Earlier today, a service was held at Paris-Yates Chapel to honor the life of Carolyn Ellis Staton who passed away Friday, May 19 at the age of 71. Staton served the University of Mississippi as a law professor, interim dean of the law school, and the university’s first female to hold the title of associate provost. During her time as provost, Staton played a key role in the creation of the residential colleges, the Croft Institute and the Sally McDonnell Barksdale Honors College.
Staton meant a great deal to her colleagues, friends, and family who gathered today to celebrate her life. Born in Vicksburg, Mississippi in 1946, Staton grew up to surpass her own expectations for herself as she attended Tulane University for her undergraduate degree, and went on to attend Yale Law School in the fall of 1969. Staton’s bother David discussed her decision to leave Vicksburg and take a chance at becoming something more than what she expected.
“I remember she told me ‘That’s what women do, they become teachers or nurses.’ ‘Not you’ I told her. She became what a woman could do.” David said.
As she stepped foot onto the historic campus at Yale, Ellis met many people, and many lifelong friends, including Hillary Rodham. Over the years, Rodham became Rodham-Clinton and Ellis became Ellis-Staton, but their friendship remained the same.
Staton arrived early to Yale, unknowingly for a program designed for those who may need more time to acclimate to the campus, but it helped her develop relationships with the entire student body unlike anyone else. Former Secretary Clinton, in attendance at today’s service, shared stories of Staton’s time at Yale and how her time in the “early arrival” program was a sign of things to come.
“She plopped down at the lunch table and said can you believe I’m here for early arrival? Because she did, she became the student who could sit with white students, black students, any students,” Clinton said. “She was the connector. She could go from table to table, group to group. She kept people laughing and kept people thinking. And she even got into the habit of ordering us a round.”
Throughout Bill Clinton’s time in the White House, Staton and Clinton remained close. Staton was placed on the Defense Advisory Committee on Women in the Service, on which she became the Vice Chair. During Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign in 2016, while Staton’s health declined, the two reconnected in New York, where Staton received her treatments. Clinton told the gathered crowd at today’s service of the time they spent in the city. On the set of the the Late Show with Stephen Colbert and in the audience of Hamilton on Broadway, Clinton was happy to see her friend enjoying herself once again.
“It was a very exciting time because, for us who loved her, we saw her once again thinking about other things, and people and finding new experiences and being filled with them,” Clinton said. “The joy that she had brought to so many, it was something we tried to give back in some small measure to her.”
Before returning to her seat, Clinton invoked the lyrics of Carole King’s “You’ve Got A Friend” to remember Staton.
“In winter, spring, summer or fall, all you have to do is call. That’s the kind of friend Carolyn was to everyone who knew and loved her. Her investment in all of us will live on. Thank you, Carolyn, for who you were and who you remain to all of us, Godspeed, my friend,” Clinton said.
Douglass Sullivan-González, dean of the honors college, officiated the ceremony, and as a close friend of Staton’s he walked up to the podium and joked “Carolyn’s certainly smiling that I have to follow Hillary.” As her time ran short, Sullivan-González and Staton discussed life, death, and Staton requested that he officiated her ceremony. As he was about to leave Staton’s room at the hospital, he received a message from Staton that he will always remember.
“Carolyn grabbed my hands and with that beautiful smile said ‘what a wonderful journey we’ve enjoyed together, thank you.’,” Sullivan-González remembered. “Those are Carolyn’s words for each of you this sunny morning as we remember her, what a wonderful journey together.”
Staton joined the University of Mississippi and quickly made her mark on campus and in the Oxford community. Her list of achievements goes on, but it was her relationships with people that truly left a legacy. Provost Morris Stocks spoke of his friend and colleague and the impact she had on him and many others at Ole Miss.
“Everything I learned about how to be a provost, I learned from Carolyn Staton. She was the engine who drove this university toward nationally recognized academic excellence,” Stocks said. “Carolyn influenced people; she was constantly on the lookout for people who would push the university forward. She would mentor, empower, trust and then offer generous praise and appreciation. She constantly reminded us of the privilege we had to create opportunity. Carolyn spent her life improving the lives of others.”
While her list of professional achievements may be lengthy, above all else Staton was a loving wife and mother to her husband Bill and their three children. Staton’s eldest son, Will spoke of his mother’s generosity, compassion and love for her family.
“Mom was everything to us. A hug, a difficult conversation, a bit of advice, a source of comfort that never diminished or weakened no matter how far away we might be living. When I needed anything, I went first to mom. When I was upset, I went for comfort. When I was happy, I went to share joy. I never really needed a reason, she was always there regardless,” Will said. “She filled her children and family with love. The kind of love that only a mother can give, the kind of love that leaves holes when it disappears, but that we are so much stronger for having received.”
Will shared how he will remember his mother will be remembered and that her memory will guide him moving forward.
“In great book of life, we all write our story, our contribution to the human narrative. Some are long, others too short. Some uplifting, others are sad. Some full of hurt others happiness. These stories together tell our struggles and triumphs,” Will said. “My mom’s story overflowed with goodness. Hers was the type that spilled from the pages and touched all those who knew her. My mom’s chapter in the book of life is finished, but her legacy will flow into the unwritten pages of the future as her memory compels us to follow her down the path of compassion and goodness.”
Steven Gagliano is the managing editor of HottyToddy.com. He can be reached at email@example.com.
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