For Jelks, Paris Was Place To Stay

By Shannon McFarlin
P-I Staff Writer


elediv.gif (808 bytes)


jelks50.jpg (8279 bytes)


For Robert Jelks, the road to Paris was hardly a direct route.

It involved twists and turns, jigs and jags - and included a short, but eventful interval on a professional football squad - but once he finally found his way here, he stayed for the rest of his life.

In the process, he became one of the most respected coaches in Paris sports history.

Jelks grew up in the small town of Tylertown, Mississippi, which he is quick is to point out, lest you make fun of its size, was "a county seat, just like Paris."

He was endowed with ample God-given athletic abilities and after graduating from Lexie High School, he first attended Pearl River Junior College in Poplarville, Mississippi, then moved on to Union University in Jackson, thanks to athletic scholarships in both football and basketball at both institutions.

He also participated in baseball, track and boxing during his college years and met his future wife, Martha Frey, also of a Union alum who hails from Springfield.

After graduating with a bachelor’s degree from Union in 1938, he began looking for a job, quickly landing one as the football and basketball coach at Gleason High School.

After a year there, he moved on down the road to his old stomping grounds in Mississippi.

"I got a job in Sallis, Mississippi. You never heard of that, either?" he laughs. "Well that’s right on down there on Highway 51 - that was the major highway through the state when I grew up."

He coached both boys’ and girls’ sports there for two years, a tenure that was punctuated by his marriage in 1939.

After two years in Mississippi, "Martha said she wanted to come back to Tennessee, so when I found an opening at Lexington, we moved there.

Jelks stayed a year, "actually it was seven months," he laughed.
"They still let the kids out out of school for cotton picking time in the fall. And then in the spring, the kids would help their daddies plant. I just could not’t develop a team like I wanted.

Meanwhile invisible hands seemed to be pulling Jelks to Paris.
"I had a job offer to come to Grove High School my first year out of college, but by the time I heard about it, I had already accepted the job at Gleason.
"J.A. Barksdale, the principal at Grove, was following my career, it seems, and he heard I was looking again. He convinced me that Paris was the place." Paris was indeed the place, but only for a short while, World War II came calling and Jelks was ready to enter the service.

"I was preparing to go into the Navy after passing all my requirements, including the physical," but the Union University president and Jelks’ last college coach tracked him down at church Sunday morning, the day before he was to be inducted into the Navy.
Union University was one of ten colleges in the country chosen to be a college training detachment program for the Army Air Corps.
"They convinced me that I should be the physical education instructor for the program." Jelks agreed and immediately found himself immersed in whipping the program’s first class of 250 prospective cadets into "top physical condition."

After attending training in Mobile, Alabama, for four months, Jelks and his wife moved to the Union campus and Jelks started building obstacle courses for the cadets.

jelksfb.jpg (12536 bytes)


"We had 250 boys, half Yankees and half Southerners. Every morning, we excised for thirty minutes, did cross country for two and a half miles, then ran back to Death Valley - that’s what we called the football practice field - for the obstacle course. And that include 19 different obstacles.

"Then Uncle Sam decided we should double it, so we started doing one hour of exercise, five miles of cross country, and double the obstacles.

Of course, I had to do it right along with them. The Southerners would make fun of the Yankees because they couldn’t run as fast when it got to be July and August and was humid. "I had a lot of All-American athletes I was training," he said.

"One of my first guys was Jud Collins. He was a six foot-five inch athlete from Vanderbilt, which was big for those days. He went on to be a radio announcer for WSM in Nashville."

Jelks said a book was written about the program, which graduated 1,682 Air Corp Pilots.

After his two year stint with the program, Jelks had one last detour to make before finally returning to Paris for good.

"I haven’t told many people about this but when the program was over - this was July 1944 - my assistant at the Army Air Corps program talked me into trying out for the Brooklyn Tigers" professional football team. He was going to and thought I should, too."

He chuckles, remembering the training for the team.

"They did their training at the Abilene, Texas, Christian College. It was one hundred and ten degrees and hot and I was up against one hundred and five of the biggest rascals you’ve ever looked at. And I weighed one hundred and seventy-five pounds then."

The workouts were so tough, many of his fellow competitors ran out in the middle of the night. "You could hear the car motors starting after it got dark - a lot of those boys were moving out.

At the beginning, they were told "they were only going to keep thirty-three boys. And would you believe that old Jelks was one of them. I was picked to be third string; I played left end.

As fate would have it, the Tigers - which Jelks said were the forerunners of the New York Giants - scrimmaged with the Washington Redskins on the Texas Technological University football field one day "and I’ve never been as beaten up as I was that day, I was bloody."

