Men We Love | Jackson Free Press | Jackson, MS

Men We Love

Photo by Josh Little

In most cases, stereotyping is a bad thing. Fairness dictates that we avoid it all costs. But it's safe to say, as actress Mae West once did, "Men are all alike, expect the one you've met who's different."

This year's Men We Love are all exceptional guys, in more ways than one, but one thing unites them: They are all forward-thinking men that are making positive changes in the metro area. They are different from the norm, but in a good way. And of because this we love them all and think you should, too. Some are fathers and husbands, and others are single and mingling. Some own businesses, and one will help you get yours started. One recognizes that the community beyond his church's walls needs help; and another will help you find a home when you're ready for one.

These men are leading by example, and we're inclined to follow them. Trust us: If they weren't, they never would have made the list.

Michael Gentry
—Jackie Warren Tatum

Michael Gentry says he must be outdoors. He must get dirty and sweaty and work with his hands. "I can't stay in a cubicle," he says. His love of the outdoors began when he pitched and played first base for Starkville High School and later, East Mississippi Community College.

Today, this tall, ruggedly handsome 32-year-old works outside as coordinator of Tougaloo-Rainbow Sustainable Garden, a community-supported organic garden, where if volunteers work, they get food, he says.

Gentry wears cargo shorts, a T-shirt, socks and ankle-high GORE-TEX boots to work, but words like "bio-mimicry" and "nano-technology" slip off his tongue like he's a college professor. He learned, however, that he didn't want to teach when he tutored and mentored kindergarten through eighth graders with Americorps in Seattle from 2002 to 2003, because he likes being on the project side of things.

He earned his bachelor's degree in landscape architecture at Mississippi State University and studied permaculture with Akia and Rebecca Chabot in Vicksburg. Gentry has used permaculture techniques—which require consideration of a site's residents, environment, functions and inter-relationships to design the best system for the site—in Rainbow Green projects.

At MSU, Gentry met Sarah Wynne, another landscape architecture student, and they dated five years. After graduation, Gentry worked in Louisiana, but says he and Wynne "couldn't stand to be away from each other." He returned to marry her and, having done so, says "everything is linked in my life now." They have three children: Kaia, 5; Skyler, 4; and Dylan, 7 months.

After returning to Jackson, Gentry volunteered with Mississippi 2020, where his wife was working with Bob Kochtitzky. The now-defunct organization's goal was Mississippi's sustainability by 2020. Kochtitzky asked Gentry to run the initial garden at Tougaloo College. That "planted the seed" for the Tougaloo-Rainbow Sustainable Garden, which started three years later

Gentry is fulfilled watching people learn the plant life cycle, plant seeds for the first time and reap the benefits of what they've started. He used to plan rather than live, he says, but his wife taught him to "freelance" life—to have fun. His job lets him do both: He can "plan what the garden will look like and get his hands dirty."

Rainbow Green Services Katherine West describes Gentry as an "honest, gentle giant." And Karen Parker, Fair Trade Handicrafts store manager, says he's genuine: "What you see is what he is."

Gentry and his wife aspire to own a farm or create a place to reconnect people and nature through "ecotourism options: hay rides, fishing derbies, possibly a dude ranch," he says.

Tyrone Hendrix
—Amanda Kittrell

Tyrone Hendrix is the Mississippi state director of Organizing for America, an organization formed out of Obama for America that inspires and empowers change across the nation.

Hendrix, 27, is a Jackson native but frequently moved while growing up, traveling between Georgia, Colorado and then eventually back to Georgia. When he was 13 and living in Augusta, Ga., his mother fell ill with ovarian cancer. She passed away the day after Thanksgiving, and Hendrix moved back to Jackson to live with his father and grandmother.

"She died because she couldn't afford to receive treatment," Hendrix says of his mother. "That's when I knew I wanted to go into politics, to help change policy. And the current health-care reform has a special place in my heart. You can't help everyone, but you can empower people to help themselves. My grandmother has always instilled her motto in me: ‘Somebody has to lead; why can't it be you?'"

