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Lifelong learner: Hard knocks, study, faith have formed PA’s mayor

Thurman Bartie remembers a different Port Arthur than the one that elected him mayor on June 22.

Some of it was a challenge for a black child growing up in the ‘50s and ‘60s on the west side of town. Much of it he remembers fondly.

“I was raised by my stepfather, Wilson Roy, and my mother, Joyce, who was known as ‘Lady Mae,’” he said in his office Friday.

There was his grandmother, too, Momma Ada, who was a popular local woman and an influential presence in his life.

The mayor will turn 65 this month and, though just starting on the second stage of his revived political life, he’s got a lifetime of memories in the city he calls home.

His grandmother, well connected in West Port Arthur, made sure he knew respectable, successful people in the community: businessman Murray Freeman; the Hannah family, the Rev. C.A. Ellis, A.Z. McElroy and James Green.

“God blessed me to know those folks,” Bartie said. They became role models and mentors, they lend him examples to follow through his first stretch as a public officer — he was the first black justice of the peace in District 8 — and beyond.

Segregation

The Port Arthur where he grew up as a young child was segregated. His family lived at 821 W. Fifth St., then moved around the corner to the 900 block of West Seventh Street. The house is gone.

He remembers going to Pleasure Island on the day the amusements were reserved for black customers, but remembered the rides and good times there, too.

“That was our day,” he said. “We could ride the Ferris wheel. I remember parades on Procter Street, cavOILcade, Christmas, Homecoming.”

Bartie graduated Abraham Lincoln High and later was a permanent substitute teacher there. (Ken Stickney/The News)

For junior high, he attended a school of choice, Woodrow Wilson, in the first throes of school integration. He was encouraged by his childhood friend, Vernon Bradford, and Bradford’s mother to attend Wilson. He finished there in 1968 — integration was new to everyone, he said, and wasn’t always unpleasant — but there was never a second thought about where he would go to high school — Abraham Lincoln.

“You wanted to be a Bumblebee from the time you were a baby,” he said.

He spent four joyous years there, a school where he would later return as a permanent substitute teacher.

‘Village’ concept

For Bartie, Abraham Lincoln High was everything he’d envisioned. Teachers there oftentimes were community members he’d see at church or in positions of service.

“Sometimes your teacher might be your Sunday school teacher,” he said. “They knew you. They knew your family. You interacted with those people outside school. So you had the ‘village concept’ of raising children, thick and heavy.”

Teachers knew of his interest in music and encouraged it. But his other interest was social studies and government, which won out for his academic affections.

Bartie started his college studies at Prairie View. Those were heady times: A soloist in church since he was 6, he was the male vocalist for a highly touted a cappella choir. That was a high honor, and rare for a freshman.

Faculty wanted him to study music; he preferred government and politics and stuck to his guns. Prairie View did not last long enough. His mother took ill and he returned to Port Arthur to help care for her. He found a job, worked at the funeral home, took some courses at Lamar University.

Later, he worked at a plant near Orange and earned enough to buy a car. College became a distant memory.

Funeral home

Bartie pursued his interest in the funeral home, and as a young man went to Commonwealth College of Science in Houston. Mortician work was OK with him. At the funeral home, he said, workers dressed like gentlemen in suits and oftentimes chatted with ladies.

That was a pleasant aspect of work that he relished; he remembered it from his childhood, when he ran errands around the funeral home from the age of 11. They didn’t get off the bus, dirty from hard work, in the afternoons. They drove nice cars.

“I didn’t know they had to work, too,” he said with a laugh.

But that good influence from the Hannah family influenced him again.

Barbra Hannah-Keys said he had too many leadership skills, too much talent, to not have a college degree. He returned to Lamar as a part-time student, taking a few courses a semester until he graduated in 1992.

His political career was launched soon after that. Elected as a justice of the peace, he tried to impose his sense of right and wrong into his dealings.

He’s candid about his struggles there: He encouraged corporal punishment for children who did wrong and ran headlong into opposition from people who opposed his heavy-handed ways.

There was “turmoil from political wranglings.” But voters returned him to the job, and he served almost a decade before he was removed from the bench.

Later, he moved to Tennessee, where he studied for the ministry and accumulated graduate credits in organizational behavior. He’s nearly achieved “all but dissertation” status, he said, but it’s the mayor’s duties that are holding his attention.

Maturation

Nowadays, he said, he would do things differently. He’s learned better how to deal with those who think in other ways. He said he’ll be more of a collaborator.

In his first week on the job, he’s dealt with people, some angry, and learned to check his own feelings in response. It’s part of the maturation process, he said.

As mayor, he is not the only Bartie in high position. His son, Brandon, presides over the Port Arthur Independent School District board. He said he’s unsure if there’s ever been such a situation before, with a father in son in similar situations. The two did not realize the possibility was there until a month before his mayoral announcement: Brandon was rotating up to president.

The new mayor believes God had a hand in his election. He won’t take this opportunity lightly.

“Through all of that, God has made a decision to raise me up again,” he said.

It wasn’t something he’d foreseen, 15 years after his ouster from the court. But women from his church, where he serves as associate pastor, suggested he run. Willie Opelousas made the strongest case, he said, and he made his decision.

In three years, when his term ends, he hopes people in Port Arthur will have better job opportunities and a better quality of life, more “amenities” for living here.

He’s grateful to those who helped his campaign, but he’s made no deals with anyone along the way. His voice will be an independent one.

His first week in office was consumed with his duties as mayor during a storm, as Tropical Storm Barry threatened this city. He got some fast schooling on the subject, and will be ready should a storm make landfall.

There’s so much to learn, he said. But he’s been learning his whole life.