By Alexe van Beuren
In less than two years, life has changed considerably for Elizabeth Person. She has moved to Water Valley from New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, set up shop in her new hometown, and changed her name following her May wedding to James Person.
The former Ms. Gochnour arrived in Water Valley when the order for evacuation came to New Orleans. “We left primarily because we didn’t want our cars to be flooded,” Mrs. Person tells me. “We thought we would be back within a few days.”
That few-day visit stretched into a permanent move – with a trip back to retrieve some belongings– as it became increasingly clear that the life Mrs. Person had created for herself was irrevocably altered.
A resident of New Orleans since 1970, Mrs. Person had worked as a coordinator at the LSU speech clinic before opening her own practice as a speech pathologist. Business was good, and Mrs. Person employed several people; after the hurricane, that all changed.
“When Katrina hit,” she tells me in her small, neat office, “every single client disappeared.”
Mrs. Person decided to remain in Water Valley with her now-husband (a Water Valley native) and opened a smaller version of her practice, Remedial Specialists LLC, on North Court Street.
Like most people, I wasn’t too clear on what a speech pathologist does.
“Everything that has to do with verbal communication,” Mrs. Person tells me. She goes on to list stutterers, stroke patients, the learning-disabled, the hearing-impaired, autistic people, and professionals wishing to eradicate their accents as the children and adults she sees on a daily basis.
“I can’t make a deaf child hear,” Mrs. Person says, “but I can help him maximize his potential.”
“How did you become interested in this?” I ask, and Mrs. Person tells me that during her childhood in Iowa, her father – an academic involved with linguistics – often had people involved with speech and words over to the house. While majoring in education at the University of Iowa, Person was required to take a speech pathology course so that she would be able to recognize children in the classroom with any problems. Taking that class inspired her to change her major to speech pathology when she went on to graduate school.
“I think I have the best job in the world,” she says. “Each client is different.”
When I ask Mrs. Person how she feels about her new – and smaller – practice in Water Valley, she smiles. “It’s kind of nice.” Mrs. Person also works at the Charleston School District for two days a week during the academic year. “I’m more of a self-starter than I’d realized,” she says, and then invites me to the apartment above her office for iced coffee and cookies.
Over refreshments, I ask Mrs. Person more about leaving New Orleans. She and her husband were not the only hurricane refugees; off-hand, Mrs. Person can think of 10 people who have settled in Water Valley following Hurricane Katrina.
“The community was so good to us when we came,” Mrs. Person says. In appreciation, she and the other newcomers organized a New Orleans-themed dinner in the fellowship of the Methodist Church “after we’d gotten back on our feet,” she says.
Her life in New Orleans continues to influence her life here. “When I moved into this office,” she says, “It reminded me of the small art galleries in New Orleans.” The similarity prompted her to open her office during last year’s Watermelon Carnival as a sort of showcase for local artists, including several teenagers who had never before exhibited.
Mrs. Person plans to do the same for this year’s Carnival. She radiates pride as she tells me about this year’s artists, who work in mediums as diverse as stained glass, sculpture, and jazz photography.
One Yalobushian artist, MacArthur Chism makes art out of the metal pop tops from bottles, and since cans are now more common, he’s having a hard time finding enough pop tops. Mrs. Person has been keeping her eye out, and shows me the three perfect pop tops she’s found in the last few weeks.
Promoting local artists during a watermelon festival probably isn’t what Mrs. Person thought she would be doing two years ago. When I ask if she’s had a hard time adjusting from nearly four decades of living in New Orleans to life in Water Valley, she shrugs.
“It’s a different way of life here,” Mrs. Person says, and smiles. “But I like it.”