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Stories Written by Errol Castens

town_oxford_greenBy Errol Castens

Daily Journal

OXFORD – The future Fire Station 1 is on track to open ahead of schedule, and department personnel are understandably eager to move in.

The facility on McElroy Drive will replace the current Station 1 on North Lamar, adding a gym, expanded living space and four truck bays in place of the three in the existing station. The new pull-through bays also will be faster and safer for returns after emergency runs.

“We’re anxious to get in there,” Oxford Fire Chief Cary Sallis said. “We’re ready for it. It’s a lot of anticipation.”

The contract completion date is Dec. 2, but Sallis said work has progressed far faster than expected.

“They were talking at one time about finishing in September or even August, but our hopeful goal is sometime in October,” he said.

Locating the station farther from downtown was a purposeful choice, following both a pattern of growth and avoiding most runs through the Square.

Airport fire protection will move to the new station, which will have a road straight to the runway, which sometimes handles 150 to 200 planes on football weekends.

When the new fire station opens, both current Station 1 and Station 2, which sits near the corner of Washington and Jackson Avenues, will close. Station 2’s crew will move to Station 4 at the west end of the University of Mississippi campus.

The new Station 1 will mean fire crews are stationed in the west, northwest and southeast portions of the city. Plans are already under way for another facility covering the northeast portion, near Oxford Conference Center.

Oxford’s first dedicated emergency operations center will share Station 1’s McElroy Drive site.

“It’s going to offer a lot,” said city Emergency Management Director Jimmy Allgood. “The entire communications room is networked for the flow of information in and out. The Operations Room is for the policy-making group – department heads, fire and police chiefs, mayor and board of aldermen.”

Equipped with its own generator and redundant communications, the building can also accommodate state and federal emergency officials in case of an areawide disaster.

“It’s a first not only for Oxford and Lafayette County but for all of North Mississippi,” Allgood said. “Plus, the entire facility is rated for an F5 tornado. Even in a direct hit, that facility should be operational.”

town_oxford_greenBy Errol Castens

Daily Journal

OXFORD – Taxpayers will likely face a significant tax hike to pay for new infrastructure. The biggest questions are when and how much.

While city officials believe they will have the cash to excavate an old city dump and relocate Price Street to prepare a site for a new activity center adjacent to the present one, two desperately needed roads to be built in partnership with Lafayette County will require financing through bonds.

“By law, you can grow your general fund by 10 percent per year,” bond adviser Demery Grubbs told the Board of Aldermen. “You can put on another 0.97 mills this year. Bond issues don’t count under that 10 percent growth.”

Each mill of ad valorem rate in Oxford in Fiscal Year 2014-15 is expected to generate about $287,000 in taxes, Grubbs added.

City and county officials have informally agreed to partner on two road projects. One is an extension of West Oxford Loop from its current northern terminus at Anderson Road to Old Sardis Road (State Highway 314), and the other would connect Sisk Avenue in front of Oxford High School with University Avenue and State Highway 6.

City Engineer Bart Robinson said a rough cost estimate on the two roads is a combined $12 million, of which the city and the county would each pay half.

Planning the projects requires a more precise cost estimate, which could vary greatly depending on whether landowners donate right-of-way or hold out for cash. City and county officials have long argued that property owners would be more than repaid for such contributions by resulting higher land values and that purchasing the right-of-way might put both projects out of reach.

Officials also must determine when the projects would need funding, how long construction would take and how fast bond rates are likely to rise.

“If you borrow the money, you’ve got to start spending it immediately, and you’ve got to spend it all in three years,” Grubbs said.

An intent resolution would allow the city to start the bonding process, he said, while retaining the option not to complete it. If the decision is made to go forward, the city could simply issue the bonds unless 10 percent of qualified voters petition for a referendum. Passage of a bond issue would require approval by 60 percent of voters.

The figure most often estimated for a bond issue is $12 million – roughly three additional mills for 20 years – which also would fund construction of the new indoor recreation/ fitness/meeting facility.

