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Mary Dawson Cain: a life ‘cut rose-diamond-fashion’

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Mary Dawson Cain posed for this photo in 1951 when she was state president of of the Business and Professional Women''s Club. Other than the slight graying of her hair, she changed little in looks over the years. The inscription reads: "To my treasured friend Gordon Cotton with fond good wishes from Mary Cain."(Photo courtesy Gordon Cotton)

In Mississippi history, the name Mary Dawson Cain will be remembered as the first woman in the state to run for the office of governor.

To me and scores of other teenagers in the late 1950s in the Pike County town of Summit, she was Aunt Mary and her husband was Uncle John.

She was born Aug. 16, 1904, somewhere between Pike County, Mississippi, and Burke, Louisiana, in the middle of the night. Her father was a railroad man, and he and his wife lived on the train — and that’s where Aunt Mary was born as the train rumbled through the night.

Summit was the family home, and she grew up there, went to school there and later to LSU. She taught music and speech, worked as a bookkeeper and married a local boy, John L. Cain.

She began her career in journalism in 1930, working for a local weekly, The Summit  Sentinel. It was on the second of April 1936 that she issued volume one number one of her own newspaper, The Summit Sun. She chose not to issue it a day earlier as folks might think it was an April fool!

She edited the tabloid weekly for almost 48 years.

Physically she was beautiful·— tall and well-formed, with dark hair that she pulled back in rolls to the top of her head — an elegant and stately lady whose sparkling black eyes bespoke her thoughts.

She was quick to speak her mind and was unyielding in what she thought was right. Her mind was like a steel trap, ready to spring and size up any situation. To her, truth remained truth whether it was popular or not. Principles didn’t change, and she stuck to her principles.

She asked for no special privileges, only opportunity, and through the years was state president of the Business and Professional Women’s Organization and organized the women’s division of the Mississippi Press Association. She headed the women’s campaign for Thomas L. Bailey when he was elected governor.

Her first battle with the federal government occurred during the Franklin Roosevelt years. Newspapers , especially weeklies, were having financial difficulties, and the president wanted to subsidize them with federal grants. Mary Cain saw it as an attempt by Roosevelt and the New Deal to get control of the press by having newspapers obligated to them, and she sounded the alarm among other editors nationwide. She won, and Roosevelt dropped the idea.

She was a brilliant speaker, never using notes, her thoughts coming straight from the shoulder and the heart. Invitations came from many parts of the country, and when a poll of governors asked if any thought a woman could be a good vice president, her name was one of only three submitted. She was the choice of Gov. J. Backen Lee of Utah.

Her greatest public acclaim occurred one day in 1953. when she went to battle with the federal government over forced retirement insurance — Social Security. The amount she owed was small, about $41, but to her it was not the government’s business or responsibility to take·care of her. She preferred to tend to that chore personally.

She was sick, in bed with a cold, when she learned that IRS agents had bored a hole in the double doors of the Sun and secured them with a chain and padlock. It didn’t take her but a few minutes to get out of bed, secure a hack saw, and free the newspaper from government control and confiscation. The press dubbed her “Hacksaw Mary,” and her fame spread nationally.

At the Summit post office, more than 7,000 letters of support poured into the small building — letters of praise and support for her courageous stand, and she became a champion among the fiscal conservatives.

The battle went on for years. She made some smart legal moves, and though the U.S. Supreme Court put it on the docket, it never heard the case, which had run its course. The case was basically forgotten by everyone except Aunt Mary, who included a matter-of-fact note each year when she filed her taxes that she did not have, did not want, and would not accept a Social Security number.

In 1951, she entered the race for governor of Mississippi. She felt that if there were enough governors with guts, they could straighten out things in Washington. She made an impressive showing when the votes were counted, so she entered another race in 1955.

I was a college student at Southwest Mississippi Junior College in Summit and worked part-time at the Sun. That summer I got my first taste of politics. I sometimes drove Aunt Mary’s red and white Buick Roadmaster for her as she crisscrossed the state. Though her campaign funds were limited, she would pull up in the middle of a town square or park at a crossroads country store, introduce herself (there were loudspeakers atop the car) and tell folks her plans as governor.

Her trademark was a red umbrella to shield herself from the sun, a folding fan to stir the air and high-heeled pumps. To soothe her throat, she kept a mixture of lemon juice and honey. There is a certain bond among editors, and often she was the overnight guest at the local editor’s home.

On weekends, she headed toward home, caught up on her mail, wrote editorials, paid bills and went to church. On Monday morning she was back on the road.

There was usually a crowd on hand at every stop. Folks wanted to hear the pretty lady who spoke her mind, who defied tradition by seeking to be governor in a man’s world. The crowds loved her. She usually won the straw polls, and crowd response after a major talk always found her to be the favorite, hands down.

But they wouldn’t vote for her: if only she wore pants… “and if this wind keeps blowing, you’re going to find out that I do!” she once quipped to a Gulf Coast crowd.

Though they were opponents, there was a certain cordiality among most of the candidates. In the race with Aunt Mary were Sum Lumpkin, Ross Barnett, Hugh White, J.P. Coleman, Fielding Wright, Kelly Hammond, Jesse Burd, Jimmy Walker and Paul Johnson Jr.

