BLOOMING: 2024 Sallie Junkin Ballard Award recipients honored

Published 4:01 pm Thursday, July 4, 2024

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NATCHEZ — Seven honorees were recognized Saturday with the Keep Natchez Blooming 2024 Sallie Junkin Ballard Award at Smoot’s Grocery, organized by the nonprofit Downtown Natchez Alliance and its partners.

The honors are named for Sallie Junkin Ballard, who promoted Natchez beauty and tourism by facilitating the planting of hundreds of crepe myrtle trees.

The first award recipient Greg Brooking is acknowledged for the bright-colored poppy flowers that have become a trademark of the Natchez landing on Sliver Street. These bright red flowers have been featured in many photographs, magazines, postcards and artists renditions of the landing and have become a “symbol of our town,” said Downtown Natchez Alliance Director Kevin Miers.

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“I’d known Sallie for a long time,” Brooking said. “She was 85 years old and working out with weights and I was in awe of her. She was truly an amazing woman and I loved her. She was easy to love. She started this crepe myrtle thing and it has been a wonderful thing she did for our city. We should all be proud and I’m very proud of having an award with her name on it. It humbles me.”

St. Mary Basilica Garden Committee, initiated by Jimmy Guercio, was honored for the quiet transformation of its block of Main Street into “restful space for peace, prayer and solace downtown.” Lush green spaces and beautiful flowers decorate the Basilica Prayer Garden on the corner of Rankin and Main streets, outside the Father David O’Conner Family Life Center and the Bishop’s Prayer Garden behind the church.

“All of this is available for everyone to enjoy,” said DNA founder and secretary Chesney Doyle.

“We don’t do this for awards,” said Guercio. “We do it because we love to make it beautiful around the church.”

The Metcalf family was honored Saturday for both protecting live oak trees and restoring the public sidewalk on the southern end of the Natchez Bluff in front of a parsonage built for Gay Metcalf to entertain her clerical guests.

“The ancient live oak trees had destroyed the sidewalk and the sidewalk was destroying the ancient live oak trees,” Mayor Dan Gibson said. “It was our pleasure to work with Gay Metcalf and her three children Debby, Susan and Butch to find a sensitive way to save the trees and redirect the sidewalk. Through their willingness to do whatever it took, the family demonstrated their love and devotion to this historic landscape on the bluff.”

Gibson also expressed gratitude to Dick Thompson of Live Oak Landscapes who worked with the city’s Department of Public Works to make the project come to fruition.

In a letter from the Metcalf family thanking DNA for the award, the family members said Gay Metcalf and Sallie Ballard shared a few things in common.

“They were tough, no nonsense, hardworking women who loved their families and had a passion for gardening,” they said.

When the roots of her precious oak trees began to damage the sidewalks and presented a tripping hazard for Gay Metcalf, longtime friend and caretaker of the Metcalf parsonage Johnny Abbott stepped in and took action before she could get hurt.

DNA also awarded two placemaking awards to individuals who stepped up and created events that would draw people to the Natchez bluff.

Eddie Burks was recognized for orchestrating the weekly farmer’s market on the bluff.

“Due to his work, we’re able to enjoy a farmer’s market every Saturday. It’s become an amazing place people can come to interact and enjoy not just each other but our wonderful bluff and riverfront,” Miers said.

Sarah Lindsey Laukhuff was honored for organizing Live@Five, which brings musicians weekly to the Natchez Bluff bandstand.

“At an age when she should’ve been looking for role models she was acting as a role model,” Miers said. “In the dark age of COVID, she created something that brought us together.”

Lastly, DNA presented two people with legacy awards for their decades of devotion to beautifying Natchez and educating others to leave behind a legacy.

Stephanie Hutchins was recognized for her quiet work and volunteerism with Keep Mississippi Beautiful for 20 years.

Elaine Gemmell was also awarded for her dedication to beautification of the Natchez landscape and community education.