Tuesday, May 18, 2021

Bonnie Brown: Q&A with Ole Miss Retiree Beverly Urbanek

*Editor’s Note: The latest interview in the Ole Miss Retirees features is Beverly Urbanek. The organization’s mission is to enable all of the university’s faculty and staff retirees to maintain and promote a close association with the university. It is the goal of the Ole Miss Faculty/Staff Retirees Association to maintain communication by providing opportunities to attend and participate in events and presentations.

Beverly Urbanek.

Beverly Urbanek is a quiet, modest lady.  She is also a smart, accomplished, and talented woman who has deep roots at Ole Miss.  Beverly takes great pride and joy in her family and has a great story to share.  

Brown: Where did you grow up?  Describe your hometown and what was special about it.  

Urbanek:  I was born in Jackson, Mississippi but grew up in the small town of Carthage. It is located in Leake County, which is the exact center of Mississippi. Red Water Choctaw Indian Reservation borders the city on the north and the Pearl River to the south. Hands down the most special thing about Carthage was always its people. When I was growing up it was the epitome of Mayberry. Everyone in town not only knew you but knew your parents and grandparents as well. The city actually had a night watchman who patrolled the town square at night. He probably had the easiest job in town. There was practically no crime and everyone looked out for each other. At that time, most of the businesses were located on the square. My parents owned a recreation hall near the theatre. Saturday was the big shopping day because that was the day the farmers and their families came from the county and also the Choctaws came to town to shop. There were actually people who came and parked on the square just to watch all the commotion. Of course, time moves on and by the time I graduated from high school the town was expanding, routines and habits were changing, and my dad had taken a job with Pearl River Valley Water Supply District, but it was a wonderful town in which to grow up.

Brown: Please talk about your parents, siblings, crazy aunts and uncles.

Urbanek:  My parents were both born in Leake County. I am a fifth-generation Mississippian. My dad and I were both only children. My mom had two sisters and a brother, but only one of them had children and they lived out of town. Basically, I grew up in an adult world. One set of grandparents lived next door and the other on the street behind us with adjoining backyards. Needless to say, I never felt insecure.

Brown: What personality traits do you share with your relatives?

Urbanek:  My family connections to Ole Miss go back a long way. Both my great grandfather and my father attended Ole Miss and my father was on the boxing team.  There was never a question of where I would go to school. My dad and I shared a love of Ole Miss football, Dixieland jazz, dogs and the outdoors. He was an avid hunter and fisherman and I loved going quail hunting with him. He was laid back, easy-going and had a wonderful sense of humor.

My mom was a perfectionist. Sometimes that made life difficult, but later in life, I came to appreciate her efforts. Many of my achievements I attribute to her persistence and encouragement. I was very close to both grandmothers and both had a tremendous influence on me. My love of reading definitely came from them. One was a musician and the other was interested in current events and politics. That made for many a lively discussion.

Brown: Tell us about your childhood.  

Urbanek:  I was blessed to spend my childhood in an era when drug use had not become an issue and crime was very low. The country was celebrating a victory in World War II.  People were united, happy, and eager to move forward.  

My best friend and I were the only girls in the neighborhood, so we joined the boys in football and baseball games. We could easily walk to the theatre on the square for our weekly Saturday afternoon movie, then return home and reenact whatever movie we had seen. Another favorite activity was riding our bikes behind the mosquito-fogging machine.  It was so thick we could barely see each other. Reading was always a favorite pastime and the library was just a short walk from my house. I would check out as many books as I could carry home. My dad had discovered hammocks in the navy, so we always had one in the backyard. It was a great place to read and cloud-watch on a summer afternoon.

My grandmother was the piano teacher at the elementary school and also the organist at the First Baptist Church. She and my mother were responsible for my 12 years of piano lessons and thousands of hours of practice. Three summers of voice lessons in Jackson were also a gift from my grandmother. Church activities, Girl Scouts, dance lessons and summer camps are all fond memories. The summer before my junior year in high school I attended majorette camp at Ole Miss. Even though there had never been a doubt about where I would attend college, that summer sealed the deal.

