By KAT BERGERON - Special to the Sun Herald
At 5-foot-2, Julia Guice was a small, energetic package of innovative ideas and safety know-how that commanded the respect of her Biloxi hometown and the Mississippi Coast. Mayors listened to her. Citizens prepared for hurricanes at her urging. Researchers and volunteers spent months digging with her through old records to help the community preserve three centuries of history.
Guice died early Monday morning, just 12 days shy of the 44th anniversary of Hurricane Camille, the Category 5 storm that wrecked her beloved Gulf Coast and unwittingly pushed her and husband Wade into the national spotlight. With 172 dead or missing and seven towns flattened by 200-plus mph winds, the 1969 storm defined who they were as couple and as Civil Defense directors.
After her health took a turn for the worst in late July, friends and family began wondering if Guice would will herself to stay around for Camille's Aug. 17 anniversary. In 1996, her 69-year-old husband died from a recurring cancer, one day after that anniversary.
She lived to be 85, and each year on the date of Camille's arrival, Guice led the emotional reading of victims' names on the Hurricane Camille Memorial Wall.
Perseverance brings memorial
Thirty years after the storm, still convinced that previous lists were incomplete, she began scouring the country for the correct number and names of Camille's dead and missing. She believed victims' families deserved closure. The end result of Guice's dogged research is the memorial wall, for which she also led fund-raising to erect on the beachfront grounds of her church, Episcopal Church of the Redeemer.
The beautiful but somber mosaic fountain and granite wall were repaired after Hurricane Katrina in 2005, and locals and out-of-towners continue to visit daily. At its dedication in 2001, she explained: "The most important thing is that the memorial has alerted people that when we have hurricanes they should evacuate, so they don't end up with their name on a memorial."
Unmatched team work
Julia Cook Guice and William Wade Guice forged a team likely unmatched in U.S. history for storm preparedness and disaster recovery. They had given up a potentially more lucrative real estate-insurance business to become civil servants. As Civil Defense directors -- she for Biloxi; he for Harrison County -- they became the faces for a nation aghast at Camille's unprecedented destruction.
"I have seen estimates that Wade and Julia saved as many as 50,000 lives in Camille by warning people to get out," said Charles L. Sullivan, Coast historian, professor emeritus and author of "Hurricanes of the Mississippi Gulf Coast: Three Centuries of Destruction."
"She started first as the county's Civil Defense director, and Wade went to her presentations and got hooked. Then he became the county's director and she became the city's. They made titanic contributions and continue to make them all these years later. "
A favorite family story is of the day, two weeks after Camille, when they finally left their respective Emergency Operations Centers for a night at home. Their son Reed was at home because their house had survived, despite being close to the beach.
"They walked in, exhausted" said Reed Guice, one of their three children and president/CEO of The Guice Agency. "My dad had a case of beer with him and announced, 'Man, I don't care if this is hot. I've been waiting for weeks for this.' He popped the can, and it went 'bip.' It was water. After the storm, Jackson Brewery in New Orleans had sent down cases of water in the beer cans.
"Some of my fraternity brothers were in the house and we had a bottle of Chianti wine, so we offered them that. Mom did not usually drink but this time she and dad both took a glass. After just one glass she got so quickly intoxicated that she was singing, and we had to carry her to bed."
Guice began her career in Civil Defense, now called Emergency Management, in the late 1950s as a volunteer when the Cold War and atomic attacks filled American minds. Harrison County hired her as its director, but when Danny Guice was elected mayor in 1961, he talked her into taking the same position with the city.
"Julia was a fine lady dedicated to her city and community, and to her family," said Daniel Guice, former mayor, retired judge and cousin by marriage. "She did an outstanding job."
Much more than storm savvy
Hurricane awareness is not her sole legacy. While Biloxi's historic preservation officer, Guice coordinated restoration of Magnolia Hotel, which later survived Hurricane Katrina, and other historic structures that did fall to the 2005 storm. She spearheaded several important books, including "When Biloxi Was Seafood Capital of the World" and "The Buildings of Biloxi: An Architectural Survey."
The latter, first published in 1976, helped planners and rebuilders after Katrina's destruction. The Guices own historic but unpretentious Seal Avenue home was damaged but not lost.
"Julia's love for local history set the course for many others, who learned from her the importance of using original and primary sources for research," said Murella H. Powell, Biloxi's Historian Emeritus. "She was a mentor to me when I began building the Biloxi Library's local history and genealogy department, and I know she had that role for others in whom she recognized potential.
"She oversaw the indexing of certain Harrison County and City of Biloxi records, the county's federal census records, and the research and writing of a number of local history books. She didn't do any of this to glorify herself but for the love of history and to make it accessible to the public."
A formidable force for community
Guice's determination to get things done correctly and for the good of community was a formidable force for anyone who fell under her confident charm. A distinctive Back Bay voice and unforgettable high laugh belied her small physical stature.
"Thirty years ago when I was a young extremely tenacious attorney, an attorney from the opposing side thought I was being too aggressive and asked, 'How can you be so tough when your daddy is the nicest man I've ever known,'" recalled her daughter Judy Guice, a Biloxi attorney.
"I said I took after my mom. Mom has always been the trail boss of our family and any group she was associated with. She was an extraordinary person, loving and gentle, yet strong. She was seldom in doubt and never afraid to express her opinion. She met things head on."
Julia and Wade Guice, say friends, were a match team. They met at Biloxi High School, where he had returned from World War II after becoming a Merchant Marine at 16. She was Catholic and he was Episcopalian, but that era's religious segregation went by the wayside when the strangers were paired as duke and maid at a ball.
"When are we going to get married?" she asked after they started dating, in that half good-natured, half forthright way that would become a trademark. They were married the next weekend in 1947. Twenty-two years later came Camille, and 27 years after that came the first team departure. They will now share a headstone at Old Biloxi Cemetery.
Bradford-O'Keefe Funeral Home
675 E. Howard Avenue
Biloxi, MS 39530
Published in The Sun Herald from Aug. 6 to Aug. 7, 2013