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Charlie Adams: When the Azaleas Bloom, Sue Smiles

My mother was a go-getter, to say the least, but one of thing things that makes me smile the most was how she befriended and mentored a nice lady in Taylor, Mississippi.

Dr. Anne Adams, my late mother, was from little Hamilton over in Monroe County. She became a national expert in the field of reading, being brought in by schools systems from Honolulu to Washington, D.C. to implement her innovative methods to improve literacy rates, especially for those from challenging backgrounds. She was professor of the year at Duke University, and headed up their reading department.

Dr. Anne Adams and her son, Charlie. Photo provided.

Mom cared about kids immensely. She cared about people. She saw the potential within everyone, including a humble, kind woman from Lafayette County. Sue Cook is her name. I caught up with her at Square Books three years ago for the first time in a long time. Sue’s daughter Debbie and her husband Lynn own Taylor Grocery, the famed catfish restaurant 10 miles outside of Oxford. Having a child that’s a big part of that hugely popular place is a story in itself but I am going to focus on her special friendship with my mom, a story that reminds us all how we can make a difference in the lives of others.

Herb Brooks, who coached the USA Olympic hockey team to the famed Miracle on Ice in the 1980 Winter Olympics in Lake Placid, once said, “You don’t put greatness in people. You pull it out.” My mother was of that belief, and felt that about Sue. The story all started in 1961 when Mom was early in her teaching career. Back then Oxford grabbed up the best teaching candidates but she came along at a time when they were all set so she ended up at Taylor School.

Sue was a young married mom of four children. Her education had ended in the 11th grade. She had a gift, though, and it was playing the piano. She played it in church and it was obvious the Lord had blessed her. The principal at Taylor found out and said, “If you can play like this then you can teach!” He had her teach the kids piano in the gym as a volunteer. That’s where she met Mom. When Sue didn’t have kids to teach, she would go up to Mom’s classroom and help out. They started a kiddy band and everything.

“I remember there was this one first grader,” Sue told me, “who was handicapped. A car had run over him and he had brain damage. At the end of the school year your mother suggested he stay in first grade, which was the appropriate thing to do. Well, his father was irate. Mr. Shoemake, who was the principal and a very kind and decent man whose wife taught 2nd grade there, learned the father was on his way to school with a knife to go after Anne. Principal Shoemake talked him out of it, getting him to think of the consequences.”

I had no idea such excitement had ever existed at old Taylor School!

It didn’t take long before Mom picked up Sue hadn’t finished her schooling. She saw things within Sue that Sue had never thought possible so she started up on her go back to school. Mom was the kind not to suggest or ask but to basically bulldoze you that direction whether you liked it or not. You were welcome to resist or even say no but you were going to do what she felt was within you. Sue never said no, and was receptive.

It didn’t take long before Oxford got wind of Mom as a teacher and grabbed her up to teach 1st grade at Bramlett Elementary. She stayed on Sue and got her to get her GED and then onto Ole Miss undergrad where Mom said she would read every one of her papers and help her anyway that she could.

“I had classes Monday, Wednesday and Friday at Ole Miss,” said Sue, “and Tuesday and Thursday was for cleaning and cooking. Our pastor told my husband his days of home cooked meals were over. I said ‘uh uhn’ to that and told myself I would show them! I taught the girls to cook and I planned meals and kept after my classes.”

“I never would have had the courage to do this without your mother staying on me,” Sue said. “She looked over every one of my essays. I got my undergrad and then my Masters in Education and Library Sciences.”

Sue was 34 at the time, older than almost all new teachers in those days. She had done her student teaching in Batesville and had an offer to start there. Lafayette Elementary liked her and wanted her there. Mr. Harris Terry was principal at Bramlett and pretty much made the decisions at Oxford Elementary as well. That year there were six pregnant teachers and all of their subs wanted assurances they would get positions which meant she couldn’t start there. Sue told Mom who, without telling Sue, went to Principal Terry and told him he should find a way to hire her. Terry thought the world of Mom and her cutting edge ideas, so he did so and Sue was off and running at 34.

Their friendship grew through all this time. Mom loved Sue’s cooking, especially her purple hull peas and strawberry shortcakes.

Sue Cook and Charlie Adams at Square Books. Photo provided.

Sue told me it was about this time that my mother voraciously dove head first into implementing her ideas of how to connect with kids who were struggling with reading. “She would get up at 4 a.m. every morning and write and write,” Sue told me.

“She always wanted to do for others,” Sue recalled. “She took me to Columbus, Mississippi to show me where her mother lived at Twelve Gables.” To this day Twelve Gables is famous for being the meeting place of local ladies who met in 1866 to plan a special day to decorate the graves of the Confederate and Union soldiers in Friendship Cemetery. This ceremony led to our country’s Memorial Day. “She took me down during Spring Pilgrimage. She was always trying to do something for someone. She couldn’t sit still.”

“I ended up teaching 25 years in the Oxford Schools,” Sue said. “I started at 1st grade and then was asked to be the original librarian at Bramlett. I got all the books and audio visuals from each teacher and spent a whole summer cataloging things. I thought I could do anything because of how much your mother believed in me. I went on to teach gifted children 4th to 6th grade and later ran the Junior High Library.”

From her early days my mother loved to be in the garden and in the yard. It helped her decompress from her fierce focus on finding innovative ways to teach reading. “She was always planting something,” Sue said. “Back then my husband and I were struggling with the four kids. We didn’t have extra for flowers or things like that so she showed up with five azalea bushes and planted them in our yard.”

Azaleas blooming in Oxford. Photo provided.

For those of us that come from divorced homes, there’s always that wonder about when things started to disconnect for our parents.

“Your dad was a great guy,” Sue said of Charlie Adams, Sr. “He worked for C.M. Scott in insurance in Oxford. My daughter Debbie was C.M.’s secretary. Your mom and dad built a beautiful home six miles out of Oxford towards Pontotoc on 6.”

I remember it well. R.P. Busby’s grocery story was on Hwy 6 right before you’d turn left to the one mile gravel road to the home, which had an amazing view and many big glass windows and a wraparound deck.

“I used to watch you when you were little,” Sue told me. “I think when your mother got so focused on her passion to help children with reading was when they started to drift apart.”

It was after my 1st grade year at Lafayette Elementary that Mom and Dad divorced and Mom became a professor at the University of Texas in Austin for my 2nd and 3rd grade years and then it was to Duke come my 4th grade year. “Newsweek” magazine wrote a big story on her. “The Washington Post” wrote many articles on her. Literacy rates shot through the roof through her methods.

“She had a way of drawing kids out,” Sue said. “She loved those kids.”

Sue still lives in Taylor in the home they got back in the 1950s. She thinks of Mom often and how she saw so much inside of her and got her going into a teaching career, but just as much about their friendship. Mom passed a number of years ago, but every spring those azaleas come up, and Sue smiles.

Charlie Adams was born in Oxford in 1962. He was a 1980 graduate of Lafayette High School and a 1985 graduate of Ole Miss. Following a television news career, Charlie has focused on delivering inspirational keynotes, seminars and writings. He can be reached at charlie@stokethefirewithin.com.

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