Thank You for Being a Friend
By Terry Hanley
Cover photo by Jennifer Robison.
Trust, loyalty, dependability. These are all characteristics that we hope to find in the people that we call friends. For those of us fortunate enough, we form bonds with others that last our whole lives.
I have a core group of friends that I have known, some since elementary school, that I love and cherish as the true treasures of my life. Nothing material can replace the connections that I have with these men and women.
One in particular, Anthony Crayton, I have know since we attended school together in the early 1980s. He had always lived in the area, but transferred to Bellaire Elementary from Waller Elementary in the summer of second grade. His family had just moved off of Barksdale Air Force Base and into the Pecan Park subdivision in South Bossier City. When we first met, I remember riding our bikes around the block until the streetlights came on, talking about sports and movies. As we talked more, discovering commonalities, a connection formed. When you know someone for over a quarter of a century, friendships becomes kinship; family and friendship become blurred.
Every year, Friendship Day is celebrated on the first Sunday in August, so in honor of that, we gathered some local kindred spirits to talk about their shared experiences, continuous camaraderie, and what brought and keeps them together.
Hanna Courtney and Jenni Smith
Jenni and daughter MacKenzie Smith and Hannah Courtney and daughter Isabella Payne-Courtney
“Family is good, but you are just supposed to love your family,” said Hannah Courtney. “We get to choose who we want to spend our lives with, and to me that is the best part.”
Courtney and her friend of over 20 years, Jenni Smith, met when they were in elementary school in McLeod, Texas.
“We were kind of had no choice but to be friends,” Smith said. “There were only 20 students in the entire grade.”
Both remember spending most of their younger days at Smith’s parent’s home because of its proximity to the school, which was located across the street. The girls would have sleepovers there, then wake up and walk to school in the mornings.
“I remember she had a sleepover — and, mind you, we do not do makeup for [our daughters] at this age — so for us to have a sleepover and do each others makeup was a big deal,” Courtney said. “I remember vividly: bright red lipstick, cheeks all done up. Blue and green on the eyes. At that age we were not allowed to have it, so it was fun to play with it. It’s funny because now we barely ever wear makeup, only once in a while for special occasions.”
Since their childhood days, the two have survived a period of time in which Smith’s family moved across the country, then came back to McLeod, where the two spent their first two years of high school together. Smith then moved to Bossier City, where she graduated from Bossier High School. Courtney lived in Haughton for a few years, but moved back to McLeod and graduated high school.
Courtney parlayed those sleepover makeover skills into a career and is now the owner of Corabella Boutique and Tanning. Smith worked in the local radio market for years, but is now a stay-at-home mother and homeschools her children.
“I do not think there is a time when we have ever not been opposites,” Courtney said. “We were either on opposite sides of the country, or wearing opposites shoes, but we always found away to make it work.”
The pair’s oldest girls, Smith’s daughter, MacKenzie, 8, and Courtney’s daughter, Isabella, 9, are also best friends. The moms say that they enjoy seeing the girls together and working through tough situations, something they did as kids.
“We have had hard times together,”
“We have had hard times together,” Mackenzie said, “but we have worked them out through stuff that we have in common.”
Both women also attribute much of their friendship to their faith, an important aspect they see in the girl’s lives.
“It is something that really keeps us connected,” Smith said. “I have seen the girls pray together when they get angry with each other, and it is beautiful.”
John Turner and Jackie Nelson
“The bible says ‘a friend sticks closer than a brother,’ and that is very true, you know,” said Jackie Nelson. “To me, the most important thing is to keep your eye on the Lord and walk in his word. If you do that, you can’t help but love your neighbor, and I do love John, and he loves me.”
“a friend sticks closer than a brother”
Local Oil and Gas and Real Estate businessmen John Turner, 83 and Jackie Nelson, 82, have been friends since the 1960s. They agree that faith has played a vital role in their continuous comradeship.
“Trust is the main thing, you know. You don’t really have that much any more,” Turner said. “We’ve done so many deals together and I don’t think we’ve ever had a contract. We’ve never had a question mark as to his or my integrity when we are working together on something. It makes it fun to do [business] deals when you know you do not have to watch you back all of the time.”
Turner and Nelson have been friends for over half a century, first meeting while drilling a well in Joyce.
“One of his companies was drilling for oil in Joyce, Louisiana and…I had bought a little drilling rig, and his company contracted me to do the drilling,” Nelson said. “That was our first business. Neither of us had a clue what we were doing back then,” said Nelson, laughing. “I cannot even remember how many rigs we have bought together.”
Both men attended Louisiana Tech University and graduated in Petroleum Engineering. After college, Turner and Nelson joined the United States Air Force. Turner was a line pilot but never saw action in war. Nelson was in the special weapons department that armed bombs during the Korean War.
Though Turner owns several companies, Nelson said that the business that the two have conducted has always been separate and personal.
“[John] prefers to stay under the radar, and he does,” Nelson. “He is so generous to so many people, but he don’t talk about it, you know?”
The two regularly meet at the Crooked Hollow Golf Course — which Turner owns — for a bite to eat and friendly fellowship. “He always buys,” Turner said. They try to meet at least once a month.