Brown: What activities were you involved in at school? What was your favorite subject in school? Least favorite subject?

Urbanek:  In high school I was involved in all the usual clubs and activities in addition to girls’ trio, piano and band where I was a majorette and later drum major. My senior year I was editor of the school yearbook. My favorite subject in school was always English. Our high school English teachers were excellent. Math, on the other hand, was my least favorite and still is.

Brown: When you were a child, what did you want to be when you grew up? Why?

Urbanek:  When I was a very young child I wanted to be a nurse. Around fifth grade after reading books in Girls’ Auxiliary about missionaries, I wanted to be a missionary to Africa.  Then I decided I wanted to be a veterinarian because I loved animals, but that wouldn’t have worked out because I couldn’t stand to see them in pain. 

Brown: Tell us how/when your Ole Miss “story” began?  Who hired you? How long did you work at Ole Miss?

Urbanek:  My high school sweetheart, Edward Upton, was three years older and when I graduated from high school he was already at Ole Miss. I enrolled at Ole Miss immediately after graduation and went straight through summer and winter for two and a half years.  We married that spring and lived in Jackson where he was already working. Our two sons, Mike and Tim were born there. We returned to Ole Miss four years later after he received a stipend for graduate work under Dr. James Mann. Our youngest son was four months old and learned to walk while we lived on the Ole Miss campus. My husband received his master’s degree the following year and took a job in Jackson as Coordinator of Statewide Planning for Vocational Rehabilitation. Eighteen months later he was diagnosed with malignant melanoma and only lived six more months. Our sons were six and three years old.

Three years later I returned to Ole Miss for the third time and completed my undergraduate degree in secondary education and a master’s degree in library and information science.  My oldest son, Mike, had moved back to Oxford with me and was enrolled at Oxford Elementary. My parents kept Tim in Carthage while I was in school. During the summer Little League baseball season, one of Mike’s coaches happened to be a guy named Jim Urbanek. One afternoon I called and told them that Mike would not be at practice that day because I had a conflict with a class and could not pick him up. Jim Urbanek volunteered to bring him home. He later admitted to me that his “act of kindness” had been an excuse to come by and meet me. Of course being a big Ole Miss football fan I knew that he had been an All American and had played professional football, but I did not know that he was back in Oxford because his career had been cut short by an injury. They say opposites attract and that must be true.  He was 6 feet, 4 inches tall and the largest person I had ever been around. He was outgoing, fun-loving, and, as I later came to realize, a gentle giant. After we married, one of my biggest adjustments was the amount of food that Big Jim and two growing boys could consume. Our family was completed in 1974 with the birth of Jim Jr.

Beverly and husband “Big Jim” Urbanek.

In 1980 I began working at the Research Institute of Pharmaceutical Sciences (RIPS) at Ole Miss as a Research Associate.  Dr. Coy Waller was Director of the Institute and Dr. Carlton Turner was Director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse’s Marijuana Project. Work had begun at RIPS in 1968 to collect all of the published scientific research papers on marijuana worldwide. It had become apparent that a source of readily available information was needed for scientists involved in marijuana research. “Marijuana: An Annotated Bibliography was published by RIPS in 1976 and contained all facets of Cannabis research from 1964 -1974. Mrs. Ann McAllister, who had been in charge of the bibliography, transferred to the National Library of Medicine and I was hired to replace her.  Work had already begun on a second volume of the bibliography and my job was to collect all of the research papers and have them translated and annotated. This meant that each paper had to be read by someone with the expertise to write a brief summary of the paper. Many were published in a foreign language.  

Our agreement with our publisher was that we provide a camera-ready copy.

