Man reflects on life while sharing treasure trove of stories

Published 8:06 am Sunday, April 9, 2023

BROOKHAVEN — In a white Jackson Hockey shirt, Joe Fernald reached out his hand in greeting inside the Lincoln County Courthouse close to where The Dart landed Wednesday. A former City Attorney, he is originally from Dorchester, Massachusetts, a suburb of Boston. 

There have been several points in his life where he found a moment to think and reflect on his life and the journey he has taken. Now he is a retired man living a life outside of the boardroom, law office or courthouse. 

A history nut, he would spend hours at one of the four libraries in Belmont, Massachusetts reading books on the Civil War and Churchill. Fernald is now a member of the historical society. 

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In 1958, he went to his first baseball game. Don Buddin hit a grand slam over the left field wall to beat the New York Yankees, Fernald said. He was able to talk to pitcher Whitey Ford during the game. 

He started working when he was 10 years old during the summers. One summer he worked on a garbage truck, it paid well, was an interesting job and he got off by 3 p.m. so he could go play baseball in the evenings. Fernald also worked at St. Dominick’s Golf Course in Dorchester but the job was more of a punishment. 

“One of my friends Tommy Green was good at playing golf. He would shoot eight or nine over par but was only 13 at the time,” Fernald said. “I got mad because I was not as good as him. I threw my dad’s golf clubs into the pond on the 13th hole and then decided to wade in to get them. As I was lifting the bag out of the water, the coure president, pro and greenskeeper rolled up in a golf cart. They told my dad and he forbade me from playing golf. I could only work there and learned some tricks which helped my game.”

In high school, he was the tri-captain of the No.1  track team in New England and competed as a long distance runner. His fastest mile time was 4:34.1 but his friend Mike beat him right at the tape. 

Hockey, baseball and football were other sports he played. Football is his favorite sport and one he understood well. He was a deep safety, rover and place kicker. Two of his teammates went on to play in the National Football League. 

In a strange way, hockey is what brought him to Mississippi. He played goalie at Sacred Heart but was not the best skater. Goalies usually need to be the best skater on the team, and he took a beating in goal. One game he suffered a skull fracture and did not know it for about 10 minutes until he saw the blood on his uniform. A referee stopped the game. The injury culminating with his father moving to Saucier brought him down to the south. 

While Ole Miss and Oxford might have been the best fit culturally to his Boston upbringing, Fernald was intrigued by Southern Miss in Hattiesburg. 

“I asked my dad, ‘What is a Hattiesburg?’ I wanted to be somewhere I could come back to the house and Saucier was only an hour away. It worked for me,” Fernald said. “I went to school and played handball with Ray Guy. I enjoyed Southern Miss and met my wife there.” 

His degree was in radio, television and advertising but it was one he did not use. Vietnam had hit a fever pitch by 1972 and he was selected to go to the Naval Aviation School in Pensacola. The last hour of the last day before he left for Gulfport to drop off his belongings and head to Pensacola, he stopped by his wife’s apartment. She was working with the Special Olympics and needed his help, they hit it off, got married and have been together for 50 years. 

Fernald said it was a chance meeting. Wanda Reeves Fernald was born and raised in Lincoln County and has been his biggest supporter throughout his adult life. 

“I probably owe more to her than anyone I know in the world,” Fernald said. 

In Pensacola, he was training to one day fly the F-4 Phantom. The navy was graduating 100 people a week per class in Pensacola. He trained until they told his class they did not need them. Fernald said his father told him he would have a hard time advancing in the military as he was not an academy man, nor was he going to fly a plane in combat. He left the navy and came home to Hattiesburg. 

It worked out for him because he originally wanted to be on a ship anyway like his father had served. Once home, he went to work at a hardware store and took over their inventory. Eventually, he took a job as the district executive for Boy Scouts and he moved his family to Lincoln County. 

The first day with Boy Scouts he was shoveling out a septic tank at a camp near Jackson. A co-worker asked him if he ever thought he would be digging with a shovel on the job while he sat in classes working towards a degree. 

“I told him I just like to work. If you can do it, do it,” he said. 

After Boys Scouts, he worked as a banker with Brookhaven Bank and First Federal Loans under the leadership of Ray Davis, Becky Vaughn and Jerry Rein. They named him vice president of bank expansion and he built the present day Trustmark location. 

Pursuing a career in law

Jimmy Moreton was a good friend and mentored him. He also allowed Fernald to study law school. Fernald said he was tired of hiring lawyers who could not answer the questions the banks needed answers too. 

