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Bonnie Brown: Q&A with Patty Lewis

Patty Lewis is one of those delightful personalities who seems to know just about everyone. She exudes kindness, thoughtfulness, and true beauty and if you look around our community you’ll see many places that have been touched and enhanced by this lovely lady.  

Brown: Where did you grow up? 

Lewis: I’m a Mississippian, the eldest of a sister and two brothers. I grew up in Holmes County in the lovely small town, Lexington. When my father graduated from Mississippi State University in the late thirties, there were no job opportunities in Aeronautical Engineering, so he joined the CCC (Civilian Conservation Corp) where he headed a company in south Mississippi. It was there he met my mother, a graduate of the “W” (now Mississippi University for Women), who was teaching in Waynesboro. They married and moved into upstairs quarters at the Mendenhall Hotel owned by the Morgan family. The Morgans operated what later became a famous eatery for locals and travelers up and down Highway 49. It featured home cooked dishes at large round tables with revolving Lazy Susans that offered enormous selection of meats and vegetables.  When I arrived in 1940, my mother would take me to the lobby in the stroller where I would be parked for all to admire. My mother must have thought no one had ever seen such a beautiful baby. It was a short-lived period of stardom, I guess. In 1941, my father entered the war and was posted to a Coastal Artillery Unit in Pensacola. The Fort Barrancas property is now a part of the Naval Air Station.

Mendenhall Hotel

Brown: Please talk about your childhood and earliest memories.

Lewis: I have no memories of Pensacola, though I have visited the military cemetery where my infant brother Cass is buried. My brother Allie was born there and soon after, we were sent to Fort Crockett in Galveston where we lived until the end of the war in 1945. My childhood memories began there. I remember our two-story house that faced the beach, the hurricane that struck our home one frightening night and the tricycle I rode down the sidewalk each day to greet my father as he returned from the post. I remember Mama dressing me as Carmen Miranda for some sort of party on the base. I suppose that set the stage for my lifelong love of fancy clothes and costumes! 

Patty s “Carmen”

My Lexington years began following the conclusion of World War II, and they were very happy ones indeed. I remember my grandparents’ home on Povall Hill and the chickens in the backyard. I couldn’t wait to get out back to check for eggs in the hen house. There was a large screened front porch with a wicker swing where I would usually fall asleep as my grandfather gently rubbed my head. My sister Amanda and brother Kirkham were born in Lexington thus completing the family unit. 

Brown: What were you really into when you were a kid?

Lewis: The late forties and fifties were very happy times in my life. We had a house with a large yard and the neighborhood children would come over to play Capture the Flag, Kick the Can, Tag — the usual kids’ games back in the day. At dusk, the mothers would begin calling for their kids to come home for supper. I remember catching lightening bugs when darkness fell. We learned to swim at a local club, and throughout my youth I spent a lot of time at that pool trying for the perfect tan, which was not achievable as I was very fair with freckles. It was a large concrete pool built during the WPA (Works Progress Administration) days, and is still in use today. Getting my driver’s license at 15 was so exciting, and I hauled my siblings and friends all over town during the summer.  

The Rotary Club met in the basement of the grammar school, and during my junior year, my cousin, a friend, and I served them the noon meal. I particularly remember Ross Barnett’s visit when he was campaigning for Governor. My senior year, I played the piano for the Rotarians, and to this day I can still play ROTARY, that spells Rotary! I think one of the highlights of my life was a trip on September 26, 1956, to see Elvis Presley. The Methodist minister’s wife, her daughter, several friends, and I checked out of high school that Friday and attended the matinee performance of Elvis’s triumphant return to Tupelo. It was an electrifying experience, as I knew very little about the performer, but of course lost my mind when he took the stage. Years later, photographs of that day began to circulate, and I was thrilled to find myself in the crowd of screaming teenagers. Those years in Lexington were wonderful ones for our family, and I think often of those happy days.

Brown:  Where did you go to school? What was your high school experience like? Were you a good student? Favorite and least favorite subjects?

