Triplett’s death recalls his family’s impact on autism
How does one capture the contradictions and complexities of the life of Forest attorney Oliver Beamon Triplett, who died last week at the age of 81?
Outside of Forest, most Mississippians would have known Oliver as a conservative author of tightly written letters to the editor of the Jackson or Forest newspapers. The letters, almost haikus in their brevity if not their specific construct, were usually written in praise of Donald Trump or in condemnation of Hillary Clinton.
Oliver’s letters had all the subtlety of rolling an unpinned grenade into a Sunday night church social. And that was clearly Oliver’s intent — to provoke debate and discussion. To be sure, he enjoyed the notoriety it stirred.
That was particularly true when Oliver would visit the Neshoba County Fair on political speaking days. More than one statewide politician would be introduced to Oliver — a resolutely and reliably pleasant and courtly individual — then circle back later to inquire: “Is that the guy who writes those tough little letters slamming Hillary?”
It was a shame that outside of Forest, few came to know the rest of Oliver’s story. Despite the “grouchy old curmudgeon” persona that Oliver’s letters implied, I’ve known few better or more generous men. Oliver was my across the street neighbor when I moved to Forest in the early 1980s.
And as family stories are inexorably unveiled in small towns, I came to know Oliver’s. His father, Beamon, was a Yale-educated attorney in Forest who was killed in a Hwy. 35 car accident in 1980. His mother, Mary McCravey Triplett, was the daughter of the founder of the Bank of Forest and would eventually become the first female member of the Board of Trustees of Belhaven University, her alma mater.
We knew Oliver as a loyal neighbor and friend. We watched as the McCravey and Triplett families endowed Belhaven University with a 40,000-sq. ft. Student Center that opened to students in 2002. Several years later, the Tripletts endowed their University of Mississippi alma mater’s through the Ole Miss Women’s Council for Philanthropy with a gift honoring my late first wife, Paula Jones Salter.
Oliver and Carolyn endured the untimely death of a beloved son, Cooper East Triplett.
Beamon and Mary Triplett’s first child, Donald Triplett, was born in 1933. Don’s redemptive, fascinating sojourn with his family and Mississippi hometown was chronicled in the 2016 Pulitzer Prize finalist for general nonfiction “In A Different Key: The Story of Autism” by John Donvan and Caren Zucker.
The book makes clear Don Triplett’s status and burden in 1942 as the world’s first person diagnosed with autism. Make no mistake, Don Triplett’s life story is remarkable in and of itself without his younger brother’s voice in it.
Yet unless one has experienced life and interactions with someone who is at some juncture on the autism spectrum, it is difficult to fully comprehend the challenges of providing a semblance of a full life with what the rest of us consider normal familial relationships.
In that role, Oliver Triplett was far more than a small-town curmudgeon. Triplett family photos document that over the course of their lives that Oliver included Don in his younger brother’s life as a father and a grandfather. He shared children and grandchildren with his brother, enriching Don’s life without encroaching in it.
How remarkable it is to observe that it was a set of parents in rural Mississippi — albeit parents blessed with uncommon resources — who had the tenacity of refuse to accept less than as a full a life as they could give their son despite a disability that few if any recognized when the Triplett brothers were boys.
Sid Salter is a syndicated columnist. Contact him at email@example.com.