Wilkirson

If you haven’t heard by now (news does travel fast here), Jim Wilkirson, Fondren Renaissance Foundation’s Executive Director for nearly a decade, is stepping out of his lead role effective May 1.

Jim will stay on as “special events coordinator” for Mississippi Food and Wine, The Cedars Juried Show and Symphony at Sunset. Angie Noble, who has served a special events director, will assume the interim director position while the search for a new executive director is underway.

When I heard the news this week, I was shocked and not at all surprised at the same time.

For the last ten years, Jim’s role as executive director has morphed from the chief fundraiser and organizer to that of  an unofficial “mayor/Chamber of Commerce leader/constituent services manager/tourism director/public works official/problem solver/peacemaker and mediator/’Jim-of-All-Trades.'”

In 2013, I interviewed Jim for Find It In Fondren magazine and he was quick to brush aside any spotlight for himself.

“One person can be a motivator or a catalyst, but someone else has to capture the vision and move it forward. It’s a huge team,” he said.

Maybe, but without Jim, much of Fondren’s current success would be impossible.

Look at his fingerprints, all over the completion and dedication of Fondren Park, The Cedars Juried Art Show, Symphony at Sunset, the newly-formed Fondren Business Improvement District, the Fondren sidewalk project (practically his day and night for all of 2018), Mississippi Food and Wine, the Mississippi Craft Beer Festival, the Barbara Bush Foundation Teen Trendsetter literacy program and countless other projects, not to mention his work with Jackson Academy, Mistletoe Marketplace, Symphony Ball and other Jackson entities.

For Jim, Fondren is only one part of his world. He talked about sharing his skills and passion with other groups or areas in 2013.

“Right now, our part is the revitalization of this area and then showing others how to accomplish the same thing,” he said. “Someone has to help.” The bottom line, he told me, is to lead by example. “It’s not right to say, ‘Go fix it’ if you can’t say ‘I’m going to help you fix it; let’s go do it together.’ It’s the most important thing. That’s what gets people excited and gives them a renewed passion.”

That passion stems from his late mother’s role as a community leader. “Truly, there’s not a group who calls on me that I don’t try and help in some way because when they grow, I grow,” he said. “It’s the only way you learn.”

I first met Jim in 2010.

He had just come to FRF’s staff. I had just launched Find It In Fondren magazine.

He liked the first issue but had concerns about one thing or another. And so, I listened. I made changes and, the next issue – and the 30 that have followed – have been better because of his initial input.

In late 2017, when I approached him about building a second brand in LeFleur East, Jim was an adamant cheerleader, pressing us to follow those ideas and serve the other side of the interstate the same way we have served Fondren.

Over the last decade, Jim and I have become friends. He is genuinely concerned about my success and well-being. And I am genuinely concerned for his.

A health scare two years ago caused Jim to slow down, if only for a moment. While he assures me his resignation is not about his health, but a yet-to-be-announced new opportunity, he will be afforded more time to enjoy life.

Fondren is bigger than any one person or entity.

But, the set of shoes Jim leaves at the back door of The Cedars as he steps out May 1 will be impossibly large to ever fill in the same way he has for the last decade.

Former City Councilman and Downtown Jackson Partners leader Ben Allen once said there should be a statue of Mike Peters in the neighborhood, “the modern-day father of Fondren,” Allen called him.

I’d like to commission an additional statue to stand right beside him.

Jim, thank you. For all the ways big and small, seen and unseen, you have raised the tide to float all of our ships.

Paul Wolf is the publisher and founder of Find It In Fondren.

Update: Jim has been named the new Chief Development Officer for Jackson Academy in LeFleur East. He will assume the role previously held for 17 years by Tim McWilliams. 

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