What started as a part-time job for a Mississippi mom of two has evolved into 40 years of civic service
Forty years ago, Martha Sue Roberts, a Vicksburg native and at the time a young mother of two, came to work for the city of Vicksburg in the planning department.
Fast-forward to Dec. 22, and the Board of Mayor and Aldermen’s final meeting of 2017. Roberts, now secretary for South Ward Alderman Alex Monsour, was honored by the board for her service to the city that has spanned the administrations of five mayors and four South Ward aldermen.
But when Roberts went to work for the city and city planner Jimmy Gouras in 1977, she was interested in working part-time because she had a 1-year-old and a 4-year-old at home.
She worked in the planning department for a year, before going to work as secretary for then-Mayor Travis Vance.
“His secretary was getting married, and he wanted somebody up here that he knew; (and) I had known Mr. Vance for a few years.
“But before I could do that, I had to get OK’d by Miss Marie Pantiliano; she was the city clerk, and she actually ran the city. She had to approve everything. She was the only city clerk I knew from the time I came here until she retired. She trained all of us. I was never afraid of disappointing my bosses as I was of disappointing Miss Marie.”
At that time, Roberts said, the city didn’t have the computer technology it now has, “So we relied on Miss Marie’s knowledge for everything. If there was anything you need to know about the city, you went across the hall and asked Miss Marie.”
Roberts was the secretary for the full board.
“We had a receptionist out front, and we answered all the phones for the city of Vicksburg; all the outlying departments, everything.
“We didn’t have an action line. The main number rang here, the aldermen’s numbers rang here, and any other of the outlying departments rang here and we transferred them. It was interesting, and being as young as I was when I came up here, you learn so much; you didn’t have computers and you didn’t have cell phones.”
And Vance, she said, was a very hands-on mayor. He had been in construction before he was elected mayor, Roberts said, “So he was very interested in anything construction-wise, and one of his favorite projects was Mission 66, which went on while he was here.”
“He would go out every day and take Miss Marie and some of the ladies with him to see how it was progressing. And he was the first mayor to really work close with Jimmy Gouras and the (city) engineer at that time, who was Garnet Van Norman Sr. I think they were working even back then to try and improve infrastructure and transportation routes and trying to modernize.”
Working at City Hall at the time, she said, seemed simpler.
“You knew everyone. I had a lot more contact with our outlying departments. I served as the secretary to the mayor and aldermen. But that was so easy, because they were all right here.
“Any correspondence or anything they needed done, they were so accessible, and I was secretary to the civil service commission and the board of architectural review, the beautification commission.”
She said the personal contact, especially with the departments like public works, utilities and recreation, is something she misses, because she doesn’t have as much contact with the outlying departments as she once had.
“You used to work day to day, and you’d go in, and you kind of knew everybody and what was going on. Now they text you or send you an email; it’s not as personal.”
Roberts said the aldermen began having their own secretaries during the first administration of Robert Walker.
“Mr. Walker did a lot more outside the office; he was more involved with the (Jackson State) university and speaking engagements. So he hired an assistant and then I just went to the alderman.
“That was when each alderman started getting their own secretaries. I started working for the South Ward alderman, and the North Ward alderman had a secretary and the mayor had a secretary. I still had the civil service board and the board of architectural review.
Roberts’ first South Ward alderman was Wayne Smith. He was followed by aldermen Sam Habeeb, Don Miller and Sid Beauman. Monsour followed Beauman.
Beauman, she said, “Was a money man. He studied the budget. He was the recreation director before he was elected.
“Once he came up here, he tried to be more financially responsible. It was a good thing. He wanted to know everything that went on. He and (former mayor) Laurence Leyens shared a vision to take the city to the next level.
“He was very serious; all business. Wayne Smith, was a former recreation director and was more concerned with the Recreation Department.”
Monsour, she said, “Reminds me so much of the early days up here. Alex is real hands-on; he wants to know how his departments are doing, he wants to know who’s in his department.
“He has a good rapport with the staff. He tries to establish a good rapport working together with someone. He wants the board to function. He tries to work where the board can get things done. If you look back at all the times I’ve been here, the most productive boards are the ones that try to find something they can have in common, where they can work together.”
Looking back on her years with the city, Roberts said “I don’t think I could have worked any place other than the city and experienced the sense of accomplishment and depth of frustration and then seeing something so that benefits your community so much.
“I just don’t know any place you could work and have the diversity. The people are what makes an organization successful, and our city so successful. We’ve had so many smart people here who have had a vision of what we could be, and Engineers and planners who could make things happen.
“I have enjoyed my time. The city’s fortunate. We have very, gifted people who work behind the scenes. When call a department, I have no doubt they will do what they say they’re going to do. It’s like family.”