By JB Clark
TUPELO – Louis Conley is beginning law school at the University of Mississippi this year after spending more than five years as a loan officer at Renasant Bank, but his journey didn’t begin in the same place as many bankers and attorneys.
Conley spent the early years of his life in Tupelo’s public housing on North Green Street.
His parents divorced when he was young and his mother, Annie Helen Conley, was left raising four boys on her own.
She stressed the importance of education to her children. All of them graduated from high school and three went on to receive college degrees.
“At the core of it, if it is instilled in the child and they have the desire, they can get it done – they can succeed,” Conley said about earning a degree. “That’s why I think it’s important that the public school system stays in place and we support it.”
Conley said school was difficult for him and his brothers because they knew they had to help support the family and make sure food was on the table while other students only had to worry about homework.
“I remember during snack time you would see your friends with snacks and we couldn’t afford to send snacks to school so you had to watch them eat snacks,” Conley said. “That doesn’t seem huge but it has a lasting effect on me.”
He also remembers getting his first job at 15 like many teens but instead of buying new clothes or music he had to help pay the light bill.
“I played football and was involved in school but I also had to work through all four years of high school and all four years of college because if you don’t work you don’t eat,” he said. “Our best meals came from public schools because most nights we had ramen noodles, ham and cheese sandwich or Vienna sausages. When I went to college those meal plans were amazing.”
Conley didn’t let his workload get in the way of his performance at school. He was quarterback of the Tupelo High School football team, involved in Fellowship of Christian Athletes and Key Club and graduated with a 3.96 GPA. He went to Millsaps College, where he continued playing football.
What little free time he had, he said he spent working extra hours so he could help with food and bills at home, even in college.
His mother filed for bankruptcy while he was at Millsaps, something that Conley said almost derailed his pursuit of a college degree, but he finished his schooling at her insistence and continued working and sending money home.
“During college, on Christmas and summer breaks, I lived in the projects,” Conley said.
“Every morning in my 20 years living in public housing I woke up and saw the Stewards, Copelands and Witherspoons taking their kids to the bus stop and warming up their cars to go to jobs that might not be the best jobs but jobs they are waking up early to go to,” Conley said.
“It seems there is a prevailing thought that people in those scenarios don’t want to work or have chosen to live that way. Please believe me when I say no one would choose to wear hand-me-down clothes or wake up on Christmas and not have presents.”
Conley said he grew up with a lot of students who had difficult home situations they could not change and that affected their school life, whether they weren’t getting enough affection, attention, homework help or food – it showed at school.
“I was placed in challenge (advanced) classes in fifth grade,” he said. “If we allow our stereotypes to dictate those things they might have written me off as a knuckle-head because of a scenario I had no control over.”
Conley suggested a big part of ending the cycle of poverty, single-parent households and poor educational performance in Mississippi is to give each student an equal chance from the very beginning.
“We have to find a way to meet the kid where they are,” he said.
When Conley graduated from Millsaps in 2008 he moved back to North Green Street with his mother and took a job at Renasant Bank. A year later he kept his promise and bought her a house.
Now he will attend law school and for the first time since he was 15 be a full time student instead of working while in school.