By Sarah Naron
GRAPELAND – Three individuals pertinent to Houston County and the community of Grapeland spoke on various topics during the Grapeland Chamber of Commerce’s annual banquet held Thursday, Jan. 25 at First Baptist Church of Grapeland.
First at the podium was 2004 Grapeland High School alumnus Dr. Kent Willis, PhD., who currently serves as the Director of Institutional Effectiveness for the University of Texas Health and Science Center at Tyler as well as an assistant professor.
As explained by Mistress of Ceremonies and 2017 Peanut Festival Queen Madelyn Connor, Dr. Willis “is an experienced educational administrator with research interest in health and wellness promotion, college and career readiness and school improvement.”
Dr. Willis is a graduate of Hampton University, where he obtained a PhD in educational leadership and management.
Dr. Willis spoke on the topics of education and healthcare, which he claimed “are the pathway to prosperity.
“These two (subjects) are the very foundation of what you can do,” he said. “They have been for me; they have been for so many other people.”
According to Dr. Willis, an individual’s genetic code has less to do with his or her overall health than the zip code in which they reside.
“It always gives me chills when I repeat that fact,” he said. “Where you live has more to do with the life you live than what you were born with.”
Dr. Willis pointed out that health conditions are often described as something that a person was “born with.
“But too many issues of health have a lot to do with where you grow up and the decisions that are made in leadership and how they relate to the environment or the social determinants of health,” he explained. “And there’s the bridge of social determinants that relate to education.”
Dr. Willis shed light on what aspects of Grapeland place the people who grow up in the community on a pathway to prosperity, sharing actions which the city’s leadership can continue doing to ensure that “Grapeland will continue past the 21st century into the next century and beyond.
“(Grapeland) will be a great place to raise a family; a great place to go to school; a great place to have a job; a great place to continue to live and work,” he continued.
Dr. Willis’s first bit of advice for community leadership and residents was to “let your light shine.
“I think for too long, we’ve been a little bit shy about the things that happen in Grapeland and the things that we have to be proud of,” he said. “It’s not just peanuts and watermelons. It’s more to it than just that, although those things are great.”
Dr. Willis cited the school’s sports teams, Salmon Lake Park and church campouts held on the Houston County Lake as other assets to the town.
Dr. Willis recalled experiences in which, upon revealing that he originates from Grapeland, he learned more about the community from what out-of-towners had to say.
“They go, ‘Oh, I know Grapeland,’” he explained. “And they always seem to mention something different. And I went, ‘It’s more to that little small town that I grew up in than just what I knew.
“There’s a lot of good things going on in Grapeland,” he pointed out. “Let your light shine. Tell the story and be proud of where you’re from.”
Dr. Willis also encouraged listeners to “illuminate the way,” using lights located along the aisles of airplanes and buses to provide guidance for passengers when the overhead lights are turned off as an example.
“We have been through some hard times in Grapeland before,” he pointed out. “But we continue as a community to illuminate the way for one another.
“People have faced some of the most difficult things that you could face in your life,” Dr. Willis continued. “But I wouldn’t want to face it in any other community than this one. People support one another; people come out for one another.”
Dr. Willis pointed out that although arguments may arise while planning the annual Peanut Festival or at gatherings such as school board meetings, everyone always comes together when all is said and done.
“Every time I pull up the newspaper, I read the good news about what’s going on at Grapeland ISD,” he said. “And when I was working K-12, I realized how special this district is.
“You could be in a place where people are not interested in the school; where parents don’t show up; where people don’t return to be the principal in their hometown,” he said. “But this place has a sense of resilience, and that’s the word, I think, that is the antidote for anything that happens here.”
Dr. Willis further informed the audience on an article recently published in ‘The Chronicle of Higher Education’ which named the top “health disparity and public health emergency” in the county.
“It came as a surprise to a lot of people that the issue was education,” he said.
As Dr. Willis pointed out, “If people have knowledge, they can do better.”
Dr. Willis drew to a close by pointing out that everyone possesses the power to impact the world in major ways due to being given the opportunity to positively impact one another.
“In a world filled with fear, be courageous,” he encouraged. “In a world full of lies, be honest. In a world where few people care, be compassionate. In a world full of phonies, be yourself.
“The world sees you,” Dr. Willis continued. “The world is inspired by you. The world hopes for you. And the world can be better because of you.”