Lewis:  When World War II ended, my father wanted to return to his hometown of Lexington. I think Mama would have preferred a life in the military, but she adored my father, so back to small-town Mississippi we went. I entered the public schools and spent twelve very happy years in that place. After the war, everyone was trying to restart their lives, so no one had large bankrolls. We were all on a level playing field. We walked or rode bikes to and from school with a long lunch break that allowed us to go home for the main meal of the day or occasionally eat in the school lunchroom. At times, I would nod off in afternoon classes because of so much food.  Everybody participated in sports and extracurricular activities. I played basketball because I was tall, but only found the net occasionally. It was a very dull half-court game in those days. I was a majorette in the band for two years and couldn’t twirl a lick. You had to play an instrument, so I played the bass drum and cymbals, rather poorly I might add. Our band director had been with a circus band for years before settling in Lexington.  He always had a cigar in his mouth, so I was certainly glad I didn’t play a horn when he came over to give private instructions to the brass section. I attribute that anecdote to a fellow drummer. 

Lexington High School provided students with a sound education to be successful in college. We were fortunate to have excellent teachers, mostly women who entered the profession because that was the career path at the time. Many could have, no doubt, excelled in other fields if given the opportunity. I was a mediocre student and had to work hard for decent grades. I liked the humanities, particularly English and History. I also learned to type and take shorthand, which served me well when I entered the workforce. I struggled in math and science, but had superior teachers in both subjects.  In those days, coaches taught, and they were exceptional instructors. I edited the school newspaper my senior year and the sponsor taught me a lot about composition. I regret I did not follow that path in college. I still remember with great joy the night I received my diploma on Beall Field. It signaled that a new chapter in my life would begin. I don’t recall having any input in my college future, so off I went to the “W” where I spent a most miserable freshman year. Mama was a graduate, loved it and couldn’t wait for me to take her place at MSCW. When I approached my father (Mississippi State University graduate) the next summer with a plea to let me go somewhere else, he replied “Oh, I guess you will have to go to Ole Miss!” My brother and I entered the campus and became devoted Ole Miss alums. My sister and younger brother soon followed. College days were happy ones and our lives revolved around the campus and classroom. We had our meals in the cafeteria as my sorority had no kitchen in its small lodge. We knew everyone on campus. My only trips to town were to see a movie at the Ritz or Lyric. I do remember buying a pair of DeLiso Deb pumps at Neilson’s for the Miss University pageant. I majored in Business Administration and minored in Spanish, earning unimpressive grades until my senior year when I finally figured out you had to study. 

Patty Lewis as Miss University

Brown: There have been a number of Jewish families in Lexington who greatly impacted the town. Could you talk more about their influence on the community and on your life?

Lewis: Lexington was small town Mississippi with a population of about 3200. Prior to the Civil War, a number of Jewish families migrated to Holmes County and many of the men served in the Confederate army. They were industrious and opened mercantile businesses around the Courthouse Square. They were very much the heart and soul of commerce, believed in a strong school system and contributed generously towards that end. They established a synagogue that was served by the Rabbi in Jackson. My relationship with the temple began at a very early age. My small church and the synagogue shared an organist, so our choirs joined forces for seasonal services and monthly visits from the Rabbi. I was often called on to sing solos and even today can sing some of the responses from those services at Temple Beth El. The Jewish families were an influence on my life, not only in the lifelong friendships they offered, but also in the support they offered during my youth. Lexington would not have been the community it was without their presence.  

Brown: What career path did you choose after college?

Lewis:  Another high-water mark was graduation from Ole Miss in our beautiful Grove.  Afterward, I secured a job at the Medical School in Jackson. Gap years and tours around the world were quite uncommon, so you either got married or got to work. When I think about my six years as a professional, I can punctuate its history with the word “lucky.”  Brief stops in Jackson, the Monterey Peninsula, New York City in advertising, along with two years in Memphis in a dream job and a year abroad with their international office gave me a lifetime of experiences before marriage and children. My year at J. Walter Thompson working for a female account executive who had crashed the glass ceiling inspired me greatly. As a tour manager in sales promotion for the National Cotton Council, I was fortunate to travel with the Maid of Cotton for two years both at home and abroad. She served as an ambassador for the cotton industry promoting the wonders of the cotton fabric. I wrapped up my career in Brussels with the International Institute for Cotton where we again promoted cotton in leisure wear.  It was time to come home, and fortunately my college sweetheart was still batching it in Oxford.

Brown: Describe your young adult self?