Hendrix graduated from Forest Hill High School in 2001. He moved to Tampa at 21 for a job in community planning and organizing but returned to Jackson to finish his education at Jackson State University. He graduated with a master's degree in political science in 2008.

While working on his master's, Hendrix acquired another love and is now engaged to Ercilla Dometz, whom he met at Jackson State in 2006. The couple hasn't set a date, yet; Dometz expects to have earned her doctorate degree in urban and regional planning from JSU by May 2011, and Hendrix wants to minimize her stress levels. The couple lives with their 5-year-old daughter in west Jackson.

Since graduating from JSU, Hendrix has worked as a field organizer for Obama for America and on other political campaigns. While he works hard for other candidates, Hendrix has no plans to run for office. He notes with a wide grin that he much prefers strategizing and building community support.

But Hendrix's choice to stay out of the political spotlight does not mean he will stop trying to implement change for Mississippi. He feels strongly about working toward more affordable housing and reducing the poverty rate in Jackson.

"We have such a rich and beautiful culture here, such a unique identity that we should try to capitalize," he says. "This is my home, and I cannot express how much I love it here. Mississippians have soul."

Scott Colom
— Sarah Senff

You can't help but like Scott Colom. Friendly and compassionate, he even turns an interview into something more akin to a conversation between new friends. Colom, 27, is a Columbus, Miss., native who moved to Jackson in 2001 to complete his undergraduate study at Millsaps College.

After earning his law degree at the University of Wisconsin in 2009, Colom returned to his Mississippi roots and began his current work with the Mississippi Center for Justice, which he describes as a non-profit law firm that pursues economic justice, currently focused on reforming the payday lending industry.

"We work on finding alternatives for people to find the credit they need," Colom says. He and the MCJ also work to encourage the state Legislature to accept federal funds expanding unemployment eligibility.

Colom has taken his thirst for a better life for others on the road. He interned at the U.S. Department of Justice in Washington, D.C., the summer of 2008, working on employment discrimination cases, and he spent a year teaching English in Guyana with an organization called WorldTeach.

"(I was) lucky enough to spend a lot of time in Africa working with the United Nations' Tribunal for Rwanda," he says. While in Africa, he was able to also spend time in Tanzania and Egypt.

Colom has a deep love of travel, but he currently finds himself too busy to get away as much as he'd like. "Once I decided to return to Mississippi, I lost the opportunity for more international work," he says. "I really love going to parts of the world that are less visited." He has his sights set on Thailand for his next grand adventure.

On any given weekend, Colom can be found around various Jackson hot spots relaxing with his friends. "I try to mix it up a bit. I like to go to the King Edward for a drink or Underground 119, to Hal & Mal's for a band or to hear Jackie Bell down at the 930 Blues Café," he says. He most enjoys places with outdoor seating where he can hang out and eat good food.

"I enjoy life," he says, adding: "There's something (in Jackson) for everyone, and there's a lot going on, especially in terms of development. Things are really happening here."

Ed Sivak
—Lacey McLaughlin

Ed Sivak, 34, is a big picture kind of guy. He's always thinking about how to connect others and create more opportunities for underserved families in Mississippi.

A Jackson transplant from Cleveland, Ohio, Sivak is the founding director of the Mississippi Economic Policy Center, a nonprofit organization that promotes policy initiatives to improve the quality of life for others by conducting research and analysis on fiscal policy, and providing economic resources.

"There are a lot of exciting things I get to do. I really enjoy working with other advocates and nonprofits to expand their capacity to do their work," he says.

In high school, Sivak volunteered at St. Herman's House of Hospitality, a homeless organization in Cleveland, and he spent a month in the Dominican Republic working on farms and in orphanages. He says these experiences had a lasting impact on him.

"It was something I enjoyed and something I felt called to do," he says. "I could use my talents and skills to improve the lives of others who didn't have the same opportunities as I had growing up."

Sivak received his bachelor's degree in arts from Marquette University in Wisconsin and a master's degree in public policy from Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. He came to Jackson nine years ago to intern at the Enterprise Corporation of the Delta, a nonprofit development institution, and stayed on as the manager of the EDC's Emerging Markets Partnership.

