Christmas won't be the same without him

Jody O’Hara was a beloved reporter, but he was also a friend to many community members.

He first came to Mississippi to volunteer to help rebuild after Hurricane Katrina. Jody only intended to stay the week, but he fell in love with Stone County.

“He just never came back,” his older brother, Elton O’Hara, said.

For the next 12 years of his life, he continued to serve his newfound community.

He began his career with the Stone County Enterprise, where he covered Stone County’s highs and lows for the next 12 years.

Jody’s sense of community made him a talented reporter and friend.

“He was one of the most community-minded human beings to ever walk on the face of the earth. He loved Wiggins and Stone County,” Wiggins Mayor Joel Miles said. “He was driven to make his ‘hometown’ the best place possible.”

With the newspaper staff, Jody won many state and national awards for his writing and photography.

Miles said Jody remained fair no matter the story.

“His intentions were to always make sure that all sides of any issue had a voice through his writing,” he said.

Most recently, the National Newspaper Association awarded Jody first place feature photo of 2019 for his coverage of two local veterans living in squalor.

Though Jody started out as a sportswriter in his hometown of Flint, he was very good at crime reporting. He could always craft a clever headline to describe a less-than-clever offender.

In 2013, Jody came to a crime scene that shook him to the core.

Someone had abused and neglected several dogs. Some had to be put down due to extreme malnourishment. One pit bull puppy had been left in her collar so long that her neck grew around it.

Jody had already adopted a rescue dog and named her “Jessie Belle.” But, after taking photos and writing a story on the incident, Jody always said he instantly knew he would give her a home.

Jody named her “Tiffany.”

Despite her size, she was afraid of rainstorms. Tiffany loved Jody like she had never known the months of abuse she suffered.

Aside from news reporting, Jody had many hobbies. He loved music and loved to travel for concerts. He taught himself to play the guitar and enjoyed reading books from his front porch.

He also spent his free time volunteering in any and every way he could. He always helped clean up the local streams and supported the local animal shelter.

Through the Mississippi heat, Jody kept his beard long, fluffy and white in anticipation of the Christmas season. Many remember Jody best in the red suit he wore each winter.

“Jody lived for Christmas Time,” Chaya Seal said. “Santa Claus wasn’t just someone Jody dressed up like. Jody was Santa to so many.”

Jody and Seal became friends and enjoyed dressing up as the Christmas couple for charity. They spent hours with local children, listening to wish lists and posing for family photos.

“Being Mrs. Claus to Jody’s Santa was such a wonderfully magical experience…If I had to choose, I would never want another Santa by my side,” Seal said. “I’m almost positive that Jody’s boots will never be filled.”

His older sister, Colleene Rabb, said dressing up as Santa cemented his role in the community.

“I think his No. 1 passion was a playing Santa Claus,” she said. “Christmas was extremely important to my parents, so it was important to Jody too.”

Colleene said Christmas at the O’Hara home was not complete until Santa made a special visit in person.

“Dad would have whoever he could find dressed up in a Santa Suit,” she said. “Christmas morning… this bell would ring. We would run into the living room and Santa would be in the living room with our presents.”

Though Jody did not have children of his own, he carried on his father’s tradition with many local children.

Jody was the baby of the family. His eldest sibling was 16 years his senior.

Colleene said she and her sister loved taking Jody to the library when he was young.

He would bring stacks of books home to read from the time he was in elementary school. He would sit and read through his parents’ encyclopedia collections for fun.

Teachers informed Jody’s parents that he could skip several grades in high school, but they kept him with classmates.

“He was the most intelligent of off all of us,” Colleene said.

His love for learning and reading made college smooth sailing. Jody became friends with classmates and instructors every class he took.

Throughout his time in Stone County, friends and family would often send Jody books to read at his cabin.

Colleene said he enjoyed the simplicity of living on the creek.

“It was wonderful for him to write in Wiggins. He loved it there. He loved the people—that was his home,” she said. “(Jody) didn’t aspire to any big house or fancy car. He wanted to sit on the porch and play his guitar.”

She said it was like Jody had found his own Walden Pond when he moved into his cabin in Perkinston.

After he was diagnosed with cancer earlier this year, Jody wrote that he was content with the life he built in Stone County.

“It’s apparent I’m about to enter a transitional adventure in my life and, to the extent possible, I hope to observe that transition from that rocking chair on my porch overlooking Red Creek,” he wrote.

On Oct. 27, he lost his battle with cancer. But Jody will never lose the respect, love and admiration he earned from so many Stone County residents in his time here.

“Jody will always be remembered as the Santa Claus of Stone County,” Mayor Miles said. “What better legacy could a person ever leave behind than that? He will be deeply missed by us all.”