Coast legislator found dead grew up in Okolona

By Bobby Harrison/NEMS Daily Journal

JACKSON – The Mississippi Legislature has dealt with multiple deaths of members recently, but colleagues were shaken in a new way over the weekend with the apparent suicide of state Rep. Jessica Sibley Upshaw of Diamondhead.
Upshaw represented Harrison and Hancock counties on the Gulf Coast from January 2004 until her death, but people who knew her best knew she grew up in Okolona in Northeast Mississippi.
Upshaw’s body was found Sunday in Mendenhall. Law enforcement officials said she died from a self-inflicted gunshot wound.
Rep. Hank Zuber, R-Ocean Springs, who made the motion Monday that the House adjourn in her memory, said she always did what she thought was right “no matter the consequences and no matter who was on the other side.”
Upshaw was a staunch Republican, but Zuber said she cast votes based on what she thought was the best for her district and the state.
According to the state Blue Book, Upshaw, age 53, was born in Meridian. But early on her parents, John and Sandra Sibley, moved to Okolona in Chickasaw County where her father practiced law, serving at different times as city attorney and city judge, and her mother was a school teacher.
“They were a prominent family,” said Rep. Preston Sullivan, D-Okolona, who remained close to Upshaw during her tenure in the Legislature. “Her father was a good attorney, and her mother taught me American government.”
While still living in Okolona, Upshaw had graduated from Amory High School.
The Sibleys moved to the Gulf Coast after he retired from law practice and after losing an election for mayor of Okolona.
Upshaw already was living on the Gulf Coast, moving there to practice law from the Mississippi Delta.
“Jessica was one of the smarter people I ever ran into,” Sullivan said. “She could read a bill and give you the meat of what it did. She was a speed reader … And I don’t mind saying she had a conscience and a heart.”
Early on in her legislative career, Upshaw gained a reputation for sharp interrogation of members handling legislation on the floor of the House. Members who were not prepared often feared seeing her rise to ask questions
“Democrat, Republican it didn’t matter,” Sullivan said.
One of the stories being repeated Monday at the Capitol was the time then-Gov. Haley Barbour was taking a group via the state airplane to the Gulf Coast to meet with then-President George Bush who was visiting post-Hurricane Katrina. Several people relayed that the governor could not find room on the plane for Upshaw, who had cast a key vote against one of his proposals.
Several members said Monday that they had noticed that she was much quieter this session.
“She was a great person, the best,” said Houston dentist Teena Horn, who became friends with Upshaw when they attended the same church on the Gulf Coast. “I am very saddened. I thought she was a great friend.”
On Monday, House Speaker Philip Gunn, R-Clinton, also referred to Upshaw as a friend and former classmate at the University of Mississippi Law School. For a time at the start of the session, Gunn spoke of the three House members, the two senators and various other family members who have died this session
“Death is staring us in the face at every turn,” said Gunn, a Baptist deacon.
From the speaker’s podium Gunn also announced that Rep. Bennett Malone, D-Carthage, was undergoing surgery related to an aneurysm.
Upshaw, chair of the Conservation and Water Resources Committee, was found at the home of former Rep. Clint Rotenberry, a Simpson County Republican.
Gunn said Upshaw is survived by her mother, sister and her daughter who is living South Korea.
“She was a hard-working lady and very capable lady,” said former Democratic House Speaker Billy McCoy of Rienzi, who said he felt he developed a special bond with Upshaw because of her Northeast Mississippi ties and because her grandfather, like him, was a former high school ag teacher.
“I am saddened by the situation.”
bobby.harrison@journalinc.com