Banks, ‘father of county schools’ dies at 87

Published 11:40 pm Saturday, December 10, 2011

Once called “the father of the county schools,” Sharp W. Banks Jr. gave 38 years to the old Warren County Public Schools district, serving as coach, teacher, principal, public address announcer and elected superintendent, and steering the schools through the challenges of enrollment growth in the 1960s and integration in the 1970s.

Banks died Friday, Dec. 9, 2011, at Lakeview Regional Medical Center in Mandeville, La. He was 87.

“He not only put his heart into his family, he put his heart into the school system and into the quality of education in Warren County,” said his daughter, the Rev. Tere Banks.

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“He really built the Warren County school system when he spearheaded the effort to consolidate the three county high schools and build Warren Central (High School),” said Donald Oakes, former superintendent of the Vicksburg Warren School District, formed in 1987 when the city and county schools merged. “He was recognized across the state as an excellent superintendent.”

Banks was the first recipient of the Golden Lamp Award, given by the Mississippi Association of School Administrators, an honor of which he took particular pride, his daughter said.

In the last few years, he had struggled with a number of health challenges, and his “grit and determination” in the face of illness inspired those around him, Tere Banks said. “He never whined, never complained. He was always cheerful.”

“The most significant thing about him in my life was that he never pushed advice on anybody but was always a good ear,” said daughter Tina Henson. “When I needed to, and I did ask him, his strength and clarity offered a lot of wisdom and peace.”

As the child of the superintendent, she had a running joke with her father, whose bottom-line instruction to his children was “keep your nose clean.”

“He would joke that he didn’t want to hear anything about us from the principal’s office,” Henson said. “(But) he always let us learn from our mistakes. He let us fall but was always there to help us up again.”

Professionally, he was the same, said Oakes, whom Banks hired fresh out of college in 1962 to teach and coach at the old Jett School.

“He let people do their jobs,” he said. “He didn’t shoot you for one mistake. He didn’t want you to make the same mistake again, but he was always there to help you.”

Banks moved to Vicksburg from Oxford in December 1949, just before his graduation from the University of Mississippi. Then married to the former Joy Alford, he first worked for his in-laws’ butane/propane company before signing on at Redwood School as a teacher and girls’ basketball coach. He later said, “The Redwood community took me in and guided me through the rough spots.”

In 1952, Banks moved over to Jett, where he was hired as principal but also filled in as bookkeeping teacher and coach. He remained at Jett 10 years, until he ran and was elected, at just 37, to succeed former county schools superintendent Noel Nutt.

County high schools at the time were Redwood, Jett and Culkin, and as enrollments increased so did the need for more classrooms. Banks talked up the idea of a consolidated high school, speaking around the county to any group that would have him.

His successful efforts overcame previous school rivalries, the logistics of busing students over long distances and the need to pass millions in bond issue to build new schools. Warren Central High School opened in 1965.

Racially integrating the county’s schools in the late ’60s and early ’70s was another challenge Banks faced head-on.

“It was a pretty good transition,” Oakes recalled, “and I think the quality of his leadership was largely responsible.”

Banks served as superintendent until his retirement June 30, 1987, the eve of the merging of county and city schools. Both he and then-Vicksburg Municipal Separate District Superintendent Jim Stirgus Sr. were contenders to head the consolidated district, but school board members chose to go outside the state for the first chief, a move that took city-county rivalry into consideration.

Banks counted numerous memberships in professional organizations and was involved in civic and community groups.

He also taught Sunday school at Gibson Memorial United Methodist Church for 20 years. “He had an extremely strong faith in God,” said Tere Banks.

Sharp Banks later moved to Covington, La., and then to Mandeville.

In addition to Henson and Tere Banks, Sharp Banks is survived by his wife, Winnie Rogers Banks; daughter, Paula Glen DeTrafford of Walker, La.; son, George Banks of Montesano, Wash.; five grandchildren and four great-grandchildren. He was preceded in death by his son, Sharp Banks III.

Funeral services will be at 2 p.m. Tuesday in Philadelphia under the direction of McClain-Hays Funeral Home.