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Marguerite Stegall: the first woman to hold countywide office in Warren County

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“I’m thinking of running for the office of tax collector,” the voice on the phone said. “What do you think about this?”

The caller was Marguerite Stegall, a longtime friend. The legislature had separated the office of sheriff and tax collector, which had been state law since the 1890s. The new law took effect in 1971, with the winner taking office in 1972.

Marguerite had plenty of experience. She had majored in office management classes at Southwest Junior College in Summit, and in Vicksburg she had run the office for former Sheriff John Hynes Henderson Jr.

There were many things to think about in the upcoming race, one of which was that a woman had never been elected to countywide office in Warren County. A half-dozen or so men had already stated that they planned to run.

I reminded Marguerite that only one person could win, and then I asked, “Are you prepared to lose? Could you handle defeat?” Her instant reply was, “I’m not going to lose.”

Marguerite was from Gloster, and she married Oree Stegall from Crystal Springs. They moved to Vicksburg where he had an industrial job. He and Marguerite raised two daughters, Sherry and Connie. The girls went to school at Culkin, and the family were members of Shiloh Primitive Baptist Church where Oree was a deacon and Marguerite was church clerk.

The typical, tranquil life all changed when Oree was killed in an industrial accident.

A campaign card for her reelection made no promises. She always says her only promise was to do the best job for voters. (Photo courtesy Gordon Cotton)

I had never tried my hand before at advertising, but I agreed to handle Marguerite’s ads in the local paper and on the radio.

It was a lively campaign. Most of her male opponents were well-known and popular. There were few doors in Vicksburg and Warren County that weren’t knocked on by Marguerite or her daughters. Things looked good for her, but Charlie Faulk, editor of the Vicksburg Post told me that in a straw pole at the Lions Club, Mrs. Stegall didn’t do very well.

“What do you think of that?” he asked.

My reply: “I don’t think the members of that club are representatives of the voters in Warren County.”

I was right. When the votes were counted for the first primary, Marguerite was the leader, and though she had a runoff vote she almost won in the first primary. She won the election, taking office in January 1972. In future elections she had little opposition winning easily for several terms. Because of health issues she resigned in November 1993, and Pat Simrall was appointed to take her place.

Marguerite served three or four terms and faced little opposition. She made sure her staff were capable and courteous.

No one told her she had to do this, but among the workers was a Black lady, Delores Nichols. Marguerite had simply done the right thing in breaking the color barrier among office personnel.

Marguerite was active in the state organization of tax collectors and was in the lead in persuading the legislature to abandon the practice of a vehicle owner having to buy a new metal tag each year. A small sticker would be a lot less expensive and simply made good sense.

Her efficiency was noted by the state, and she was honored by having the most efficiently-operate tax collector’s office in Mississippi.

I knew Marguerite best through church as we were both members of Shiloh Primitive Baptist on Warriors’ Trail. Most of the congregations of our denomination do not take up collections — we just put money on the alter after services. I was treasurer for a number of years, and others didn’t know it, but Marguerite quietly paid all the utility bills.

I recall a few lighthearted moments. One evening she took several of us to a church meeting in Jackson. Archie Anderson was driving — he was a high school student — and she was giving directions. He just about lost it — as did the rest of us — when Marguerite told him to turn off Highway 55 “onto Fornication Street.” Of course she meant Fortification.

At church we sing a lot — for about 30 minutes with no interruptions — and the hymns are chosen by the congregation. Whatever number is heard gets sung next. Marguerite was always quick with her favorites. Most people have the habit of sitting in the same place each Sunday, and after Marguerite’s death I discovered, in the hymnal holder, a list of her favorite hymns and their numbers. I had to laugh — she had a cheat sheet!

She once gave me good advice concerning a business meeting. If there is any disagreement, have the chair recognize you, and raise your voice an octave and the opposition will usually melt.

When Marguerite died, her daughters asked me to be one of the speakers at her funeral. I don’t recall much of what I said except for my closing remark: If you look up the meaning of public servant, the answer should be Marguerite Stegall.


Gordon Cotton is the curator emeritus of the Old Court House Museum. He is the author of several books and is a renowned historian.

Education

Karla McHan experiences the unique challenge of leading her school in 2020

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Karla McHan and her colleague and mentor Mary Arledge on the first day of school this fall. (photo courtesy K. McHan)

When Karla McHan was looking for a challenge last year, she had no way of knowing exactly how challenged she would be.

McHan spent 22 years teaching social studies (mostly U.S. history but also world history, government, psychology and sociology) at Warren Central High School when she was offered the lead teacher position in 2012.

“I really enjoyed seeing education from a different perspective and loved the opportunity to work more directly with teachers,” McHan said.

The experience motivated her to go back to school for her master’s degree in educational leadership, something she had put off when her children were young.

“I decided it was time to venture out and knew I could bring my perspective as a longtime teacher to educational decision making,” she said.

A rare history position opened at Vicksburg Catholic School in 2016, and McHan could not pass up the chance of working with a man who had been the principal of her elementary and junior high schools when she was a student: Dr. Buddy Strickland.

“It seemed like everything just fell in place,” she says of making the move to St. Aloysius High School. VCS also offered McHan a unique opportunity to advance her career and more openly share her faith.