Dr. Willis ended with a recitation of the poem ‘Isn’t it Strange,’ by R.L. Sharpe, reminding listeners that “ordinary people like you and like me are the builders of eternity.”
Following Dr. Willis was engineer John Grayson, who Conner explained “is a sales manager at Nucor of Texas and surrounding states” and “has been employed at Nucor for the past 20 years.”
Grayson is a 1998 graduate of the Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology who has previously worked as an engineering manager and design engineer in Indiana.
Grayson presented a speech regarding the topics of business and industry, beginning with a report of Vulcraft’s operations.
“We had a very good year. We’re building a lot of joists at Grapeland,” he said, explaining that the company’s employees have been putting in long hours to keep up with the demands for their products.
“It looked like it was going to a little bit at the beginning of this year, but it’s starting to pick up,” he continued. “We’re seeing a lot of optimism in the market. The customers that we deal with, the general contractors, the fabricators, the design engineers – all those people are very optimistic about the future.”
Grayson cited commercial construction such as distribution centers, retail outlets, schools and warehouses as projects which are in the future for Vulcraft.
“If we’re constructing it, business is going well, the economy looks like it’s going to be doing well,” he said.
In order to handle the upcoming influx of business, Grayson explained that the Grapeland plant is taking actions such as the implementation of CEAs (Construction Employer’s Association).
“What I’m saying is, the landscape looks good,” he said.
Grayson cited Dallas and Houston as the top markets served by the plant, followed by San Antonio.
“Dallas is growing. Houston’s growing,” he pointed out. “By far, most of our trucks every day that you see coming out of the plant are going either north or south, and they’re headed to Dallas or Houston.”
Grayson informed the audience on the advantage that being located in Grapeland has for businesses such as Vulcraft.
“Vulcraft came here 50 years ago because of this location exactly,” he explained. “They knew that it was halfway between Dallas and Houston. It doesn’t take rocket science to look and say, ‘Hey, look, if there’s a manufacturer that wants to come service those markets, what a great location.”
According to Grayson, other advantages in Grapeland include the residents which newcomers get to know upon moving to the community.
“Grapeland is here, but the people make that place,” he said. “And people that are here for a while, they realize that.”
Grayson further cited reduced cost of living and cheaper startup costs for new businesses in Grapeland compared to larger cities, also explaining that the culture which exists in Grapeland make for better employees.
“They can buy land cheaper; they can get workforce,” he said. “There’s talented people around here. What we’re finding is that we find more qualified, better people right here in Grapeland than we do in those big cities.”
Grayson encouraged city leadership to continue on the quest to bring new business into Grapeland.
“I know it’s hard to go out there in the market and to expose Grapeland to these businesses, but keep trying; keep going after it,” he said. “Because there’s someone that’s going to see the value here, and one big business can make a big difference to the whole landscape of Grapeland.”
Rounding out the speeches for the evening was Houston County Sheriff Darrel Bobbitt, whose presentation dealt with the topics of government and leadership.
As Conner explained, Sheriff Bobbitt is entering his fifth term of serving as county sheriff. He enrolled in the East Texas Law Enforcement Academy in 1986 and completed his studies in 1995 when he graduated from the Texas Department of Public Safety. He is certified as a law enforcement instructor in the state of Texas and also holds a Master Peace Officer certification.
Sheriff Bobbitt began his first term as sheriff in January 2001 and is “the longest consecutively elected sheriff in Houston County.” Citizens of the local area have in the past voted him Officer of the Year through ‘Houston County Life’ magazine.
In addition to his sheriff duties, Sheriff Bobbitt has also been a member of the Texas Association of Counties Risk Management Board and the legislative committee of the Sheriff’s Association of Texas.
Sheriff Bobbitt began by examining the topic of the banquet, ‘Shifting Paradigms – A Pathway to Prosperity.
“That intrigued me, because I’m passionate about that subject,” he said.
As Sheriff Bobbitt pointed out, the word “paradigm” refers to a pattern or an example.
“How many of you know that in our own lives, we’ve got some patterns; we’ve some examples; we’ve got some things that we should never turn loose of?” he asked. “But if you’re truthful, there’s probably some paradigms in our lives that maybe we should evaluate on; we should look at. Truthfully, there may be some we should change.”
Sheriff Bobbitt spoke of an old friend of his, a retired homicide detective who left Houston in favor of Crockett.