“The consensus of this board is that we want to move forward with infrastructure and the activity center,” Alderman Jay Hughes said.

Alderwoman Janice Antonow noted a three-mill tax raise, which would cost an additional $30 per year on a $100,000 home, sounds more modest than it would be in reality.

“If the county issues bonds, our taxes go up that much, too,” she reminded her colleagues. “City property owners pay both city and county taxes.”

The Board of Aldermen will continue discussions on financial issues for several more weeks before officially adopting in September the FY 2014-15 budget, which begins Oct. 1.

Losing CooperBy Errol Castens

Daily Journal

TUPELO – Not many people can say exactly where they were and what they were doing mid-afternoon on July 17, 2009.

J.J. Jasper can. That’s the day the American Family Radio personality and his 5-year-old son, Cooper, were riding in their two-seater go-kart, doing a donut as they’d done countless times before. This time, the vehicle flipped and broke Cooper’s neck, even though the boy was strapped in.

Cooper Jasper seemed to be a special child from the beginning.

“He was born smiling, we used to say, and it’s very nearly true,” Jasper writes. “He rarely got upset. He was never in a bad mood.” Every boy in his pre-K class claimed Cooper as best friend.

The journey Jasper and his wife, Melanie, and their daughters Lauren, Sadie and Maddie went through after Cooper’s death is the impetus for a new book, “Losing Cooper: Finding Hope to Grieve Well.”

“A lot of the things we already knew, but boy, we sure have embraced them more – the importance of the local church, the power of prayer – those are lifelines,” J.J. Jasper said. “After we came out of the fog, we realized this experience is something we needed to be good stewards of – that we couldn’t let it wreck us or ruin us or defeat us, that we could see Romans 8:28 come alive: ‘And we know’ – we don’t suppose; we don’t hope; we know – ‘that all things work together for good for those who love the Lord.’”

This is the family’s second media effort, beyond J.J.’s radio presence, to reach other bereaved people. The first was “Flame On,” a short documentary created by the American Family Association within months of Cooper’s death.

“We really did want to use ‘Flame On’ and this book to help hurting people, to give them a roadmap to grieve well,” J.J. Jasper said.

One of the many things he has learned since the tragedy is that, with freshly grieving people, less is often more.

“Don’t think you have to have a sermon,” he said. “Because they’re going to be so very raw, you risk saying too much. Less is more. Just your presence is huge.”

Another lesson has been that there is no good answer when people see the family out together and gush about their daughters.

“We’ll be out – it’ll happen every single week – and someone will make a comment about our family like, ‘Oh, all girls! You guys going to try to have a boy?’ J.J. Jasper writes. “Any answer we give is never successful; it’s always awkward for everybody. No matter how graciously we try to answer, they’re left feeling bad.”

Melanie Jasper and their eldest daughter, Lauren, each contributed a chapter to the book. Melanie recounts a series of life-unraveling occurrences that all happened within a year or so before Cooper’s death – her father’s quick death of cancer, two miscarriages, and a horse riding accident that nearly killed J.J., leaving him hospitalized for 49 days.

She draws the reader through the agony of hearing of Cooper’s accident, the desperate efforts to revive him, the paralyzing realization that he was gone, and the blur of days that followed. She revisits moments when she’d look in the mirror of her Mom-mobile and panic, thinking for an instant she’d left Cooper somewhere, and how it took weeks to break the habit of setting six plates at the family table.

Melanie admits not understanding even now the reasons for Cooper’s loss, but asserts, “What I do know is, God is good and His plans are perfect, not painless.”

Lauren was at a Christian camp when she got the news of her little brother’s death. “The theme of this year’s camp was ‘Flip,’” she writes. “The speaker for the entire week, Matt Chandler, urged this message over and over again. ‘All it takes is one phone call,’ he would say, ‘and your life can be flipped.’ For a week our hearts were being prepared … to give Christ the glory when we encounter the trials of this world.”

The Jaspers’ book offers hope for those who’ve experienced tragedy but no easy answers.

“Grieving is Biblical,” J.J. writes. “But it’s also brutal.”

