Couple Drawn Home By Country Roots

Story by Jeannie Stone

Yell County natives James Lee and Lea Ellen Witt always maintained their farm at Wildcat Hollow even during their years traversing the nation as the ‘first couple’ of FEMA. They re-established their connection with James Lee’s childhood home in 2003 with the purchase of the Meers Plantation in Dardanelle where, once upon a long ago time, James Lee, his parents and his siblings maintained the house and grounds for the Meers family.

The Witts recently bought the adjoining 80 acres and, while riding his dozer, James Lee uncovered three large mounds of bricks.

“At first I was afraid we’d uncovered a burial ground,” James Lee said, “instead, we found the remains of the Eureka Brick Company.” The enterprise made red clay bricks from the sand of the Arkansas River in the early part of the 1900s. It took some research to solve the mystery of the mounds, but tenacity has always been James Lee’s strong suit. Connecting the loose ends has always been his passion.

The Witt family moved to the farmhouse behind the “big house” owned by Paul and Bessie Jo Meers in 1955. When James Lee was 12 years old his family’s home burned and they lost everything.

“I was actually over on Nebo Road when it happened,” he said, “cleaning out chicken houses for Mr. Tommy Pelt. He noticed the smoke and said that it looked like about where our house was… sure enough, it was our house.”

The family, including three sisters and a brother, moved to town and rented until Meers purchased an old military bunkhouses from Ft. Chaffee and moved it behind the “big house” where it sits today.

“I was basically raised in that. Times were hard. My father was a farm hand,” James Lee said. “My mother was the housekeeper and earned $15 a week.”

At 15, the industrious James Lee rode on a Greyhound bus to Spearman, Texas, to custom hay bale all summer. He lived in a little apartment and baled hay all summer.

“I saved my money, and when I came home, I bought my first car off of John L. Martin in Harkey Valley for $250, and I still had money left over to buy my school clothes. My dad asked me what I was going to do with the car, and I told him I was going to fix it up. I didn’t know one thing about fixing cars.”

True to his word, James Lee single-handedly overhauled the 1951 Ford. “I had a whole coffee can of bolts left over, but it still worked,” he said with a chuckle.

At 16, he drove that ‘51 Ford the 750 miles to Spearman. And, at 17, he married 18-year-old Lea Ellen Hodges. She was a bookkeeper for D.B. McClure and planned to continue her studies at Tech. The two had been a couple since high school.

“I’m the older woman,” she said coyly.

Lea Ellen said, “Actually, we were junior-high sweethearts. And nobody knew we were married except his mother, who went with us.”

“Oh, we had to keep it secret,” James Lee said, “but my football coach found out and after I made a pretty good tackle during a scrimmage, he leaned over and whispered I ‘hadn’t done bad for an old married man’. I have no idea how he found out, but Coach Charles Lyons was very good to me.”

After his graduation from high school, the Witts moved to Connecticut where James Lee’s older brother worked at General Dynamics (known later as General Electric).

Before they left, Witt approached Pat Lee, then-president of the local bank, for a loan. After informing Lee of his plans to move to join his brother working on nuclear submarines, he asked for a $150 loan. He was all of 18 years old.

“I didn’t have the luxury of thinking about what it was I wanted to pursue when I grew up,” James Lee said. “We were too busy working and living our lives back then.”

“We traded that ‘51 Ford for a 1953 Chevrolet Bel Air convertible. We were in tall cotton. It was solid white with a black interior.”

With a jar of coins and the winds of Yell County at their backs, they embarked on their journey until an emergency stop — a broken timing chain — on the new Pennsylvania Turnpike put a road bump in their adventure.

Forced to spend the night in a nearby hotel, they realized they’d stopped on the wrong side of the tracks. A gang fight broke out before their eyes and gunshots fired next to their hotel. Even the mechanic had just been released from prison for manslaughter.

“We couldn’t get out of there fast enough,” Lea Ellen said. The repair job depleted their cash on hand by $90, and the jar of coins barely sustained them for the duration of the trip.

Once in Connecticut, Lea Ellen worked in a magazine subscription department, and James Lee undertook a three-month drafting course. Just when he was to begin with the company, the workers went on a month-long strike.

James Lee worked pumping gas at a service station. He was able to resume his new position, and after additional mechanical- drafting classes, he was offered a job in the company’s drafting department. James Lee had other plans. He announced to Lea Ellen that they were going home.

“Oh, we were saving more money than we thought we’d ever see in a lifetime,” James Lee agreed, “but I just couldn’t live like that.”

Back home, the Witts welcomed baby Jimmy, followed two years later by Michael, while James Lee established a construction business. Later he ran for county judge.

