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Voice for the Environment

By Meagan Russell
In Bayou Icon
Mar 5th, 2020
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ARTICLE BY GEORGIANN POTTS AND PHOTOGRAPHY BY KELLY MOORE CLARK

Stuart Hodnett is a man on a mission.

After living a number of years in Tennessee, Hodnett felt the urge to “come home.” Although he had enjoyed living away, the need to return to his roots was compelling. A family member’s serious illness meant that he traveled to Monroe frequently over 4 years. Those visits reminded him of all that he had missed while living away. When he decided to return to Louisiana, Hodnett believed that the move was in answer to a calling from God to help his hometown. He chose working on environmental issues – recycling, litter abatement, and beautification – and has engaged countless citizens to make a difference with him. For his outstanding leadership in the environment, Stuart Hodnett is our March 2020 Bayou Icon.

Stuart Hodnett is 100% certain that Ouachita Parish is his home for good. Although he was born in Monroe at St. Francis Hospital and grew up in West Monroe, he lived out of state for a number of years afterward.


Hodnett considers his birth – and that of his 2 brothers and 1 sister – nothing short of a miracle, four to be exact. “My mom had ovarian cancer and was not expected to be able to have children,” Hodnett explains. “But a miracle happened and a new treatment spared her life. Even though the doctors said that she would never have children, here we are!”

CHILDHOOD MEMORIES
Among Hodnett’s earliest childhood memories is the smell of fresh dirt that accompanies the turning over of soil to break the garden in spring. He learned about gardening and recycling as a young boy when his father taught him how to compost and preserve the environment. He loved working in the family yard and garden, and enjoyed picking up things — items for compost as well as aluminum cans for extra money. Hodnett credits his father, Billy Joe Hodnett, with instilling in him the importance of living green and recycling. “My father grew up in Bosco, Louisiana, on the farm and often told us stories about growing gardens and hunting to survive and provide for his parents,” Hodnett explains. “He planted that seed in me.”


As a very young child, Hodnett could often be found playing alone with his Tonka trucks and bulldozers, shaping the landscape and forming levees and ponds. He loved working in the dirt. His neighbors, however, were not always appreciative of his efforts. “I can remember my neighbors just wondering what the heck I was doing in their back yards, digging holes!” Hodnett remembers with a chuckle.


Clearly, Hodnett’s parents were strong influences on him during his childhood. His father was an educator, working as a guidance counselor at Wossman High School first and then becoming a principal at Minnie Ruffin Elementary School. His mother, Janice Powell Earl, grew up in Texas until she was in high school and her family moved to Monroe. Her battle with cancer was an example of courage and faith for the entire family.


Hodnett’s parents were active in their church – the Downsville Baptist Church — where for 23 years his father was a music minister and his mother played the piano. “On Sundays and Wednesdays we drove 30 minutes each way on Sundays and Wednesdays to sing as a family, lead music, and sing in the choir,” Hodnett remembers. “We would also sing in different churches as a family during revivals.”


Hodnett grew up loving sports. He especially cherishes memories of playing football and baseball with his friends. From his father, he learned to hunt and fish – and how important both were for feeding a family. Because of those teachings, on most weekends Hodnett and his friends could be found in the woods or near the water enjoying the great outdoors and nature’s bounty.

MENTORS DURING FORMATIVE YEARS
Hodnett is quick to say that mentors during his childhood and teen years helped him achieve success as an adult. First on his list are the older men he knew at the Downsville church who had experienced WWII in the military. These men were pillars of the community who Hodnett admired. “They were hardened by the war and were extremely wise. They were followers of God,” Hodnett recalls.


Sports also introduced him to mentors. His next-door neighbor, D. J. Finley, helped Hodnett become the best that he could be when Hodnett pitched in the little league baseball club that Finley coached. Through Finley’s influence, Hodnett learned the importance of being true to yourself and always keeping your word.


Hodnett went to Drew Elementary, West Monroe Junior High School, and West Monroe High School, graduating WMHS in 1986. He remembers fondly his first grade teacher, Mrs. Baines, who taught him about the weather – a subject that fascinated the young boy.


While in high school, Hodnett joined the Interact Club and participated in their Ouachita River floodwall project. In this project, students cleaned and then painted designs on the floodwall, turning it from an eyesore to an art beautification project. He also was active in the Fellowship of Christian Athletes at WMHS where he developed the love of people and learned to serve others above himself. An attraction for belonging to both clubs for Hodnett was their concern for the environment.

