Former county teacher marks 100th birthday

Published 6:00 am Monday, November 24, 2008

Verna Mae McPhail Smith only taught school in Lincoln County forhalf of her life to date.

Of course, it’s important to add that she turned 100 years oldon Wednesday.

The family recently had a family reunion and 100th birthdayparty in Natchez, and family members say Smith was surprised andglad to stay for the whole event. Her 96-year old sister was ableto attend, although their 92-year-old brother was not inattendance.

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“I didn’t know if she’d have the energy to stay for four hours,but she wasn’t tired and sat through the whole thing and just tookeverything in,” said her oldest daughter, Beverly Vinson, 66, ofNatchez.

Family members say Smith, who is in assisted living in Natchez,taught at several schools in the area, including West Lincoln, LoydStar, and the now long-gone Heuck’s Retreat School. Her latehusband Barney was the principal at several schools during his lifetoo, before they left Lincoln County in the early 60s.

“She’s a real pistol,” said Smith’s daughter Diane Land, 64, wholives in Dallas. “She’s not quite herself anymore, but hey, she’sstill doing great.”

Land and Vinson said their mother drove a car until she was 95years old, and lived on her own until she was 96.

With three daughters, seven grandchildren and eightgreat-grandchildren, she has passed on her legacy to quite a fewfamily members. But with 50 years of teaching under her belt, thereare untold numbers of others who have grown up affected by Smith’swisdom.

Vinson remembered having her mother as a teacher at Heuck’sRetreat and West Lincoln, and that no favoritism was shown when thedreaded spelling tests rolled around.

“When I was in the third grade, we always had a spelling test onFridays and I’d memorize the spelling words in the order they werelisted in the book, but she’d mix them up on the tests,” she said.”I’d miss so many of them because I’d memorized them in order, andshe had to listen to me cry about it.”

While Vinson and Land said they and their other sister GenythDe’Salvo can recount a lot of tales about their mother, some of thethings Smith passed down to them almost speak of a differentworld.

Born in 1908, Smith lived before so many of the comforts oftoday’s world. Her mother died in childbirth when Smith was young,leaving her family to try to do the best they could.

“She was a 9-year-old with three siblings,” said Land, who saidwhen her grandmother died each of the children was taken to livewith a different set of family members. “After a couple of years mygrandfather remarried and got the family back together. They saidone Sunday he hooked the horses up and brought the kids home.”

Now Smith lives in Magnolia House in Natchez, and Vinson visitsher almost every day.

“Mother has been blessed with a very rich life. She has beenfairly illness-free, no major surgeries, and her mind has beensharp as a tack until the last few years,” said Vinson. “She hasjust enjoyed life, she really has, and I don’t think she has anyregrets.”