When I first began work, Mrs. Jean Brannan was typing the pages for us. Her typewriter held three legal-size pages of memory. I would proofread the three pages, she then made the corrections and we would move on to the next three pages. The book contained 620 pages. I still sometimes think about those nights she and I spent until 10 and 11 p.m. in Faser Hall. Thankfully during that time the late James Coffey, who managed the Data Center for the Pharmacy School, was able to help us work out a computer program. We gradually moved everything to the computer, which at that time was about half the size of the Data Center.  “Marijuana:  An Annotated Bibliography, Vol. II” was published in 1982 by Macmillan Publishing Company. By that time Dr. Turner had left the University to become President Reagan’s Director of Drug Abuse Policy and Dr. Waller had retired. We continued to update the bibliography with the help of my two right arms, Susan Foster and Julie Reeves and published annual supplements in house. Simultaneously, we compiled a similar publication that Dr. Waller and Dr. Turner had envisioned. “Cocaine: An Annotated Bibliography,” a two-volume, 1,400-page reference work that cited more than 5,000 papers in over 1,000 technical journals was published by the University Press of Mississippi in 1989.  Dr. G. Michael Wall, who had recently received a Ph.D. in Medicinal Chemistry, was also invaluable in helping us to bring the bibliography to fruition. When I retired in 2002, we housed over 10,000 marijuana research papers and approximately 6,000 cocaine research papers.

Beverly with Dr. Coy Waller, Director of the Research Institute of Pharmaceutical Sciences (RIPS), School of Pharmacy, Ole Miss.

Dr. Carlton Turner working at the White House as Director of Drug Abuse Policy under President Reagan

Beverly with Dr. G. Michael Wall working on the Bibliography

On the surface, this job might have seemed boring. It was anything but. We often received calls from law enforcement, the media, educators, scientists and others from around the country with questions about marijuana. The first time I picked up the phone and someone said “hold on for the White House,” it was quite a shock. I soon realized that a call from Dr. Turner went through the White House operator.  I was fortunate to have professional as well as entertaining colleagues. We laughed a lot. The job was rewarding in many ways.  Some of the most exciting were the days that we received the first copy of our book from the publisher. It was the highlight of all those years of work that made it possible.

Brown: If you could have a video about any event of your life, which one would it be?

Urbanek:  A video that I would like would be of my Dad laughing when I was young. He loved a good joke and had the best laugh in the world.

Brown: What are the most useful skills you have?

Urbanek:  I have been told that I am a good listener. I get along well with people, I read people pretty well and I make really good homemade spaghetti sauce.

Brown: What are some skills that you think everyone should learn?

Urbanek: People should learn to be considerate of other people’s feelings. The “Me” generation took off in the early 1970s and has accelerated with social media. Good manners are becoming a lost art. Being able to articulate what you think is important, but having the courtesy and respect to give someone else the same opportunity is equally important.

Brown: What are your pet peeves?

Urbanek: Litter is probably close to the top of my pet peeve list. People who walk home from the Square at night and throw bottles, cans and empty food containers in the yards in the neighborhoods should be ashamed. Also, I have a problem with those who use their pickup trucks as garbage cans and let it all fly out while driving down the highway.

Brown: What’s the best part of your day?

Urbanek:  At this point in time, waking up in the morning and realizing that I’m still here is pretty exciting. Normally a visit by one of my children or grandchildren is a highlight.  Not being able to see them as often during the pandemic has been difficult.  Now that it is getting warmer, I can be happy just working in the yard. That is also when my Dachshund is the happiest.

Brown: What is the best advice you ever received?

Urbanek:  When Big Jim passed away, I received a book from the late Patsy Waller entitled “Grace for the Widow” by Joyce Rogers, widow of the late renowned pastor Adrian Rogers.   It contains a wealth of information, advice and comfort that I will always treasure.    

Brown: Which has been the best phase of your life?

Urbanek:  It is hard for me to say which phase of my life has been the best because they have all been so different. Probably the most enjoyable phase was when my boys were all still at home. My front yard was usually full of boys playing football or some other sport.  I was working full time and also trying to haul them to their various activities. Little League in our family lasted for years because of the age differences. When Tim was in high school, I came home from work one day and his Buick was parked in the middle of the sidewalk in the front yard. He had taken everything out from under the hood and it was all lying in the front yard. I almost had a heart attack. He finally came into the house and said he had gotten everything back where it belonged except one thing. He didn’t know what to do with that part, but the car was running just fine. It was chaos at times but also fun and very rewarding. For me growing up an only child, having a house and yard full of boys was something I could never have imagined.

