Project Talent Blog

Spotlight on Port Arthur, Texas: Home of Project Talent’s Most Famous Participant

Janis Joplin’s Yearbook photo, 1960

Sylvia Majors’ yearbook photo, 1960

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Port Arthur, Texas is home to the nation’s largest oil refinery, Janis Joplin, and Project Talent school, Thomas Jefferson High School. I spoke with Sylvia Majors (née Patin), a lifelong resident of Port Arthur, Project Talent participant, and high school friend of Janis Joplin about her life and all of the above.

Sylvia spent her senior year at Port Arthur’s newly built Thomas Jefferson High School in 1960, a year she says that “everything was exciting, because it was new.” Though the teachers were strict, she enjoyed her days at Thomas Jefferson as a member of the bowling club, Latin club, and homemakers’ club. “In those days,” Sylvia says, they “stressed homemaking for the girls.” Sylvia enjoyed sewing and cooking, but she preferred the future nurses’ club, and dreamed of one day attending nursing school. When I ask Sylvia how her high school experience was different than that of today’s kids, she stresses the difference in technology: “you had to do everything on your own. No TVs, no computers,” and “no [calculators] to help you with your math.”

Thomas Jefferson H.S. , home of the “yellow jackets”

 

Sylvia grew up with rock-legend Janis Joplin. When I ask what she was like in high school, Sylvia says Janis “wasn’t anything like she was when she passed away.” Though Sylvia says Janis was “way above her day,” she was quiet and timid in high school, not yet the rebel the world remembers. According to Sylvia, Janis had a “rough childhood” with “very strict parents.” At school, the boys teased her because, Sylvia says, “she just didn’t mingle that much.” Still, Sylvia saw the real Janis, who was “very artistic” and “very, very smart in her work.” Sadly, Port Arthur and Janis did not have a loving relationship. At the time, Sylvia says Port Arthur was “very strict” and “frowned down on her.” At their first high school reunion, Sylvia remembers that Janis “came back for the simple reason just to show them that she made it good. That’s how much she hated Port Arthur.” As for her music, Sylvia isn’t a big fan, and jokes that Janis’ singing was more like “screaming.”

Janis Joplin, icon of the 60s and Project Talent participant.

In the early ‘60s, Sylvia started nursing school and married Mark, an Airforce man also from a Port Arthur refinery family. After having their first child together, Mark was sent overseas to serve in Vietnam, so Sylvia left school and moved home to care for the baby. “In those days,” she says, “you just got married young and had your family, so I quit school.” In the next three years, Sylvia gave birth to three more kids! In the years to follow, Mark had a career with Texaco and Sylvia stayed home raising the children.

Today, three of Sylvia’s four kids still live in the Port Arthur area. She also has six grandchildren. I ask her how life is different for kids today than when she was in school. “To me,” she says, “they have a harder life right now than what we had. Ours was much simpler.” Sylvia sees the changes in her grandkids, like when her granddaughter moved to Colorado on her own after graduating from the University of Texas. “To me that is so scary,” Sylvia explains with a laugh, “because in our day you didn’t go anywhere. . . Kids today are just so different.” And what about Port Arthur? According to Sylvia, “things have really changed.” It’s still largely a refinery town, but unfortunately, “not too many people live there anymore.” Regretfully she notes that these days, Port Arthur is “kind of a dead town.”

Looking back at her days in Port Arthur, Sylvia tells me she’s “had a good life.” “We’ve made a good living,” she says. “We worked for Texaco and I was able to stay home with my kids, so I can’t say anything other than that. I’d do it again.”

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By Brianna Ellis
Brianna is a Research Assistant with Project Talent
August 30, 2018

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