Defining Moments with the Austins
James Austin is the daily operations manager for the City of Ruston, but he retired from the Ruston Fire Department before assuming his current position. As fire chief, James was the first employee to serve in every position offered by the department from firefighter to fire chief. He has always been driven to work hard and succeed but attributes his drive in part to the people who’ve helped shape him. One of those people is his mother. “My mother is the greatest person I know, always reminding me of the values of ethics and etiquette and how important they are in our lives,” he said. “She’s been my biggest motivator. I’m motivated by a lot of things, but the look in her eyes inspires me to do well.”
In addition to motivation, James has needed inspiration to grow as a person, and his wife Teresa has been a tremendous help in this area. “My wife is my heart and my soul,” he said. “Of all the people that have inspired me, my wife has inspired me most. She’s subtle, but she knows how to tone and attone me.”
James was raised in Ruston and grew up on Larson Street on the southwest side of town. He attended schools here and was a student during the integration of schools in 1970. “We had some trials in Ruston, but we were able to live through all of those,” he said. “I’ve viewed a lot of changes in our community with a positive outlook.”
He is especially appreciative of educator Lula Mae Turner for helping to shape his outlook. Calling her a “spear to success,” he is thankful for “the things she cultured in her students through those defining times.” According to James, Ms. Turner taught the dissection of a complex sentence, but she also took time to teach life lessons and social skills to help them navigate the changing world around them.
As a student, James and a small number of other African Americans were given a special advantage pre-integration. According to James, many African American students were behind educationally. For example, Algebra I was not offered until high school during this time, but the community decided to take the students with higher grades and give them access to a more advanced curriculum. There were only seven boys in this program, and James said some of them, like him, are still in Ruston, including Willie Garr, Coach Ricky Burton and attorney Rick Candler.
Throughout high school, James was very athletic and played both basketball and football. He recalls some resistance to integration of African Americans into school sports, but he also recalls a time when Coach Leon Barmore came to his house and assured his parents that on his team the best player would always play. Barmore coached the boys basketball team at Ruston High to a 148-49 record from 1971-1977 before going on to coach the Lady Techsters through many wins, including a 1988 NCAA national title.
Like Ms. Turner, Barmore incorporated life lessons into his daily interactions with students. James said that after each practice he would give his team a quote or slogan to remember. The next day, the quote would have to be recited before players could enter the dressing room. One that held special significance for James was one from Ralph Waldo Emerson: “Nothing great was ever achieved without enthusiasm.” Later, when James was in the U.S. Army, this quote kept him motivated. “It was huge for me,” he said. “When you’re a young man coming up, you look to your elders.”
Another elder that played a significant role in James’ life was Dr. Jean Hall. Before continuing his career at Louisiana Tech, Hall served as an assistant to Coach Barmore and also taught history at Ruston High during the ‘70s. “He emphasized being pure and righteous,” James said. “I was a bit of a rebel but came from a Christian background. I needed to see the reflection—the evidence—to trust someone, and I saw him practicing what he preached. He was a man of God.” According to James, Hall also stressed giving more than 100%. He always wanted 110%.
James can easily recall others who influenced him along the way and said, “I look for people’s success, and I relate to the positive.” He encourages others to take the “good” from every individual. “God put every person in your life for a reason,” he said, “and it’s for you to gain from.”
After high school, James went on to serve in the U.S. Army. “That, too, was a pivotal, deciding thing for me,” he said. “It taught me the necessity for discipline, which we all need to be successful in our careers.” While serving, James played semi-pro military basketball and became a medic at Fort Sam Houston. After an assignment to the U.S. Army War College, he continued his training at Fort Meade in Maryland and became an orthopedic technician.
After six years of service, he decommissioned in June of 1980 and continued his education at Grambling State University (GSU), majoring in biology and geography. While in school, he applied at Lincoln General Hospital, hoping to use the skills he learned in the military, but the only position available was as an orderly, so he took it. “I did whatever I could to make ends meet,” he said, even selling cans to buy Christmas presents for his kids.
