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Bonnie Brown: Q & A With Ann O’Dell

The latest interview in the Ole Miss Retirees features Ann O’Dell. The organization’s mission is to enable 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.

The lovely Ann O’Dell is synonymous with the Oxford Food Pantry, having actively been involved for many years. She is not only a lady who has been recognized for her service to others, but also a multi-talented individual who has a positive outlook and a willing spirit.  

Brown: Where were you born? Where did you grow up? What was special about your community?

O’Dell: I was born in Delaware because my father had just been transferred there with the regional gas company he worked for, but we soon moved back to his and my mother’s hometown of Staunton, Virginia, where I grew up.

It was a smallish, safe community and a number of cousins lived there as well (my mother was one of nine siblings). Both grandmothers lived close by, so I was fortunate to have a lot of nurture and extended family fun

Brown: Tell us about your childhood.

O’Dell: Staunton is nestled between two mountain ranges and several of my aunts and uncles had rustic cabins out in the mountains by a river.  They were special places for our entire extended family to spend a lot of time. No running water (wells were finally dug), no plumbing, no electricity, but we all thought it was wonderful to be out in nature, hike in the woods, swim in the river, and generally explore to our heart’s delight.  My generation and younger still reunite in that same place.

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia

Brown: What is your favorite childhood memory?

O’Dell: Not a favorite, but surely the most memorable was when I was about seven, my cousin who lived in a town about 10 miles away invited me to come for a visit. My father, who had a psychic sense that something bad would happen, didn’t want me to go, but my mother persuaded him to relent. 

I was given some spending money (probably several quarters, nickels, and dimes), which was quite a treat. The first morning I was there my cousin and I were counting our money when we heard her father coming down the hall with her younger brothers.  We knew they would come in and tickle us and we wanted to hide our money. I put mine in my mouth and subsequently swallowed a nickel and a dime.  I made my cousin promise not to tell her mother, but as the coins lodged in my throat and were pressing on my windpipe, we had to tell. My father came and took me to the university hospital in Charlottesville where the coins were extracted. I remember being so upset because they wouldn’t let me keep the money. There was a large wall case with all the unusual items they had removed from patients.

Brown: Talk about your parents and any siblings.

O’Dell:  My mother, Frances Cornelia Wilson, and my father, Robert Lee Glover, grew up in the same county and at the time they married, their families lived on farms next to each other.  They had known each other for a long time. 

I have one sister, Jane, who is three years younger than I. She is married and lives near where we grew up in Virginia.

Brown: What was the best thing about how your parents raised you?

O’Dell: I think it concerned behavior. My father told me over and over that I might not be able to make good grades academically, but there was no reason for me not to behave. He said if I ever brought home a report card with less than an A in conduct (our behavior was constantly graded), I would be punished. I think I never brought home less than an A.

Brown: Where did you go to elementary school?

O’Dell: Stonewall Jackson Primary School in Staunton, Virginia. Then to Thomas Jefferson Grammar School and then to Robert E. Lee High School.

Brown: Tell us about your high school experience. 

O’Dell: When I was in first grade the children were tested and then put in A, B, or C tracks. I was put in the A track, which meant we covered material in the curriculum faster than other students. By the time I had finished fifth grade, I had completed six years’ work and went into the seventh grade. There was no eighth grade at that time, so by the time I finished high school I was only 16 years old. All my friends were the same age, so we thought nothing of this oddity. But all my fellow students in college were 18, and there I realized my social immaturity. 

Brown: Did you have a curfew? 

O’Dell: I probably did but I don’t recall that it was a problem. 

Brown: What subjects were hardest for you in school?

O’Dell: Solid geometry and trig, the higher maths. Chemistry and Physics would have been deadly, but I didn’t have to take them, thank goodness.

Brown: What clubs/activities did you participate in?

