GUEST COLUMN/A tribute to Mark Houston
We were instant friends, Mark Houston and I. Friends at first sight, you might say. That seems as uncanny today as it did back then, 17 years ago. Though we were both well into adulthood, we often remarked to others, and to ourselves, that it seemed like we had known each other all our lives. That's how it was with Mark and me. Rather than uncanny, though, we both came to believe that our instant friendship was the work of a Higher Power.
I had just been elected Chancery Clerk of Madison County and had been authorized by the incoming Board of Supervisors to recommend a candidate for the position of Comptroller to help me carry out the day-to-day financial duties of my office. Among the myriad of responsibilities of the Chancery Clerk, I knew that my role as County Treasurer was my weak point. I also knew how critical that role was in local affairs of state. It was clear that we needed a trustworthy, loyal, and experienced hand to guide us fiscally. That person — my instant friend — was Mark Houston.
A Certified Public Accountant, Mark quickly became our chief resource for sound financial management, and, during his time as Comptroller, we had a string of perfect annual audits. When our colleague Donnie Caughman retired during the following term of office, Mark succeeded him as County Administrator. A few years down the road, Mark himself retired, moving into the private sector, where he offered solid financial advice to counties all over Mississippi. After my own departure from county government in late 2013, Mark returned to Madison County for one last stint as Administrator, before moving back into the private sector as a consultant – and reprising his former role in a part-time capacity with the Technical Assistance Division of the Office of the State Auditor – when a new Board of Supervisors took office in 2016.
Over the years, Mark and I discovered that we had much in common: a firm foundation in our Christian faith, instilled in us by strong parents; a love of our alma mater, Delta State University; and even the same hobbies — chief among them, coin collecting. Mark was an accomplished numismatist and could correctly grade and value almost any American coin with his naked eye. Yes, much to our wives' dismay, we also shared an affinity for good Tennessee whiskey and fine Cuban cigars. We even liked the same snacks, particularly salted cashew nuts. (That, like so many other aspects of our friendship, involves a separate and humorous tale too lengthy to recount here.)
Perhaps the most important thing we had in common, though, was a deep commitment to integrity in government. By the time I first met him, Mark had already spent nearly two decades in the Auditor's Office, most of them in his beloved Technical Assistance Division where he was chiefly responsible for reaching out to county officials and helping them get things right. And he was good at it. I needed all the technical assistance I could get, so from that point on, he was the teacher and I was his apprentice.
For me, governing, like most forms of leadership, and contrary to popular belief, is a difficult, glamour-less, and often lonely, task. Such is particularly true in Madison County where varied interests always compete and regularly clash. But, I was never alone in my work as long as Mark was by my side. In the nearly 8 years that he and I served together, we never spoke a cross word to one another. He consistently provided sound advice and counsel, and he stood by me when the chips were down and when the winds of county politics blew a little too strongly for my tastes. Although certainly imperfect, Mark remained a man of integrity – as he remained ever loyal to me – throughout his all-too-short life.
Mark died last week after a brave fight with a menacing form of brain cancer. On the night after his funeral, Saturday, February 22, 2020, guest pianist Anton Nel with the Mississippi Symphony Orchestra performed a surprise encore – the beautiful second movement of Beethoven's Piano Sonata No. 8 in C minor, Op. 13. As I listened to those lofty notes resonating inside Thalia Mara Hall, I knew it was no mere surprise. Like our instant friendship, it felt like the work of the Divine. My eyes welled with tears, and I pictured Mark, who himself had exemplary musical talent, with his familiar grin and that amazing, John Denver-like twinkle in his eye, gently letting me know all was well, and that we'd be together again one day.
A better friend had no man. I miss him. May he rest in peace.
An attorney by profession, Arthur Johnston served as Madison County's Chancery Clerk from 2004 to 2013. He lives in Madison and presently serves as Clerk of the United States District Court for the Southern District of Mississippi.