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Passion for Life and Love

By Meagan Russell
In Bayou Icon
Feb 1st, 2022
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ARTICLE BY GEORGIANN POTTS
PHOTOGRAPHY BY KELLY MOORE CLARK

Chief Jimmie Bryant and his wife, Renita, understand the importance of working hard to achieve dreams. Following the examples set especially by their mothers before them, the Bryant’s have embodied the idea that if something is worth having, then it is worth working for. 

Both are living remarkable lives that are enriching this community and positively impacting many lives on a daily basis. Chief Bryant serves as Chief Operating Officer (COO) for the City of Monroe, bringing to that position the depth of management experience in public service necessary to ensure success in that demanding position. Having served previously as the first African American Fire Chief for the City of Monroe, Bryant is experienced in Monroe City operations. Bryant is credited with leading the Monroe Fire Department to obtaining a Fire Protection Class One rating, the highest designation a city fire suppression service can receive. This was accomplished during a time of great challenges within the organization. Bryant received the BCOC 2006 Fire Chief of the Year Recognition made up of black fire chiefs throughout the country as well as the 2010 Louisiana State Fire Chief of the Year Recognition from the Louisiana Fire Marshall’s Office. Renita Bryant, APRN, FNP-C is serving as a Nurse Practitioner at the Morehouse General Hospital Rural Health Clinic. Like her husband, she brings to this position decades of experience and the caring, compassionate personality that working to help others requires. Because of their unselfish service to their faith, their family, and to this community, Jimmie and Renita Bryant are our February Bayou Icons.

From Humble Beginnings

Jimmie describes his late parents, Nehemiah Bryant Sr. and Hattie Mae Phillips Bryant, as “. . . amazing and God-fearing parents” who worked hard to provide for their children. They met while acting as chaperones for Nehemiah’s younger brother and Hattie’s younger sister. Whenever the couple was together, the chaperones had to be present. “During this time, my parents began talking to each other and eventually fell in love and married,” Jimmie explains. 

Renita Bryant remembers her late parents, Andrew Smalley and Verdell Turner Smalley, with the same love that Jimmie remembers his. Her parents met in church where Andrew was a gospel singer. Her father was born in Keithville, Louisiana, and attended school through junior high. Her mother was born in Bethany, Louisiana, and attended Central Colored High in Shreveport. They divorced when Renita was 15, and her father moved back to Keithville where he remained until his death in 2012. Her mother lived in the same home in Shreveport for decades, only moving a few blocks in the 1990’s. She passed away in 2017.

Renita says that her mother always encouraged her to try. “She would say, ‘If it’s worth having, it’s worth working for!’” Renita says. “She was right.” Her mother worked as a homemaker and domestic worker when Renita was small, but when Renita became a teenager, her mom was working as a seamstress and florist.

Renita was the third of four children born to her parents. There was one older sister and one older brother, then Renita, and then a baby sister. “We were all very different,” Renita says with a smile. Each has enjoyed a successful career – her oldest sister was a teacher’s assistant, her brother was in the Navy and is now working for the Dillard Corporation, and her younger sister works in corporate compliance for a large medical corporation.

Jimmie’s father was born in Gilliam, Louisiana, a rural community in North Louisiana, and grew up there. He finished 10th grade and then studied welding and molding at Trade School. When he completed that training, he enlisted in the U.S. Army and served in the Infantry during World War II after which he received an Honorable Discharge. He enjoyed a successful career as a welder at the Brewster Foundry in Shreveport until strokes forced his early retirement. “My father was a giant of a man although he was roughly 5 feet 8 inches in height. The way he carried himself (humble and soft-spoken, yet firm) and cared for his family earned the respect of all who knew him,” remembers Jimmie. 

Jimmie’s mother was born and reared in Hosston, Louisiana, and attended the local schools there. Her father died when she was eight years old. The second of four children, her responsibility to help her widowed mother around the house was to prepare the family meals. When his mother was asked how she learned to cook so well. Jimmie says that she would softly say, “You wouldn’t believe how much food I threw away. If it didn’t taste good to me, I wouldn’t feed it to anyone else, so I would start over until I got it right.” She taught all her children how to cook at young ages. Jimmie shares her love and talent for cooking – especially when baking cakes. Jimmie’s grandfathers were farmers, and both died at young ages. His maternal grandmother was a sharecropper, and his paternal grandmother was a homemaker. His mother primarily worked as a housekeeper in private homes until she retired. 