O’Dell:  The girls had Tri-Hi-Y clubs and the boys Hi-Y. I think these were somehow associated with the YMCA, but I can’t recall how. I was also in the Drama Club. And I was on the debate team. I was a cheerleader my senior year. It was a popularity contest, and our cheers were rather dreadful. We practiced but we weren’t athletic so we couldn’t jump high or do handsprings or anything like that. The worst part was that we didn’t understand much about football and we would cheer “Push ‘em back, way back” when our team had the ball and “Go, go, go for a touchdown” when the opposing team had the ball. The coaches were always irritated with us.

Brown: Who was your favorite teacher in school and why was s/he your favorite?

O’Dell: Miss Elizabeth Whitelaw, my senior English teacher. She was really strict, but we respected her because she was so smart. She had been teaching for a long time and to make a good grade in her class meant we had worked hard. She made us memorize many sections of Shakespeare’s “Macbeth,” which I can still recite today.

Brown: What was your first job perhaps as a teen? What were your responsibilities?  How much were you paid?

O’Dell: I maybe was a pre-teen when I began babysitting for families in the neighborhood. I made 25 cents an hour and took care of three little children, feeding them, bathing them, and putting them to bed. And never did the family give me a tip.  But I found their bag of chocolate chips in the pantry, so I ate chocolate chips as my treat.

Brown: Talk about your college experience.

O’Dell: I attended Longwood College, one of Virginia’s four state teachers’ colleges, and loved every minute of it. It is located in southwest Virginia, which was so remote it had no convenient commercial bus or train service. None of the students had cars so we had to depend on someone from home to come for us for vacations.

I was a secondary education major in English and Spanish. The college was so small in the 1950s that one professor taught all the Spanish classes.

Longwood’s iconic Rotunda

Brown: Did you have a mentor who influenced your career path?

O’Dell: I wanted to be an airline stewardess. In my senior civics class in high school the teacher had us research a career and write a paper. I was devastated to learn that the cabin space in planes at that time was so limited that the airlines were not taking stewardesses over 5’2”. I was 5’7 and ¾”. I didn’t like the sight of blood (nurse) and I didn’t want to be a secretary, so I decided to become an English teacher. I found with several courses beyond a minor in Spanish, I could have a double major. Spanish was such fun to teach because we could sing songs and play games while we learned the language. 

Since living in Oxford, I have tutored university students in Spanish for 30 years.

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

O’Dell: I began working at Ole Miss in 1988 in the teaching/learning center where international students and their spouses came for conversational English classes, and other students came for help with English papers and for tutoring in Spanish and other subjects. I enjoyed the international students especially, and we had fun as they tried to understand cartoons in the “Daily Mississippian” and colloquialisms used by Ole Miss students.

The pay was $5 per hour but if a student who had made an appointment didn’t show up, I was not paid. Often, I traveled from home to the campus only to find that no students kept their appointments that day.

Brown: What other position(s) did you hold? What were your job responsibilities? 

O’Dell: I was the departmental secretary (later called office administrator) in the Sociology and Anthropology Department from 1989 until 2005. The chair was Larry DeBord, who was also my next-door neighbor. I had interviewed for various jobs I wasn’t offered and when the Soc/Anth job was offered so was another one. I had to make a choice, but it was an easy one.

Brown: It seems that everyone has days at work that are memorable. What day was that for you?

O’Dell: The department had a graduate program as well as an undergraduate one, and I was particularly close to our graduate students. One foggy morning one of our graduates was hit by a car and killed on his way to school. His family asked that I conduct his funeral service. I considered this an honor, but it was also a difficult task.

Brown: If you could make one rule that everyone had to follow, what rule would that be?

O’Dell: Do what you say you are going to do and do it to the best of your ability. Take pride in doing every job well.

Brown: You have worked with the Oxford Food Pantry and have served on the Board and as President. Tell us about your role with this organization.  

O’Dell: The Pantry was begun in 1982 by five churches and 40 years later has grown to 16 churches and organizations taking responsibility for operating the facility a month at a time. We provide approximately 14,000 visits annually (many are repeat visits by clients who need our help as much as once a month). There is no way to estimate how many hundreds of volunteers have joined the team over the years or how many good ideas were suggested that have improved the operation. The community has been especially generous during and since the Covid pandemic, and it has been my great pleasure to be associated with this successful community endeavor through the years.

