First in a series: Where is the Class of ’92 now?

Published 12:00 am Thursday, September 9, 2004

Twelve years ago they donned caps and gowns and bade farewell to high school.

The Class of 1992 &045;&045; Natchez High, Trinity Episcopal, Cathedral School and other area high schools had nurtured, educated, inspired and challenged these students.

Where are they now, and why are many of them forging careers far from home? Why have some gone away and decided to return to their hometown? Why did others never have any desire to live and work somewhere else?

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As Natchez officials and others scratch their heads, wondering what to do about jobs and an economy that has felt the jolt of lost manufactured jobs in the past few years, the question arises: Are young people leaving to find jobs or to find new experiences and lifestyles? If members of the Class of 1992, for example, wanted to return to Natchez, what would that mean?

And just how would Natchez have to change if the community decided to make a push to get back some of the young adults who are about 30 years old now and living and working elsewhere?

Today, The Democrat begins a series of stories to answer some of those questions. First: Some of those class members speak out.

No place like home

A chance to work in Natchez took less than a minute for Will Devening to grab. No place like home for him.

At 31, Devening and his wife, Lindsay Morgan Devening, also a Natchez native, have jobs they like and an old house they are restoring in a downtown neighborhood.

Like others interviewed for a series of stories beginning today in The Democrat, Will Devening is a 1992 high school graduate. He and Lindsay both attended Trinity Episcopal Day School. She was a few classes behind.

Many of their friends have chosen not to return to Natchez after college and beginning their careers. The Devenings never had other plans.

&uot;Family has everything to do with it,&uot; Will Devening said. &uot;Another thing is just the small-town atmosphere.&uot;

As a student at the University of Mississippi, he was recruited by National Oil Well Co. to work for them. &uot;They put me in Mobile a year, Houston about eight months and in Lafayette for two years,&uot; he said. &uot;Throughout that time, I constantly thought about coming back to Natchez. An opportunity arose to have a job here, and I took it without thinking twice.&uot;

He worked in that job for a while and then about a year ago had a chance to become manager at the downtown Natchez branch of AmSouth bank, a job he loves, Devening said.

&uot;And Lindsay has known for a long time, since a career day program in high school, that she was going to become a physical therapist and come back to Natchez to work for Marcia Passman,&uot; he said.

Simple things make Natchez a good place to live, he said. &uot;I’m one of the biggest fans of Natchez. And I’m in love with living on South Union Street.&uot;

They like knowing their neighbors, he said. &uot;And I like picking up the paper and reading about people and things I know.&uot;

Different chances, horizons

Mindy Emrick Gates, a Trinity classmate of Devening, cannot imagine returning to Natchez to live. Her expanded horizons include a city she loves and a career that is taking her in directions she could not choose were she in Mississippi.

Asheville, N.C., suits her very well, she said. And that goes for her husband, Zachary, as well.

&uot;This town is very progressive but still in the South,&uot; she said. Still, she and Zach were influenced by the fact that they had friends already living there. &uot;We instantly had community.&uot;

A registered nurse, Gates found a job in the maternity ward at a small community hospital. She works part time and goes to school full time, pursuing a master’s degree in Chinese medicine.

When she completes that degree, she will be authorized to practice acupuncture, a treatment she could not provide in Mississippi because it is not licensed.

&uot;Our life is where we want it to be,&uot; she said. &uot;It’s wonderful here.&uot;

She and her husband, a carpenter who also is in school working toward a degree in civil engineering, enjoy the diverse live music performances they can attend, the art, the crafts, drama and the sports, which include baseball, hockey and basketball teams, she said.

&uot;We like the many different lifestyles that are here. People are starting to call Asheville the eastern San Francisco,&uot; Gates said.

Further, there is the location. &uot;We enjoy the mountains, the rivers and the streams. It’s beautiful here,&uot; she said.

Natchez has a slower pace and fewer cultural opportunities, she said. &uot;And it is slow to change, with a lot of social rules you’re supposed to follow.&uot;

With her parents and both her grandmothers in Natchez, she has strong ties, Gates said.

&uot;I don’t see myself moving back there. But the idea does pass through my mind. I know a lot of good, talented, progressive people have moved away from Mississippi, and that’s sad.&uot;

Montrell Greene said only by being willing to transfer to different locations as he able to advance so far in his education career.

Greene, who graduated from Natchez High in 1992, is already serving as a school district superintendent in the Mississippi Delta town of Cleveland.

After graduating from Alcorn State University with his bachelor’s degree in 1997, Greene started his career in education as choral music director at then-Natchez Middle School.

&uot;We had an awesome choir,&uot; Greene recalled. &uot;We did a lot to help change lives.&uot;

After earning his master’s, he served as assistant principal as McLaurin Elementary School and when on to establish its first mass choir.

But after finishing his doctorate at the University of Southern Mississippi, Greene jumped at the chance to advance to principal at nearby Earl Travillion School there in Forrest County.

After three years as principal, he took a job as superintendent of the East Jasper School District in Heidelburg, followed by his current post.