Jimmie’s mother entered the workforce fulltime during the last few years of his father’s life when he could no long work. His father had told his mother when they married that “he would never make a bill where he would expect one penny of her money to pay for it. His job was to take care of her.” He did that for as long as he was physically able. Much of her time was spent caring for Jimmie’s father and her children after his strokes. Jimmie’s father had his first stroke in 1958, the year Cathy was born. This was the beginning of many trips to the Veterans Administration Hospital. He continued to work to care for the family, but eventually suffered additional strokes. Jimmie and Nehemiah Jr. were born during these times fulfilling his dream of having sons. 

Jimmie fondly remembers the times his father would have the boys take his wheelchair outside and place it next to the family car and then help him get into the wheelchair. There he would teach the boys about car repairs. The boys in the family and neighborhood would gather around the car as he taught them from his wheelchair how to put brake shoes on a car and do oil changes. As the strokes got progressively worse, he eventually had to retire from his job with the Brewster Foundry. At age 50, Jimmie’s father died in the Veterans Administration Hospital in 1970. 

After Jimmie’s parents married, their siblings who had required chaperones years before, were also married. Both couples purchased two homes on one lot and raised their families in the Cooper Road community. Jimmie describes them as “a remarkably close and unique family.” Jimmie’s parents had six children, and his aunt and uncle had ten children. Although cousins, they were basically reared as siblings, just in separate households. Jimmie’s mother remained in her home until she was no longer able to live alone. Jimmie remembers the family celebrating Thanksgiving and Christmas together, a small group but with lots of food and family stopping in for fellowship. Jimmie’s mother was a loving matriarch until her death in 2010.

Jimmie was the fifth child and eldest of their sons. He and his younger brother, Nehemiah, shared a room and floor pallets and were very close while growing up. They still are today. Nehemiah served as Best Man in Jimmie and Renita’s wedding, and Jimmie says that his little brother is still his best friend.

The two boys had to share their parents with four older sisters – not always an easy task! Shirley, Fannie, Dorothy, and Cathy did their best to help their younger brothers however they could. There were definite advantages for the boys having older sisters — like getting their hair cut for free and, when they were in high school, having a car to borrow. 

All of Jimmie’s siblings attended college and his sister, Fannie, was the first in their family to graduate from college. When she graduated, she bought a brand-new Buick Skylark and took Jimmie for a drive. She allowed him to drive her car, and because she thought he was doing so well, she let him drive home and into the driveway to show their mother. “My ego got the best of me and I wrecked her car,” Jimmie remembers. In spite of that mishap, he went on to become an excellent driver! His sisters and his brother have all enjoyed successful careers in insurance, manufacturing, or government service.

Memories Growing Up

  Renita remembers holidays as being large family gatherings. Because her mother was the “favorite family cook” food was always plentiful. At Christmas, dressing and cakes (fruit, nut, and German chocolate) were the stars. Summer holiday gatherings for Juneteenth and July 4th featured barbeque and homemade ice cream. 

Because Renita’s mother was an accomplished seamstress, shopping trips to any store other than the fabric store were rare. Still, Christmas and Easter “. . . always brought a shopping trip to Selber’s or Toy Fair for Stride Rites!” Renita remembers with pride that until she became a teenager and started working earning her own money, her mother stitched nearly every piece of clothing she wore.

Among their favorite childhood memories, two stand out for the Bryant’s. For Jimmie, it was making the 30-mile trip on First Sundays with the family every month to attend worship service and attending the annual Saint Mark Baptist Church Anniversary in Mira, Louisiana. This was his mother’s home church, and she would join with the other ladies of the church to bring food for everyone – members and guests — for a meal after a special church anniversary service. “This small country church didn’t have restrooms nor a dining hall,” Jimmie recalls. “We used outhouses and the food was served from the trunks of their cars. When I think back, it shows me what can be done with a just a little. It makes you appreciate things more when you do have something better.”