During Witt’s tenure as the Yell County judge some 25 years ago, he first dealt with FEMA, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, when a flood washed away 33 wooden bridges in his county.

“They would only pay us to rebuild the same kind of bridges we had… They were concerned over the bottom line, but I was trying to build solid bridges out of steel and concrete.” The bottom line for Witt was the safety of his constituents, which included school buses full of children.

In the end, Witt took the federal funds and combined them with grants he managed to secure, allowing new bridges built according to his specifications.

“My road crews built them the way they should have been re- built,” he said, “and they are still standing today.”

For his dogged determination and common sense approach, he was tapped by then-Governor Bill Clinton to head the Arkansas Office of Emergency Services where he reorganized the state’s emergency management program.

Little did Witt know his association with Clinton would lead him far from his roots where his penchant for cutting through red tape and humanizing each crisis would mark a new era for FEMA. He took over the helm as director in 1993 under President Clinton‘s administration.

“FEMA was at a point where everybody loved to hate them,” he said. “The employees were ashamed to work there, and that was horrible because there were some good, dedicated folks who worked hard to change the agency.” Meanwhile, President Clinton elevated FEMA to cabinet status.

While Witt was with the agency, he oversaw 348 disaster areas declared by Clinton in more than 6,500 counties representing all 50 states and the U.S. territories.

Reflecting on his eight years with FEMA, Witt shared a few of his successes. “Without a doubt, Project Impact is the program I’m most proud of. It was so successful.” The program was designed to educate communities and increase their resistance to disasters.

“We had 250 communities involved,” he said. “It was all about helping those at-risk communities and putting that money in CERT (Certified Emergency Response Team) training. We had fire departments in Florida who were teaching high school students, and soon, retired people were saying they wanted to be on that team, so the retirees were educated, and, believe me, they had one strong community.”

Witt had a vision for professionalizing emergency management. He approached Maryann Rollans at ATU, who became the catalyst in developing a credentialed degree program.

“I can’t tell you how many people have gone through that program, and how many of them have jobs waiting for them when they graduate — and some pretty big jobs too. Jason Jackson, the head of Wal- Mart’s emergency management program graduated from the program,” Witt said.

“The Tech administration has done a wonderful job with that department,” he said, “and they have a sister school now. The more people we get educated the better.”

Companies are attracted to the graduates because of their comprehension of emergency management protocols and their grasp of the international value of sound strategy and strong communication, said Witt.

The Witts support the Tech program, ranked among the top programs in the country, with a scholarship fund. “I think it’s so important,” James Lee said. Obviously, other communities agree because there are now nearly two dozen programs across the U.S. Tech currently offers a masters level program.

One of the early goals Witt faced, along with the Clinton administration, was balancing the budget. Many of Witt’s experiences and anecdotes are included in a book he wrote, with the assistance of James Morgan, “Stronger in the Broken Places” The book offers practical advice regarding crisis preparation, prevention, response and recovery.

“The important thing is for families to develop an emergency plan. Keep a backpack with enough provisions to last 72 hours and a list of medications,” Witt said. “Ours has a flashlight, radio, water and packages of dehydrated food. We keep it in the closet back in our condo in Virginia, and we’ve got one in our cellar here.”

“Especially remember that every family member needs to know contact numbers in case they get separated. I did that for my children,” Lea Ellen said.

By the age of 16, Witt had witnessed the unpredictable results of farming, two tornadoes and a fire that destroyed his home, but at his core, he developed a deep abiding faith that obstacles could be overcome. He became adept at weaving a web of support from the relationships he forged.

“This house came with a safe room,” Witt said. “They called it the cellar. It has concrete walls all around it. Growing up, that was where we’d all hide in the event of bad weather. It’s where Bessie Jo Meers would take her kindergarten class whenever a bad storm came through.”

Witt said, “Our son Jimmy was in her first or second class. It was called the Little Log Cabin Kindergarten and was the first kindergarten in Dardanelle.”

The log house came from Harkey’s Valley. Mr. Meers took a photo of it and numbered each log, so it could be reassembled precisely as the original structure was designed in the 1800s.

“It has a rich history,” Witt said. “Mr. Barney Dykes, my dad and I put it back together. My job was puttying the cracks. It now serves as my office, and it has all my boxes from D.C. in the back room waiting for me to go through them.”

The office (known once as the Little Log Kindergarten) is handsomely decorated with commemorative fire helmets. Witt takes one down.

“FEMA runs the National Fire Academy in Maryland,” he said, “I have a soft spot for firefighters. We had 25 search and rescue teams across the country. This helmet was signed by all the members of the Miami- Dade, Florida Search and Rescue team as they were leaving the Oklahoma City bombing site.” In the middle of the helmet is written, “Thank you.”

