Other than his Harry Connick Jr. accent and dapper school-uniform style of dress, Derek Ward resembles most any other high school student in Whitfield County.

It’s hard to imagine this blond-hair-and-blue-eyed young man landed in Dalton five months ago as a refugee from New Orleans, fleeing Hurricane Katrina with little more than the clothes on his back.

Since distant relatives in Dalton lent a hand and Ward found Phoenix High School, he has been able to complete the few remaining credits he needed and will receive a diploma within the next couple of weeks.

“We’d never left before for any hurricane. My parents said we were going to ride it out like every other one,” Ward said, “but they woke me up at 6 a.m. on Sunday and told me ‘we’re leaving.’ Katrina made landfall the next day. What is normally an eight- to nine-hour drive to Dalton took us 24 hours.”

Nearly every gas station along the route was out of gas, Ward said. His family passed six or seven stations with long lines of desperate people.

“Police would show up as the pumps were emptied,” he said. “We thought we were going to be left on the side of the road, out of gas. We asked a police officer what we should do, and he said we wouldn’t be the only ones.”

Ward said the family was finally able to fill up in Hattiesburg, Miss., before making its way to Dalton, where Ward’s grandmother, the late Virginia Whittle, had grown up. Whittle’s sister, Jeanette Hartley, lives here, and offered the Wards room and board until they could find a place of their own.

“We usually visit them in Louisiana about twice a year, so when they called and told me they needed a place to stay, they were more than welcome. I’m really glad they did,” Hartley said. “They thought it would be for two or three days, but after the flooding, they knew they couldn’t go back.”

Ward’s father, Ellis, and his stepmother, Malora, found a house to rent in Whitfield County, and local residents and businesses chipped in to help furnish it.

Ellis is disabled. Malora, who worked at a Ford dealership in Louisiana, found work cleaning houses. Derek moved in down the street with his second cousin, Amanda Patton, and her husband, Anthony, who gave him a job laying tile with Patton Tile and Ceramics.

“I hadn’t been in Dalton since I was 8, so it was all new to me,” Ward said. “New Orleans is completely flat. The levee was the only hill I ever saw. Our home was a block from the Mississippi River Levee.”

Unlike others, that levee did not break, so the Ward house was not flooded. However, portions of the roof blew off, and some water damage occurred. Ward’s parents returned to find some items worth recovering. The rest, he said, was replaced thanks to checks from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).

“My stepmother has a niece in Lakeview (La.) whose house was destroyed in 17 feet of water,” Ward said. “Our house had minimal damage, so she had the holes in our roof patched and is living there now.”

Ward, 20, had found himself a year-and-a-half behind schedule for graduating from Riverdale High School in New Orleans because of truancy problems.

“I had failed a year because I missed too many days,” he said. “I liked to sleep in. I would have been a midterm graduate (before the hurricane).”

But once in Dalton, Ward found Phoenix High, an alternative school funded by Dalton and Whitfield County that counselor Jay Ashlock describes as a “no-frills” high school catering to students’ needs without extracurricular distractions such as clubs and athletics.

“We’re a special-purpose school that can do things a traditional school cannot,” Ashlock said. “We don’t require students to stay until June. Once you finish, you’re done. It’s an advantage for students who want to finish their degree and get their life started.

“We cater to students — teen parents, for example — who need to work and want a flexible school schedule. All the kids who come here want to be here; not many are referred (as problem students).”

Ashlock worked with Ward’s guidance counselors at Riverdale, who determined Ward needed just three credits — senior English and two electives — to earn a diploma.

“I think, like a lot of kids, Derek was not sure about the direction he wanted to go. Being from a large school in a major city, it’s easy to kind of get lost in the cracks and to get bogged down in all the extra requirements,” Ashlock said.

“But once he was here, a light bulb went off, and he knew ‘Hey, I’m not far from getting out of here.’ He’s a pretty intelligent kid and very likable. I think he would have finished school in New Orleans if he could have stayed, but we’re happy to have him here. He’s fun to work with.”

Jerry Bennett taught Ward senior English, while Jeannette Holley taught him business software in a computer applications class.

“He’s the kind of student we want and need here,” Holley said. “He would go to school for two hours Monday through Thursday, then work from 11:30 until 5 to help support his family. Sometimes he works weekends.”

Assistant principal Huey Talley said Ward has been a conscientious student.

“I wish all students would put in the effort he’s put in since he relocated,” Talley said. “He’s gone from losing everything he owned to being ambitious about graduating.”

Ashlock said the entire school has, in turn, learned from Ward.

“I was just telling my wife: you can see all the pictures on TV and in the paper, but until you actually meet these people and talk to them, you have no idea,” he said. “They have the most basic physical needs. You realize if it weren’t for distant family, they would have no place to go.”

Ward has yet to make it back to New Orleans. The first thing he would do upon his return? Meet up with friends and family and attend a crawfish boil. It’s been nice in the Carpet Capital, he said — very enjoyable, in fact — just not what he knows.

He went from a large metropolitan school system that requires uniforms to an unconventional school with an open campus. From a customer service job at the Audubon Zoo to backbreaking work laying tile. From etouffee to biscuits and gravy.

“I miss home. I feel like I was snatched right up,” he said. “My parents plan to stay here, but I want to go back. I’d hoped to go back for Mardi Gras (on Feb. 28), but I don’t know if that’s going to happen unless I can find the money.”

In about a week’s time, Ward could return home and cross a Riverdale stage in cap and gown if he so chooses. Dalton has already given him the means to earn that diploma, and he learned a marketable job skill he can take with him.

“The hurricane wasn’t what I wanted, and I didn’t ask to come to Dalton. But everyone has been really nice. I’m easygoing, so my teachers helped push me through to earn a diploma,” he said.

“Laying tile is harder work than the zoo, but it pays a lot better. And when I get back to New Orleans, I know they’ll need lots of flooring.”

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