For Renita, it was a driving trip across America from Shreveport to Los Angeles with her family to visit her favorite aunt in the late 1960’s. It marked the first time she had traveled much further than Shreveport. “We packed the car, packed food, and then all of us packed ourselves in the car,” she remembers. “It was not the safest thing to travel across country as a black family, but leave it to my mother. She made up her mind, and off we went!”

Both remember their childhoods as being happy times filled with love and strong mothers who cared for their families. Jimmie describes his childhood as a simple time because family resources were limited. His father had gotten sick at a young age and was later severely disabled by a massive stroke. “I remember playing with my brother on the benches at the VA hospital for what seemed like hours,” Jimmie says. He also remembers trading bike parts with kids in the neighborhood so that he could build a bicycle. Other pastimes included yard football, basketball, foot races, and throwing rocks (which he admits sometimes didn’t turn out well). 

Renita’s childhood was a time filled with family and church. She spent many days in the rural areas around Shreveport, especially Keithville (her dad’s home) or Bethany (where her mom was from). She went to church with her mother in Bethany, which was about a 40-minute drive from home. They visited several times a week for church and family.  

“There was always something going on — a Bible drill at church, Sunday evening Baptist training union, Vacation Bible School, and various youth programs,” Renita says. “We also enjoyed visiting my grandparents where the garden provided vegetables and the farm animals provided meat. I lived the tale of two lives — one in the city attending public schools, and then the other as a weekend rural warrior!”

Both are grateful to a number of people who came into their lives as mentors and close friends. Several high school teachers — Rudy Carly, Elmo King, Carl Pierson, Al Dennis, and Mr. Asher – were all positive influences. Mr. Asher, a history teacher and former athlete, told Jimmie that he knew that Jimmie could do better. As a result of that encouragement, Jimmie did do better. Several relatives — James Bryant (older cousin), and Robert Moore (brother-in-law) — were all important to Jimmie. “My brother-in-law Robert taught me to drive a standard shift, to fish, gave me advice, loaned me clothes, and generally filled in some of the gaps in my life where a father would have been,” Jimmie remembers with gratitude.

Renita remembers the women in her church, her older sister, and her aunts and cousins as important influences. “I was chaperoned, instructed, and given financial support that I now understand did not come easy for any of them,” Renita says. “I am eternally grateful.” She also had special teachers who “made a difference” for her. These included Mrs. Jessie Ferdinand and Mrs. Luberda Myers who both encouraged her to volunteer and give back even when she thought that she had nothing to give. During college, Renita came under the influence of Ms. Doris Welch, graduate advisor for Renita’s sorority, Alpha Kappa Alpha. “Ms. Welch talked the talk and walked the walk,” Renita says. “She was a great example of professionalism and was a volunteer extraordinaire.”

Love and Marriage, Finally

Although they both grew up in a section of Shreveport called “Cooper Road,” Jimmie and Renita didn’t meet until junior high school where they became friends. They began dating during their senior year in high school but broke up when she went to college. Both agree that their courtship was “long, and off and on.” When asked recently if it was love at first sight, Renita said with a smile, “Maybe not. But he was the boy every girl wanted. He had the biggest afro.”

When Renita graduated from Northeast Louisiana University (now ULM) in 1982, the couple married. The ceremony was at Renita’s family’s home church just across the Texas state line with close friends and family present. Renita’s mother told them all well in advance that the wedding was going to start on time, no matter who hadn’t arrived yet. “We will start without you,” she had warned them all. Jimmie was almost an hour late, the wedding took place and they are still married! 

The Bryant’s have two children, a daughter, Camille R. Bryant, a successful attorney and active volunteer in New Orleans, and a son Jimmie II, and wife Maudie, who is a radio engineer for a Shreveport radio station and is also an active volunteer. He was recently named Volunteer of the Year for Louisiana for his work with Shreveport Green. A special delight for them is Apollo Ray Bryant, a three-year-old grandson who Jimmie says is “all boy.” Jimmie and Renita relish their new roles as Poppy and GiGi.