“I went at night for five years. I had a young son and daughter. My wife ran the roost while I would work in the yard and study on the weekends. I had to be at work and have my reading done for the following week,” he said. “Mississippi College helped me too. They knew my schedule and helped me out a bit. I graduated in 1987.” 

His law education was in administrative law because he had aspirations of handling law for the federal government. He was licensed in 1987 and retired in 2022 capping off a 35 year career. The first case he was a part of was the First Federal merger case. He had written the oral argument and the lawyer he was serving alongside told him he was on his own. Six months later, the Federal Home Loan Board offered him a job in Dallas. 

“I didn’t want to move my family to Dallas,” he said. “Being a military child, my father was gone a lot. My tough days growing up was Father and Sons day at Fenway Park because he was gone. I thought it was better for my family if I stayed in Brookhaven.”

On January 16, 1991, he was eating birthday cake as he celebrated 40 years with his family. On the news, he watched on the television as F-4 Phantoms helped launch Operation Desert Storm by carrying out aerial strikes. 

“A lot of times in life you never know if you made the right decision,” he said. “I was 40 and I knew I had made the right decision to leave the Navy. I would have missed combat in Vietnam and been too old to fly in the Gulf War. It was a self satisfying feeling. I would have missed it all if I hadn’t left.”

Mayor Bill Goldbolt named him city attorney as an interim replacement in Godbolt’s third term. It was a job Fernald was trained for at Mississippi College. A city attorney has to understand the process of government and how things get done. His ability to anticipate what others would do served him well in the role. 

While he tried anything from divorces to felony cases, he enjoyed the government work. He is proud of a few things in his law career. Providing counsel for the annexation for Brookhaven, getting the Walmart distribution center done and working with Godbolt to bring the Mississippi School of the Arts to Whitworth College. 

“I’m still proud of that work because it was important and needed to be done,” Fernald said. “Godbolt deserves credit for MSA. It has since blossomed. Johnny Roberts played a role too. He had a vision that it could be something other than a walking park.” 

Godbolt introduced Jim Lovell to Fernald at an event on the Mississippi Gulf Coast. Lovell was the test pilot for the F-4 Phantom and was a crew member on Apollo 13. Fernald was able to talk with his personal hero about flying for 30 minutes. 

When he first started working in law, Dick Stratton took him under his wing. Stratton worked until the day he died and Fernald swore he would never work like that. Instead, he wanted to enjoy something in his life. 

Now in retirement, he plays a little bit of golf, gardens and paints figurines. He used to paint cigar statues, his favorite was an indian holding a rifle and a hawk overhead it was the best job he had ever done. 

Anyone who had sat in his law office over the years would have seen 548 pictures, seven cigar statues and replicas of the White House, the US Capitol, the Lincoln Memorial and Fenway Park. He has also collected 134 antique hickory golf clubs.

Schnauzers and a Yorkshire Terrier fill his home now. 

“I love them,” he said. “One of them we reclaimed from the street. It walked up into the driveway, sat down and looked at me. I told him he got to live here now. He was a good dog, Slim Pickens.” 

A love for sports

A great amount of sports stories and knowledge flow out of his memory. In college, Fernald attempted to block shots from Boston Bruins legends Bobby Orr and Phil Esposito at a training camp. He was able to speak with Willie Mays for 34 minutes and once bought a beverage for Mickey Mantle. 

One of the strongest memories he has in sports was watching Game 4 of the 2004 World Series at Busch Stadium in St. Louis. Boston swept the St. Louis Cardinals to vanquish the Curse of the Bambino, a curse explaining why the Red Sox went 86 years from winning a world series. The Red Sox last World Series win prior to 2004 was in 1918. 

It so happened Game 4 was played on the 18th anniversary of the Red Sox losing to the New York Mets in Game 7 of the 1986 World Series. A lunar eclipse occurred during the game and the Budweiser Clydesdales raced around the field between one of the innings which added to an eerie feeling. Boston had gone up 3-0 early in the game, Fernald said he thought the world might be coming to an end. When the final out was recorded, he was left speechless. 

“A lady asked me why I wasn’t celebrating. I told her I was thinking about all of the people who died waiting on the Red Sox to win the World Series. So many of those people would take us to games and I just found it hard to believe we had won,” Fernald said. “I’ve never been anywhere where the fans were better. That year in St. Louis, I had never been around truer fans who congratulate you. All I could think about was those people who missed it.”