A small flag next to their garage greets back door guests at the home of Lee and Kim Graham. A message, printed in flowing lettering, reads, “Life is good.”
The Grahams’ peaceful home is nestled on a rural hillside in northwestern Itawamba County’s Houston Community. The busy schedules of their 14-year-old son, Briar, and 8-year-old daughter, Leah, keeps their home lively. Lee’s 19-year-old daughter, Tessa, attends Mississippi State University.
As it is for many long-haul truck drivers, it was common for Graham, 42, to give his wife a “Sunday goodbye kiss” before heading out on the road. On a cold January morning, the couple walked out on the porch of their home to carry out their farewell routine. For a brief moment, they discussed their future plans. Lee told Kim he wanted to take another shot at running for tax assessor in the upcoming election. He planned to head to the courthouse to qualify as soon as he returned home.
“He kissed me and said, ‘This is gonna be our year, Babe,’ and he headed out for Dallas, Texas,” Kim Graham said. Her husband’s enthusiasm and optimistic words still echo in her mind.
Within 48 hours, the Grahams’ lives would be drastically changed.
On Tuesday, January 8, Kim was about to head to Memphis to take Briar for his three-month checkup following a spinal fusion. He suffers from Scheuermann’s Disease and had undergone a the difficult surgery in late 2018.
“My phone rang and it was the dispatcher,” Kim said. “Lee had told him he didn’t feel right and I told him that Lee had problems with his sugar. He told me he was calling an ambulance and I needed to get to there as quickly as I could.”
She received a text from her husband shortly after that conversation that simply said, “I love,” and the words stopped.
“I knew when I got his text it was bad,” she said.
Kim made arrangements for her mother to take her young son to Memphis, and she headed to Dallas. As she made her way to the hospital, Kim received a phone call from the doctor. Her husband’s diagnosis was a massive stroke. His carotid artery was blocked and had blown out as the surgeon tried to clear it.
“After I made it to Dallas, they let me see him,” Kim said. “I just laid across his chest and begged God not to take him from me and the kids.”
The stroke was on the left side and frontal lobe of Graham’s brain. After the initial surgery, his brain began to swell and left surgeons no option but to perform a craniotomy, removing a large portion of his skull in order to save his life.
Lee remained on a ventilator for five days.
“The doctor told me he would never come off the vent, and he would need a feeding tube for the rest of his life,” Kim said. “We just kept praying.”
While Lee Graham was in intensive care, doctors began turning the vent down. To their surprise, Graham was breathing on his own. Their next step was to see if he could swallow. After determining he could, they began to sit him up.
“He was completely limp and could not hold his head up,” Kim Graham said. “But any way you look at it, it was still a miracle.”
Lee Graham spent two weeks at Baylor University Medical Center in Dallas and was then transferred to North Mississippi Medical Center (NMMC) for further treatment and therapy. However, the portion of his skull removed by doctors would remain in a freezer at Baylor until it was time to reattach it.
After eight weeks of hospitalization at NMMC, Graham was sent to Shepherd’s Clinic in Atlanta for specialized therapy and care.
Kim Graham stayed by her husband’s side throughout the ordeal and kept family and friends updated about his condition through social media. Lee Graham’s difficult recovery, and his wife’s role as caregiver, often left the couple exhausted. But the progress he was making gave them hope. Amid paralysis in his right arm, seizures, often unbearable pain and headaches, Lee Graham was improving daily. His determination was relentless. Then again, it always has been.
“He survived a widow-maker heart attack in 2011 and being struck by lightning five years ago, the man is killing me,” Kim laughed.
After surgery to reattach his skull followed by therapy, the Graham family was finally able to return home in late April.
“We were just so thankful,” she said. “If it had not been for family, friends, the community and the churches, we would have lost everything we had. We are just grateful.”
“Yeah,” Lee agreed. There were tears in his eyes.
Kim Graham was able to return to work five months after their ordeal began. A sitter takes Lee Graham to his speech therapy, occupational therapy and physical therapy three times a week. Although his steps are slow, he is making continual improvement.
Speech continues to vex him. With only a few words currently in his vocabulary, Lee Graham’s inability to communicate brings him great frustration.
Still, he’s often able to get his point across. The first word he spoke during his recovery was “damn.” He’s said it plenty of times since then.
“We don’t even consider it a cuss word in our house anymore,” Kim Graham said with a laugh. “He does get aggravated because communication is so difficult right now. The therapist told us it would take about two years to get him back.”
“Talk bad,” Lee Graham said – his way of explaining that he isn’t able to say what he needs to say.