Career Paths

Both Jimmie and Renita respect education and have continued to learn throughout their lives. While in school, Jimmie’s favorite subjects were history and civics. Renita’s favorite was English. Jimmie’s focus was fire science and Organizational Management. He attended LSU-Eunice to further his studies and graduated from Wiley College in Marshall, Texas, with a B.S. in Organizational Management. He believed that a degree would open more doors for him if he ever sought an upper management position. He also went through the National Fire Academy Executive Development Program and attended numerous seminars and workshops for professional development. Continuing his education was an important decision that has served him well. 

  Renita’s choices were first business and then nursing, although today – looking back on her early interest in business – she says, “I don’t know what I was thinking!” She went on to earn degrees in nursing from Northwestern, ULM, and a Master’s in nursing from Grambling State University.

    When Jimmie was in high school, he was first introduced to firefighting as a possible career. “Two recruiters came (R. O. Jones and Maurice White) and asked me to consider a job in that field,” Jimmie says. Two years later, Jimmie applied to the Academy and was accepted. It was the beginning of what was to be a long and very successful career in firefighting that would lead to serving (beginning at age  37) as Fire Chief for the City of Monroe 15 years. Along the way, he became a paramedic and saw physical and mental suffering firsthand. Although he admits that sometimes he misses the adrenaline rush that came with those emergency calls, he enjoyed even more changing young lives and raising community expectations when he became Fire Chief. Today, as Monroe’s COO, he has an even bigger opportunity to do those things on a much larger scale.

Renita’s compassion for others was evident from the very beginning of her nursing career and continues to be obvious today. Her experiences have ranged from caring for patients awaiting heart transplants at Willis Knighton in the MICU to teaching patients in rural communities how to improve their quality of life, prevent disease, and make better decisions about their diets, medication, and exercise. Her important work at the Morehouse General Rural Health Clinic has seen that facility remodeled, stocked, staffed, opened, and successfully inspected by the State.

There was a time when Renita’s medical training was put to the test right at home. Jimmie suffered a stroke in 2018 and Renita was his rock. To help him recover, she drove the couple in California to see the Mariposa Grove, the largest group of giant sequoia trees in Yosemite National Park. She was determined he should see them, and bravely drove in the mountains even though she is afraid of heights.

After years of coaxing, Renita finally got Jimmie to agree to go on a cruise. They went to Cozumel and, according to Renita, Jimmie ended up enjoying it even more than she did! During the cruise, they toured, participated in the Great American race on the island of Cozumel, had a special meal at the Captain’s Table, and even got fake tattoos! On their bucket list are an Alaskan cruise and trips to Venice and Africa.

About 15 years ago, Renita began quilting. She loves the craft and spends as much time as her career allows. She has made several quilts and looks forward to retirement “someday” when there will be more time to do it. Jimmie loves to play golf, something he started over 25 years ago. Other passions include “hot rodding” and playing chess. The two of them enjoy watching sports together (the Saints, collegiate football and basketball).

Even in the middle of two hectic careers and with children still at home, Jimmie and Renita included volunteering in their lives. Today is no different. They get satisfaction in knowing how their help to individuals and groups can help so many others. They prefer to donate privately, without fanfare or personal recognition. Renita says, “These experiences have taught me how blessed we are, and how blessed we continue to be. To whom much is given, much is required.”

      After decades of public service, both understand that the rewards of that service are not measured in money, but in the tangible way lives have been changed for the better among those who couldn’t help themselves. As Renita says, “We pay now through study and hard work, and we play later.”  

      Both have been recognized for their good works by their peers, but nothing has honored them more than the countless blessings that they have received in their own lives. Jimmie says, “I have been recognized by my peers and have tried to honor those who had trust and faith in me. My path has allowed me to make a real difference for many, and for that I am grateful.”

     Renita loves a quote often attributed to John Wesley, an English theologian: “Do all the good you can, by all the means you can, in all the ways you can, in all the places you can, at all the times you can, to all the people you can, as long as ever you can.”

Without doubt, Jimmie and Renita Bryant have lived their lives according to this principle. Our community is blessed to have them living and working among us.