Ferris to be honored for roles in education

Published 12:00 am Monday, October 6, 2008

Next Tuesday night, the first Winter-Reed Award not being presented to anyone named Winter or Reed will be given to the family of  Grey Ferris.

To hear Cheryl Comans, president of the Mississippi Association of Partners in Education tell it, board members were going around the table naming names of the next person worthy of singling out as a champion of schools in the state.

“Someone mentioned Grey,” she said. “And that ended it.” Lots of people have lots of good marks on their report cards for laboring in the vineyards of education. Ferris, who died at his home in Vicksburg June 13, was singular. His devotion to the cause here and statewide never wavered.

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MAPE was created as an enrichment organization and a bridge between the private sector and schools. While it offers workshops and other events, it’s main function is to be as supportive of educators as it can be by encouraging their efforts and showing appreciation.

Tuesday’s second-annual awards event at the Vicksburg Convention Center is the group’s major fundraiser for the year. Otherwise, money is obtained through memberships and sponsorships. There is no staff and board members are all volunteers.

The first Winter-Reed Award was presented jointly in Jackson in 2007 to former Gov. William Winter and Tupelo businessman Jack Reed.

The men — one a Democrat who was elected governor, the other a Republican who ran but fell short — are long-time friends. Part of the bond they share dates to the 1970s and 1980s when, during Mississippi’s immediate post-integration years, both refused to sing along with the “all is lost” chorus. Instead, both took the criticism and everything else that came with standing up for public education. When everyone in the old guard seemed to begrudge every penny being spent, they had the temerity to ask for more.

‘He was a leader in every sense of the word, but without any bombast, without any aspirations other than setting reasonable goals and finding ways to meet them.’

Similarly, when the City of Vicksburg filed an annexation case in 1983 that initially sought to acquire 90 square miles of the tax base of Warren County Public Schools (moving into the tax base of the Vicksburg Municipal Separate School District), there was a great hue and cry.

Ferris, a cattleman and farmer, had probably actually seen chickens with their heads cut off. He decided to get involved. An attorney and graduate of Tulane University, where he was student body president, he sought to calm the situation. Given what could have been a disaster for both districts, he joined a small group who saw the city’s move as an opportunity to improve local education overall.

Few agreed, but no one had any better alternative — and no one had Ferris’ patience, tact, intellect and determination. The Vicksburg Warren School District was born in 1986. It wasn’t perfect then. It isn’t perfect now. The flaws, however, have been human. The structure is sound.

After serving on the first board of trustees here, Ferris accepted the larger challenge of education policy at the state level. He was twice elected a senator, served as chairman of the Education Committee and, with Sen. Hob Bryan, D-Amory, drafted and guided to passage the Mississippi Adequate Education Act. Again, there’s nothing perfect or magic about the law itself. The immediate effect, however, was to avoid federal intervention in how the state allocates funds to school districts. The longer-term effect has been to establish at least minimum standards and to assert — really for the first time — that education is a fixed responsibility of the Legislature, not to be taken lightly.

After Ferris died, I wrote a column about things I’d observed through the years.

Many friends told me I should have mentioned so many other efforts to which he brought his thoughtful, morally centered approach. He was a leader in every sense of the word, but without any bombast, without any aspirations other than setting reasonable goals and finding ways to meet them. He didn’t make empty promises. He gave people his word.

Tickets to the dinner remain available through the Chamber of Commerce at 601-636-1012 or online at www.mapie.org. They’re $50 each.

Hope to see you there.

Comans and the MAPE board knew it instantly. We all do. There’s no better way to honor Grey than by supporting schools.