From gymnastics, dentistry and rodeos to dancing, pageants, parenting and banking, Cori Keyes Clay has done it all — and she has done it all quite well.
Clay, a 2003 graduate of Warren Central High School, attended St. Aloysius before transferring to Warren Central. At St. Al, she played basketball and danced with the Flashettes.
An injury caused her to give up gymnastics, but opened the door for a new sport — horseback riding.
Clay attended Mississippi Delta Community College on a full scholarship. She pushed herself and recovered enough to dance with the college dance team, the Delta Dancers. She graduated with an associate of science degree with an emphasis in dental hygiene in 2007.
That was also the year she was crowned Miss Rodeo Mississippi, the same title her identical twin, Cari Wansley, held two years earlier.
Fast forward a couple of years and Clay was happily married and happily employed as a dental hygienist. She became a mother to Addie Grace in 2010. Her life seemed perfect and her future secure.
Fast forward another couple of years.
“My husband took a job in Rolling Fork, Mississippi, in 2012,” she said. “That job moved me to the Delta. I was driving to Madison daily as a hygienist. It was an extremely long commute, so, when the president of the local bank called me and offered me a job, I jumped on the opportunity to be local.”
As life often changes, things were suddenly not so predictable and less than perfect.
She found a new love in banking and numbers, and she started working toward a business administration degree at the University of Southern Mississippi.
Clay divorced in 2017 and even as “my entire world was being ripped out from under me,” she continued her pattern of hard work and perseverance.
“I worked at the local bank from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m., a dental clinic in Rolling Fork from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m. and then I would drive to Vicksburg and coach gymnastics on Mondays through Thursdays,” she said.
The work and determination paid off when she earned her degree from USM. It’s naturally a point of pride for Clay.
“It was hard. I would spend my evenings after Addie went to sleep studying for hours, but I did it,” she said, “I graduated in December of 2017 with my bachelors of business administration degree as a single mom working three jobs.”
Soon after earning her degree, Clay moved home to Vicksburg to be closer to family. The hard work, however, was far from over.
“RiverHills Bank called me, and it was a perfect fit,” she said, and she started there in February 2018.
“I started as the accounting clerk and assistant to the comptroller. I worked my way into my position as the comptroller and cashier,” she said.
In August 2018 she began working toward a master’s degree.
“I looked around at many colleges and decided to go with Mississippi College because it was closest, and I could attend some night classes there,” Clay said.
Clay found herself trying to finish a master’s degree in accounting, taking 12 hours per semester, working full time and suddenly homeschooling a fourth grader.
“I don’t think I slept much in the months of March through May. It really is all a blur,” she said. “I wouldn’t study until Addie Grace was in bed, because I didn’t want to take time away from her. It was a very difficult few months, but with my family and friends, we did it.”
Clay graduated with a master of accountancy degree in May 2020.
Clay credits her family and many life experiences for her work ethic and drive. Watching her parents run a successful business, Keyes Recycling, experiencing the grueling physical dedication required for competitive sports, and knowing the intelligence and grace needed for pageantry all helped Clay become the success and role-model she is today.
She gives the ultimate credit to God. She recalled many nights spent in tearful prayer on the verge of giving up.
“God definitely deserves all the glory,” she said.
And the driving force behind all of her hard work and refusal to rest?
“My inspiration is my child,” she said, “I want her to always feel it is never too late to achieve your goals and dreams in life. I wanted a better life for her and more opportunities for our future.”
Clay isn’t ready to relax just yet.
“I am working towards my CPA,” she said of her future plans. “I will attend the Graduate School of Banking at University of Wisconsin in Madison beginning in August of 2021. It is a three year program. So I will graduate from there in 2023.
“I believe I will stop after that and enjoy life with my amazing daughter and family.”