“As a practicing Catholic, I was excited about being in a school environment that so beautifully incorporates faith and love of God and neighbor in its daily activities.”

St. Aloysius is much smaller than Warren Central, and McHan said it was a great place to step into the role of principal last year. “The smaller setting helped create a stronger sense of family, and I got to know everyone better,” she said. “That’s important when taking on an administration role.”

As far as finding the challenges she was searching for, McHan got what she wanted in more ways than one in her position as the school’s principal. She experienced the typical new-principal challenges such as gaining the faculty’s trust and learning how to best utilize each staff member’s individual strengths, but then life threw her a curve ball.

”Hands down, the biggest hurdle I have faced has been COVID-19,” she said. “I think all new principals spend their first year in survival mode, but that moves into a whole different level when a pandemic hits three-quarters of the way through.”

McHan said that creating a distance learning program and putting it into action effectively was one of the most difficult tasks she has faced on any level of her education career, but it has been especially trying when coupled with the responsibility of every student and faculty member in her school.

“I considered all of the typical administrator duties when I was deciding to move,” she said, “but helping teachers and students adapt to distance learning while identifying the academic gaps that come with extended time away from the classroom was never on my radar.”

McHan credits her faith, the support of her family and the “fabulous faculty and staff at St. Al” for her success. She also credits the great relationship she has developed with Mary Arledge, principal of St. Francis Xavier Academy. “She is just an incredible mentor and supporter,” McHan said of Arledge.

McHan is clearly not a person to relax when the going gets good. In addition to constantly trying to better the distance learning processes, she plans to continue her education and pursue a specialist’s degree. Her plans also include more time with family and traveling with her husband, David.

“It may sound crazy considering the current state of educational practices, but I definitely foresee being able to relax a little soon,” she said, “and I can confidently say that because I know I have the backing of such a hard-working, supportive staff.”

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Those who keep us safe: Elwin Johnson

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From an early age, Elwin Johnson, Jr. has been taught to always help those in need.

“Without family there’s no me, Johnson said. “Family is my foundation, my support system.”

It was his family who instilled in him the value of working hard and giving back to his community.

Johnson is a homegrown Vicksburg native who has always admired not only the work of firefighters but more importantly the firefighters at the Vicksburg Fire Department.

“I had always grown up looking at the Vicksburg Fire Department as an establishment in Vicksburg that was extremely respectable,” Johnson said.

He started his career with the department as an emergency medical technician, or EMT, in February 2019. In a little over one year, the Vicksburg Fire Department has formed him into the person he has always wanted to be.

“I strive to be the best person I can be each and every day,” Johnson said.

Being new, Johnson has really relied on other guys in the department to help him along the way.

“Lieutenant Jabaris McDaniel was one of my biggest motivations when I first started, him and really all my co-workers have been there for me,” Johnson said.

As an EMT, Johnson has been faced with some devastating calls that have turned into life-saving efforts. At one incident, he recalls a man that was overwhelmed and how Johnson made him feel safe. He called Johnson his hero. After that incident, Johnson agreed with the man’s comment.

“We really are heroes, and he made me really feel like a hero that day,” Johnson said.

Johnson had a normal first year as an EMT, but since his anniversary with the department, things changed when COVID-19 hit. Johnson said procedures are a little different, but it has been business as usual for the Vicksburg Fire Department.

“We make sure we are highly protected when we go on calls to keep not only ourselves safe but the patients safe as well,” Johnson said.

Overall, his short experience with the department has been the start to, hopefully, a long career.

“I really enjoy being there for my community,” Johnson said. “I love being there for all the citizens of Vicksburg in their time of need.”

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Vicksburg woman Tonya Brooks celebrates two years of being breast cancer free

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Photo courtesy of Tonya Brooks

Vicksburg native Tonya Brooks is now celebrating two years of being breast cancer free this month after defeating the disease that kills over 42 thousand people every year.

In March 2017, Brooks felt a lump in her left breast but didn’t get it checked out until September of that year. After receiving a biopsy and a mammogram, she was officially diagnosed with breast cancer on October 2, 2017.

“I was all over the place when I received the news,” Brooks said.

Just a couple of weeks after being diagnosed, Brooks began treatment which included 18 rounds of chemotherapy. Not only did she have chemotherapy treatment for nearly a year, but she also went through 25 rounds of radiation.

Surprisingly, Brooks never felt sick at all during her time dealing with breast cancer but she still encourages all women to get checked out.

“Lots of women don’t get tested because breast cancer doesn’t run in their family but checkups are good and always do a follow up, because it’s better to be safe than sorry,” Brooks said.

Brooks received all of her treatments at the Mississippi Baptist Medical Center in Jackson, Mississippi and she had a strong support system back home.

Brooks thanked family and friends Terry Brooks, John Lewis, Tiffany McDaniel, Carrol Harper, Sharnecius Jenkins, Shantavious Jones, Shakendrius Tyler, Laura Barnes, Warcheta Bunley, and her Tyson Foods family.

“Never give up and never lose faith,” Brooks said, as words of encouragement for those who are going through breast cancer.

As of October 19, 2018 Brooks has been cancer free and continues to live a happy and healthy life.

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