LIFE CHANGES
Not long after his family built their own home on Peach Ridge Road in West Monroe in the late 1970’s (on McGowan’s peach farm – and they had to clear peach trees to build it!) things changed. His parents decided to divorce, with his mother remaining in West Monroe and his father moving first to Luna, then to Downsville, and later to Lake D’Arbonne. Hodnett remembers that there was a lot of moving during those years. There was a lot of love, too, especially because both sets of grandparents lived nearby. Although both of his parents have now passed away, Hodnett and his siblings remain very close.


After graduating from WMHS, Hodnett worked in Arkansas on a rice farm to earn college tuition. He studied at Louisiana Tech University (LA Tech) from 1987-1992 and earned a BS in business management. During his final year at LA Tech, Hodnett was called up from the Louisiana National Guard to active duty to serve in and participate in Operation Desert Storm. He served a deployment to Iraq for 6 months. “I came back home all grown up and a combat veteran,” he remembers. “I thank God every day for keeping me safe during that war. I appreciate life more now and am grateful for what I have every day.”


Also while at LA Tech during that final year, he met Paige Haynes from Waldron, Arkansas. They were both students at the University, and quickly discovered that they had a lot in common. They married in 1992 and had their first son Luke in 1996. Lane came in 1998, and Levi in 2004. The two have shared a life together that has been all about mutual respect and partnership. “I loved her from when I first met her, and I continue to love her to this day. We are a perfect fit,” Hodnett says.


Hodnett’s career path has been interesting. His first job – found through a Career Day at LA Tech – was with a finance company where he learned to deal with customers and money. Next he worked for Louisiana Machinery in Bossier City selling Caterpillar products. From there he moved to Memphis to work for another Caterpillar dealership. After 7 years, he moved to Nashville to continue working for Caterpillar for 4 more years. During the Caterpillar years, Paige was a great help with the paperwork Hodnett’s job required. In return, he helped her with their children and did “house dad” duty while she worked.

THE LAND CALLS
In 2008 Hodnett could no longer resist the urge to work in the dirt, nurturing plants. He and Paige made a major move, opening up their own landscaping company in Franklin, Tennessee. For 8 years they owned and operated the business, with their 3 sons working alongside. It was during this time that Hodnett’s mother fell ill and he began spending time in north Louisiana caring for her.


hile caring for his mother, Hodnett became aware of a Ouachita Business Alliance (OBA) initiative, Ouachita Green. OBA had designated beautification as one of its primary focus areas, and had tapped members Pat Moore and Joe Holyfield to head it up. One of the early successes of Ouachita Green was to begin coordinating the litter abatement and beautification projects already occurring in the Parish, but which were being done separately. Hodnett volunteered for some of those early Ouachita Green events, and even managed to attend some of their meetings, though infrequently. Hodnett remembers attending one of the first meetings for Ouachita Green and driving from Nashville to West Monroe and back home to Nashville all in one day! Though it made for a very long day, he knew that he had to do it.


Hodnett had come a long way. He was living in Nashville, singing with celebrities and recording CD’s with 3 different choirs. During that 16-year stint, he also acted in the ABC series “Nashville” for two years, appearing in a variety of roles over 15 episodes. These forays into the entertainment world provided him with a wonderful learning experience that he has never forgotten.

COMING HOME
After realizing that the time felt right to bring his young family back home, Hodnett packed up and moved to Ouachita Parish. Paige, although from Arkansas, already had strong connections with Monroe through her grandfather, the late Bill Ruple (legendary Neville High School Head Coach 1939-1974).


In May 2016, Hodnett realized a career goal – working professionally in the area he dearly loved: the environment. He became Ouachita Green’s first coordinator and began working immediately, bringing different groups together with the enthusiasm and dedication necessary to make a real difference in key environmental areas. His “day job” as coordinator was supplemented by his continued personal volunteerism for Ouachita Green projects such as the Great American Clean-up each spring and Water Sweep each fall. This past spring he added his volunteer time to the Household Hazardous Waste Collection at the University of Louisiana at Monroe.


