I’d be willing to bet that most of you, if you thought about it, could recall from your childhood, an adult influencer who did or said something that left a lasting impression on you—an impression that sticks with you to this very day. It might have helped shape your character or led you to do something in your life that you’re especially proud of. Maybe it wasn’t any one thing they said, but simply how they handled themselves and the example they set or the style within which they operated.
This influencer—perhaps you saw them only a time or two, but that time was memorable. Or maybe you didn’t see them in person, but only heard them speak on TV or the radio, but their message stuck with you.
The influencer might have been a relative of yours or the parent of a friend or a neighbor or local business person. The person may have been a teacher or part of your church or youth group. Maybe they were someone who simply seemed to always be around, and kept everyone on their p’s and q’s. If you encountered them regularly, in your day-to-day, you may have found yourself seeking their approval.
In my neighborhood—and indeed in any one of the neighborhoods or towns of Tensas Parish—there was someone we all knew. He might have said or done something to get your attention if you were being distracted from your task at hand. Or he might have taken a moment to break down a rule or two for you so that you would understand. He often introduced community youth to opportunities to showcase as well as refine their talents. In group settings, you would frequently find him throwing out scenarios to see who would come up with smart solutions for seemingly unsolvable problems or challenges.
Each of us recognized him because we saw him around our school, always moving as if he was on-the-way somewhere. We listened to him because we heard his voice as he greeted us over the intercom each morning with information and inspiration. We knew him because he showed us who he was. We came to know ourselves because we had a safe and sound environment in which to do that.
Some of us had 12 years of his leadership as our principal, beginning in first grade while others had a few years in high school. Some of us had extra time with him after moving from high school to college, after he moved from leading a parish-wide segregated high school in northeast Louisiana to leading a sprawling congregation in a church in the southern part of the state. Regardless of how long we were in his presence, last week we had to say goodbye.
After 93 years on this earth, departing would seem like an inevitability—an expected event that could be easily met. But there was nothing routine about the Rev. Dr. Jesse B. Bilberry, Jr. He was many things to many people, but he was never ordinary. And the goodbye isn’t made any easier when you haven’t seen him for 30, or even 40 years. It’s not easy to say goodbye to a principal, a leader, a pastor, a role model, an example of excellence—someone who made you better simply because you knew you could be.
For Tensasans, J.B. Bilberry was a champion’s champion. And he opened the door to many champions during his watch. As we continue to seek to bring excellence to the lives of the children of Tensasans, it is our hope that this tradition of excellence endures. On his most recent appearance at a Tensas Reunion, he had a message for us.