Some of the most poignant words come from another person undergoing his own grief at the same time. Having just lost his wife, the man asked himself, “What do I know about God on the worst day of my life? … I know God is good; God is faithful; God is sovereign; nothing catches God off guard; Jesus Christ lives in me … God uses everything that touches my life to accomplish His purposes. …”

J.J. Jasper said while some of the practical advice for grieving applies to everyone, his Christian faith simply could not be minimized in the writing.

“The Bible says we shouldn’t grieve as those who have no hope,” he said. “We’ve got a little fellow waiting for us, safely at home. We’re going to be able to spend more time with Cooper there than we ever did here.”

town_oxford_greenBy Errol Castens

Daily Journal

OXFORD – The only two people who voiced opinions about the potential expansion of the city of Oxford’s rubbish site were two adjoining landowners who say the site and the garbage transfer station within its bounds are a plague to them.

Officials from the city and Three Rivers Solid Waste Authority, along with project engineers, held a state-required public hearing Tuesday as part of the process of someday adding another 20-acre cell to the rubbish site at the end of County Road 308.

Erik Jones of Williams Engineering said both the city and the county have approved the expansion, although it is several years away yet.

“The current pit is expected to last another eight years, and this cell is expected to last about 30 years,” Jones said.

Sanitation Superintendent Amberlyn Liles said the rubbish site is used largely to bury limbs and consumer-generated construction waste. Commercial construction waste is supposed to be hauled to Three Rivers Landfill in Pontotoc County.

Kaye Bryant owns land on both sides of the winding road leading to the transfer station and rubbish site.

“That road now is used as a dumpsite,” she said. “I’m talking appliances, mattresses, car tires. If we add to it, it’s only going to exacerbate a problem that is already out of hand. I’ve had a lot of trouble with trespassers going over the berm and with illegal hunting. I’m totally opposed to any enlargement of the dump.”

Jones said a suggestion that Oxford and Lafayette County take their rubbish to Pontotoc was not feasible.

“State law requires every county to have a rubbish disposal site,” he said.

Bryant left the meeting with no encouragement that solutions are in sight.

“I don’t think there’s anything you can do to alleviate our problem other than putting armed guards out there,” she said, “and I don’t see that happening.”



All right, class: Let’s gather for a little review.

“They’re” is a contraction of “they are.” “There” is a place. “Their” indicates ownership by them.

Good tenets sustain philosophies. Good tenants pay rent and don’t put their fists through walls.

Capitol buildings are in capital cities. Both are funded by lots of taxpayer capital.

“You’re reading” indicates that you are getting meaning from written words. “Your reading” might well refer to the books lying on your nightstand.

A disinterested witness is one whose testimony may be more credible because he doesn’t have anything to gain or lose from the issue. An uninterested witness may be one who didn’t bother to look up from his texting to see what actually happened.

A principal runs a school. Principal is a base amount of money. A principle is a rule. Schools should have principled principals, and principal can be increased with certain principles.

To lose is not to win. Loose is not tight.

A hoer does honest work for a living, but a whore does not. Hoar is a light coating of frost.

Your friendly neighborhood bike store peddles pedals.

Your friendly neighborhood bike rider may have won races and thus earned medals, but the hardest races were the ones that proved his mettle. Unless it’s built of carbon fiber, his bike is probably made largely of metal.

Two is a number. (Let the “tw” be the clue, as in “two twins.”) To is, at its simplest, a direction. Too is either in addition or excessive. Too many people want to have two tutus, too.

Father is a male parent. Farther is a greater distance. “Further” is a greater extent that isn’t a distance, or to extend. To further our conditioning, Father urged us to run farther.

Not every fortuitous meeting is fortunate.

People who say “irregardless” mean “regardless.” People who say “I could care less” mean “I couldn’t care less.” (If one could care less, mathematically that means that one does care to some extent.)

Unlike most possessives, “its” has no apostrophe. “It’s” is always a contraction of “it is.”