“Senator Barbara Mikulski gave me this ax,” Witt said and chuckled. “She was a big supporter of getting things through the red tape and getting things done and a big supporter of FEMA. When she presented me the ax she told me it was to cut all the dead wood out of the agency.”

“That barn down there was our chicken house – a laying house,” he said pointing across the way. “Dad and I gathered eggs down there in the barn, and we’d grade them in the basement of the house. We’d hold them up to the light, sand all the little burs off, pack them in crates, and Mr. Meers sold them.”

“See that pond out there?” he asked. “We swam in that pond when we were kids. We had diving boards, and we’d throw rocks out there to run off the snakes before we dove in.”

“Well, I never swam in that pond,” Lea Ellen said.“You couldn’t have paid me enough.”

“My dad and I used to sugar cure ham and fry it for bacon (in the smokehouse.) There’s a bench in there we’d use to put the sugar cure on the ham, then hang them for so long, and build a fire in the pit behind it and smoke them.”

His childhood home, once a Ft. Chaffee bunkhouse, still stands. “It had those wonderful old wood windows that slid into the wall,”Wittsaid.“Two years ago we remodeled it. We put in air, rewired and re-plumbed it – everything. Kirt Mosley furnished it. We use it for a guest house now.”

The big house was built by Robert Veasey, a pioneer settler from Alabama.

“It became known as the Veasey Farm. They grew grapes and made some of the best wine in Arkansas,” Witt said.

The house fell into disrepair, serving as a hay barn, then taken over by gamblers who used the abandoned building for their poker parties.

“They would tear planks right off the wall to use for firewood,” Witt said, standing on the restored pine and walnut floors. His wife Lea Ellen believe that most people wouldn’t have tried to preserve this house in the condition it was in.

“Mrs. Meers said that they were driving in the country and turned down the road. The overgrowth prevented them from seeing the property. She said they could barely drive down the road,” Witt said.

In 1951, the Meers saved the home from certain decay so Paul Meers could be close to his crops. He was a timber man and later a state legislator and senator from Pulaski County. He played an influential figure in Witt’s early development.

In the redesign of the kitchen, Witt enjoys baking chocolate pie, pecan pie and banana pudding for holidays. “I make them from scratch,” he said.

“In the middle of the kitchen, used to be a round table where Mr. Meers and us kids would sit around the table and do our Sunday School lesson. They started taking me to First Baptist Church here, and I’ve been going to church ever since,” Witt said. His eyes shine wistfully. “He took us in his shiny, black Cadillac.”

Meers was an effective mentor warning the young Witt about the dangers of buying on credit and lying.

“I didn’t even know what credit was,” Witt said, “but I knew I never wanted any part of it.” “Over here are pockmarks on the floor made by the ladies’ high heels from the days Mrs. Meers entertained,” he said. “We sanded the floor by hand.” Every inch of space tells a story.

The kitchen has been expanded, green wallpaper torn down, the porch taken in and the upstairs bathroom totally rebuilt.

“There were ropes in both corners atop the stairwell that served to open and close the attic fan,” Witt said, “but we’ve got central air and heat now.”

“We never dreamed we would own this house,” Lea Ellen said.

“We were fortunate to be in a position to afford it when Mrs. Meers called us,” Witt said. “She told me that she knew if she sold us the house it would still be in the family. She said, ‘Some things were meant to be, James Lee.’ I told her to keep the key and come by anytime. She used to have someone drive her out here to see what all were doing, and she approved of everything.”

“My dad was a sharecropper when I was little,” Witt said. “He had two mules and baled cotton to sell. He made just enough to pay the bills and buy some seed. He kept me out of school so much in first grade to help him that I almost flunked school.”

“James Lee and I realize that everything we have, we owe to Bill Clinton. A lot of people forget who brung them to the dance,” Lea Ellen said.

“I had the pleasure of telling Bill Clinton the story of buying the farm I grew up in because of the opportunities he gave me.”

As a new administration takes over, James Lee offers advice. “Just as I knew I had to do when I started working with FEMA in 1993, the Obama Administration needs to rebuild the morale within FEMA and DHS, and also focus on relationships with state and local governments.

“…and the Obama Administration needs to empower the regions to improve readiness, response and recovery from disasters by empowering decision makers at the lowest level. FEMA has increased staffing at the regional offices, but most decisions made in DC have only served to slow and degrade the decision-making capabilities of FEMA and other agencies.”

The Witts reflect on the relationships they’ve managed to make and sustain over the years.

“Much of life is about building bridges and keeping them in good repair,” James Lee said in his book.

And connecting the loose ends.

 

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