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One perspective: 'Home is where your heart is hung'

From Japan and beyond, Top 40 class follows path to Mississippi

Every year, the newest members of the Mississippi Business Journal Top 40 Under 40 continue to amaze us, with their drive for excellence, passion for people and dedication to details. They hail from varied backgrounds and educational levels, and lead strikingly different lives. But this year`s class has one common characteristic: they’ve got heart.

Whether at home, the office, at church or in the community, their love for neighbors shows. It helps them better overcome adversities and celebrate triumphs, and shine as the best and brightest young leaders of the Magnolia State.

For example, Kerr-McGee Chemical corporate affairs manager Learned Dickerson, who grew up in a New Orleans housing project and was raised in part by his blind grandfather, will soon earn his doctoral degree. Consultant Pamela Confer of Jackson overcame a lack of confidence to win beauty pageants, become a favorite local singer, and earn a Ph.D. in public policy and administration. Aundrea Self, who didn`t believe she was “pretty enough” to be on TV, is now a highly regarded news anchor and reporter for WCBI-TV in Columbus.

Jana Fuss, Monica Harrigill, John Maclean and Chad Wages have endured tribulations parents should ideally never have to face. Fuss’ second son, Jonathan, was born three months premature and struggled to survive the first year of his life. Today, he is an “outgoing six-year-old and someone meeting him for the first time would never know what all he has been through,” said Fuss, who was born in Hokkaido, Japan.

Harrigill`s daughter, Tori, became deathly ill as an infant, but recovered fully. Since then, Harrigill has been a tireless champion for children`s causes. Wages’ daughter, Sara Ann, clung to life for more than a week after being hospitalized with pneumonia before turning the corner to a full recovery. “Those nine days were the worst of my life,” admitted Wages. Sadly, Maclean, and his wife, Pamela, suffered the loss of one of their four children when their daughter, Daia, was killed in a car accident in 2002 at the age of 16.

When they were relatively young, KPMG tax managing partner Donna Bruce, BellSouth`s Rochelle Culp and Paul Miller, a dean at East Mississippi Community College, each lost a parent, an event they said had the most impact on their lives. Four years ago, Miller, then 34, made life-altering changes after a doctor told him he was on the verge of having a heart attack. A bout with mononucleosis while in college changed Drew Foxworth`s life. Today, he is an attorney working with his dad in a Columbia law practice.

A few Top 40 members seemed predestined for success, even as children. Tara McDaniel`s father told her she was the only child he knew who had a Day Timer. Today, she is principal of Pearl Lower Elementary School in Rankin County. Elizabeth Maron simply transferred her speed as a high school track star into a fast-track career as a law partner with Adams & Reese, LLP. As an adolescent, Maclean loved visiting his uncle in Las Vegas so much that he knew he wanted to work where there was “a lot of excitement.” Today, he is general manager of Imperial Palace Hotel and Casino in Biloxi.

They set high standards for themselves. WACO Construction chief Karl Grubb has been recognized nationally for leading a construction company more than six years without a lost time accident. When Dave Van took over leadership of Region 8 Mental Health in June 1997, it was heavily in debt with little cash reserve and served only 2,000 citizens. Today, the agency`s budget is $12 million and serves more than 9,000 patients in Rankin, Madison, Copiah and Simpson counties. A decade ago, Rochelle Culp lost 90 pounds and became a champion bodybuilder. Because her experience inspired others so much, she opened her own weight loss and fitness consulting business.

Some young achievers changed career paths with great success. A former journalist, Charlotte Santa Cruz simply found a niche that needed to be filled and began helping healthcare providers with insurance claims. Greenville boutique owner Terri Lane joined Delta Regional Medical Center in 1999, where she has excelled as director of community development. Donna Mabus thought her calling was in research. But after a successful stint at the Stennis Institute, she decided lobbying was a better fit.

In the Class of 2004, nine members barely met the age requirement. Chambliss, Culp, Mabus, Maclean, Mike Mitchell, Bill Moak, Mark Scholegel, Clay Thames and Bobbie Ware will celebrate their 40th birthdays in 2004. Maclean turned 40 last week, and Thames celebrates his birthday milestone next week. At 28, Mauree “Done’” Davidson of Canton is the youngest member of the class. Also one of MBJ`s 50 Leading Business Women in 2003, she was promoted three times in three years to regional business manager, responsible for generating $2 million in annual sales at XcelleNet, where she has won a bevy of sales performance awards.

The home lives of the Top 40 classmates are remarkably different. Jackson attorney Mike Cronin may not have children of his own, but he spends so many hours helping young people that a co-worker said she believes “he sleeps occasionally.” Culp, a single woman, is a godmother to six children.

Others have expansive families and say they constantly struggle to effectively balance career, community and home responsibilities. Mark Schloegel, deputy director of trade development for the Mississippi State Port Authority, and his wife, Jennifer, have three sons and two daughters. Wages, who served as engineering manager for the Mississippi Major Economic Impact Authority for the Nissan project, and Dave Van have four children each. Mike Mitchell and his wife, Lisa, are expecting their fourth child next month. Dee Chambliss, Charlotte Santa Cruz and Ashley Willson are mothers of three. Willson, a CPA, was named partner with KPMG a month before giving birth to her third child.

And there are some unique characteristics of this group. On December 28, BellSouth`s Felicia Burse celebrates her son and daughter`s birthdays (they were born three years apart), her wedding anniversary and her parent`s wedding anniversary. It also marks the date her great grandfather was born and died.

Even these extraordinary movers and shakers have their “druthers.” Dr. Clay Thames, an oral and maxillofacial surgeon in Hattiesburg, who is a partner in a private practice and staff member of Forrest General Hospital, Wesley Medical Center and South Central Regional Medical Center, joked that he gets “tired of wearing scrubs and sneakers” and considered a career where he could “dress nicely.”

Some classmates harbor secret desires that might surprise their associates. KPMG senior manager Kenneth Christopher longs to be in a folk music or bluegrass band, while Mark Schloegel would like to head a major recording label. Jay Allen, John Hendrix and Bill Moak are “home improvement” guys in their spare time. “It helps me escape the day-to-day mental challenges I must face in my work,” said Moak, president of the Better Business Bureau of Mississippi, who recently installed a brick patio for his family home.

“Honestly, getting to buy and use power tools is what makes it fun,” joked Allen.

Contact MBJ contributing writer Lynne W. Jeter at mbj@thewritingdesk.com.


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