Weather is any of numerous meteorological phenomena. Whether indicates a choice. Herb was trying to decide whether to brave the weather and go for a walk.

“Allot” means to divide, distribute or assign. “A lot” means a large quantity. “Alot” means someone has misspelled one or the other.

To affect is to have an impact on. In a subtle but important difference, to effect is to cause – often, a change. An effect is a result. An affectation is a pretension.

That woman is altogether lovely. She and her friends are all together for her birthday.

Graham can be a famous evangelist or the guy who invented whole-wheat crackers. Gram is a tiny measure of weight. Grammar is the study of how sentences are structured, but Grandma is an ancestor.

If this all seems silly, remember that Grandma could probably care less.

Errol Castens is a reporter for the Daily Journal and the Oxford Citizen. Contact him at (662) 816-1282 or

town_oxford_greenBy Errol Castens

Daily Journal

OXFORD – The Oxford Tree Board and the Mississippi Urban Forest Council will host a tree workshop for homeowners, property managers, gardeners and horticulture professionals on Saturday.

The free event will take place at Oxford-University United Methodist Church (University Avenue at 9th Street) from 9 to 11 a.m.

While the workshop will cover a number of topics and provide answers to tree owners’ questions, two subjects will be presented in depth. One will be how to protect Oxford’s trees during severe weather events from the drought and high heat of some summers to the ice storms that occasional winters will bring, along with thunderstorms, tornadoes, tropical storms and other severe winds.

Another major subject will be fruit trees – “The Edible Forest.”

“The Tree Board is partnering with Oxford Community Gardeners to raise awareness about edible forests and gardens,” said Cowan Hunter, co-chairman of the Oxford Tree Board. “Mississippi Urban Forest Council will be donating fruit trees to us for planting this fall.”

Continuing Education Credits are available for landscape architects, master gardeners, arborists and others who attend. Other sponsors include the USDA Forest Service and the Mississippi Forestry Commission.

On Friday, the same groups will host a presentation for horticultural professionals and officials of Lafayette County, the city of Oxford and the University of Mississippi. Guest speakers will be Donna Yowell of the Mississippi Urban Forest Council and Dr. Buck Abbey, professor at LSU’s School of Landscape Architecture, who will make a presentation about the Forest Council’s model tree storm project and Oxford’s participation in it. Oxford was one of several cities picked to help develop Best Management Practices for conserving trees during storms and other disasters.

Biz-0723-advocare-3cBy Errol Castens

Oxford Citizen

Got a business idea? With the AdvoCare Entrepreneur Challenge, you can turn it into cash and some opportunities to get help growing it into reality.

Oxford-Lafayette County Economic Development Foundation and AdvoCare, an international health and fitness products company, are teaming up to sponsor the Challenge. The rigorous competition is designed to encourage and inspire north Mississippi entrepreneurs and develop business plan submissions from an idea into a reality.

“Richard Wright, the CEO of AdvoCare, was the guest speaker at our annual meeting in June,” said EDF President and CEO Jon Maynard.

When responding to Maynard’s invitation, Wright asked if the organization had any type of entrepreneur award. At the time, there wasn’t such a program, but Maynard knew that wasn’t the right answer for his mentor and longtime friend.

“I designed a program that’s open to anybody in north Mississippi, not just here in Oxford,” Maynard said. “The judging requirements are going to be on (A) their written business plan, (B) the pitch that they make and (C) meeting with them every month and making sure they’re utilizing the resources here in Oxford. We brought that back to AdvoCare and they said, ‘We want to do a $10,000 first prize, a $5,000 second prize, and a $2,500 third prize.’”

Those chosen for the competition will commit to a nine-month process with business coaches who will prepare them for each of three “Pitch Nights” where they will be required to showcase their business plans to a group of north Mississippi business leaders. Winners will be announced at the Oxford-Lafayette County Chamber and EDF Annual meeting in June 2015.

In addition to business advice and coaching during the process, the top three business proposals will receive the Advocare Entrepreneur Challenge Trophy and the respective cash prizes. Other benefits will include business incubator space, legal and accounting assistance, publicity and access to sources of funding.