When he isn't working, Sivak spends his time with his wife, Jen, and their two children, Abbie, 4, and Nicholas, 2. He's also a local Boy Scout troop leader, who sees his role as one that allows him to invest in the city's youth.

Sivak says his co-workers and the people he works for each day provide the motivation for his work at the Mississippi Economic Policy Center.

"I am really fortunate to have good people around me in all facets of my life," he says. "I've got an incredible team of people who work hard and are committed to making a difference. ... It's a call and a challenge to look at the big picture and take the long view."

And Ed Sivak is doing just that.

Mike Davis
—Sarah Bush

A self-proclaimed people person, Mike Davis speaks with a smile on his face while talking about his family, his hometown of Jackson and the job that allows him to do his part in helping Jackson's progression.

Davis, 41, was born and reared in Jackson. He graduated from Jim Hill High School and received his marketing degree from Jackson State University in 1995. A family man, he is the proud father of two girls, Ashleigh and Courtney, but he lost his wife, Deborah, one year ago this June to breast cancer.

Professionally, Davis has worked at his current position as a business development manager for Jackson for the past six years. His work includes recruiting and retaining businesses in Jackson. He enjoys having the opportunity to meet new people, while also working for Jackson's citizens to help provide beneficial services like offering incentives to businesses in Jackson and those relocating to the city, and fast-tracking some development projects so they're completed in a timely manner.

A dedicated Jacksonian, Davis says he would like to see even more positive changes such as amenities improvements—including new shopping, eating and leisure areas such as parks—and even more businesses moving into the capital city. And he is doing his part to see these changes come to life, because his job allows him to reach out to business owners and convince them that Jackson is where they want to be.

Davis wants to make sure residents of Jackson, old and new, feel comfortable to reach out to him if they need help.

"I would like (Jacksonians) to know I'm available to assist them in seeing their future dreams come to life," he says. "If they want to start a business, or if they need assistance in trying to understand what they need to do from a marketing standpoint or from an advertising standpoint, or just trying to identify funds to help them grow their business, I can help with that, too." For assistance contact him at 601-960-1055 or {encode="[email protected]" title="[email protected]"}.

Currently living in south Jackson, Davis speaks positively about the city's growth and its future.

"The best change I've seen in Jackson is people working together, no matter what their ethnicity," he says. "They're working together to build Jackson to where it used to be and better."

Ira Murray
—Valerie Wells

The lady cried when Ira Murray told her she was getting $1,000 back on her federal income tax return. She came in to his free tax service expecting to owe the government. She was shocked to find out she was getting money back.

"Then she tried to put $20 in my pocket," Murray says. "I had to tell her, ‘Nah, I can't take that.'"

Murray, 30, is vice president for community impact with the United Way of the Capital Area. He manages grants and partnerships. One of his programs helps low and moderate-income families prepare taxes.

"Some people are on the verge of getting evicted. We see a lot of hard-working people who are really appreciative of the tax service. It's not an attitude of entitlement like some people think. These aren't people looking for a handout," he says. "They are paying off debts and getting stuff for their kids."

Murray moved to Jackson "sight unseen" from Nashville five years ago as a fellow with United Way of America. The first time he saw Jackson was the day he drove in with all his belongings—two months before Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast.

He worked with a Katrina relief project that helped relocated storm victims find apartments and gave them beds, sofas, ovens and washing machines. It was a $400,000 program that lasted about four months.

"I got to learn a lot about their lives before the storm," he says.

That work led to a project with MTV in 2006, "Alternative Spring Break." During his fellowship, a full-time job opened up with United Way.

"I had other offers," he says, but he decided to stay in Jackson.

"I can help shape things—connect people with resources and support, maybe consult on different approaches," he says.

Jackson reminds him of his hometown, Columbia, S.C. Both are big enough for lots of neighbors and concerts without the bigger problems of large cities.

He loves the music and the food of the city, and he works out about five or six times a week. "I've got to exercise regularly now. I've packed on the pounds," he says.

Murray got married last fall. Much of his time away from work is spent with his wife, Tracy. They go out to hear live bands or have friends over for cookouts.