Looking for a better opportunity, James became interested in a position with the local fire department. After performing exceptionally well on the Civil Service exam, he was called in for an interview by Fire Chief Harold Pipes who offered him a job. Soon James began to see opportunity for advancement in the department. Only a few credits shy of graduating from GSU, James decided to resign from the university and commit to a career with the fire department. “I said to myself, ‘I’m gonna be fire chief here,’ and it became a path for me,” he said. James sees his decision as a defining moment and a deviation from the norm. He believes not enough people are taking advantage of these types of opportunities and said, “We need to reintroduce the quote about the road less traveled, but whatever road you choose, you’ve got to know you have to work hard at it. The most successful people in our community have earned every bit of that success.”
After committing to a career with the fire department, James obtained the highest level of education in the U.S. Fire Administration’s Executive Fire Officer Program. Under his leadership as fire chief, the Ruston Fire Department’s Insurance Services Office protection class rating was lowered to two, which has saved homeowners and businesses in the district money on their insurance. He also tirelessly supported all of his workers and encouraged them to further their education. “You need to give back,” he said. “Don’t achieve and fail to bring someone with you.”
In June of 2014, James retired from the fire department after more than 30 years of service. Then, in the early spring of 2015, Mayor Ronny Walker asked James to become his daily operations manager. “I feel very privileged to work for him,” James said. “He was very concerned about bridging the gap in this community, and I support his ideas and views wholeheartedly.”
James appreciates Mayor Walker’s transparency and genuineness. In his career, James has worked for three former mayors and said, “I’ve taken a look at all of those eras, and some of their successes, and under this leadership, the vision is very promising. I think this community is advancing with tremendous strides.” According to James, Mayor Walker realizes that you have to fix the root cause to really fix a problem, and in our community, as in others, some of the problems are social problems. One of James’ responsibilities is to answer citizens’ questions and help resolve these problems. “Citizens can become eyes and ears to a problem you haven’t awakened to,” he said.
According to James’ wife Teresa, James is doing a good job of resolving these problems. “Feedback I hear is always positive,” she said. “He really sits and listens. He takes care of it for you.” Teresa is very supportive of James, but she is also a successful business woman in her own right. She has been self-employed since 1984 and owns The Attitude Salon and Boutique in Grambling.
Originally from Kansas City, Teresa met James at the funeral of one of his aunts in Kansas City. James’ aunt was also Teresa’s pastor’s mother, and Teresa was very close with her family. When Teresa sang “So You Would Know” at the funeral, James was immediately smitten. He said she sounded like Diana Ross. Because several of his cousins and other family were members of the church, it was easy to find out more about Teresa and find someone to introduce them. Shortly thereafter, James was telling people Teresa was going to be his wife.
In the beginning, Teresa was skeptical and a little put off by the fact James was trying to meet her at a funeral, but he was respectful and persistent. He found her mother and introduced himself. Then he stayed and helped Teresa load her car. Afterward, they started talking on the phone every day, and Teresa said, “It just blossomed. It got serious real quick.” Soon James was coming up to visit and would stay with family to spend time with Teresa.
After a four-year, long-distance relationship, Teresa finally joined James in Louisiana and has been here nine years now. Moving from Kansas City to north Louisiana has required some time to adjust. The community has been very welcoming, but it was a big change. There is much less hustle and bustle, and according to Teresa, people trust each other more here. She said, “It also took me awhile to get used to the silence, but now I like it.”
Since moving, Teresa has worked hard to make The Attitude a welcoming place that reflects who she is. “Everyone says how unique it is,” she said, “because of how calming it is. They feel at peace. I’ve always gotten positive feedback.” According to Teresa, salons are also places where people can vent about things in their lives, whether it’s politics, religion, marriage, family or something else. Although her aim isn’t to solve the world’s problems, she believes open lines of communication can bring people closer together and have a positive impact.
