When Mark and Julia Leopold made the decision to move to Mississippi in late 2013, they thought, “What’s the worst that could happen?”
Today, as they put the Magnolia State in their rear view mirror, headed for State College, Pennsylvania, they have a new question: “How did we fall so hard for Jackson?”
The New York natives came to Mississippi for Julia’s job as morning meteorologist at WLBT. Mark, a fresh water biologist by trade, worked for a short time for the Turcotte Fish Hatchery on the Ross Barnett Reservoir.
When the Cornell University grads became engaged, Mark knew he would be adapting, finding his way, wherever they might land.
An avid beer fan, Mark learned about Saltine Oyster Bar which was soon to open in the summer of 2014. Chef and owner Jesse Houston was one of the first people Mark met when he moved here; Mark would become Houston’s bar manager.
“Growing up in New York, craft beer was prevalent,” Mark said. “When we’d steal beer out of our parent’s fridge, we were stealing Saranac Lagers and Bells Two Hearted IPA. I had no idea it could have been a profession! It would have been a better calling [for me] from the get-go.”
With Mississippi’s beer laws changing in recent years, Mark has been on the cutting edge. “The breweries we have brought in, I grew up around,” he said. “It’s always been about education working [at Saltine].” He is planning to pen a book on the history of craft beer in this region, specifically Mississippi, something he calls “a cool story.”
For Julia, who used her maiden name Weiden on TV, the Deep South draw was severe weather. “[I thought], ‘I could have a spring tornado season and maybe a late fall and early winter storm season,’” she explained. “It sounds weird, but that made my eyes light up.”
During Hurricane Matthew, Julia fulfilled a life-long dream to fly with the hurricane hunters based out of Keesler Air Force base in Biloxi: “Eleven hours in a plane to not go anywhere,” she laughed.
Julia, who was on-air in Syracuse, New York prior to coming to Jackson, said she was nervous about how she would be received. “But people were very welcoming from the get-go,” she told. “I had few critics. But I didn’t mind being that silly Yankee that didn’t know how to pronounce things.”
“Sautier” and “Gautier,” even “Belzoni” could have tripped Julia up. But her first week on-air, the late Bert Case, who was still at WLBT, sat her down: “You’re here now and I’m going to teach you how to say these words,” she droned, doing her best Bert Case. “He’d say, ‘Okay, say BUUUDDE.’” It was cool to work with a living legend.”
Jackson was exciting because it was something new. “It was between Buffalo or here,” Mark said, remembering their choices in late 2013. “And we didn’t want to do New York again. We’d both lived in various parts of the state, and we wanted something different.”
What they found was a community willing to embrace them, to make them a part of Jackson’s renaissance. “It’s the people we have met and the relationships we have made,” Mark said of his takeaway. Julia echoed: “[It sounds cliched but it’s the] food and friends.”
“The fact that there are so many people who want to be here and make this place better is important, a great symptom of the city growing,” Julia said. “It makes me sad that we are leaving because we want to be a part of it. I would love to come back here and see what this place is five or ten years from now.” Mark added, “Oh, we’ll be back.”
The couple said Jackson became their home. “I wanted a stepping stone, a cool place… something to look back at,” Julia said. “But we’re leaving a piece of our hearts here. We made a new home. It’s hard to leave a place you love.”
WLBT Chief Meteorologist Dave Roberts on Julia: “I’m sad to see her leave, but happy for the opportunity the move presents for both of them. Julia not only fit in perfectly at the station, but she wasted no time embracing and immersing herself into the Mississippi community. You want to see people come here, do well, enjoy their stay and if they do leave, leave with a positive impression of this state and I feel confident that’s the case here.”
Jesse Houston on Mark: “When I first met Mark, he was a wildlife and fisheries nerd who had a dream to one day open his own bar back home in New York. I told Mark he would have to shuck oysters and pour beer and maintain the fish tank (we never did install that fish tank) and he was eager to learn. Most afternoons during 2-4pm you could find him both shucking and mixing a cocktail.
Mark grew his talents behind the bar, eventually taking over the entire bar program, coming up with his own signature cocktails, and winning the hearts of our regulars with his warm heart and sense of humor. Mark was like a business partner to me. I trusted him implicitly with creating the state’s best beer list and he nailed it, over and over again. He is a solid chunk of the identity of Saltine to me, and his shoes may never be filled. He may never understand his true value as a friend and partner in crime and I’ll miss him more than anyone can imagine.”
Mark and Julia were frequent contributors to Find It In Fondren, crafting well-thought stories from any topic we would throw their way. We’ve grown to know and love them both and wish them only the best as they take a piece of Mississippi with them to Pennsylvania.