To help Jackson's future, he would like to work on more health initiatives for children. He's also interested in continuing work to cut the dropout rate in Jackson Public Schools.

"The city is moving in the right direction," he says. "I'd like to see south Jackson and west Jackson get more attention."

Ulises Hernandez Rincon
—ShaWanda Jacome

Ulises Hernandez walks into Cups Espresso Café in Fondren with a confident stride wearing a graphic T-shirt and aviator shades. Behind the glasses, Hernandez is ardent and authentic about his beliefs, his culture and the work he does on behalf of immigrant rights.

Hernandez, 21, originally from Los Angeles, has been in Mississippi for four years and is a 2007 graduate of Ridgeland High School. As the Central Mississippi organizer for the non-profit Mississippi Immigrants Rights Alliance, he helps organize the state's Latino immigrant community.

"We help them learn what to do, how to do it and who to contact ... how to do things themselves," he says.

Formed in fall of 2000, MIRA accomplishes its goals of immigrant rights' advocacy and education on the community level through door knocks, home meetings and public events. MIRA speaks for those who can't or don't know how to speak for themselves or who don't know what their rights are.

"Migrant people in the state of Mississippi really haven't been seen, and they walk amongst us, but nobody really notices them," Hernandez says. "(The current immigration debate) is
bringing those people out of hiding and out of the shadows."

Hernandez travels a lot for his job and recently attended The National Council of La Raza conference, the largest national Hispanic civil rights and advocacy organization in the country. He was there to help lawmakers understand how outdated the current immigration laws are. One important piece of proposed federal legislation discussed was the Dream Act which would grant conditional residency to certain undocumented students who graduate from U.S. high schools, are of good moral character and have been in the country continuously for at least five years prior to the bill's enactment.

"I've traveled and lived pretty much all over. ... I can honestly say I can see both sides of the story. I just wish extreme-left people and extreme-right people would sit down and talk and come up with something comprehensive," he says. " ... something equally proportionate."

Hernandez also serves as secretary for the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. His mother, Olga Hernandez Rincon, is the owner of Olga's Maids and La Rancherita grocery store in Jackson off Ridgewood Road. He likes to travel and spend time with his fiancée, Chelsea, and her daughter Georgia, 2, who he talks about with glee in his eyes.

Hernandez says the best advice his father, Jose Hernandez Aguilar, has ever given him was that no one in this world is going to respect you unless you make them respect you.

"I was never given a damn thing," he says. "I was always treated like less ... but I am working my butt off to be who I want to be, and in the end, I know what I am and where I came from."

Edward O'Connor
—Sarah Bush

It wasn't until the day of his first daughter's baptism that Edward O'Connor realized he wanted to change directions with his life and go to seminary. Before then, he was a practicing psychologist who had been out of the church for a while. But he was so inspired by the baptismal liturgy he left the church that day a changed man. And now, as the dean at St. Andrew's Episcopal Cathedral, O'Connor is not only a leader within his own parish but within the Jackson community.

Born in Memphis, O'Connor moved with his family to Jackson when he was in the seventh grade, so he calls Jackson home. He graduated from the University of Mississippi with a double major in English and political science in 1990 and did his graduate work at the University of Southern Mississippi in marriage and family therapy. After spending 10 years as a psychologist, O'Connor entered into the seminary at Sewanee: The University of the South to pursue a master's in divinity. He spent four years at St. Peter's by the Sea in Gulfport—two years before and after Hurricane Katrina. Then with the bishop's permission, he entered the search process, and the St. Andrew's vestry ultimately chose him out of a number of candidates.

O'Connor, 42, is passionate about the economic development and transformation that downtown Jackson is currently undergoing, and he believes St. Andrew's has an important role to play in this change.

"We understand our role is not just getting people to come downtown but also being real neighbors to them," he says. "We want to help feed the hungry and clothe the naked and be real partners in this community."

St. Andrews, whose moniker is Cathedral of the City, is involved in 22 aid agencies in Jackson, including Stewpot and Grace House.