Volunteerism and family have been major parts of Hodnett’s life since the earliest years. He cherishes both. When asked recently who he would like to have lunch with, living or dead, and what would he want to talk about, Hodnett did not hesitate. “I would have lunch with my father because he passed away 25 years ago without my having the chance to tell him goodbye,” Hodnett explains. “We would talk about the old times and what it means to be a father. I would tell him that I understand why he did what he did because now I am a father, too.”


An active volunteer in both the religious and secular spheres, Hodnett has served his fraternity at LA Tech (Pi Kappa Alpha), Brentwood Baptist Church, Thompson Station Church, the Greater Cool Springs Chamber of Commerce, Keep Louisiana Beautiful, Keep West Monroe Beautiful, and Ouachita Green. “Each volunteer opportunity will lead to something else that will continually build you up in faith and character to handle the next opportunity that comes your way,” Hodnett explains. “I encourage others to volunteer by sharing the vision that God has given me. That vision creates hope, change, and momentum.”


Hodnett believes that the biggest challenge facing us today in beautification is engaging people who understand what you are trying to do and then explain to them why it is so important. One of the first surprises that Hodnett had in his work with Ouachita Green was the sheer amount of trash and litter that accumulates just in Ouachita Parish. Just last year, 1,379 Ouachita Green volunteers collected 99,255 pounds.


The Hodnett’s live what they believe. They recycled before recycling was “cool.” All keep litterbags in their vehicles, and drink from reusable water bottles. They will only purchase plates and napkins that are made from recycled materials. Even though they recycle their paper and print on both sides, they are making every effort to go paperless.


While in some quarters the advances in technology are not always greeted with joy, that is not the case – entirely — with Hodnett. “Technology has made it easier to be more connected and engaged so it is easier to spread the word,” said Hodnett. “The downside of it is that it is harder to disengage to spend time with your family and to have some time for your non-work life.”


On those rare days off, Hodnett enjoys getting in a round of golf, running, and working out. He loves working in his garden growing plants, and especially enjoys making things “look nice.” As long as he is working with his hands, he is a happy man. When asked to describe a “perfect day,” Hodnett replies without hesitation. He would begin by sleeping in, then eat a light breakfast, spend some quality hammock time, run a few miles, and then build a fire and invite friends over to roast hotdogs, make s’mores, and visit.

FUTURE GOALS
Now promoted to the post of Ouachita Green’s first director and with four years experience under his belt, Hodnett has a plan. In the short term, he wants to continue the process of educating the community about litter abatement – especially our school children and young adults. Hodnett believes that educating the young and making them environmentally aware will go far in controlling the problem.


Hodnett sees the biggest immediate challenge to be litter abatement, and is actively inviting organizations, clubs, and church groups to create volunteer teams to address the litter problem. He is realistic, however, and knows that building a volunteer corps will take time and education. “I have learned very quickly that volunteers have their own timeframe and mindset, and that you cannot push them to do anything,” Hodnett explains. “You have to plant a seed and share your vision with them and then encourage, encourage, and then encourage even more.”


In the long term, he hopes to build on the region’s emerging recycling efforts and one day establish curbside recycling in our communities. “Recycling reduces litter on the highways and going into our landfill, it reuses materials that are readily available, it spreads environmental awareness, and it is just the right thing to do” Hodnett explains.


Because overall beautification is a key component to caring for the environment, Hodnett also wants to focus even more on beautification efforts along right of ways, sidewalks, and community entrance gateways. Planting more trees has been – and will be — a major part of these efforts. Because walking and running are important to him, Hodnett would also like to push for more greenway designations and walking trail development throughout our area.

WHAT’S NEXT
What will the next decade bring for Hodnett? He hopes that his life will continue to be filled with joy and love for his family and this community. Both he and Paige are looking forward to enjoying some grandchildren, and to slowing down some. They want to enjoy each day at a slower pace, instead of the rushed days that are theirs today.


And one day, when the time is right, they hope to slip away to some place warm and tropical. St. Thomas in the U.S. Virgin Islands and Grand Cayman in the Cayman Islands are at the top of their future travel wish list.


And those who know Hodnett best will realize that even in an idyllic setting like those islands, Hodnett will still have one eye open looking for an offending piece of litter to collect. Some habits never die.

“Each volunteer opportunity will lead to something else that will continually build you up in faith and character to handle the next opportunity that comes your way. I encourage others to volunteer by sharing the vision that God has given me. That vision creates hope, change, and momentum.” – STUART HODNETT