“Sometimes we may hit a lull, but when we see each other, all of the sudden, it is back to it,” Turner said. “I always said you know you have a good friend when you do not see someone for a period of time, and when you see them again it is like you have not missed a beat.”
Gayla Weems and Rhonda Tyl
“Rhonda [and I] have just always kind of been a pair, and we have stuck through everything together,” Gayla Weems said.” We have always talked and helped each other with life decisions. She is the one I can turn to always get an honest answer and full input.”
Weems, formerly Gayla Gleason, and Rhonda Tyl, formerly Rhonda Hays, are both 61 — Rhonda is older by exactly one week. They met over 50 years ago on a chance encounter when Weems’ parents were selling their house. Tyl and her mother came to look at the house, and her mother eventually bought it. Weems, a rural mail carrier for the United States Postal Service and Tyl, a retired medical coder, recall their first shared experience.
“When we were little, children were not exposed out in public,” Weems said. “You went to church, and to visit family members, but, as far as visiting other little kids, you just didn’t do that. So, when this black, curly headed girl came in the house…I grabbed some tape and we just started putting it on the hardwood floors that I had to wax every Saturday before I even thought about going out at night.”
They have been best pals ever since, whether it was cruising around Plain Dealing on the weekends or hanging out at the old skating rink on Highway 3.
Tyl said that from the time that they were young until the time that they got out of high school, Friday nights were spent at the skating rink. That tradition continued after they graduated high school and had children.
“Our kids were raised together,” Weems said. “They do not see each other much, but they are kind of like me and Rhonda. If they are apart and they get together it is like they were never apart. Lots of laughter and reminiscing. We have lots of good memories together, us and our kids. We have had some laughs, but we have also gone though some hard times. I lost my son in 1990 when he was 16. She was right there with me at his funeral. She sat on one side of me and my husband sat on the other.”
The bond between the two was tested when Rhonda moved to New Mexico briefly for her husband’s job, but they “picked up right where we left off,” when they moved back. “We always do that,” Weems said.
Both women agree that their similarities are what have helped them to maintain a consistent connection.
“We are so much alike”
“We are so much alike,” Tyl said. “We like the same decorating. We have the same morals and principles, we are old school, and we love each other. We have loved each other since we were girls. It is good to have somebody that you can trust and talk to that you know will be there for you whether you are right or wrong, because a real friend is hard to find these days.”
Erin Turner, Tiffany Wells, Laura Perez McGaugh, Jennifer Lasiter Downey, Alison Eseman Thompson, and Bridgette Wallace Oberlander
Allison Thomson, Laura McGaugh, Jennifer Downey, Bridget Oberlander Erin Turner and Tiffiny Wells
“I can not understand people that move away, and start losing people,” Erin Turner said. “These girls are my lifeline, and I lean on them heavily. As you age, you start to think about these things, having people to hold you up over the years, and I am thankful to have this group.”
Turner, along with Tiffany Wells, Alison Thompson, Laura McGaugh, Jennifer Downey and Bridgette Oberlander form a core group of women than have been fixtures in each others lives for over 25 years.
Though Turner and Wells did not met until they were six years old, they are sure they shared a room much earlier. The two were born a day apart — May 31 and June 1, 1979 — at Bossier General Medical Center.
“We imagine we were in the nursery together next to each other,” Turner said. “My aunt says she remembers seeing the name Villamerrette (Wells’ maiden name) — that weird name.”
Turner, Wells, and McGaugh, and Thompson attended Bellaire Elementary school together. Downey and Oberlander went to Sun City. They all came together at the confluence of the two schools, Curtis Elementary.
(from left): Bridget Oberlander, Tiffiny Wells and Allison Thomson. Top row (from left): Jennifer Downey, Laura McGaugh, Erin Turner and Vanessa Jones.
Wells said she remembers being invited to a slumber party at Oberlander’s house and that being the catalyst of the group connection.
Turner’s mother, Mae Hall, soon became the den mom of the group and would take the girls ghost hunting, to the skating rink, and to the Winona Shindig, where Turner would sing The Wind Beneath my Wings.
The girls remained close through middle and high school, college and, more recently, marriages and children.
“We have all been in each others weddings,” Thompson said. “We have thrown each other baby showers. “Our kids are all around the same age, and they all hang out together. We celebrate holidays together.”
Until last January, the group, along with some of their mothers, met once a month for Bunco. Wells said that they got burnt out on Bunco, and that everyone got so busy with family that it became harder to get everyone together, so they set up a private Facebook page to keep abreast of each others lives. They also use it to set up gatherings and stay in touch.
“If anything major is going on in any of our lives, everyone in the group knows about it,”
“If anything major is going on in any of our lives, everyone in the group knows about it,” Wallace said. “We stay in touch regularly.”
They all agree that having such a dependable group of people in their lives has been a blessing.
“We take care of each others kids,” Wells said. “We all do that, which is something that not everyone has. We are like sisters, and we are all one big family. A lot of people tell me how lucky we are that we are all still friends when I talk about our group.”