Coleman wasn’t fond of Aunt Mary, and for good reason. A highway patrolman had stopped a black man who worked for Uncle John and accused him of carrying a concealed weapon. It was a false charge, and Aunt Mary went to bat for the man. Coleman was attorney general, and when he realized Aunt Mary’s fierce determination in defending her friend, all charges were dropped.

During the campaign only Coleman made remarks. In McComb, he told his supporters that Mrs. Cain should go back to the kitchen where she belonged, but she just laughed about it. She wouldn’t know what to do in a kitchen — Uncle John even made the coffee.

All the male candidates were attorneys. Mary Cain was a journalist and the lawyers made a point to tell the public that the state needed someone with a strong legal mind at the helm. Aunt Mary retorted with a story about a farmer who was walking through a graveyard and saw an epitaph on a tombstone tombstone: “Here lies a Lawyer and an Honest Man.” The farmer mused for a moment and then surmised: “Must be two men in that grave.”

When the votes were counted, she came in about the middle. She never tried politics again though she never lost her interest.

There was another side to Aunt Mary. She loved to entertain friends. She sang beautifully, was a good pianist and was a poet. She also taught Sunday School. She had a quick wit.

When Charlie Sullivan was defeated for governor by Bill Waller, she commented that “Every four years Mississippians take an IQ test — and fail.”

I grew a beard, and she hadn’t seen me for a while. She hesitated, then kissed me, commenting, “You have to go through the briars to get to the berries.”

Her stamina was amazing, and her Bible held the key. It is in Isiah: “Hast thou not known … that the everlasting God … fainteth not, neither is weary? He giveth power to the faint … they that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength; and they shall mount up with wings as eagles; they shall run, and not be weary; and they shall walk, and not faint.”

On Jan. 7, 1984, Uncle John died unexpectedly at 85. Four months to the day after his death, Aunt Mary followed him. Her body lay in state in her parlor, a lifetime of awards all around. In death, the lady who had brushed shoulders with the great proudly wore her Old Glory pin.

She loved a quote from Oliver Wendell Holmes, who said, “The longer I live, the more I am satisfied of two things: first, that the truest lives are those that are cut rose-diamond-fashion, with many facets answering to the many-planed aspects of the world about them; secondly, that society is always trying in some way or other to grind us down to a single flat surface. It is hard work to resist this grinding-down action.”

Aunt Mary was a beautiful lady in every respect, one I loved very much. I thank God for her and that she had such an influence on my life and the lives of many others. She never lost her sparkle, her wit, her wisdom and she successfully resisted that grinding-down process about which Oliver Wendell Holmes warned.

And there’s no Social Security number on her death certificate.


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

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Martin and Mosher inducted as ERDC Distinguished Civilian Employees

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Dr. William "Bill" Martin and Dr. Reed Mosher (photos courtesy ERDC)

The U.S. Army Engineering Research and Development Center will induct two former employees to the Waterways Experiment Station Gallery of Distinguished Civilian Employees Oct. 15 at 1 p.m. in the ERDC Headquarters Auditorium.

Dr. Bill Martin and Dr. Reed Mosher will join the ranks of more than 100 former employees whose significant career achievements left a lasting impression on both ERDC and the nation.

Martin and Mosher both served as directors of laboratories at the ERDC. Both pioneered technologies that proved to be life saving for American Soldiers and both left behind a remarkable legacy when they retired from federal service.

Each year, the ERDC inducts new members to the gallery, the highest honor bestowed to those who have worked at WES in Vicksburg.

Martin, a U.S. Army veteran, ended his 41-year ERDC career in 2013 as director of the Coastal and Hydraulics Laboratory. In that role, he led a $90 million research program that provided cutting-edge technology solutions to more than 500 projects around the world. Martin was also instrumental in updating the lab’s world-class facilities, including the development of a state-of-the-art Ship Simulator Complex, which allows engineers and pilots to simulate ports, harbors and maritime environments all over the world.

Martin is also remembered for being a leader in addressing complex groundwater issues on military installations, as well as for leading a team that performed emergency modeling of the Sava River in Bosnia-Herzegovina in support of the 1st Armor Division’s peacekeeping role after the Balkan War. His team provided daily river condition forecasts and answered engineering questions for more than 450 consecutive days, which led to the creation of the WES Tele-Engineering Program. Today that program is known as the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Reachback Operations Center, which is located in Vicksburg and connects deployed troops in the field to subject-matter experts back home who can help solve engineering challenges for them.

Mosher, who spent 40 years as a federal employee, retired as director of the Information Technology Laboratory  in 2018. Under his leadership, the lab’s staff grew by 108%, becoming the second largest ERDC laboratory. He also oversaw the construction of a 66,000 square-foot expansion to the laboratory, and his vision for a new secure computing facility is under construction and scheduled for completion later this year.

Before his ITL role, Mosher served as the lead technical director for military engineering in the Geotechnical and Structures Laboratory, where he was also directly involved with assessments after some of the world’s most notorious attacks and bombings — Oklahoma City in 1995, the U.S. Embassies in Africa in 1998 and the Sept. 11, 2001, attack on the Pentagon. He was instrumental in developing new technologies designed to protect soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan from rockets, mortars and other explosives.

Even after their retirements, both inductees are still involved with the ERDC today. Martin is a member and served as the 2019 president of the ERDC Alumni Association, while Mosher is the director of the Mississippi State University Institute for Systems Engineering Research, a partnership initiative with the ERDC.

 

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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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People

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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