Beverly with family
Row 1: Celia Day Urbanek, Kennedy Upton, Morgan Upton, Grayson Upton, Jim Urbanek
Row 2: Beverly, Hayley Upton Smith, Evan Urbanek, Kaitlyn Urbanek, Tim Upton
Row 3: Amanda Urbanek, Michele Upton, Sharon Upton, and Mike Upton

Brown: What’s the best present you’ve ever received? What’s the best present you have given?

Urbanek:  The best present I have ever received was God’s gift of salvation. I don’t know the best gift I have ever given. I guess the person who received it would have to answer that.

Brown: What are some of the events in your life that made you who you are?

Urbanek:  A childhood with loving parents and grandparents always around gave me security and confidence. My parents always made sure that I was in church every time the doors opened which was not difficult since we lived next door. That early foundation laid the groundwork of preparing me for some of the difficulties that I have faced in life. My mother was one of the strongest people I have ever known. She was the rock of her whole family.  I could not have had a better role model. My Dad died from Parkinson’s and both my husband died from cancer. One never recovers from seeing someone they love suffer that way. You just somehow find a way to deal with it. My faith, my family and my church family have gotten me this far.

Brown: What do you do to improve your mood when you are in a bad mood?

Urbanek:  I’m not often in a bad mood. Usually, all it takes to lift my spirits and take my mind off occasional aches and pains is to go outside in the sunshine.

Beverly with grandchildren Celia Day, Kennedy, Kaitlyn, Evan, Morgan, Hayley, and Grayson.

Brown:  What is your guilty pleasure? Time waster?  

Urbanek:  I suppose a guilty pleasure is sitting on the back porch and bird watching. I live in the middle of town, but we also have squirrels, rabbits, raccoons, deer and groundhogs.  It’s like living on a game preserve.  

Some people might call it a time-waster, but one of my favorite activities is hanging out with my Dachshund. She is my constant companion. I talk to her in sentences and she understands perfectly. She also helps with the digging. It only takes her about five minutes to dig a trench halfway across the back yard.

Brown: Tell us something about yourself that not many people may know.       

Urbanek:  I used to love to boat race. Not many people knew that especially my mother.  My dad built a canvas-bottom boat, and we would go over to Roosevelt Lake and race one of his friends. Driving that boat and it flying up in the air was one of the most exhilarating experiences I have ever had.

Brown: What’s the best and worst part of getting older?

Urbanek:  One of the best parts of getting older is losing some of your inhibitions. Most people are more relaxed and don’t worry as much about what people think. Material things are not nearly as high on the list of priorities. You have more time to spend with family, follow the activities of grandchildren and to appreciate and do things that you never seem to have time for before. I have been blessed with seven grandchildren and four step-grandchildren ages seven to 28. Keeping up with them and their activities is entertaining and challenging. The worst part of getting older is that now that you finally have the time to do all these things, you are not physically able.

Brown:  What has become your routine since you retired?  

Urbanek:  One of the best things about being retired is that I don’t have to have a routine. I usually read a newspaper at breakfast and then have my devotional. After that, every day is different.

Brown: What’s left on your bucket list?

Urbanek:  I really don’t have much left on my bucket list. A trip to England was always right there close to the top. Several years ago six friends and I went on a tour of the United Kingdom, and it exceeded all of my expectations. It was wonderful. I don’t enjoy riding long distances in a car anymore and like flying even less. With the conditions in the world today, I just look forward to the time that Oxford and Ole Miss can return to the places we know and love. Having the opportunity to live in this town all these years has been a remarkable journey.

Bonnie Brown is a retired staff member of the University of Mississippi. She most recently served as Mentoring Coordinator for the Ole Miss Women’s Council for Philanthropy. For questions or comments, email her at bbrown@olemiss.edu.