Grove principal Charles Pitner, who had replaced Barksdale, called Jelks.

"He said, ‘I hear you’re playing pro football now. We want you to come back to Grove High School. Your absence here is about to expire.’

"I asked, Well Mr. Pitner, what would my salary be?’ and he said, ‘The same as when you left, one hundred dollars a month.’ Well, I complied with Mr. Pitner’s request, gladly.

"In those days we didn’t wear face masks. After that scrimmage my face was all bloody. My lips were turned the wrong side out. And I thought; Do I want to keep doing this?"

jelksmar.jpg (20937 bytes)


"I told the Tigers’ coach I had a job offer and he said, ‘ You can’t leave. You have already made the squad.’ He offered me one hundred and ninety dollars a month." But Jelks turned down the money and never looked back.

"So that’s the story of how I was a Brooklyn Tiger for one month. And, to tell you the truth, I was so proud to come back to Grove.

Part of the arrangement for Jelks and his wife was that they lived in one of the apartments at Cavitt Hall, which once stood across from the Tower Building on the Grove Campus. The caretaker lived in the other apartment.

"There had been a fire in Cavitt Hall an the renovated the whole thing. We lived in the apartment up there and that was first-class living; we had nice rooms, although we still had nature’s air conditioning."

During Jelk’s total eight years at Grove, he coached boys’ football, boys’ and girls’ basketball, track and boxing, in addition to teaching physics, chemistry, math and biology.

He also was awarded his Master’s degree from Peabody College in Nashville.

"For six of those years, I didn’t have any help coaching, but we kept adding programs. We had so many good kids, such good athletes, we could have a lot of good programs."

During his coaching years at Grove, his teams, both boys and girls, were high achievers, earning titles and accolades.

There were many high points of his coaching career, he said.
Among them were the undefeated season of the football team in the 1949-50 school year and beating Mayfield at football for the fist time in 1948, as well as beating Memphis Central, 21-20 in the Exchange Bowl in 1949.
The boys’ track team won the Big Ten championship in 1946 and the boys’ basketball team won the conciliation championship in 1945.

As Jelks looks over the newspaper clippings and scrapbooks from his coaching days, he points proudly to the athlete who made special achievements.

After his coaching years at Grove were over, he said, "Union came calling again and they wanted me to be a Unionite one more time." "I coached there for two more years and then they disbanded their football team," he laughed.

Returning to Paris a final time, Jelks bought the Paris Insurance Agency and has remained here ever since.

Asked why he quit coaching, Jelks says, "I just had all I wanted."

He said he officially retired in 1985, "but I still pay my respects up at the office quite a bit." His son, Bill, joined the business in 1981, became a partner in 1985, and is now in charge.

Jelks said that after retirement, "that’s when I really started working," becoming involved in a number of community projects, the first of which was the Save Grove Tower project. "The building had pretty much been abandoned," he said. "They tore down Cavitt Hall and a lot of us alumni couldn’t stand to see the shape Grove Tower was in.

"A few of us got together and decided we needed to do something. We decided we had to have someone in charge and I guess old Jelks was the sorriest one there, so I was named chairman. We formed a twenty-two-member committee." About $200,000 was raised, he said, thanks to community support, and Grove Tower was saved. "There were so many people that worked so hard on that."

A comprehensive list of Jelks’ civic achievements is difficult because of its length, but here are some highlights.
He has served as president of the Paris-Henry County Chamber of Commerce, president of the Paris Lions Club;Chairman of the E.W. Grove Endowment Fund, was named the chamber’s Man of the Year in 1978; Was president of the Paris Boosters, and has a room named for him at the Paris-Henry County Heritage Center.

He is a Shriner and York Rite Mason and is active in First Baptist Church, where he has been superintendent of Sunday School and taught classes.

A "very important part of my life" involves Union University, Jelks said, and he served for 21 years on the university’s board of trustees.

He also served ten years on the board of the New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary.

The Jelks family is large, with six children, 14 grandchildren and 11 great-grandchildren.
In addition to son Bill, the Jelkes children are Bobby, Beverly Appleton and Jennifer Teel, all of Jackson, and Barbara Moore of Memphis.
Their daughter, Cindy, died several years ago and Union University offers a scholarship in her memory which Jelks said "has helped support many Henry County boys and girls."

Their home is decorated with photographs of family members and Jelks points proudly to the walls of photos.
"There they all are, all the Jelkses. When everybody’s here, this place gets pretty crowded."


elediv.gif (808 bytes)


Paris, Tennessee
February 10, 2004  Edition
Used by permission ~ The P-I  retains  full  rights.