Unlikely pair bonds over trailblazing Mississippian

Published 9:33 am Thursday, February 4, 2016

What a surprise it was last week when local resident Penny Varner opened the Vicksburg Post and found a young girl dressed as one of her family members.

“It’s not every day you get your hometown newspaper and open it up, and on the front page is a precious little girl dressed like your aunt. It was an extra sweet moment for me,” Varner said.

On Jan. 25, Bowmar Elementary School held its annual Leadership Day, where schools participating in the Leadership in Me program open their doors to the community to let others view the positive changes that occur with students and staff.  As part of its coverage of local events, the Vicksburg Post had a reporter there taking pictures and writing a story.

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For Leadership Day, students at Bowmar were asked to portray famous Mississippians, and third-grader Ella Walker chose to represent Capt. Viola Sanders, Varner’s aunt.

Sanders was an American naval officer who rose to the highest rank a woman could attain in the U.S. Navy in the mid 1960’s.

Varner said after gaining her composure from seeing in the Vicksburg Post the picture of the little girl dressed as “Pinky,” the name Varner said her aunt was lovingly known as by friends and family, she began calling and texting her children and nieces about the news.

“It was just wild,” Varner said.

On Monday, Bowmar repeated the events of the past week’s leadership day specifically for parents of the students, and Varner and her husband Mack chose to attend the program and meet the little girl portraying Capt. Sanders.

It was obviously an emotional day for Varner to see Ella, so petite and poised honoring her aunt.

It had not even been three years since Sanders death, and Varner had been presented the U.S. Flag that had been draped over her aunt’s coffin during her full military burial.

Sanders would have been 95 this month, Varner said, and because of proximity while growing up, Varner had always been close to her aunt.

“She (Sanders) was like a magnet, and kids and adults loved her,” Varner said.

For Leadership Day, Ella was dressed in a navy skirt and blazer which was decorated with gold stripes on the sleeves and an insignia that was loaned to her by one of her mother’s friends, she said.

Ella had no knowledge of the local connection to Sanders and said she had decided to portray the naval officer because of her naval profession.

“Since I was a navy seal for Halloween, I decided to do this because I thought it would be fun.”

Upon the two meeting, Varner presented copies of framed pictures she had put together for Ella, one of which showed Sanders dressed in her military uniform and the other documenting her swearing in ceremony.

Varner said her aunt joined the Navy in 1942 at the urging of her brother who was already serving, and it was her brother, Varner’s father, who administered the oath during the swearing in ceremony.

“My Dad told her the Navy was offering opportunities for women.”

After being sworn in by her own brother, Sanders proceeded to officer candidate school and was then promoted to Regimental commander of the WAVES — Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service.

A graduate of Greenwood High School, Sanders studied at Sunflower Junior College where she was named Miss Sunflower Junior College. She continued her education at what is now Delta State University, graduating with a degree in English.

“Education had always been a passion for my aunt, and this would have meant so much to her, (the Leadership Day),” Varner said.


About Terri Cowart Frazier

Terri Frazier was born in Cleveland. Shortly afterward, the family moved to Vicksburg. She is a part-time reporter at The Vicksburg Post and is the editor of the Vicksburg Living Magazine, which has been awarded First Place by the Mississippi Press Association. She has also been the recipient of a First Place award in the MPA’s Better Newspaper Contest’s editorial division for the “Best Feature Story.”

Terri graduated from Warren Central High School and Mississippi State University where she received a bachelor’s degree in communications with an emphasis in public relations.

Prior to coming to work at The Post a little more than 10 years ago, she did some freelancing at the Jackson Free Press. But for most of her life, she enjoyed being a full-time stay at home mom.

Terri is a member of the Crawford Street United Methodist Church. She is a lifetime member of the Vicksburg Junior Auxiliary and is a past member of the Sampler Antique Club and Town and Country Garden Club. She is married to Dr. Walter Frazier.

“From staying informed with local governmental issues to hearing the stories of its people, a hometown newspaper is vital to a community. I have felt privileged to be part of a dedicated team at The Post throughout my tenure and hope that with theirs and with local support, I will be able to continue to grow and hone in on my skills as I help share the stories in Vicksburg. When asked what I like most about my job, my answer is always ‘the people.’

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