal Savings and Loan in Vidalia for 30 years, vice chairman of the Natchez-Vidalia Bridge Commission for 11 years and vice chairman of the Federal Land Bank Association for 10 years.

For those and other accomplishments, Rountree was named to the National Registry of Who’s Who earlier this year.

Still, he believes the best lies ahead for Concordia Parish. “The hydro plan and the riverfront development will be a major boon for Vidalia,” he said.

Next, he believes the Town of Vidalia needs to push for development of a port on the Mississippi River and to recruit more industries to the area.

“But what’s already going on now,”&160;he said, with a gleam returning to his eye, “is amazingly good.”