by Andi Agnew
Helen Napier remembers a time when Fondren was just a sleepy suburb of Jackson, a neighborhood made up of mostly young families. “You could tell when a car passed, whose car it was,” she says, describing the closeness of the neighbors on her street. Napier, now 90 years-old, has lived in Fondren for 51 years.
Born and raised in Drew, Mississippi, Napier attended Delta State University before making a move to Hattiesburg because of health issues. “During my young life, we had deep snow and very cold weather, and I was pneumatic, so I went to live with my aunt in Hattiesburg and went to the University of Southern Mississippi,” she said. Though she’s been a Jacksonian for over 50 years, her heart will always be in the Delta. “My son always says, ‘You won’t be with her long before you know she’s a Delta girl,’” Napier says with a smile.
At a time when most women were staying home and raising children, Napier struck out on what would become a very successful career path in the banking industry. She worked for First National Bank (now known as Trustmark) in Hattiesburg for a few years, and then moved with her aunt to Jackson.
“I came to Jackson to help set up the Mississippi Methodist Advocate,” Napier says modestly of her role in launching the statewide publication for the United Methodist Church. She married Horace Napier, whom she called “Manny,” in 1950, and the newlyweds moved to Fondren. The Napiers joined Broadmeadow United Methodist Church shortly after, and Helen has been an active member ever since.
She served as head of personnel for First National Bank in Jackson for several years. In 1963, at the age of 39, Napier gave birth to her only child, a son named Steve. After he was a few months old, she went to work for the Department of Banking and Consumer Finance for the State of Mississippi. She served there for 35 years until she retired in 1998. During her career, Napier co-founded a school for consumer loan examiners in 1988 in Washington, DC. She also was president of the National Association of Consumer Credit Administrators, and was asked to speak at their annual conference upon her retirement in 1998.
Co-workers teased Napier when she finally retired, knowing about her love of travel. “People said, ‘The question is not where Helen’s going to be when she retires, it’s what country she’s going to be in?’” she says with a laugh. So far, she has been to Russia, Spain, Alaska, the Holy Land, and still makes frequent trips to see family in the Delta.
Napier loves Fondren for its friendly neighbors and convenience. “I’m near the church, near my bank, near the grocery store… within 5 minutes of anywhere I want to go,” she says. A few times a year she hosts a “Meet Your Neighbor” event in her driveway. “My neighbor, Linden Potts, tells me we should start calling it ‘Hang Out with Your Neighbor,’ because we’ve all already met a few times!”
Having just celebrated her 90th birthday, I asked Napier for her advice on living a long life. She attributes her longevity to a healthy diet and exercise. “I walk 3 miles every day with my neighbor, Lila Bickerstaff,” she says very nonchalantly.
She also stays socially active — she serves as a greeter at Broadmeadow and goes out to lunch every Sunday after church. She reads a lot, writes letters and visits shut-ins for the church, serves on the Broadmeadow Neighborhood Association board and attends community events such as plays at New Stage Theatre.
Napier has seen a lot of changes in Jackson over the years, and she is lucky enough to have seen some things come full circle. On the wall in her living room is a print depicting Capitol Street in the 1950s. We talked about how vibrant the area used to be, and how it is finally starting to come back to life now in the 21st century. “When my husband and I were courting, I lived at the corner of George and North streets — we would walk down the street and have coffee at the old Primos, wave at people dressing the windows, and we loved it. We walked everywhere we went; it was so much fun.”