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Those who keep us safe: Brenda Johnson

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Brenda Johnson

Faith, family and being a crossing guard are just a few passions of Brenda Johnson, a crossing guard for the City of Vicksburg. 

The Vicksburg native has been pursuing traffic directing for the past five years. 

“I am passionate about being a crossing guard,” Johnson said. “It is a dangerous job to have, but I love it.”

Her enthusiasm and passion pour out into every person she encounters at her post, and they pour just as much back into her.

“Sometimes something may be going on in my life where I may be  disappointed,” Johnson said, “but when I get out of my car and see the sweet faces of the kids and their parents taking them to school it makes my job worth it.”

Being a crossing guard, Johnson is exposed to all weather elements.

“It can be pouring down rain,” she said, “and those kids roll down the window just to speak to me, and that just brightens my day.”

Johnson said it’s not the money that keeps her going. That is why she works an additional job as a production manager for the Vicksburg Warren School District where she has been working with the Child Nutrition Department since 2007.

“My mother was involved in child nutrition, and she actually trained me to be a head cook while she was on partial retirement,” Johnson said. “From there, I was asked if I want to go to manager school, and now I am a certified production manager.”

Johnson has made it her life to be a shining light for the people she sees each and every day, and they notice.

“Just a couple weeks ago, my daughter called me and told me they had a post about me on Facebook,” Johnson said. “She sent me some of the post, and I got emotional because I had just had the worst week. People actually took the time to say sweet things about me.”

Johnson said that was one of the most heartfelt moments in her career and made her bad week disappear from her memory. 

But it’s not just the students and parents that feel her positive vibes. Community members have also expressed praise for Johnson’s work. She was called to the office of the school she was working at and there sat a basket of goodies and balloons. 

“A lady was there with an appreciation basket and said she and her coworkers talk about the smile I always have on my face while working,” Johnson said. “The lady said they will come through my post just to see my smile if they have had a bad day.”

That story, and many more just like it, bring tears of joy to Johnson’s eyes. 

Even though Johnson did not start her crossing guard career right away, it has been a passion brewing from a very young age. 

“I remember when I was 12-years-old, and I went to McIntyre School,” Johnson said. “I went to a carnival, and they had lots of different career options at the carnival. I remember seeing this crossing guard with police hats and thinking, ‘I want one of those hats,’ and I said right there I want to be a crossing guard or a traffic director.”

Years later, she got her chance.

“I was working at Vicksburg High School,” she said, “and the supervisor officer over the crossing guards was talking to one of his crossing guards and said they needed another crossing guard.

“He wasn’t talking to me, but I was eavesdropping, and when he asked her did she know anybody I burst out and said, ‘I’ll do it! I’ll be a crossing guard’.”

Johnson filled out the paperwork and her training started. Her first post was at Bowmar Elementary. 

“I built such a bond with the parents and students at Bowmar Elementary,” she said. “Then they moved me to the Mission intersection where I’ve been for two years.”

The smiling crossing guard did not start off smiling at the Mission 66 and Baldwin Ferry Road intersection. 

“I told them I didn’t want to do it,” she said. “That intersection terrified me. I just watched my supervisor do it the first day. Then I did it just a little bit and my supervisors, Bobby Jones and Eric Paymon, worked with me.”

“The next day, I got out there by myself, and it was like I had been doing it all the time. It just came naturally.”

Johnson, a mother of two and grandmother of two, says it makes her day when the students recognize her even out of her uniform.

“Everybody says what I do is phenomenal,” she said, “but I give all the glory to God.”

Johnson regularly attends Calvary Baptist Church and is a member of Greater Mt. Zion Baptist Church where she sings in the choir and with the praise team.

“I guess you can say my church and being a crossing guard are my two passions, ” she said.

“I have the most rewarding job in the world,” she added, “and I love it.”