Lewis: I think my life truly began when I married William and came to live in Oxford in 1967. I was ready to build a life with him, have children, and contribute to what was then a small University town. We had a terrific circle of friends and we shared common interests. Sports and the arts are my passions, and I have been involved in both throughout my life. This community has given me the opportunity to volunteer over the years and to try and make a difference in the lives of all its citizens. We did a lot of home entertaining, prepared tons of food, and thought a fine night out was a cookout in someone’s backyard. When beer became legal in Oxford, the face of the Square began to take on new life. My husband and three fraternity brothers bought two store fronts and opened the Downtown Grill in 1989. I assumed William’s interest and operated it for 22 years. Having no experience in the business, I turned to my Memphis partner and restaurateur at Paulette’s. Launching is easy — hanging with it with consistency in management and food is the tough part. I think so fondly of all the alums of that business and how fortunate we were to be a part of the renaissance of the historic downtown. During those early years, we had a son and twin daughters to raise. We have always supported public education, and as a school board trustee for five years, I am very proud of our school systems and its positive impact on this town and county. I served on the Tourism Board, the Mississippi Arts Commission and helped to organize the first service league here. As young adults, I think we accomplished much to bring Oxford and Lafayette County into the limelight. 

Brown: Tell us about your children and grandchildren.

Lewis:  As I mentioned, we have three children, a son who is an attorney here and twin daughters who also along with their families live in Oxford. In fact, we are pretty much on top of each other in a lovely neighborhood south of the Square. One of our daughters works with her father in the family department store downtown and her sister works with an interior landscaping business north of town. Our daughters’ spouses serve on the city board and the school board while our son’s spouse works for a hotel management group. We have five grandsons, the oldest a recent graduate from high school. The other four are in the Junior and Senior high schools. I am so proud of my children, their spouses, and their children and that we can be together in this nurturing environment we know as Oxford. I think I mentioned “lucky” earlier. When our son was born, my husband’s parents who were in their late 70’s were so thrilled to have a grandson. In fact, I think they thought of him as the “second coming,” and he remained their favorite throughout the remainder of their lives. The unexpected arrival of twin girls was a major upheaval in our son’s life, so he found peace in the arms of his paternal grandparents.

Patty with husband William Lewis and Children Lydia, Amanda, and Goodloe
Patty with husband William, children, and grandchildren

Brown: Your mother Betty Bell Povall Staub was described as a “quintessential Southern lady” and was known as “Sitty Bell.”  Tell us about her and her influence on you.  

Lewis: Yes, my mother was a true southern belle with a lot of steel magnolia in her. Maybe they go hand in hand. She was petite, pretty, a seamstress, great cook and took a strong position on any subject.  She gave me tools to cultivate life skills, and I am deeply indebted to her. Having been the product of a broken home, she worked very hard to make a home for us in Lexington. Though we were quite different in temperament, she and I learned from each other’s mistakes and successes. A strong influence? Yes. She appreciated the opportunity to attend college when that possibility was not in sight. Her maiden aunt in New York made it possible for her to attend the “W” where she excelled socially and academically. She never took anything for granted. She loved my father deeply and unconditionally. When my mother was a child in Alabama, her older brother and younger sister could not pronounce the word sister, so they called her Sitty. When the first grandchild arrived, she announced that she was to be called Sitty Bell and so it was to be. My five grandsons call me Pittypat!

Betty Povall Staub a.k.a. “Sitty Bell”

Brown: How did you meet your husband William?

Lewis: We were both students at Ole Miss in 1962. I was a senior and he was a third-year law student. I knew him by name as he had roomed with a Lexingtonian during his undergraduate years, but we had not met because I was just a youngster when he would come to visit his friend, and they certainly didn’t have time for us. We were introduced by a mutual law school friend who often sat on a bench outside Lamar Hall visiting with the girls headed for Sorority Row. We stayed in touch over the years following graduation, and when I returned from Brussels, we thought it was time to get married. We have passed the 50th year and hope we have many years yet to live together. We travel when our health permits, and we always enjoy being with our family as often as possible.

William and Patty Lewis

Brown: As a recognized community leader, you have been involved in many aspects of Oxford and its development. Besides those you mentioned earlier, are there other projects that have come into your life?

Lewis: I did speak about my early years in Oxford – about my restaurant and my love of the arts. With the enormous growth of our University, this community and county, new opportunities have emerged in the twilight years. The long wait for our Ford Center for the Performing Arts was a dream realized, and I have been fortunate to serve on the Advisory Board since its opening. Its presence has enhanced our LOU (Lafayette Oxford University) community, and I see a continuing bright future for it.  In 2000, I was asked to serve with a group of women to launch a new initiative on campus. The Ole Miss Women’s Council for Philanthropy, now in its twenty-second year, has established a new and very successful model for scholarships that are coupled with a mentoring and leadership component. It has been a gratifying association for me personally and again reinforced my deep interest in education.