“His famous saying was, ‘You don’t know what you don’t know,’” Sheriff Bobbit divulged. “That’s as simple as cornbread; country as cornbread, but you don’t know what you don’t know.”
Sheriff Bobbitt then asked his listeners to ask themselves whether they are willing to change paradigms in their life which may need to be reevaluated.
Sheriff Bobbitt also discussed an article he read which dealt with poverty mentality and told the story of a preacher who was a native of Africa.
“This preacher was known throughout the land, because when he came and preached in these neighborhoods and these villages, people would get miraculous type healings,” explained Sheriff Bobbitt. “As a matter of fact, many times, he was known to have prayed for the dead, and they rose back to life.”
As Sheriff Bobbitt explained, when the preacher’s time in one village ended, he would remove his shoes before beginning to travel on foot to the next village, leading the article’s author to describe the preacher as having a poverty mentality.
“It floored me when I first saw that,” Sheriff Bobbitt said. “I thought, ‘What do you mean? This man of great faith; this man that’s doing miraculous things all through the country, how can he have a poverty mentality?’”
As Sheriff Bobbitt revealed, the author explained that the preacher had such a mentality because he knew nothing else.
“He walks from village to village barefooted because that’s what he’s always done. That’s what his family had done. That’s what he knew in his village,” Sheriff Bobbit explained. “Even though he had faith to pray and the dead be raised to life, he didn’t have faith for a bus ticket or a bicycle or for a car. It was his paradigm.”
Sheriff Bobbitt went on to speak of an employee of his named Dedric Moore, who was raised in Houston County.
“When he was growing up, he was really paying attention to what was going on everywhere around him and all the people around him,” Sheriff Bobbitt explained. “He saw some that were doing well, but he saw many that weren’t doing well and didn’t seem to get ahead in life.”
As a result of his observations, Moore became determined to build a “stick-to-it” mentality and create a good life for himself.
Sheriff Bobbitt explained that Moore began working for Wal-Mart after graduating from high school and also began studying to become a law enforcement officer.
“He holds two full-time jobs – one at Walmart and one with my office,” Sheriff Bobbitt divulged. “And in his spare time, Dedric finds time to work for Crockett PD.”
As Sheriff Bobbitt pointed out, “We need to teach our children to look up to the Dedrics in the world and not these overpaid athletes that won’t salute our flag.”
To illustrate the importance of city leadership investing in the future, Sheriff Bobbitt relayed the biblical story of Isaac, son of Abraham, planted in the midst of a famine and prospered as a result.
Sheriff Bobbitt closed his speech by offering three points for consideration as pathways to prosperity.
“The first point to consider is having vision,” Sheriff Bobbitt said, citing Proverbs 28:19. “Your government, your leadership – they can’t always be so short-sighted about only today, but must be looking out for the future with vision.”
Sheriff Bobbitt’s second point was truth, which he illustrated with Proverbs 15:6.
“We need people to learn to hear truth,” he said. “Truth is measured by the Word of God. Listen to what someone is saying, and then, you try it against the Word of God. It is the only time-tested thing that is going to prove out what is true.”
The final point discussed by Sheriff Bobbitt was unity, which he backed up with Psalms 133:1.
“Believe me, in this day and time, it seems that our country is more divided than ever,” he pointed out. “If there was ever a time we needed people to work together in unity, it’s today.”
Sheriff Bobbitt encouraged the members of the community to “envision a plan as we work together in the search of truth and unite as we invest in the future of our communities.”
Prosperity Bank Regional President and Chamber board member Brandon Bridges provided the closing remarks for the evening.
“We have a lot of things in Grapeland that people said we probably would never do,” he pointed out. “We have a lot to be thankful for.”
Bridges cited Darling Industries, the Brookshire Brothers Pharmacy and the forthcoming Grapeland Urgent Care Center as entities which many thought would never surface in Grapeland.
Bridges also presented representatives of Grapeland State Bank with a plaque for their willingness to provide a meeting location for the chamber board.
The Grapeland Volunteer Fire Department received the honor of Volunteer of the Year. Chief Roger Dickey and volunteer firefighter Tim Howard accepted the award on behalf of the department.
Outgoing board members Linda Reed and Emily Cunningham of Cunningham Real Estate were recognized as outgoing Chamber of Commerce board members.
Catering for the event was provided by Sadler’s Restaurant of Jacksonville. Musical entertainment was presented by the Texas College Concert Choir of Tyler and soloist Eric Bell.