Why do you stay in Jackson? Better yet, why do you leave and find yourself right back where you began?
For Marc and Cookie Leffler, a host of reasons hold them to Jackson, specifically Fondren and, if we want to get even more technical, to Broadmeadow. The neighborhood nestled between Meadowbrook and Northside Drive is known as the Top of Fondren and it’s the place the Lefflers call “an island unto itself” that somehow, someway, has that boomerang effect.
Cookie grew up in Jackson near Jackson Academy. She is a proud Catholic who has been at St. Richard’s Catholic Church since birth and has, in her words, “received every sacrament available at this point.” A Murrah High School and Millsaps College graduate, Cookie didn’t know now husband Marc, even though he was across town at Jackson Prep.
Born in Wichita Falls, Texas on an air force base, Marc moved here in elementary school when his dad’s job with GE brought them to Mississippi. He is a graduate of Millsaps, too, but he and Cookie never shared a seat on the famous M Bench. Instead, they met in a record store.
“My friend, (drummer) Denny Burkes was working at Bebop,” Marc recounts. “Cookie came in and we chatted and, when she left, Denny said, ‘You guys really got along well.’ He also happened to have her phone number (because she had ordered a record.)” Married 18 years this November, the Lefflers consider Denny and his wife, Vick, their “cupids.”
After a year away from Jackson — to Cleveland, Ohio for a job — the Lefflers returned. “It was still snowing there in May,” Cookie chimes in, “and I couldn’t handle that.” She came home to the Mississippi Arts Commission and he to ad agency, Maris, West and Baker.
It was 1997, and the couple spent over a year trying to find a house in Belhaven. When they saw one for sale on Brook Drive off Meadowbrook Road, though, they also noticed one across the street with a big back deck and rope swing. On that, they were sold.
What was the draw to Broadmeadow? “We were brought here by the neighbors,” Marc says. Two doors down is Liz and Bill Brister, who Cookie calls “a great recruiting tool.” When the Lefflers moved in and another house on the same street welcomed new neighbors, Liz hosted a party. “Lots of wine and lots of food,” Cookie recalls. “We met so many people. That’s some kind of welcome!”
Marc and Cookie speak of Joe and Chuck Wise who live a few doors down, always welcoming new neighbors with wine and food. Next door neighbors Dan and Beth Autrey collaborated with them on a bridge between their yards. “Everybody is kind of like us,” Cookie says of the camaraderie. (New Stage artistic Director) Francine Reynolds is just a block away and (Clarion Ledger columnist) Sherry Lucas is a block over. It’s been so easy to know people.”
Its also helps that both are actively involved in the Broadmeadow Neighborhood Association, a cohesive gel that binds the top of Fondren, through annual events and mixers. “It started with the Fab food fest where people would bring their baked goods and sell them and we’d have a little money,” Cookies recalls. The organization just hosted a crawfish boil, has plans for 4th of July parade and, in the fall, a bbq themed event called Blocktoberfeast.
Their neighborhood, Marc says, has always felt stable, even when areas around them seemed not to be. Marc says this past weekend, they rediscovered another part of Fondren they hadn’t seen in some time. “We went to (OurFondren) movie night Saturday at Fondren Park and man, that’s just a wonderful feeling in that place,” he says. “Seeing people, the gardens, this gathering place: the heart of the neighborhood. It had been at risk back when, but it’s really pulled together and is back in a good way.”
The explosive growth of the downtown Fondren historic district is not lost on the couple either. Marc mentions the new restaurants, and Cookie, the shops. “You don’t have to be a big box,” she says. “(Small mom and pops) still have a chance (in Fondren). And all the consignment stores! My girls (Perry, 15 and Mina, 12) and I have fun.” Marc mentions the very shirt he is wearing came from one of those second hand establishments.
Marc is musical, playing guitar and bringing together pick up bands for events or backyard jam sessions. Not to be undone by her husband, Cookie says she, too, had her own band. “We called it Velma because she was the smart one from Scooby Doo.” She says it was all for fun and then it took a turn. “Our husbands bought us recording time so we had to get serious about it,” she laughs. The couple can be found on holidays and other occasions playing in a pub — their own backyard version, dubbed Seamus O’Lefflers, a storage shed turned watering hole, inspired by a trip to Ireland.
Marc is still with Maris, West and Baker after a total of 21 years. Cookie took what she learned from the arts commission and, along with Bill and Liz Brister, helped found the Privette School at Broadmeadow United Methodist Church. Today, Cookie is with the Mississippi Department of Transportation and founded the state’s first Safe Routes to Schools program.
With so much talent and an obvious love of life, what keeps them here? The boomerang. “I heard artist Bill Dunlap talk about that one time, people leaving and coming back,” Cookie says. “That has stuck with me. I know several who have left and come back, several on this street! There’s something about it. It’s just hard to express how special this neighborhood is.”