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Sonny Thomas of Jackson, Mississippi died last week. I’m sure most of you did not know him, but he was a statewide advocate for this town and, well how can I say this, my economic development godfather. Sonny was the deputy director of the Asset Development section at the Mississippi Development Authority.
MDA has a whole handful of divisions, but the Asset Development group is the one that works with Main Street towns and other little forgotten places, the places down on their luck who have not given up yet. This state is chock full of little towns, well over 100 towns with populations under 5,000 people. Those towns are easy to ignore as most are economic backwaters, but Sonny always thought there was hope and redemption and possibility even in the smallest of places.
Water Valley was his fair-haired child. Sonny sang our praises all over the state, though that was not always so. I met him 2007 and in early conversations with that MDA group it was clear they were underfunded and faced a great challenge. They would do their best and help those who were helping themselves.
So, when I took this job in 2009 and the economic landscape was pretty bleak, I made frequent trips to Jackson to learn the ins and outs of small town economics in Mississippi. There was no greater teacher than Sonny, he had this wealth of experience that reached way back. Mind you he wasn’t a kid, he graduated from Notre Dame the year I was born. Eisenhower was president.
I don’t know why he liked me, it might have been our shared Catholicism, that shared trauma (I’m kidding) a bonding agent. We’re a small minority in this state. Or maybe pity on his part, my fish out of water mannerisms.
By 2012, as the Valley had made some headway and gotten press saying so, Sonny and the crew invited me along to be a part of their asset teams going to other towns. I did so not only as an opportunity to work with them, but also to see other small towns close-up. It was such a learning experience and I felt I was always able to bring that knowledge back to the Valley. It did not pay anything other than maybe a good meal and a nice drink, if that was possible in some of those towns, at the end of the day.
So, for several years I was on the team, working the road trips with Sonny and crew, some 36 towns from Louise to Gulfport. You have to imagine how Sonny looked and sounded, while he was not a big guy, he had this athletic physique, the big shoulders, strong hands, narrow waist, and this pugilistic stance combined with a gravelly voice. Always dressed well. His gestures and demeanor, and I say this with all respect, had Mediterranean overtones. When he talked, people listened.
His consiglieri in all this was Daryl Neely, a much younger, taller and physically imposing man. Daryl with his political calculations and analytical observations combined with Sonny’s optimism made a formidable team. To see them both in action together, the older white guy and the younger black guy, gave me hope for this state.
Sonny, thanks for looking after me and my town. I’m gonna miss you. Godfathers ain’t so easy to come by, cher. In the odd chance you made a stop in Purgatory, I’ll light a few candles for you.