According to Kim Graham, the scope of what her husband can and can’t do seems to lack both rhyme and reason. Simple tasks seem beyond him, while he handles more complex ones with ease.
“It’s funny,” Graham said. “He can stand there and show you exactly where a bolt goes to fix a go-cart, but he can’t fix his own supper plate.”
Lee laughed. “Yeah,” he said.
During their treacherous journey to find a new normal, Kim Graham said it never occurred to her that her husband could still read. She simply assumed he couldn’t. With his very limited vocabulary, there was no way he could tell her otherwise. No simple way, at least.
Ever resourceful, he found a way. When Kim Graham came home from work on election day wearing a sticker that said, “I VOTED,” her husband spoke up. In his own way, of course.
“I walked in, and he began pointing at the sticker,” she said. “I looked at him and said you can read that? And he said, ‘Yeah.’ He kept pointing at it and I asked him do you want to go vote? And he said ‘Yeah.’”
Exactly seven months after the couples’ lighthearted and promising Tuesday morning conversation about the election, Kim Graham drove her husband to the Houston Community Center to cast his ballot.
“He did everything on his own,” she said. “He has a vision cut, and I had tell him not miss the next column. But, outside of that, he did it.”
Graham had broken yet another personal barrier. He had the “I VOTED” sticker to prove it, too.
It’s a seemingly simple thing that means the world to the Grahams.
“Something like this changes you,” Kim Graham said. “Things I used to be afraid of don’t bother me anymore. Lee being able to vote was the best day ever.”
And the little flag with a big message was there to greet them as they pulled into their Houston home.
“Life is good.”
Voters will return to the polls, Tuesday, to finalize the Republican candidates for the supervisors’ races in the 1st, 3rd and 5th districts, and decide the winner of the 2nd District race.
Runoffs for the Republican primary election are set for Aug. 27. Polls will be open from 7 a.m. until 7 p.m. Only voters who cast Republican ballots during the Aug. 6 primary elections -- or didn't vote at all -- will be eligible to participate in the runoff election.
Local races featured on the ballot will include
Tuesday’s ballot will also feature a handful of statewide races. These include
Turnout for the Itawamba County’s Aug. 6 primary elections was low, with only 20.54% of the county’s 30,728 registered voters making it to the ballot box. According to the results released by the Itawamba County Circuit Clerk’s office, 6,313 voters cast ballots on election day.
The primary ballots featured seven unopposed races – the lowest number of contested races in decades – including all but one countywide race. Unopposed races included the races for 4th District supervisor, circuit clerk, chancery clerk, tax collector, county attorney, coroner and both justice court judge positions.
Incumbent sheriff Chris Dickinson will meet Fulton resident Glenn Jenkins in the November general election. Both ran unopposed in their respective primaries.
The Aug. 6 primaries decided local constables races. Incumbents Terry Johnson and Doug Lesley will both be returning to office.
Church has a long tradition of being seen as a sacred place, but with the increase of active shooter incidents and a recent shooting at a Tippah County church, many area churches are deciding that having security in place may be a necessity rather than an option.
“Hopefully we will never have a situation like that, but if it does, we can contain it quickly,” said Ricky Summerford, a member of the security team at Mount Pleasant Baptist Church, located in rural Itawamba County, approximately six mile northeast of Fulton.
The church is one of many throughout Northeast Mississippi that has reevaluated its safety measures in the wake of mass shootings across the country, including churches.
The congregation at Mount Pleasant began the process of incorporating an official church security team into their regular weekly services following the passing of the Mississippi Church Protection Act of 2016. Summerford told The Times the idea behind the team is to be a deterrent to anyone who might consider striking the church, which sees attendance of about 275 people on Sunday morning. They have an Emergency Action Plan developed that includes how to respond in the event of an incident, evacuation floor plan routes, and designated assembly areas for safety and accountability.
The church also has a team of around 25 people who act as a rotating security force. During service, two armed security team members rove the campus. Other duties include exterior door security and, in the event of an incident, evacuation assistance and active shooter response.
All team members follow the regulations set up by the state law, which include obtaining and maintaining conceal carry permits. All team members have to be approved by the church via vote.
“We are selective and careful in our process,” Summerford said.
The team is made up of current and former law enforcement, former military and private responsible citizens.
Mount Pleasant Baptist Church is one of a growing number of churches across the region that have increased security and armed members of their congregation in hopes of warding off a potential mass shooter.
In Tupelo, World of Life Church also has security at every service, according to church administrator Jan Columbus. Columbus said the church started having security and cameras in place a few years ago, and while it wasn’t in response to any one event, it was a response to the changing nature of the world and the threat of being shot anywhere.
