May 27, 2019  

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Granddaughter of 1st Southern Miss President to Give Commencement Speech

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Judge Mary Libby Payne

Mary Libby Payne believes Joseph Anderson Cook, her grandfather and the first president of The University of Southern Mississippi, would share her deep pride in how far the institution has come from its humble beginnings as a teacher’s college.

Cook might not have imagined, but surely would be delighted, that his granddaughter will serve as the commencement speaker for the university’s fall Centennial Celebration Commencement Friday, Dec. 10 at Reed Green Coliseum on the Hattiesburg campus.

“He loved this university,” Payne said at the university’s Centennial Founder’s Day Celebration in March. “He could never have imagined it would be what it is today, but he would have been delighted.”

Payne, a retired Mississippi Court of Appeals Judge and professor and founding dean of the Mississippi College School of Law, will give the keynote address at two commencement exercises that day. The first, at 10 a.m., is for graduates from the Colleges of Arts and Letters, Health. The second, at 3 p.m., includes graduates from the Colleges of Business, Education and Psychology, Science and Technology.

Payne has been involved in public service and bar responsibilities throughout her professional career. She presently serves on the Governor’s Committee for Judicial Selection and on the Women in the Profession Committee of the Mississippi Bar Association, and is a scholar-in-residence/professor emerita at Mississippi College School of Law.

She attended Mississippi University for Women (MUW) for two years, and then earned a bachelor of arts degree, with distinction, in political science from the University of Mississippi. She also holds the Juris Doctor degree from the University of Mississippi School of Law, finishing first in her class and where she was also Casenote Editor of the Law Journal staff and chair of the Moot Court Board. She practiced law in Jackson and Brandon and has served each branch of state government, including as legislative draftsman, as executive director of the Mississippi Judiciary Commission (and later as a judge) and as an assistant state attorney general.

Among her many honors and awards include being named “Woman of the Year” by the Mississippi Association for Women in Higher Education 1989 and being awarded The Medallion of Excellence, the highest award given by MUW, in 1990. In 1998 she was named Mississippi College Lawyer of the Year by its School of Law Alumni Association, and Outstanding Woman Lawyer by the Mississippi Women Lawyers Association. She is also the recipient of a Lifetime Achievement Award from both the Mississippi Bar Association and the Mississippi Women Lawyers Association.

Payne is married to Bobby R. Payne, retired Director of Central Records for the Mississippi Employment Commission.  They are parents of two grown sons. The Paynes are active in the McLaurin Heights Baptist Church in Pearl and together they hold seminars on the dilemmas and delights of a dual career marriage under the title of Keyfinders. In Dec. 2005 they celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary.

For more information about the fall Centennial Commencement Celebration, online visit