“Those who keep us safe” is a series profiling people in Vicksburg and Warren County whose work contributes to our safety, whether on the front lines, in the back office or in positions of leadership in organizations dedicated to serving the community in times of danger and crises. Nominate someone for the series by sending an email to info@vicksburgnews.com, letting us know why the community should know about him or her.

People

Those who keep us safe: Daniel Moulder

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Daniel Moulder (Photo by Jamie Moulder)

Changing or starting a career later in life may be a challenge for some, but for Daniel Moulder, the fire department was exactly what he was looking for to restart his working journey. 

“When I found the fire department and emergency medical service in Vicksburg, that was midlife for me,” Moulder said, “and I knew immediately this was the job I had been looking for ever since I came into the working community.”

Molder is a lieutenant paramedic firefighter for the Vicksburg Fire Department where he has been for five years. 

“I needed a change of pace,” Moulder said. “I had some buddies that I worked around, and they kept asking me to join the department and put in an application, so I did and have been there ever since.”

The 42-year-old Greenville, Miss., native found his way to Vicksburg in 1991 when his father accepted a position as a pastor.

Prior to his job with the fire department, Moulder was self-employed for 10 years, and he worked in the oil refinery business before that. 

(Photo by Jamie Moulder)

“When I graduated from the fire academy, that was a challenging experience I’ll never forget,” Moulder said. “We lived on campus for seven weeks, so I was away from my family.”

Family is Molder’s driving force in everyday life. He has been married for almost 15 years and the couple has three daughters ranging in age from 4 to 8. 

“I am a family first person,” he said.

With his family by his side, it did not take long for Moulder to jump into the fire department head first. In his first year with the department, he became a certified paramedic. 

“Graduating from the Mississippi State Fire Academy was my first milestone in my career and becoming a certified paramedic was definitely the second milestone in my career,” he said.

You may spot him riding shotgun in an ambulance or fire truck, but you could also see him behind the counter of a local coffee shop. Daniel and his wife Jamie are the owners of the Coffee House Cafe on Highway 61 North beside Strut Boutique. 

“I’m the fix-it guy at the coffee shop,” Moulder said. “If something is broken and needs adjusted or parts need ordered, that’s my role.” 

He credits some of the success of the coffee shop to the support from the firefighting community.

“They come in to get their coffee and their lunches, and in return, we are able to give them a discount for their service to our community,” Moulder said. 

Above all else, Moulder finds great comfort in his career as a first responder. 

“In life, you go through several different things,” he said, “but I know now the fire department is where I will be until I retire.”

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Health

Alexus Stirgus helps folks get and stay fit with ‘We Workin’

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(Photo courtesy Alexus Sturgis)

Former Vicksburg High School girl’s basketball standout Alexus Stirgus launched her personal training business, “We Workin,” in an effort to create a healthier community.

Stirgus graduated from Vicksburg High in 2010 where she was one of the lead scorers on the girl’s basketball team in its successful 16-9 2010 season. She scored a career high of 35 points in a game against NorthWest Rankin that year.

After her senior season at VHS, Stirgus went on to play basketball at Copiah Lincoln Community College. She led Co-Lin to a state title and a regional championship in the two seasons she played there. In 2012, Stirgus moved on to play for Mississippi College where she averaged 12.2 points per game.

After graduating from MC in 2014, Stirgus created “We Working” the following year to provide personal training to people seeking a healthier lifestyle.

“I want to help people branch off their negative habits and replace them with positive ones,” Stirgus said.

Stirgus trains some clients who suffer from obesity, but with hard work and dedication, she is helping them find a better and healthier way to live. She has about 15 clients she trains individually and sometimes in groups, and another 15 that she trains in basketball skills, both male and female.

“Many people I train have been unmotivated, so I try to help them, both physically and mentally, prepare to meet their goals,” Stirgus said.

Stirgus has put in countless hours into helping individuals who seek change for the better.

“We Workin” has truly lived up to its name as many people have seen Stirgus working with adults and children at Wyatt’s Gym.

Besides training individuals, Stirgus is now also a graduate assistant with the women’s basketball team at her alma mater, Mississippi College.

