State honors Virden for his service

Published 9:50 am Monday, September 19, 2016

His father placed a box of shotgun shells at his feet, looked up and asked, “Aren’t you left handed?”

Jack Virden wasn’t left handed before Polio forced him to learn how to shoot with both hands in his mid-teens. With that one question Virden’s father began teaching him how to “improvise and adapt” to the disability issues caused by the disease during a time when Varden said people with disabilities “just sat on porches.”

“My daddy wasn’t going to hear of it,” he said. “He pushed me to be included.”

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It’s his father’s push, Virden said, that taught him “to not back down to anything.”

And it’s not backing down that led the Rolling Fork High School graduate to be appointed by the governor to the board of directors for the Mississippi Department of Rehabilitation Services.

Virden received the department’s 2016 Hubert Stephen “Butch” McMillan Award for his “lifetime commitment to serving people with disabilities and their families,” according to a press release.

The Department of Rehabilitation Services is the “best kept secret in the state of Mississippi,” Virden said, of its work to help people with disabilities find employment.

“People just don’t realize the programs are there until trouble or disaster or pain or however you want to classify it hits,” he said.

He began volunteering at the department that helped pay for his degree at Mississippi College after retiring from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

“I just thought it was a good way of paying back to the disability community the advantages and things that I had. I just thought it was a good opportunity to give me something to do,” he said of his volunteer position with the department. “I had a desire for the disability community to be included.”

Virden, who has also volunteered with the Special Olympics and the state Department of Education, served on the rehabilitation services board for 12 years and became its longest-sitting chairman during that time.

“It’s been good. I love the meetings,” he said. “I enjoyed watching the ideas flowing back and forth. It’s a fun thing to watch.”

He served on the board with the state directors of human resources, mental health, education and others, managing council’s like the state Independent Living Council and petitioning the legislature for funding by sharing his story.

He said the most important part of the reward he received was knowing the man who it is named after. Virden served with the former director of rehabilitation services on the board.

“We used to joke during board meetings about who would retire first,” Virden said. “He ended up beating me by about a year. When he retired, (the department) was on top of the world, and they still are.”

Virden stepped down from his position on the board in July due to health issues and said he hasn’t made it back to visit anyone since.

“Emotionally, I don’t know if I could handle it or not,” he said, noting that now he feels truly retired.