Brown: How did you and your late husband meet?

O’Dell: We met at Montreat, North Carolina, the national conference grounds of The Presbyterian Church, when we were college students. We were each the only delegates from our state (he from Mississippi and I from Virginia) to a special week-long leadership conference that included one student from each southern state.  (Predestination!!!) After that week we each told our parents we had met the person we would marry. (We didn’t tell each other that, however, for quite some time.) His name was Denton O’Dell, and he grew up in Marshall County. He came to Richmond, Virginia, to seminary and we married while he was a student. He wanted to return to Mississippi and served two small churches in Tallahatchie County (Sumner and Tutwiler) before we moved to Oxford where he became the director of Camp Hopewell for 18 years. He died in 2010.

Brown: Do you have hobbies?

O’Dell: Yes indeed. Too many to accomplish very much in any one. I enjoy gardening, quilting, writing, reading, and genealogy.

Brown: You were the 2018 recipient of the Algernon Sydney Sullivan Award for your volunteer work in the Lafayette-Oxford-University (LOU) Community. Talk about this honor.

O’Dell: What a surprise and special honor this award was for me. It was made doubly meaningful because my son Dee was given the same award at his undergraduate graduation from Hampden Sydney College in Virginia in 1987. I was especially grateful that he and all his family were able to be here for the ceremony in 2018.

Brown: Describe your perfect day.

O’Dell: The day would be warm and sunny and not much breeze. Fellow Master Gardeners would come, and we would dig and pot and label plant material for the annual plant swap at Ole Miss. We would pot enough plants that all who come to the plant swap would receive at least one plant, even if they didn’t bring plants to swap.

Brown: If you could learn a new skill, what would it be?

O’Dell: How to eliminate unwanted invasive plants permanently.

Brown: What would you do if you won the lottery?

O’Dell: Install an irrigation system at the cemetery and pay for the water so families could plant real flowers at grave sites.

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

O’Dell: In 1982 I experienced an amazing change in my personality and became a different person from the one I had been before. All the internal garbage I had collected over the years was washed away and room was made in me for new, creative ideas. I wrote a book about that experience which is free on my website: anngloverodell.wordpress.com under the title “Humpty Dumpty Hatched.”

Brown: In the evening, would you rather play a game, visit a friend, watch a movie, or read?

O’Dell: Any or all of the above and/or write, have a party, make plans for something fun.

Brown: What 3 words would you use to describe yourself? 

O’Dell: Gardener, quilter, poet

Brown: What is your favorite way to relax?

O’Dell: Sleep!

Brown: What makes you happy?

O’Dell: Getting out of bed every morning, glad to be alive, and knowing I have a whole day before me to use in whatever way I wish — and I can drink as much coffee as I want.

Brown: What is your pet peeve? 

O’Dell: Oh, I have lots of grammar peeves. The biggest is the use of the first-person subject pronoun when the object pronoun should be used. Besides regular folks, I hear actors, writers, and even administrators in academia doing this — A LOT! For example, “Everyone has been so kind to Sharon and I,”  or “They invited my friends and I to spend the day.” ME, ME, ME, ME, ME!! Good grief, folks!

Brown: What are some things that you’ve checked off your bucket list? 

O’Dell: I wrote a coming-of-age novel about the hilarious pranks my two sons played in their growing up years. The title is “Hello, Hello: An Oxford Boyhood.” Their names are Charles Dee and Robert Lee, both named for grandfathers. Dee is a banker and lives in Charlotte, North Carolina, with his wife and three daughters. Robert died when he was in high school.

Brown: What remains on your bucket list?

O’Dell: To print collections of my poetry inspired by a writers’ group I’ve been part of for 20 years.

Brown:  To quote Katherine Meadowcroft, Cultural activist, and writer, “What one leaves behind is the quality of one’s life, the summation of the choices and actions one makes in this life, our spiritual and moral values.” What is your legacy?

O’Dell: Kindness and humor, I hope, but I’ll leave that to others to say.

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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