“You can get shot at Walmart, you can get shot at the movies, at church,” Columbus said. “It is not uncommon anymore for those things to happen, so we just thought it would be a good measure to make the church secure for our congregation.”
Columbus said they don’t try to draw attention to the security measures in order not to alarm anyone, but they have a few people stationed on guard every service. Increasing security has helped make everyone feel more secure if something were to occur, Columbus said.
In New Albany, Hillcrest Baptist Church also has a security team and plan in place. Jason Blackburn, minister of children and media, said the church wants to be as “secure as possible” so people “know that it is a safe place,” and added that it is unfortunate that security is needed at church, but “evil is evil.”
Being part of a security team gives people a unique way to help the church and can be a ministry for them, and Blackburn said people with a law enforcement or military background can also benefit church security teams.
“It’s a great opportunity for them to be able to serve,” said Blackburn.
Pontotoc County churches have long seen benefits in having security teams in place, and many of the churches have security teams written in their church bylaws and decided by church members by voting and discussion.
“We take very seriously the responsibility to guard what God has entrusted to us,” said Jim Ray, missions director for the Pontotoc County Baptist Association. “Our mission, our first priority – always – is to proclaim the Gospel of Jesus Christ, which is peace, love, and forgiveness, but if we allowed just anyone to run over us, we’d be wiped out,” he said.
Carey Springs Baptist Church in Randolph and Pontotoc First Baptist Church have armed patrolmen in place.
West Heights Baptist Church also makes use of an armed team and cameras, and Valley Grove Baptist Church made sure its minister and deacon are trained in preparation for an active shooter threat.
Several churches in Monroe County are also taking measures to think about the security of their churches.
First United Methodist Church formed a task force in 2017, and the Amory Church of Christ uses cameras to boost security.
Gun-related violence is not the only reason some churches have increased security. In Aberdeen, a series of vehicle break-ins during church services caused several churches to add security and Monroe County law enforcement to perform checks.
First Baptist Church in Aberdeen has had a security team and system for years, according to Brother Dave Dowdy.
“I know the people who carry, and we have people walk the perimeter. We’ve not had a break-in since 2013 when I came, but that’s constantly on my mind. I see when people come in and I know who to call on,” Dowdy said.
Smithville Baptist Church has a team of trained volunteers and has had a response plan in place for about 10 years, said the Rev. Wesley White. With a congregation of 300, Reverend Danny Gladney of Pleasant Grove Missionary Baptist Church said he keeps alert and lets God guide him.
“You’d think what has happened nationally would never happen in Mississippi, but it has,” Gladney said.
And because of that, congregations like that of Itawamba County’s Mount Pleasant Baptist Church feel they must adapt.
“We just don’t live in the same world we did 25 years ago,” Summerford said. “We have to prepare for that.”
John Ward and Ray Van Dusen of the Monroe Journal, Tina Campbell Meadows of the Southern Sentinel, Galen Holley of the Pontotoc Progress and Josh Mitchell of the New Albany Gazette contributed to this report.
A Fulton man has been arrested and charged with the molestation of a minor following an alleged Tuesday afternoon attack in the city’s downtown park.
Christopher Johnson, 30, was arrested on Aug. 13 and charged with touching a child for lustful purposes after reportedly accosting a child in Fulton’s Playgarden Park. The incident happened at approximately 1:30 p.m.
Police Chief Mitch Nabors told The Times Johnson was taken into custody minutes after the alleged attack occurred. He was given an initial court appearance before Justice Court Judge Harold Holcomb, who set his bond at $25,0000.
In a Tuesday afternoon Facebook post, Morgan Michelle Bowden, who claims to have witnessed the alleged attack, said Johnson approached her while she was visiting the park with her daughter, step cousins and an adult relative. She claims Johnson spoke to her family aggressively, made suggestive comments, then grabbed the youngest child as she tried to flee.
By Wednesday morning, the post had been shared more than 1,700 times.
Nabors said a second man, who was mentioned in Bowden’s post, was questioned and released. He has not been identified.
Nabors said his office is still reviewing security cameras in the park that captured the reported attack.
On Wednesday morning, David Haynes, Pastor of Trinity Baptist Church, where Johnson reportedly attends services, told The Times that Johnson is a special needs adult. According to Haynes, Johnson suffered a traumatic brain injury after being involved in a vehicle accident at age 20.
“I have known Chris for three years,” he said. “He is a part of our church family and we try to care for him for the purpose of his own safety.”
Nabors stated that he could not comment or confirm whether or not Johnson is a special needs adult. That, he said, will be determined by a judge.
Johnson has been released on bond. Nabors said the case remains under investigation.