O'Connor finds Jackson's diversity exciting, and he hopes to see it increase. "To me, if downtown Jackson is going to become a true community, I think the key for us is to create that real urban tapestry where people (who are) making a lot of money are living with or near people that aren't making so much money," he says. "We need to have an ethnic diversity and a socioeconomic diversity."

O'Connor currently lives in Northeast Jackson with his wife, Deidra, and his three children, Flannery, Mary Kathryn and Edward.

Michael Lewis
—Ward Schaefer

Growing up in Jackson, Michael Lewis knew many classmates and friends who couldn't wait to leave the capital city. As soon as they graduated from high school, they left for bigger, flashier cities.

"I always wanted to stay home. I always envisioned an upsurge in my community and always wanted to stay and be a part of that," Lewis says.

Lewis, 26, is fueling that "upsurge" as a Realtor and a committed community member. A 2002 graduate of Bailey High School, Lewis earned a bachelor's degree in finance from Jackson State University in 2009. Real estate was a natural fit.

"I always took an interest in realizing the potential in things that initially wouldn't have potential to anyone else," Lewis says. "I always enjoyed seeing a house come to life from the development stages."

By the time he graduated from JSU, Lewis had already established his own firm, Leah Cim Real Estate. The business' name is his first name, backward, which Lewis thought would sound more approachable than his own. He manages and sells property all over the city now, focusing on parts of Jackson that he believes he can help revive.

Many of Lewis' clients are single mothers, living in apartments but hoping to find a house with safer and roomier space for their children. It's a situation Lewis can identify with, having grown up in "a family of matriarchs," as he says. When Lewis was 14, his father died of a heart attack. He found support and guidance at home, where he lived with his mother, grandmother and great-grandmother, and from mentors at community groups like the Boys & Girls Club and YMCA.

"Part of my coping with that when I was younger was just to stay as busy as possible, because (my father) told me, ‘You're never doing too much, especially while you're young,'" Lewis says. "The more I can see myself doing what I feel would please (him), the more satisfied I am with myself."

As an adult, Lewis has found another mentor in businessman Bill Cooley and a group of like-minded Jacksonians in the West Jackson Leadership Academy, which Cooley organized to bring young talent to bear on the city's redevelopment.

Having learned the value of community as a child, Lewis draws satisfaction from providing it to his clients.

"To get them into a home that's in a community that has involvement and that has a backyard where the kids can play safely—I'm not really big on making a whole lot of money, but making a difference is really what moves me," Lewis says. "To go back a year later and see those kids playing and comfortable, that's really what does it for me."

Marvin Hightower
—Sarah Bush

Marvin Hightower never planned to work in the physical fitness industry, but once he discovered how little access some Jackson residents had to exercise equipment, he began trying to find a way to change that. Hightower is now the owner of N-Tense Fitness 24/7, a 24-hour gym with two different locations in Jackson.

Hightower, 34, is from Lexington Miss., where he graduated from Jacob J. McClain High School. He received his bachelor's degree in management from Belhaven College in 2003 and was training for a job in law enforcement when he became interested in opening a 24-hour gym. His goal is to provide convenient, affordable gym access for Jacksonians who previously have not had this opportunity.

For some people, like teachers and those in law enforcement, membership is only $15 per month; for everyone else, membership is $20 per month. N-Tense Fitness also offers discounted personal training. Hightower wanted to keep his gyms open 24/7 so people could work out whenever it was most convenient.

"It gives everyone the opportunity to work out," he says. "No excuses."

While he is satisfied with the two locations he has now, Hightower would eventually like to open something larger so he can offer more services, like aerobics classes, to his patrons. He is also happy with his reception in the community.

"It's been great so far, and both locations have done extremely well based on the amount of time that they've been open," he says.

Hightower views these business ventures as his way to give back to and improve the Jackson community.

"It's up to us as the people of Jackson to bring things into our own community," he says. "If it's our community, I think it's our responsibility to make sure the things we need are there."

Giving people the opportunity to start again, to improve their health and to teach them how to do something that has scared them in the past excites Hightower.

N-Tense Fitness gyms are located at 5300 N. State St. and 1335 Ellis Ave., Suite 20. For more information, go to or call 601-941-1130.

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