“Service and honesty can make people open up to you,” James said. “Teresa has that drawing power that makes people open up and communicate.” Both Teresa and James value openness and authenticity and believe it has the power to bridge differences. They believe that when people get together and share openly, they can learn about each other. They may even find common ground and realize that they have similar concerns.
Both are adamant that people should be judged by the contents of their character—what’s on the inside—not by the color of their skin. Teresa especially has had experiences that she said could have made hate grow in her heart. She attended Stephens College and was one of only 67 African American women in a student body of 3,000. She said the Klan marched through the campus while she was a student there. She also had professors who failed to acknowledge her and received threatening notes on her door. One night, a truck load of white men threw balloons filled with urine at her and friends as they walked back from a poetry reading on campus.
These experiences could have hardened her heart, but Teresa chooses forgiveness and remains open. “I know there are good and bad people in all races. Those people didn’t understand what life can and should be about,” she said. “Life experiences have shown me [racism] is real, and it happens, but I don’t have to let it shape me. I’d rather extend the olive branch. You can’t make friends with everybody, but you want to treat people the way you’d like to be treated.”
She and James are both advocates for unity. They believe it’s okay to honor your differences, but it’s also great to share and learn about each other’s differences. “Life can be really good if you let your inner self show,” Teresa said.
James has had years to build relationships in the Ruston community and recalls feeling supported by several of the prominent families, including the Bromells, Olivers, Hogans, Beltons, Hunts and the Kilpatricks in Ruston, and the Gallots, Adamses and Joneses in Grambling. “The thing that really impacted me was that those families, whether they were black or white, reflected the love in this community and what they wanted it to be,” he said. “The longer I live the more integration I see. All over, I see more people living together, and I have a great appreciation for that. We can be part of one big community.”
In their work and personal lives, James and Teresa try to work toward this goal through serving others and setting a positive example. “I would like that our marriage, our union, be an illustration for a young person coming up to show what rewards come from being a servant,” James said. He believes in setting the bar high whether it’s something for the city or for a youth program. According to Teresa, they try to be involved in a lot of community activities. “We both have a passion for helping youth that are trying to help themselves,” she said.
Another way James is working toward this goal is through his position with the City of Ruston. Part of Ruston’s Moving Forward Initiative is the Rock Island Greenway, which, when complete, will cover six miles and will increase “access to healthcare, jobs, social support services, cultural centers, and recreation,” according to the City’s webpage devoted to the Greenway. The webpage also indicates that “it will pass directly through some of the city's most underserved neighborhoods, in which a substantial share of residents are reliant on walking and biking for transportation, and where opportunities for physical activity and recreation are especially limited.”
James said they hope to have some stops along the Greenway that celebrate people who have made significant contributions to the community, people who haven’t been recognized yet, such as Annie Brown, John Tellis, Robert Smith and Curtis Mayfield. “The process will be selective,” he said, “but I think it will be pivotal for the African American community. They need to see people they can relate to.” It will be a way of celebrating local history. “This is a way for the community to give back,” he said. “I want to do whatever I can to influence the future of these kids.”
He said there has also been some interest from Lincoln High alumni in restoring some of the buildings that are not being used. In general, there is a greater interest in revitalizing and investing in the south side of town. “We’re trying to connect the pieces and give people something they can be proud of,” James said. “We’re looking at revamping the whole neighborhood.”
He believes Mayor Walker is approaching this revitalization in the right way. “You change the infrastructure first. Then you can go in and build better homes,” he said. The goal is to preserve what can preserved, but James said some things will need to be torn down before the community can be built back up. “We want to do something that makes people want to go back to that community,” he said. The City is still in the planning stages for much of this project, which James called Lincoln Heights. However, he believes more positive change is on the horizon, and he and Teresa look forward to being a part of it.