Beginning in September the businesses chosen to compete will meet with the Entrepreneurial Alliance and make their initial pitch, after which they will be connected with local resources. The process will continue through December.

In January, March and May, competitors will face elimination-round “Pitch Nights,” with continuing growth and advising in the intervening time.

Applicants should apply online at by Sept. 15.

“They will have to have a two-page executive summary that will outline their basic plan. The whole idea is to help them turn their idea into a business,” Maynard said. “Not everybody’s going to make that first cut, but the judges we plan to use for the different Pitch Night events are going to be increasingly higher in ability to fund deals – to put money into good ideas.”

For information, contact Maynard at (662) 234-4651 or

county_lafayette_greenBy Errol Castens

Daily Journal

OXFORD – Lafayette County supervisors on Monday repealed the county ban on armed civilians in courthouses – an ordinance that arguably conflicted with two state laws and could have left supervisors individually liable for $1,000 in damages. In doing so, however, they hinted they will welcome judicial action on the issue.

“In light of recent statutory changes in rights to bear arms on public property in particular, it required that we relook at our ordinance,” said Board Attorney David O’Donnell. “We also received an administrative complaint from the Attorney General’s Office.”

A 2012 state law allows people with enhanced firearms permits, which require eight hours of state-certified training, to carry a concealed handgun in a number of places off limits to those with regular permits. In addition, a 2013 law established the legality of open carry in Mississippi.

Several municipalities and counties, citing public safety concerns, have since enacted their own local bans on carrying firearms in various public spaces.

The 2014 Legislature provided that citizens can now sue local officials personally who enact or enforce gun bans that conflict with state law.

Complaints must be made to the Attorney General’s Office, which must investigate. If a conflict is found, the offending entity has 30 days to rescind its ban before civil damages can be sought by the person affected.

Errol Castens | Buy at When the new University of Mississippi arena is completed on this site, foreground, then Tad Smith Coliseum, far right, will be razed, offering a chance eventually to replicate the Lyceum Circle's sylvan academic setting.

Errol Castens | Buy at
When the new University of Mississippi arena is completed on this site, foreground, then Tad Smith Coliseum, far right, will be razed, offering a chance eventually to replicate the Lyceum Circle’s sylvan academic setting.

By Errol Castens

Daily Journal

OXFORD – Planning construction, renovation and other physical changes for the University of Mississippi campus is an exercise in hitting moving targets.

More students create a need for more housing, academic, administrative and service space. New buildings and features take up former parking, the loss of which creates a need for more perimeter parking and transit. The constant aging of infrastructure, ongoing technological changes and even emerging expectations such as sustainability add to the complexity.

Enter the campus master plan, a flexible guide for meeting growing and changing needs on the campus while keeping it recognizably Ole Miss.

“This document is a roadmap for the next 20 or 30 years to keep us from making mistakes that can’t easily be undone,” said University Architect Ian Banner. “We have to understand our architectural legacy. … Changing that is not up for discussion.”

Some of the master plan is conceptual, such as keeping most academic functions within a “ring road” of Grove Loop, Sorority Row, Northgate Drive, Rebel Drive, Fraternity Row and All-American Drive.

“Ultimately, this would become a pedestrian core,” Banner said.

Some of the plan is more immediate, like adding a series of student residences over the next several years. A 304-bed building is under construction near the Northgate entrance, aimed for completion in August 2015. A roughly 800-bed facility will replace Guess Hall by August 2016, with others to be built later in a westward progression up Rebel Drive.

With record-setting enrollments several years running, other construction projects that are in progress or in planning include the basketball/assembly arena and five-level parking garage by Vaught-Hemingway Stadium, the nearly complete renovation of Lamar Hall (Old Law School), additions to Coulter Hall and the Thad Cochran National Center for Natural Products and a planned STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) building next to Cochran. One long-term dream is a replication of the Lyceum Circle’s concept, where academic buildings look out upon a sylvan area. When the new basketball arena goes online in early 2016, Tad Smith Coliseum’s removal will leave a second spacious circle on the campus that would first be landscaped and eventually wooded.