For more information, visit the We Workin Facebook page.

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People

Lessons from the past: Surviving an economic meltdown

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Hallowell-great-grandparents (All photos courtesy Leon Pantenburg)

Story by Leon Pantenburg

When the stock market crashed in 1929, the economy tanked, farm prices dropped, and my grandfather, Peter Pantenburg, lost the family farm in central Iowa. My people have been in that area since my great-great-grandfather, James Hallowell got a land grant after the Civil War and homesteaded in the late 1860s. My great-grandpa, Charles Hallowell, plowed the prairie for the first time in the 1870s with a John Deere breaking plow.

Leo Wirth moved his family to Wesley, Iowa, to find work. Here’s some of the kids, in – I think – the mid-1930s: Vincent, Alina, my mom, Mary, and Eldon.

My dad’s family went from being prosperous farmers to homeless in a matter of months.

My mom’s family had a similar story. Grandpa Leo Wirth also lost a farm, and he had a large family to feed.

Both families were destitute, but they weathered the storm and stayed intact. There were a lot of lessons learned about coping with economic disaster.

To put this in context: By 1930, according to history.com, four million Americans looking for work could not find it; that number had risen to six million in 1931. Meanwhile, the country’s industrial production had dropped by half.

My grandparents, Peter and Harriet Pantenburg, on their wedding day in June 1917.

By 1933, when the Great Depression reached its nadir, some 13 to 15 million Americans were unemployed, and nearly half of the country’s banks had failed, according to history.com.

The United States didn’t come out of the depression until 1939, at the beginning of World War II.

Despite the hard times, both families stayed intact. All their children turned out to be upstanding, successful people.

Here are some of the lessons learned:

Never give up: Leo moved his family to Wesley, Iowa, because he found work managing a gas station/garage at a Standard Station. Pete and Leo took whatever work they could find and did any jobs that were available. Neither sat around waiting for someone to help them out. Nobody expected any government help, and both men would have felt it demeaning to take assistance from anywhere.

My uncles Eldon, Vincent and Fredrick, and Grandfather Leo Wirth, probably in the late 1930s in Wesley, Iowa.

Figure out your resources and come up with a plan: Even though it was a good crop, Pete’s corn was not worth harvesting in 1930 with the low prices, so the family burned corn for heat one winter.

Some of the displaced farmers headed west or to other areas to look for work. Others tried to stay in place. Take an inventory of your resources and assets and use that list to decide what to do next.

Subsistence hunting and fishing: My dad was 11 in 1929. He was too small to be much help farming, but he was an excellent small game hunter. Dad hunted all the time, and frequently, the rabbits and squirrels he killed became the main course for the evening meal.

His marksmanship got really good. Years later in the Army, that skill got dad a job training troops and teaching rifle and pistol. Dad’s primary hunting firearm was a single shot .22 rifle. He used .22 shorts, because of the low price and noise, and he only shot once before moving along. (It’s difficult to locate a single shot by sound.) Still, he got caught poaching once.

My dad and his sisters, Agatha (left) and Edna, sometime in the 1920s.

But don’t depend on hunting or fishing. Hunting and foraging can supplement the food supply, but heading for the hills and “living off the land” won’t work. Have other ideas and plans to put food on the table during emergencies.

Have a skill or supplemental job: All farmers, it seemed, had some sort of side occupation. Leo was a butcher, and he would travel to farms to process cattle and hogs. He frequently got paid in meat. (Leo died when I was 7 or 8, but I remember him skinning a pig and tending his bees.)

Charles Hallowell and his daughter, Alice Johnson, used their musical skills to survive. Charles played the violin at bars, dances, parties and other social events. Alice accompanied him on the piano or played another violin.

They made enough to keep ends meeting and to take in Pete’s family temporarily. (It’s in the DNA – today, I play Charles’ fiddle in an old-time string band. We do some of the same tunes Charles did. Check out how grandpa’s fiddle sounds on “Over the Waterfall.”)

