A Former Teacher, Thompson Believes In Putting Extra Effort In Her Projects
By Alexe van Beuren
When I first met Julia Thompson, she spelled out her name for. “J-U-L-I-A Julia,” she said with a beat.
So I knew she had a big personality before our interview; I just hadn’t realized how very good she is at so many different things. Not everyone can lay bricks, sew costumes, and write grants. Oh, and she was a track star in her youth, a masters’ degree student in her thirties, and a star teacher for her working life, and there’s the whole wife, mother, and grandmother thing; so many talents reside in this gray-haired woman in the polka-dotted pantsuit that it’s hard to write about her.
But here it goes.
Julia was born and raised in Pine Valley, along with three sisters and a brother. She learned how to lay bricks from her father, a carpenter and builder who just happened to do the concrete work for the Pine Valley Schoolhouse. She hasn’t forgotten the skills he taught her; “I did that,” she tells me right after I sit down in her immaculate living room, and points to the inlaid fireplace.
While she learned her masonry skills from her father, she learned how to sew from her mother and her aunt Jessie, a professional seamstress who sewed for a store in Memphis. Along with her teaching career, Julia also did sewing on the side for scores of Water Vallians over the years. “Bridesmaid dresses, prom dresses,” she tells me. “It was fun, but now I only sew when I want to sew.”
Luckily for Water Valley, Julia was happy to use her skills in researching and creating costumes for the recent Founder’s Day Fashion Show. “Pat Ray and I had a ball,” she smiles.
When I ask what’s the most difficult thing she’s ever made, Julia cocks her head to the side. “I had to do a great big hoop,” she says, and beckons at her living room. “As big as this room for the Nutcracker performance in Oxford. Eight children had to fit beneath it.” (The hoop was for her daughters’ children when they took dance; now, she makes nearly all the costumes for her daughter’s new Oxford dance studio.)
As she tells me about her projects, I look around her house. “Where do you sew?” I ask, for I see no machines or fabric.
She chortles. “At the kitchen table,” she says. “My husband’s had to step around pins and needles for years.”
Fortunately, Jimbo is used to working with his wife. Their most recent project is the Pine Valley Schoolhouse – the very one that Julia’s father helped build.
It had been deeded to the community to use as a community center, but in reality, it was just sitting – and deteriorating. “I could see it going down, down, down,” says Julia. Several years ago, she decided to do something about it.
“I got real busy. I did a lot of legwork, a lot of paperwork.” And in 2002, Julia Thompson convinced the state to declare the schoolhouse a Mississippi Landmark. “It can’t be touched,” she says fiercely.
After that, Julia says that “everyone began to get a little interested.” Donations began to trickle in, and after writing an application to the Mississippi Department of Archives and History, Julia received a grant for $20,000. After fixing the foundation, Julia began contacting carpenters to make new windows.
“We couldn’t change the size of the openings,” she says. “Everything had to be as it was. And I couldn’t find anyone in the whole United States of America to make a replica for less than $1700.” She pauses, smiles. “Jimbo said he’d take three months and make the windows for me.”
After receiving another $30,000 grant, the Pine Valley Schoolhouse is just about finished. The windows and doors are in, the rooms are being painted, and the floors are about to be done. “I’m hoping to get another grant to finish up the electric and do two outhouses,” Julia says.
Despite the work still left, the Schoolhouse is already being used by the community for events like birthday parties and trail rides. “It’s fun doing things like that,” Julia says. “My love is historic projects.”
When you consider Julia’s education career, it’s not surprising she’s good at writing and researching. After graduating from Jeff Davis, Julia married Jimbo and started her family. It wasn’t until her children Steve and Julie were in school that Julia resumed her own education.
“I decided to go back to college,” she says. “I went to Northwest first.” After earning a 3.89 grade-point average, Julia transferred to Ole Miss and finished her B.S. in elementary education in just one more year– half the usual time. “I wasn’t interested in anything except going to school,” Julia says.
She went on to earn her master’s degree, and before she had even graduated, Water Valley High School had offered her a job.
“I made it fun. Kids know if you’re just teaching for a paycheck,” Julia says of her twenty-year career as Water Valley’s only reading teacher. “You’ve got to put 110 percent in whatever you do.”
After she retired from teaching, Julia was named as a STAR teacher. “I’m proud of that,” she admits.
Though she’s retired, Julia’s stayed busier than most people. There’s the sewing, of course, and the schoolhouse –but she also found time to renovate the house she lives in, which used to be a burned-out shell that was once used as a hospital for the 18 Union solders who are now buried in Oak Hill Cemetery. She’s got a big terraced garden that includes twenty-five tomato plants, she takes care of her grandchildren on a regular basis, and recently, she and Jimbo began building a cabin out by Enid Lake.
When I ask why they decided to begin another construction project, Julia smiles. “Jimbo looked at me and said, ‘are you ready for another adventure?'”
It should come as no surprise that Julia Thompson said yes.