“We’d like to build something there that, 50 years from now, somebody can put on a postcard,” Banner said. “I see it as a great place for people to look out onto.”

Parking is an ongoing concern in Ole Miss’ master plan.

“From a university master-planning point of view, our responsibility is to have the campus grow in a way that respects and maintains the Ole Miss spirit,” Banner said. “One way not to do that would be to take out all the beautiful central spaces on campus and park cars there. So, our growth is going to come with a slightly changed way of doing things – parking our cars out on the periphery of campus and then coming in on mass transportation to be dropped off where we’ve got to go. At the same time we’re designing buildings, we’re designing transportation and people movement.”

One project along that line is the proposed development of the former Whirlpool factory, which offers some 500,000 square feet of interior space and several acres of paved parking.

“We’ll soon start design on that as a recreation and transportation hub,” Banner said. “We see a pretty wonderful opportunity for people to drive out there in the morning, work out, get the bus and go to work or school, go back in the afternoon, work out if you didn’t in the morning, get in the car and go home. It’s almost like a destination parking place.”

The project has a $20 million budget, Banner said, but with a design firm yet to be chosen, it is at least two years from reality.

Construction will mean progressively less on-campus parking, shifting commuter traffic to Whirlpool, the Jackson Avenue Center, the South Lot and possibly other sites.

“Our growth is going to come with a slightly changed way of doing things – parking our cars out on the periphery of campus and then coming in on mass transportation to be dropped off where we’ve got to go,” Banner said.

The five-level parking garage, however, will add more than 800 premium (paid) spaces near the heart of the campus.

“Everyone’s working on it as fast and safely as they can,” he said. “Mid-autumn is where its opening is right now.”



I was sitting quietly the other day – one of the few breaks I’d had in a very busy week – and was just delighted to be reading something that wasn’t work-related.

One story I came across through a friend’s Facebook post was about a restaurant that had been getting increasing numbers of online reviews citing slow service, even though it seemed the staff was working as hard as ever. Management understandably started seeking answers.

They had surveillance cameras at several points in the eatery, and it turns out that they hadn’t thrown away the old tape-based recorders when they’d switched to a digital video system almost exactly 10 years earlier, in 2004. In one more stroke of good fortune, the old machines still had tapes in them showing footage of what the business was like way back when.

People would come in and be shown to a table. They’d sit, peruse menus and order within about eight minutes. Waiters and waitresses would bring food as quickly as it was ready, and people mostly seemed to enjoy. People were in and out, the online report said, in an average of one hour and five minutes.

In the 2014 version of a meal, the video shows people walking in and being seated and almost immediately playing with their smart phones. (A few had actually bumped into waiters or other patrons on their way in due to walking while texting.)

Some asked waiters to look at their phones; waiters explained that the patrons were asking for help in getting on the restaurant’s Wi-Fi connection to the Internet.

When waiters returned to take their orders, most patrons had been so busy on their phones that they hadn’t even opened the menus, so they asked for more time.

A third of the customers, when the food came, took pictures.

Some spent more time apparently uploading the photos to social media. Some asked waiters to take group photos, taking the waiters away from other patrons’ more food-related needs.

After eating, many customers continued to sit at the table, doing stuff on their phones for an average of 20 minutes before they asked for their checks, extending their stay to an hour and 55 minutes.

All this was fascinating, and I felt sorry for the restaurant so inconvenienced by these customers who obviously had more time than sense.

Suddenly I found myself sitting in the dark, except for the 2-inch-by-4-inch screen on which I was reading.

Fifteen minutes after the last detectable activity, the motion-activated light in the restroom I was occupying had turned itself off.

While reading a story about people wasting time on their phones, I had become not just an object lesson but the punchline to a cosmic joke.

I sat there in the dark, newly enlightened.

Errol Castens is a reporter for the Daily Journal and the Oxford Citizen. Contact him at (662) 816-1282 or