Brown: What advice would you give to your 20-year-old self?

Lewis: I would seek the advice of mentors, academic advisors, and professionals in my fields of interest. I missed all of that when I was both a high school and college student.  I would keep an open mind to change and try to be resilient if a change of course were necessary. I would give myself time to mature as a young adult before moving into marriage and family if that were in my future plans. Time gives you a chance to figure out who you are and helps you set goals. Looking at my own life, I needed those six years of growth and experience.

Brown:  I know you love and collect art. Tell us about some of your favorite pieces/paintings and why they are your favorites.

Lewis: The University’s Art Department piqued my interest in art, sculpture, and pottery soon after I moved to Oxford as a bride. I don’t remember darkening the door of that department when I was in school. I have no talent in that arena, but I do appreciate someone who does have these talents. The Christmas Art Show Auction and Student Art Shows grabbed my attention, and we looked forward to seeing what the students and faculty were producing each year. We always bought something, a lot of large canvases for the many bare walls in our home. If you didn’t have furniture, at least paintings and other art forms along with rugs on the floor helped to make the home more interesting.  We have been fortunate to collect over the years, and having the space to display it has been satisfying. It seems selfish to choose my favorite portraitist because I am the subject, but I would have to say our neighbor Jason Bouldin and the portrait really is quite stunning thanks to his immense talent. We have an early Bill Dunlap, Bill Lester, Jere Allen, Maud Falkner, Marie Hull, Frank Neal, and Richard Kelso. I cherish all of them and feel fortunate to have some of their works. Bill Beckwith’s Temple Drake is a masterpiece! Obie Clark, Ron Dale, and Rod Moorhead have done wonderful pieces.  We are fortunate to be surrounded by a wealth of talent in this community.

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

Lewis: I always wanted to be a sprinter. Slow of foot, but a fairly decent dancer, I wished my feet and legs could have been those of an Olympian. I am thrilled when I see what the human body can do. I do realize that it is a grind and takes so much hard work to reach championship levels, so I’m pretty sure I would have been a slacker when it came to training. My other dream would have been to sing and dance on Broadway. I didn’t think about this until I participated in a few Summer Showcase productions early in my marriage and before my children could see my foolishness on stage. Theatre is a disease that is hard to shake!

Brown: What do you do to get rid of stress?

Lewis: I am a pretty passive person, so I try to avoid getting too torn up over events. If I do feel overwhelmed, I polish silver or straighten out a cabinet or drawer. Music is helpful, and I do some dancing about the kitchen listening to Motown or Doo Wop! Did I mention I love to dance? In my youth, I spent a lot of time at Red Top dances all over the Delta, so you might say it is in my soul! Ole Miss sports events can bring on a lot of stressful moments, so I have to do a lot of deep breathing to calm down. I can admit there was a lot of that during the recent baseball season!

Brown: What causes you to lose track of time?

Lewis: I prefer projects that have a beginning and an end without stopping or “to be continued.” If I am involved in something, it is difficult for me to put it aside until another day. I tend to push the clock and often find myself running late — not a good thing. A good book, sewing assignment, grocery shopping or a television series will cause me to lose sight of time. I love museums, but am like a snail moving through the exhibits and always the last one to complete the tour. Yes, I can lose track of time pretty easily.

Brown: Is there an adventure you may have experienced in your life that you might share with us?  

Lewis: I did have an experience with the movies in 1979 when The Great American Short Story Series for PBS came to town for two weeks in December to film William Faulkner’s “Barn Burning.” I don’t think my family thought much of the adventure for I had to be away most of the day during that two-week stretch. There was a call for production assistants (exalted name for gofers), so my friend Laura and I volunteered our services. Because we could sew, we were sent to the Costume Department to fit and alter clothing worn in the film. We were headquartered at the Ramada Inn (Super 8) in two rooms filled with very old, heavy woolen clothing that was difficult to stitch, but “hello,” we were on a movie set so we managed with gladness in our hearts. As I had a car, they sent me to Memphis to pick up one of the actors, take him to lunch and then give him a tour of the county so he could get in the mood. His name wasn’t familiar to me, so when he appeared at the gate, he told me he was Tommy Lee Jones. He was already in character as Abner Snopes, and it was quite an uncomfortable day for both of us. He was very interested in my ancient car, I recall.

