I had the pleasure of visiting with our fall Centennial Celebration Commencement speaker, retired State Court of Appeals Judge Mary Libby Payne, Thursday evening at the Ogletree Alumni House where she and her husband Bob were meeting Southern Miss President Emeritus Dr. Aubrey Lucas and his wife, Ella, and University Historian Dr. Chester “Bo” Morgan and his wife, Mary, for dinner.
It was a fitting place for such an event. Judge Payne’s father and the first president of the university, Joe Cook, lived in the Ogletree House when it served as the president’s home, and it was where Payne’s parents were married. Having Dr. Lucas, who was Cook’s fifth successor, and Dr. Morgan, a Southern Miss alum who recently wrote the centennial history of the institution, on hand made the moment even more special.
I stopped by, not to crash the dinner, but to ask Judge Payne about her message for the fall graduates and to get her thoughts about what her grandfather might say to them if he were alive today. I jokingly asked if she thought she might “channel” her grandfather when she delivered the address.
Though her grandfather, whom she affectionately refers to as “Pappy” died when Payne was only seven, her memories of him are still vivid, and her appreciation for what he meant to so many young men and women is as strong as ever. Payne’s mother passed down the stories of a man who cared deeply for the students at what was then Mississippi Normal College, many of whom came from hardscrabble backgrounds to the Hattiesburg campus to study to become teachers in the state’s rural schools.
In her commencement address, she spoke of one student, J.I. Rankin, who would have dropped out of school because of lack of funds to pay tuition had it not been for Cook, who offered the Itawamba County native the opportunity to earn his keep by tending chores at the president’s home, where he was also allowed to live. Rankin went on to pursue his dream of becoming a teacher and later cross paths with Payne and her husband Bob in Clinton, Miss., where Rankin was a Sunday school teacher in Bob’s church.
It’s more than just a quaint tale. It signifies what Dr. Morgan wrote in his book “Treasured Past, Golden Future” in his description of the Southern Miss story, one that includes ordinary people doing extraordinary things. In today’s world where stories of man’s inhumanity to man fill the daily newspapers and television screens, Joe Cook’s kindness to a poor student facing an uncertain future may seem extraordinary.
But for Cook, it was an ordinary act of selfless generosity by the man known as “Daddy Joe” to a student body who appreciated his unending concern for their well being that his granddaughter carries on in an extraordinary legacy.