Then and now Cottons have had 61 good years together

Published 11:28 pm Saturday, May 15, 2010

“You know I never was good in math,” Ellen Cotton replied softly and with a smile and a slight twinkle in her eye when I asked her how old she is.

Her husband, Dwain, though, is older — he’s 86 — and about a week ago, on May 8, they celebrated their 61st anniversary. Now retired, they spent a total of 70 years in the field of education — Ellen, 37, and Dwain, 33 — and much of that time was in Warren County.

Dwain is quick and often humorous with a reply, so when I called and asked if I could visit them for an interview, he said first, “I’ve either got to get a haircut or a dog license.”

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Seated in the living room of their Belmont Gardens apartment, he asked me, “Are we recording now?” and I said yes, “But say what you please — you always have.”

He retorted that he had never been accused of being shy about expressing an opinion, that “it’s a Cotton family trait.”

Dwain was born in Vicksburg, Ellen in Neshoba County, and they met in college at Mississippi Southern in 1948 when she was dating his roommate. Ellen said her first impression was that Dwain dressed nicely, that his mother had done a good job raising him.

When she saw him on campus one day, he was reclining on a bench under a tree and she thought, “He looked pretty good,” and decided to meet him that night for supper. After that, they often met on campus in a parklike area where the wisteria bloomed, and Dwain said, “Things just fell into place.” They were married the next year at Ellisville where Ellen’s brother taught at Jones County Junior College.

Dwain grew up in Jonestown, on Halls Ferry Road, when there were just three stores and a gas station. The road was paved to the top of Power’s Hill, beyond the present entrance to St. Michaels Catholic Church. His parents, my Uncle Ed and Aunt Julia, had a home that sat way back from the street on a hill that was in later years flattened by dozers. Fred’s Dollar Store is on the site now.

The street wasn’t busy like it is today. Dwain remembers watching the late Merce Hawkins driving a herd of cattle right down the street to Marcus Bottom, then left onto Bowmar Avenue and over the hill to the railroad yards.

“My gracious, times have changed,” he said, “but I wouldn’t trade them for now. I grew up in good times. Everybody else was poor, too, so there weren’t any comparisons. I don’t know of anything I would change.”

Dwain went to Jett through the 10th grade, then to Carr Central, playing football at each school. Wood Hall was the principal at Jett “and a good one.” He remembers Hall as running a tight ship and, “If he said he was going to put the board on you and you said no, he’d start moving furniture. Why? ‘Because it’s going to be in our way.’”

When Dwain was ready to go to Hinds — “Just about everybody has been to Hinds at one time or another” — he and a friend bought a Model A Ford for $50. That was his first Model A — he bought another when he was in the Navy in World War II that had 65,000 miles on it. He drove it back and forth from Lake City, Fla., to Vicksburg three times — 620 miles each way. It took 18 hours a trip.

“It had a cruising speed of 45 — no more, no less,” he said, “and it never left me on the roadside.”

When he was discharged from the Navy, he took it to Mississippi Southern, driving home most weekends with as many people in the car as it would hold, usually five.

“We would go to the show in Hattiesburg, and I couldn’t imagine how we got so many people in that car, but we did,” Ellen recalled. That was an era when not many students had cars of any kind, but Dwain drove his Model A “like it was a Cadillac. It served my purpose, getting me from Point A to Point B.” They eventually graduated to a 1935 Plymouth.

Both Dwain and Ellen had planned to teach. Her brother was a teacher, and Dwain’s mother had taught in a one-room school at Grand Gulf before moving to Warren County. (Incidentally, she’s the one who suggested the name for Culkin Academy). His mother never taught him, Dwain said, “except at the business end of a switch.”

Ellen majored in English, Dwain in science. She loved teaching and never had written lesson plans “because I knew what I was doing.”

Both taught at Senatobia for years where Dwain was also junior high football coach and high school girls basketball coach. There wasn’t a gym, so they had to practice and play at nearby Como. There hadn’t been a girls basketball team before, and Dwain said that for the record, they didn’t win a game, “but when they got their suits they were so excited they actually scored three points. It made the local paper.” As time went on, though, they won two conference titles and went to the finals in the northern part of the state, and before it was over they had beaten everybody who had whipped them in the past, except Batesville.

Not having adequate facilities was nothing new to Dwain. He remembers, when playing for Jett, the team traveled to Forest Hill on a flatbed truck.

The Cottons’ first teaching job was in Neshoba County, and Dwain said when they moved with a Jeep pulling a trailer loaded with stuff they must have looked like something from “The Grapes of Wrath.” They moved into a teachers home that was so dilapidated that “if you dropped a marble in the living room, it would roll all the way through the house to the back door.”

They later taught in Jefferson County, then Senatobia before coming here in 1967 where Dwain wore a lot of hats — he taught at Warren Central “for one of the best principals, Othel Mendrop,” who was principal at Jett and Warrenton and assistant superintendent of elementary education. Sharp Banks, he said, “was the best superintendent I’ve ever known. He got the job done without a lot of furor.”

For a few years, Dwain quit teaching and worked for Spencer Chemical Company, but he went back to the classroom “because I missed the boys and girls and the excitement that came with them.”

Ellen believes teaching is the most satisfying thing she’s ever done, and both she and Dwain agree that success in teaching is to establish who’s in charge, that “it’s easier to lighten up than tighten up.”

Though he was a stern disciplinarian, Dwain had his lighter moments in class and teased a young kinsman one day by saying, “Well, we have two minutes before the bell rings. We’ll let Buddy tell us all he knows, but I don’t know what we’ll do with the rest of the time.”

When he was a principal, he recalls, he inherited a teacher whose capabilities didn’t extend much beyond recess (her days were numbered, for it’s another Cotton family trait not to suffer fools gladly). He once told another teacher that he knew we all had problems, “but they don’t come in bunches, like bananas.”

In comparing the educational system from when they taught to the present, Dwain said he could “only speak from what I knew then, and from hearsay today, but we’ll reap the whirlwind. I don’t believe I could function in schools today because of the lack of control.”

The greatest joy in teaching, both agree, comes in later years when students call or come by and say, “I appreciate it.”

Now, Dwain said, “I can’t see and I don’t hear well. All I know is stories.”

When I taught with Dwain and Ellen, some students thought she was my wife — and that was all right. It’s when I told them she was my mother that she wasn’t real happy. And I loved it when someone at church one day asked Dwain if he and my father were brothers. That guy would have gotten a beating right then if they hadn’t been at church (My father, George, and Dwain’s father, Ed, were brothers). I’ve always told Dwain the smartest thing he ever did was marry Ellen — and he quickly agrees.

Dwain and I would still be talking if there hadn’t been other things to do. We covered a lot of territory: “PRM is to the left of left”; politicians and politics (Yes, we both like Sarah Palin); raising childen; religion; events in history; and our own pasts.

I told Dwain that in case Judge Judy should retire, I’m going to nominate him to take her place.

Gordon Cotton is an author and historian who lives in Vicksburg.