Greene still has a special place in his heart for his hometown of Natchez and still comes back twice a month to serve as minister of music at Fourth Street Church of Christ.

But Greene said that the lack of opportunities for jobs and career advancement in the Miss-Lou make it difficult for him and others his age to move back home.

&uot;I’m a homebody, and I still have a strong appreciation for Natchez,&uot; Greene said. &uot;But in Anytown, USA, when people move away it’s about getting opportunities to maximize their potential, to support their families.&uot;

But Greene also said the perception of Natchez as mainly a retirement community also works against it when it comes to attracting younger people.

&uot;I know that certain areas, such as Hattiesburg, the Coast and Jackson, … many young people are attracted to them because they’re seen as growing areas,&uot; Greene said. &uot;I think it’s a prevailing thought that Natchez is not a growing area, but a retirement area.

&uot;The home element is a strong factor for some, but survival and quality of life can’t be overlooked.&uot;

Two fellow Natchez High graduates with which Greene still keeps in touch also said a lack of opportunities keeps them from moving back home.

A.J. Thompson graduated from the University of Southern Mississippi in kinesiology and moved to Atlanta after graduation. He moved back to Mississippi when his wife applied for residency at a Jackson hospital.

&uot;I wasn’t interested in moving back because there’s no industry,&uot; said Thompson, who works for the Mississippi Department of Rehabilitation Services.

&uot;For people around our age, it’s a lack of industries, not a lack of recreation and things to do, that keep us away. If there were opportunities there, … I would definitely make Natchez home.&uot;

But Thompson also agreed with Greene on another point. &uot;It’s a retirement town, so you can’t expect to have too much for younger people,&uot; Thompson said.

Fellow NHS graduate Anthony Davis said opportunities for jobs and advancement the reason he stayed in Jackson after finishing graduate school at Jackson State.

But in addition, Davis said it’s natural for young people to want to spread their wings when they finish college rather than moving back home.

&uot;There’s the opportunity to branch out a little bit,&uot; said Davis, who works as a therapist at the University of Mississippi Medical Center. &uot;Plus, my parents encouraged me to do what I pleased.&uot;

But not everyone from the Class of 1992 has left Natchez. Logan Foley, a graduate of Cathedral School, returned to his hometown after finishing graduate school in 1999.

&uot;My family’s from here, and I was lucky to get a job in the mental health field as a counselor, which allows me to be a little more flexible,&uot; Foley said. &uot;That enabled me to stay here.&uot;

At the same time, Foley said many of his classmates had to move elsewhere to find work.

&uot;It’s a combination of that and of Natchez not having a lot to offer in the way of entertainment,&uot; he said. &uot;It’s geared toward people who are already retired.&uot;

Cathedral graduate Lawrence Alwood said college and a career in medical sales led him away from the Natchez area. A Ferriday, La., native, Alwood went to Louisiana State University.

&uot;Being from Ferriday, Natchez was a big town to me,&uot; Alwood said. &uot;And when I went to LSU, the world got even bigger.&uot;

After graduation, Alwood moved to Mandeville, La., to pursue a career with a start-up pharmaceutical company.

&uot;When you graduate, you have to support yourself, so you go where the opportunity is. When you’re single, it’s easier to pick up and move like that,&uot; he said.

Alwood said he loves the Natchez area and still visits relatives here often.

&uot;If an opportunity had been available in Natchez, I would have located there,&uot; he said. &uot;I still may move back there someday. I could move there now, but it wouldn’t be centrally located for my job.&uot;

A great place for families

Like many high school graduates leaving for college, Leigh Hartley Pyron, Trinity Class of 1992, didn’t think she would return to Natchez.

Now married to her high school sweetheart and the mother of three young children, she gives Natchez high marks as a place to rear a family.

&uot;It’s a good place for a family. We love it and have a great group of friends,&uot; Pyron said. &uot;And we’re involved in our church and there are lots of things we do there.&uot;

Still, there is room for improvement, she said. &uot;We go out of town to zoos and shows; we’re lacking for things for children to do during the day, in summer especially.&uot;

A speech pathologist by profession, she worked for three years in the public schools after returning to Natchez. Her husband, Derek, who graduated from Trinity in 1991 and also attended Ole Miss, had returned a year before to run his father’s furniture store.

With the birth of her first child, Lucy, who is 5, she decided to stay at home. Twin boys came along 18 months ago, and now Pyron is ready to work a few hours a week at Jefferson Street United Methodist Church playschool, where she will be with the 2-year-olds starting in September.

&uot;I know people who would love to move here if there were jobs,&uot; she said. On the other hand, many of her best friends &uot;have been transported here because of their jobs. And they love it,&uot; she said.

Small towns can’t keep up with the big cities in leisure activity choices, but Natchez suits her fine, Pyron said.

&uot;My parents don’t even live here any more. My friends are my family,&uot; she said. &uot;Knowing everybody is nice. There’s a sense of security in living here.&uot;

Staff writer

Don McCraine

contributed to this report.