Leo’s butcher knife is a treasured heirloom my sister Karla still uses.

Everybody, including the kids and old folks, had a job they could do based on their abilities. These tasks could be anything, from gathering eggs to snapping beans to helping with the harvest to working in the garden. Every little bit helped.

Stick together: Pete’s family moved to another farm north of Ames and got a new start. I grew up on that farm, and my dad bought it in the 1960s. (I hunted the same hills and timber he used to hunt as a kid, but I never had the pressure to be successful!)

Other neighbors were not so fortunate, and many of them had to hit the road (think “Grapes of Wrath”). Our next-door neighbor, Jo Stahlman, was born in Foley, Ala., when her family moved south to find work.

Make do: Fix, repair, recycle and reuse. Clothing was patched, handed down and used up. When it finally reached the rag stage, it might be made into a quilt.

My great-grandfather, Charles Hallowell, sometime in the 1940s.

That went for just about everything. Money was scarce and fixing or mending something didn’t cost anything.

Garden: While millions of Americans went hungry, my relatives gardened like they always did. Every farm had a large plot, and many families were largely fed off the produce. Fruit orchards and berry patches were common.

There was virtually no market for livestock, but farmers could and did raise animals for their own tables. As far as I know, places like Iowa and other Midwest states, which didn’t have the severe droughts of the dust bowl areas, fared better than many other areas.

Raise chickens and rabbits: Farms back then were more diversified, with a variety of food-raising activities. Every farm had a flock of chickens for the eggs and meat.

Rabbit meat is one of the most nutritious meats available, according to Rise and Shine Rabbitry, and rabbits can produce six pounds of meat on the same feed and water as it takes a cow to produce one pound of meat.

Both animals can be raised in small spaces and are productive and prolific.

Preserve food: Every farm wife knew how to can and preserve vegetables, and every farmer had a pantry. My relatives, being of mostly German extract, made lots of sauerkraut and pickled many other vegetables.

My grandmother, Sophie Wirth, with my aunt and uncle, Irene and Eldon, probably in the middle 1930s.

Canned and smoked meats were also important. Just about every farm had a smoke house, where meat was preserved by smoking. This included hams, of course, but bacon, sausage and other smoked meats last a long time and could get you through the winter.

This probably explains why bratwurst and sauerkraut is one of my favorite comfort foods. That’s also in my DNA.

Build a root cellar. These were the family’s food insurance policy. They were generally an area under the house, like a basement, where canned foods could be stored. The temperature, being underground, was pretty consistent, and it allowed for long-term storage of root vegetables. Hence the name.

The root cellar was an essential way to keep carrots, turnips, beets, parsnips, potatoes and other root vegetables fresh through the winter months. According to the Old Farmer’s Almanac, to work properly, a root cellar must be able to hold a temperature of 32 to 40 degrees Fahrenheit and have a humidity level of 85 to 95 percent. Ground temperature stabilizes at 10 feet deep, according to the almanac.

My aunt Irene, 86, recalls that Grandma Sophie Wirth frequently ended up feeding extra mouths at the table.

“He (Leo) was known for supporting siblings in any way he could,” Irene told my cousin Lisa Faust Swenson. “On weekends, anywhere from one family to all his siblings’ families would show up for dinner. Grandma would just keep taking food from the root cellar to make sure all were fed.”

It took World War II to bring the country out of the Great Depression. There are still arguments over what caused it, and who is responsible. That discussion can take place somewhere else.

We’ve all heard that cliché: Those who don’t learn from the lessons of the past are doomed to repeat them. I think the lessons learned from my families’ survival of the depression are valid today.

Here’s the bottom line: You have to be part of a tribe, family or larger group that cares about the individual. Stick together. Learn how to produce, preserve and store food. Learn job skills and how to get by.

And maybe the most important lesson: Never give up!


This story first appeared on Leon Pantenburg’s blog, Survival Common Sense. It has been reprinted here with permission from the author. All photos are courtesy Leon Pantenburg.

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