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A remembrance: banker J.C. Whitehead

In the business world, it is not uncommon to hear the terms “visionary thinker,” “progressive role model” or “servant leader” bandied about to describe various CEOs’ management styles. But when I think of individuals who have truly personified those attributes by daily example, I think of J.C. Whitehead, BancorpSouth chairman emeritus.

Since Mr. Whitehead’s recent passing, his many friends and colleagues have recalled with respect and admiration his numerous contributions to professional and civic life in Mississippi and the region. Elected president of the former Bank of Tupelo at the age of 39, his banking career spanned four decades.

As current BancorpSouth chairman and CEO Aubrey Patterson noted, Mr. Whitehead was pre-eminent among banking leaders of the 20th century in Mississippi, and he led the company from around $20 million in assets to a statewide organization of more than $1.5 billion in assets. Today, BancorpSouth is a multi-faceted regional financial services company with offices in several Southern states.

Mr. Whitehead’s vision of what the company could become — supported by his intelligence, tenacity and keen ability to identify management talent — helped set the stage for BancorpSouth’s contemporary accomplishments. Not surprisingly, he was inducted into the Mississippi Business Hall of Fame in the early 1990s.

In the community

From a community standpoint, Mr. Whitehead was equally innovative and tireless in his efforts to advance economic development and quality-of-life initiatives in North Mississippi and the state.

Born in Fulton and a graduate of Fulton High School and Mississippi State University, Mr. Whitehead returned to his native region after serving his country during World War II. Over the years, he served in numerous leadership capacities with the Community Development Foundation, the Mississippi Bankers Association and North Mississippi Medical Center, among others. He was a charter director of the Northeast Mississippi Water Supply District and a two-time chairman of the Tupelo Charter Commission, which led to a change in the form of government by public referendum.

Active in his church, in public education efforts and in service groups such as the Yocona Area Council of the Boy Scouts, Mr. Whitehead was named Tupelo’s Citizen of the Year in 1983.

Tough when he needed to be

While those who worked with him over the years said that he could be tough when he needed to be, his personal character traits of integrity and fairness compounded by his willingness to mentor others were cited as exemplary elements of his leadership style. Not only is Mr. Whitehead remembered with respect and admiration, he is remembered with warmth and fondness, speaking to his ability to lead and inspire others throughout his life.

On a personal note, I remember Mr. Whitehead’s patience and generosity of spirit on a number of occasions.
After graduating from Ole Miss in 1982, I began my first job as a business reporter for the Northeast Mississippi Daily Journal in Tupelo. I knew nothing about banking other than what I had studied in business courses outside my major.

Interviews with Mr. Whitehead — then Bank of Mississippi CEO — were always a lesson in pragmatism and the broader industry perspective. He was never condescending and he had a talent for humanizing complex issues. His encouraging words helped spark my interest in banking when I married and moved to New Orleans.

Years later when my husband and I moved back to Northeast Mississippi, Mr. Whitehead was always generous in sharing his perspective and wisdom as we tried to do our part in serving the community. As parents, we always appreciated his commitment to education and quite appropriately, Tupelo’s Association for Excellence in Education named its annual business advocacy award after Mr. Whitehead several years ago.

From a business and community standpoint, the impact of J.C. Whitehead’s work is evident in the progress and leadership that he shaped for today and tomorrow. As Aubrey Patterson so eloquently stated, we are all the better for having known Mr. Whitehead.

Tupelo-based freelance journalist and consultant Karen Kahler Holliday writes regularly for the Mississippi Business Journal. Contact her at mbj@msbusiness.com.

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