Back to the sewing room, we fitted mostly extras from Oxford and Paris, where much of the filming took place. The pace of movie making was hurry up and wait. We were often sent to gather props or heaters as those first two weeks in December were the coldest in my memory. We had to be on set at 6 a.m. to get the extras dressed and then be available to get stuff for the film crew. I was asked if I could find six locations in the county for exterior scenes, and I assured them I could, bluffing all the way, of course.  Panicked but lucky, my husband produced his friend Scott who knew every acre in the county. Off we went, Polaroid in hand, to find potential locations for outdoor shoots, and that man still remains an angel in my life. The director thought I was a genius, and most of the proposed sites ended up in the film. One evening we were invited to watch the Hooker barn burn as Jimmy Faulkner rode his horse yelling, “Fire! Fire!”  When the movie wrapped, Mr. Jones made a stop at the Costume Department to thank me for fetching him at the airport. Abner Snopes had been put to bed, and he was well on his way to stardom.

Brown: Who would you want to play you in a movie of your life?

Lewis: I think I’d like to redirect that question and talk about who I would like to portray in a movie. I admire the Hepburns, Audrey and Katharine. Though very different personalities, I find them to be fascinating people. I would probably handle Katharine a bit better as we both have freckles! They are charismatic and utterly charming ladies.  

Brown: Your home is a historic landmark in Oxford known for its architecture and beauty. What’s your favorite part of the house?
Lewis: We have a breakfast room that was added by the former owners, and it has a large bay window that overlooks the Koi pond and side yard. We spend a lot of time there, and start the day with coffee and the newspapers. It was a nice addition to the original house. In fact, the former owners made some very good additions to the home with additional moldings, heating and cooling and opening the front entry hall by moving a staircase. The house is pretty much as it was when we purchased it from the former owners though our furnishings are a bit eclectic. We have been very fortunate to be the caretakers of this property, and it has been a privilege to live here and raise our family. We now welcome our grandchildren and their friends to come and be with us in this historic place. All of the owners have tried to keep it as an example of those properties that have vanished from the landscape of this town. 

Lewis home

Brown: You know Oxford well. If you were guiding a tourist around the town and county, what would you show them and why?

Lewis: I would certainly begin at the Square! I think it’s how we identify the town. It is at the core of who we are as a community. We realized the importance of its survival and it set us up for success. The University and Oxford are joined at the hip, so we would spend time roaming the beautiful campus and talking about its long history as an educational center. We would visit the historic districts that surround the square, view the churches and historic properties that have been restored in recent years. We would ride the county roads to Sardis Lake and see the sights of our small county communities. We would visit our sports complexes both on campus and in the county. We would remember our cemeteries scattered throughout the county. We are a destination that has arrived, and I am very proud of all that has been accomplished.

Brown: What is the most important goal every person should have?

Lewis: I suppose having goals in your life means you are not standing still. You are willing to grow and accept change in order to get what you want. Change isn’t easy, at least it hasn’t been for me, so if I do reach a goal that I have set, I feel satisfaction. It has been particularly important to me to be kind to all people and thoughtful in their time of need. I would hope that all of us identify with something we want to accomplish and if so, can enjoy that sense of achievement. 

Brown: What is your proudest accomplishment:

Lewis: I think having the good sense to marry William and settle in Oxford. He has been my greatest fan and supporter over the years.

Brown: What activities cause you to feel like you are living life to the fullest?

Lewis: The fact that I can rise each morning, make my bed, drive a car, and do simple daily chores is a joy. I am mobile enough to do things for my family — prepare food, pick up my grandchildren, attend their functions, and do a bit of committee work at my church, in the community or at the University. Age lets you know your limits, so the word “fullest” takes on different meanings as we pass through a lifetime.  I am happy in my life.

Brown: What secret talent do you have?

Lewis: I like to sew. It is a great way to deal with stress. I used to knit and do a bit of needlepoint, but now I make “Little Dresses” for our ministry at St. Peter’s Episcopal Church. We use simple patterns, and send them around the world. The thought of a little, impoverished girl having a pretty new dress pleases me very much. My mother taught me to sew when she was making my party dresses for dances back in the day!  I still have and use her machine.

Brown: What’s left on your bucket list?

Lewis: I would like to think William and I can still travel from time to time. There are many sights in the USA we could visit. I think traveling abroad is probably becoming too difficult at our age. We need to fly and then use a car for short distances. I am the driver, and he serves as the navigator since I have no sense of direction. He is wild about maps! Living our lives to the fullest is the goal that we have set and with the hope that we still have a few productive years to enjoy life.

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.

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