Vicksburg steps up for cancer survivor

Mandy Miller (left), owner of Vicksburg’s Cutting Edge Salon, drops off a client’s hair donations to Denise James (right).

By Alex Lee

A diagnosis of stage four non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma in 2018 was both frightening and devastating for Denise James.

She was forced to quit working and began a difficult series of chemo sessions to combat the disease. “Rob, my husband, proposed to me despite knowing of the diagnosis and the battle ahead,” Denise says, “and that along with the support of family and friends got me through.”

The treatments were effective against the cancer but took her hair and the stamina to return to work full time.
In 2020 the cancer returned. “I knew it was back, but there was no point in telling anyone until we knew for sure.” This time around chemo treatments were not effective, so T-cell therapy began.

The American Cancer Society describes T-cell therapy as, “a way to get immune cells called T cells (a type of white blood cell) to fight cancer by changing them in the lab so they can find and destroy cancer cells. CAR T-cell therapy is also sometimes talked about as a type of cell-based gene therapy, because it involves altering the genes inside T cells to help them attack the cancer.”

The treatments were effective but eliminated Denise’s hope of ever regrowing her own hair. Denise explains, “There was never a thought of not going through a second difficult fight, and when I did get down my husband pointed out that I beat it once, and I would do it again.”

When Sheryl Oswalt, owner of Vicksburg’s Dawg House, needed additional help at the store due to family health issues, Denise stepped up to help part time. Denise’s warm personality, her quick smile and her genuine desire to make people happy, leaves a big and very positive impression on customers.

Her engaging presence makes a lack of hair quite easy to overlook. It was somewhat of a surprise when Sheryl learned that a neighbor had donated hair to make a wig for Denise.

But Vicksburg stepped up big. Sheryl posted on social media about the situation and donations of both hair and money flowed in.

Denise says she would like a human hair wig. “I want something that belongs on the head of a human being. People seemed surprised that I wanted to do this, because I think sometimes those of us who have gone through something like this feel a need to always be ok, but sometimes we’re not quite as ok as we would lead you to believe.”

Denise believes that once the required amount of hair is collected it will take three to four months for the wig to arrive. Sheryl says, “Any addition hair collected will be donated to help others going through the same difficult situation.” Denise meanwhile is looking forward to wearing the wig to work, “I’ll get to reintroduce myself to all these wonderful people all over again, because no one will recognize me.”

Lending a hand with hair

By Alex Lee

Vicksburg barber Nick DeVito has a soft spot in his heart for kids. Until recently, he had a considerable amount of hair on his head for them too. A recent call for human hair donations for a Vicksburg resident in need of a wig set Nick to thinking about donating.

Response was so strong that when Nick was ready to put his plan into action, donations had already exceeded the local need. But the need for human hair for wigs is ongoing. Nick found an organization, Wigs for Kids, that for more than 40 years has been assisting kids who lose their hair through the difficult fight with cancer. “These wigs help kids feel and look a little more like themselves and take off some of the pressure of being a kid, and fitting in, while they are literally in a fight for their lives,” Nick said.

Nick recruited his friend, Ken Isaacson, to join him in making life better for someone who could use their help. They met at Nick’s Barbershop on a cool April morning to, as Nick describes it, “do something we can be proud of.” Nick would remove and style Ken’s hair, and Mandy Miller of the next-door Cutting Edge Salon would cut and style Nick’s.

In 40 minutes, the job was done and somewhere in this sometimes-difficult world someone’s life will take a turn for the better. More information about Wigs for Kids is at

New album forthcoming from AJ LaPorte

Singer-songwriter AJ LaPorte doing what he does best.

By Mike Phillips

During cold-weather months, Wednesdays are open-mic night at the Long Lake Tavern on Sprinkle Road. It’s where musicians—mostly acoustic solo artists—can sign up and perform short sets of their own songs or someone else’s.

It’s a relaxed room providing an opportunity for area performers to hone their chops or otherwise play in front of the bar’s attentive patrons. Many of these musicians are just starting out. But every week there are also some really good sets. One of the most compelling is from local singer-songwriter AJ LaPorte.

AJ is the Wednesday night ringer. His performances are well-received. His songs are good, his voice is strong, and his guitar and harmonica playing are solid. He can hold an audience that invariably applaud and whoop after his songs. AJ is also there to help make the weekly open-mic night happen as he provides sound and technical support. He also provides cameraderie—he is personable and adept at helping the musicians quickly set up and dial in their sound.

AJ has been passionate about music all of his life. He grew up in a home where there was a lot of it. At an early age his parents encouraged him to sing and play guitar. He stuck with it. Later, he also learned piano and harmonica. In school he played sports, but he also played trumpet in the Vicksburg High School marching band. Eventually, he began writing songs. To date, he guesses that he has written about 50. Some of his tunes are exuberant and rousing singalongs. Others are quiet and introspective.

AJ’s songs cover a lot of ground. He says that his songwriting simply reflects the days and the highs and lows. Like creative people everywhere, he has a day job. He harbors no illusions about making it as an artist. While he intends to keep working, he also intends to keep writing songs and performing. He’ll “do whatever it takes” to make music and gigs while carrying on with everything else there is in life.

AJ is a solo act—it’s just him and his guitar and harmonica and his many songs. He has put together bands in the past. But since the pandemic and whatnot, it’s hard to keep a band together. His close friend and favorite drummer is no longer available, having just become a new father.

Last year, AJ went down to Nashville and recorded an album of 13 original songs. Started Again was his first album. In the studio, he was backed by capable Nashville-area musicians. The album is currently available on CD, as well as on various streaming platforms. His song videos can also be readily found on-line. AJ is pleased with the album and with how well it has been received. This has inspired him to go back to the Tennessee studio and do some more recording. He hopes to have his second album available later this year. Meanwhile he continues to perform and write new songs.