Mary Libby Payne’s commencement address Friday at The University of Southern Mississippi included her own words, but they also reflected the timeless values and spirit of humanity passed on by her grandfather, Joe Cook, the university’s first president.
Speaking at the university’s fall 2010 Centennial Celebration Commencement ceremonies, the retired State Appeals Court judge shared the story of a young student at what was then Mississippi Normal College and how her grandfather, known affectionately by students at the school as “Daddy Joe” saved his academic career.
“When J.I. Rankin was a student at Mississippi Normal, he ran out of money. There was no student loans nor scholarships, so all he could do was to go home. He had just enough money for train fare back to Itawamba County,” Payne said.
Stopping by the president’s office to give notice of his withdrawal from school, President Cook asked Rankin “are you just looking for an excuse to quit, or would you stay if you could earn your keep?”
Rankin told Cook that he wanted to stay and graduate to become a school teacher, but had no money for tuition or room and board. Cook offered Rankin the opportunity to stay in school and live in the president’s home if he would ‘work the garden, feed the ducks, and arise on cold mornings before the rest of us (Cook’s family) and stoke the fire in the furnace.”
Rankin took Cook up on his offer, faithfully performing his duties at the president’s home until he graduated, upon which time he received a teaching contract. He went to President Cook to make an arrangement to repay the favor that allowed him to remain in school, but Cook declined the offer, telling Rankin that he was glad to help him and instructing him to “Just go out and pass it on.”
Ironically, Rankin and Payne’s paths would cross many years later. He served as a Sunday school teacher in Clinton, Miss. at her husband Bob’s church, and became fast friends with the couple. “He spoke often of his friendship with my parents and grandparents and of his years at Mississippi Normal, and often would have us over for dinner. He had a television, a luxury in 1956, and invited us over to see programs on it.”
She recounted how once Rankin had invited her over to watch one of her favorite movies, the “Wizard of Oz,” but she was unable to come to his house because her car wouldn’t start. She called to tell him she had to cancel the visit, but he told her to wait outside her apartment and he would pick her up. “We won’t let a dead battery spoil your fun evening,” he said.
Payne said she felt guilty about all the kind things Rankin did for her and her husband, feeling as though they were imposing on him. But Payne’s mother told her “Don’t you prevent Mr. Rankin from paying his debt to your granddaddy,” after which she shared with Payne the story of Cook’s assistance to Rankin.
Rankin also “passed it on” to his own children, providing the means for them to do likewise through careers in education, public service and Christian ministry. “Why am I telling you this story? You are part of the legacy too,” Payne told Southern Miss graduates. “You see, Mr. Rankin did not only ‘Pass it On’ to me, but to his family.”
Cook, who served the school as president from 1912-1928, also gave a personal charge to Payne in a letter he wrote to her in the year of her birth, 1932, welcoming her into a world that was not very inviting at the time. The Great Depression gripped the U.S. and war clouds loomed across Europe and Asia.
But Cook, who was serving in the State Senate at the time, tasked his new granddaughter to shine through life’s storms. “He wrote “You have entered this world at a very dark time. So, my commission to you is to brighten the corner where you are.’ And I have really tried to fulfill his commission to me,” Payne said.
Her record of accomplishments is evidence she has indeed fulfilled Cook’s commission. In addition to her service on the State Court of Appeals, she was also a professor and founding dean of the Mississippi College School of Law, where she now serves as a scholar in residence/professor emerita. She presently serves on the Governor’s Committee for Judicial Selection and on the Women in the Profession Committee of the Mississippi Bar Association.
Payne was named “Woman of the Year” by the Mississippi Association for Women in Higher Education 1989. 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.
“She’s quite an accomplished woman and a wonderful role model,” said Southern Miss President Martha Saunders. “And with her being the granddaughter of our first president, she’s the perfect choice to serve as our fall Centennial Celebration Commencement speaker.”
Payne said Cook, known as “Pappy” by his family, couldn’t have anticipated the impact of helping that one student get an education would continue on such a grand scale through his children. She charged Southern Miss graduates to make a similar impact through their own lives and careers.
“Southern Miss has invested much in you in providing an excellent education, equipping you to follow your destiny,” Payne said. “Pappy commissioned Mr. Rankin. Mr. Rankin laid upon me that debt, and now I extend the challenge to you from this institution’s first president. Go forth into your future and ‘Pass it On.’”