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2011 Citizen of the Year: Tony Byrne

Natchez fell in love with a young Tony Byrne when he was superstar athlete in high school in the early 1950s.

But the love for Natchez’s greatest ambassador didn’t stop when he hung up his uniform. It has continued for nearly six decades. His legend in Natchez is a mix of both his feats as an athlete and his work in public service.

Byrne’s own love for his hometown is as deep as ever, and his eyes still light up when talking about the city and its people that he so deeply loves.

For his lifetime of work and devotion to Natchez and the surrounding area, Byrne was selected as The Natchez Democrat’s 2011 Citizen of the Year.

Byrne’s Natchez resume is impressive.

He was a star basketball player and football player in high school, eventually playing college basketball.

After serving a short stint as a Natchez alderman, Byrne served as the city’s mayor for two decades, including years during many of the civil rights struggles in Natchez.

He worked for the city’s chamber of commerce for several years prior to his holding public office.

At 74 years of age, Byrne continues to operate an advertising promotions business in Natchez, Ketco.

He still finds time to serve the community in several capacities including serving as chairman of a committee looking at ways to turn portions of St. Catherine Creek into a recreational water park in Natchez.

Anyone who knows Byrne also knows he’s a huge fan of the New Orleans Saints, rarely missing a home game.

But it’s his children and stepchildren in whom he takes the greatest pride. As father of two and stepfather of three, Byrne said his greatest joy was raising children in a city he loved so dearly. He and his wife Annette stay active in Natchez and with their families.

But for thousands of Natchez residents, former residents and tourists, Byrne is “Mr. Natchez.”

“There’s not another one like him,” said Delores Vines, who worked with Byrne in the mayor’s office for approximately 13 years. “He is the ultimate of Southern gentlemen, for sure.

“He’s so genuine. You have his total attention when you’re talking to him,” Vines said. “He’s always had a deep caring attitude about him. No matter how long it had been since he’d seen you, he’d remember your family and ask about them all.”

“I think of him as the ultimate mayor for Natchez. He’s just always had that love for Natchez.”

Sen. Bob M. Dearing, one of Byrne’s childhood friends, said as mayor Byrne was always progressive and forward-looking.

“Tony as mayor probably had more foresight into what was going on locally than anybody I’ve ever known,” Dearing said. “He could see things developing that were good for the city, and even for the county. He would push them if he saw they were positive for the community.”

His determination to see things done is one his greatest traits, Dearing said, pointing to Byrne’s continued involvement in the St. Catherine Creek project, one Byrne has pushed for more than three decades.

“He’s like a dog chasing a car, once he’s started chasing it, he’s not going to give up,” Dearing said.

Interestingly, it was a moment related to sports that made a profound impact on Byrne and ultimately led him down the path of becoming one of Natchez’s longest serving mayors.

After leading the high school Big Eight Conference in both basketball and football his senior year and graduating from Natchez High School in 1954, Byrne played basketball at Mississippi State University.

Playing in a regional tournament in the Midwest, Byrne ran headlong into the racial segregation of the day.

“We’re in the finals, and we go in to eat the pregame meal and the other team had a black player,” Byrne said.

“The coach said, ‘Go to your room.’ He said, ‘The Legislature has found out that we’re going to play against blacks and they want us to go home.’”

“We said, ‘No we’re not. We fought hard to get here,’” Byrne said, adding that the coach insisted and they loaded the bus, headed back to Starkville.

“All the sudden, the crowd was gathering around us, and they were throwing rocks at us,” Byrne said.

The crowd was upset that the team was not allowed to play based on Mississippi’s racial prejudices of the day.

“I think that experience had a lot to do with my experience when I came by home,” he said. “I had no problems with black people.

“As I got into the political part of (my career), I could hear what blacks were saying about not being equal citizens and all,” he said.

In 1968 when he decided to run for mayor, Byrne did something that no other white office seeker had done previously.

“He boldly asked for the black support, when others were more quiet about it,” recalls civil rights legend Charles Evers, who was the NAACP state field director in the late 1960s. “Tony went into the black community, spoke to them at churches. That’s why he won.”

Byrne won the 1968 election by only 252 votes, a lead he attributes solely to the support of the black community.

Evers said he still considers Byrne a good friend, more than 40 years after they first met during turbulent times in Natchez.

“Tony is one of the fairest men I’ve ever met,” Evers said. “Back then it wasn’t popular to be fair to all men. He made us feel more welcomed. He was very kind, cordial and respectful.”

Byrne’s early years as mayor were anything but easy, but Evers said Byrne provided a calm voice of reason, even during times when racial turmoil was at its peak.

“He helped us cool things down in Natchez,” Evers said. “He is a good man, and he’s done well for Natchez.”

For Byrne, those early years were exciting and rewarding, but also a little frightening sometimes.

“It was crazy times and nobody had any experience dealing with these problems,” he said.

Threats were commonplace in the late 1960s, Byrne said. The previous Natchez mayor’s house was bombed.

“It was very, very tough, particularly on my family,” he said.

Dangers around him caused extreme caution. Natchez Police Chief J.T. Robinson worried so much about something happening to Byrne that the chief would come by the mayor’s house in the evenings and apply a small piece of tape under the hood. Then he’d return again the next morning to check the tape to ensure no one had tampered with Byrne’s car.

Byrne said he was not bothered by their threats.

“I told one of them, ‘If you mess with my family, I will come after yours.’”

Looking back, Byrne says his being a part of working with people such as Evers, Robinson, former sheriff Odell Anders and others to help calm the racial tensions of the time are among his most favorite memories of public life.

It was under Byrne’s watch that Natchez truly began desegregation in all forms of public life.

His administration was the first to appoint black citizens to various committees and boards as well as the first civil service protected black Natchez police officer.

After the civil rights movement, Byrne’s political career focused on helping to improve Natchez.

Walter Brown, who worked with Byrne in Brown’s role as a state legislator first and later as city attorney, said Byrne was a great ambassador for the city.

“He played a significant role in the municipal association,” Brown said. “That’s important for your city to have that statewide familiarity. We worked closely with him in the Legislature. He was always a strong advocate of the highway program, four-laning of 84 and 61.

“He was very even-handed, he got along with the board of aldermen well,” Brown said.

That even-handedness carries on today. Byrne remains active in a number of community causes and constantly hands out Natchez pins and talks up the town he loves so much.

If you meet him, he’s almost certain to smile, ask about how you’re doing and make you feel like you’re longtime friends.

“Tony is laid back, quiet. Of course everybody he meets, likes Tony, you just can’t help but like him,” Vines said. “He was always open to the public and always had Natchez at heart.”

“It’s the only place I’ve ever wanted to live, I just love Natchez and its people,” Byrne said.