When Leahne Lightsey, executive director of the Petal Education Foundation, recently knocked on Jimmy Havard’s door, he figured it was just a routine visit from a longtime friend.
But there was exciting news behind Lightsey’s visit: Havard, who is best known for 36-year stint as Forrest County Chancery Court, had been named the 2021 recipient of the foundation’s Champion of the Year Award. The award is given annually to residents in the Petal School District who have made distinct efforts to better Petal.
“I’m really honored; I think it’s a great honor,” Havard said. “I was really shocked.”
Havard attended George County High School, where he was a three-year letterman in football, baseball and basketball. He also was named Most Outstanding Offensive Player in the Desoto Conference, and was listed as Honorable Mention High School All-American.
After graduating from high school in 1958, Havard attended the University of Southern Mississippi on a football scholarship and went through the ROTC program at the university. After graduating from Southern Miss in 1963, Havard served two years in the U.S. Army at Fort Benning, Georgia, where he played on the National Service Championship football team.
He retired as a Lieutenant Colonel after 26 years with the Mississippi National Guard.
In 1965, Havard was appointed head football coach and athletic director at Petal High School, where he stayed until 1972. He was voted Coach of the Year in the Desoto Conference in 1968 and 1971.
“Mr. M.A. Snowden was the principal of Petal High School, and he was also my principal at Lucedale High School,” Havard said. “He called me at Fort Benning and wanted me to start teaching and coaching at Petal.
“I said, ‘when do you need me, Mr. Snowden?’ and he said, ‘in two weeks.’ I said, ‘well, I’ve got four months left in the military; there’s no way out of the military.’ He said, ‘let me go to work on that.’ Well, the general at Fort Benning called me in the next day and said, ‘Havard, I don’t know how you done this, but in the morning at 8 o’clock, your (butt) is out of here.’ So I headed to Petal, and I’ve been in Petal ever since.”
Havard served on the East Forrest School District Board of Trustees and the first Petal Separate School District Board of Trustees, after those schools became separate from Forrest County. During his tenure, the board passed the bond issue for the purchase of the land and construction of the current high school.
“We were under the county school system and formed our own Petal School District,” Havard said. “That was one of the best things Petal has ever done, was broke away from the county and former their own district.
“You can see now that if it’s not the best, it’s one of the best schools in the state of Mississippi.”
After serving for 11 years as a utility investigator with the Mississippi Public Service Commission, Havard was elected Forrest County Chancery Clerk in 1983 and served nine terms before retiring in January 2020.
During his tenure as clerk, he was elected president of the Mississippi Chancery Clerks Association. He often joined the fish frying team to volunteer his expertise for school districts, Relay for Life, City of Hattiesburg, and veterans’ fish fries.
“I guess I had an urge to run for it, because my dad was chancery clerk in George County, in Lucedale where I was raised,” Havard said. “I just always wanted to run for it too.
“I guess people thought I did a good job, because they elected me in there for 36 years. I enjoyed it; I really did. I wish I had run again, because I don’t care for retirement.”
Havard is a charter member of the Rotary Club of Petal and a former member of the Petal Area Chamber of Commerce. He attends Asbury Methodist Church.
Jimmy Havard was married for 50 years to the late Beth Hall Havard. They have to daughters, Sheila Smallwood and Ginger Havard, and two granddaughters, Kate and Abby Smallwood.
In honor of his award, Havard will be honored at a homecoming parade on Oct. 21, as well as a reception before the Petal Panthers football game the following night. He will be presented with a plaque at halftime of the game.
“He’s definitely worthy (of the award),” Lightsey said. “He has always been very supportive of the school district.
“He’s done so much for Rotary over the years, and in fact he’s a charter member of the Rotary Club of Petal. People trust him; they have a lot of faith in him and they know he would make sound decisions.”