T.J. Jernigan was a guy that made you sit up and take notice. I have been in a state of disbelief since hearing of his death on Sunday. TJ served as the editor of Northwest’s Ranger Rocket, the student newspaper, in 2008-09.
When he walked in my office to ask about the editor’s slot, he already had bylines under his belt, from weekly newspapers in the state. He was serious about journalism, but always smiling.
That smile didn’t always hide his grief, having lost his sister not too long before coming to Northwest.
When we talked to TJ about his newspaper experience, he told us, “Jim Prince owns three newspaper companies here in Mississippi: Kemper County Messenger; Neshoba Democrat and Madison County Journal. After working for him, I realized that journalism is something I really love.”
While at Northwest TJ was named outstanding student in Journalism and was the recipient of the CPRAM (College Public Relations Association of Mississippi) Scholarship. He traveled with the PR staff to that state conference and spoke eloquently to a room full of seasoned journalists.
TJ wrote for the student newspaper, the yearbook, and his stories were sent out through the college’s Public Relations Department.
On the day his first newspaper came back, he jumped right in with delivery. Not long afterward I got a call from College President, Dr. Gary Lee Spears. “I was eating my lunch in the President’s home, and looked up and this guy with a dew rag on his head was standing in the foyer,” said Spears. “Can I help you,” Dr. Spears asked.
“Oh hey, Dr. Spears. What are you doing in here?”
“Well, I live here TJ. What are you doing in here?”
“Oh man, I thought I was in the education building. Oops.”
His byline gained national attention when he covered the story of Elvis’ John Deere tractor, which had been restored by Northwest Agricultural Technology students.
Over the years I have captured my share of awards—for writing, photography, service—but I was never as honored as I was when TJ chose me for the subject of his tribute speech—part of a final grade in speech. He said whenever he felt homesick, he would pull up a chair and talk to one of his PR Mamas, meaning LaJuan Tallo, Julie Bauer, Renate Ferreira and me.
After leaving Northwest he went on to study journalism and electronics at the University of Memphis.
The spring after he left us at Northwest, TJ sent us a message saying he had gotten his hand caught in the garbage disposal. We all shrieked. He even sent a picture of the gory, mangled fingers. It was April 1. “NOT funny, TJ,” we said. “PR mamas are faint at heart.”
I will miss my friend—sweet soul, beautiful boy, picker, singer, writer.