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April 23, 2024

Mary Ellen Leftwich

Recollections of beloved educator

by Anne Martin

The Bolivar Bullet

Mary Ellen Leftwich, known to many as Tutter, was a beloved school teacher in western Bolivar County. She influenced the lives of hundreds of students who fondly remembered their teacher decades after leaving her classroom. She loved her home of Gunnison, the Delta, the Methodist Church, Delta State University, and her family.

In 2012, at the age of 96, her family asked her to write down a few of her memories. These recollections are not just of her life, but a look into life in the Delta, especially during the first half of the 1900s. 

She was born in Laconia Circle, AR on November 10, 1916. Her father was born in Gunnison but was a farmer at the time of her birth in Laconia Circle.

     These are the words of Mary Ellen Arnold Leftwich, A Brief Account of My Life – Nov. 10, 1916 – 2012.

I was asked to write my history. I do not express myself well, but I’ll give it a try.

My sister, Dorothy Lynn, was born January 15, 1918 at Laconia Circle. The family would ride on the Kate Adams, a famous river boat that traveled up and down the Mississippi River, to visit daddy’s mother, Grandmother Ruth. I was told that I learned to walk on the “Kate.”

I’m not sure of the date the family moved to Gunnison; it was about 1919, 1920. Daddy was to farm his aunt’s land that was two to three miles southeast of Gunnison. We lived in a little white cottage with a picket cottage fence around the yard. I think I may have been four and sister was three. We had a red wagon and a goat, geese, and chickens. I remember trying to get eggs from under a hen on her nest and her pecking me. I didn’t try that again! We had a black buggy for transportation to Gunnison. Daddy built a little bench for sister and me to sit on in the buggy. We loved to go to Mr. Scott Blanchard’s grocery store to spend our nickel.

When daddy was working, he would take sister and me to a tree in a sandy area to play while he tended to farming. Sister said she remembered he would tie us to a tree to keep us from running back to the house.

After mama died, (during childbirth to a little boy in a Millington, TN hospital, November 1921) daddy cared for us. Sister and I stayed for a little while with the Trimbles on Lake Porter, east of Perthshire. She was daddy’s first cousin by marriage. Later daddy made arrangements with Mrs. Fred Davis to move into their home for room and board. It (the house) was built for Sol Cohn, the first mayor of Gunnison.

Daddy had three close friends, who were good about sitting with us when he had a date with Louise Martin or a Masonic Lodge meeting. They were Leo Nemitz, W.B. Hamilton and W.H McNeill. If there was a supper at the Masonic Lodge, Daddy always brought us some of the food, waking us up to eat!

There was a little house in Mrs. Davis’ backyard. Daddy used it as a little commissary for his labor. One day, sister and I “stole” a can of condensed milk from the commissary. I do not know how we got it open, the cook may have opened it for us. But we hid under the back porch and ate the whole can. Daddy punished us, but the worst was we were so sick. I still love condensed milk.

Everybody in town was good to us, “the little orphaned girls!”

When we were living with Mrs. Davis, we started school. I was six and sister almost five. Sister was allowed to start earlier because of our situation. We were like twins (but) 14 months difference in age. Primer and first grade were in the Masonic Lodge. That year we had all the communicable diseases! Daddy even had diphtheria! Dr. Cockerham thought her daddy was going to die. His good friends sat up with him. We were in school only 27 days! So, we had to repeat primer and first grade. That is when Louise Martin, or “Tease” as she was called, decided to marry. (Tease and Lynn Arnold married Dec. 6, 1923.)

Tease used to dress Sister and me alike for a while. A lot of people thought we were twins. I remember we had to take off our school clothes when we got home and put on something old to play in. We learned early to take care of good things.

The bathroom in our house was on the back porch. It was originally a trunk room. Sister was always scared to go out to the bathroom after dark by herself; so, I always had to go with her. Leila Lyle and Ruth (a cousin and friend) were just as bad. They always bribed me to go with them. I spent a lot of time sitting on the side of the bathtub. I still cannot imagine why Daddy and Tease would not extend the hall to include the bathroom. It never was.

Nearly every summer, Grandmother (who lived in Memphis) would take us “into town” to see a show. We would go to one of the big theaters; Lowes Palace, Lowes State or the Orpheum. They were lovely theaters with plush red carpets, beautiful drapes and white marble stairs. It was such a treat. Grandmother did not have a car, so we would take the street car. When we were ten and eleven, she let us go by ourselves. We knew where to get off coming home because we could see a big Coca Cola sign on a building at the corner of Madison and Belvedere. We never did get lost. We felt so big!

We had a lot of fun growing in Gunnison. You knew everybody! We had “spend the night” with friends. At one time paper dolls were all the rage. We loved hop scotch, marbles and skating on the wide concrete sidewalk at the school. I really never learned to skate; I fell too much!

At one time Gunnison had two doctors, two drug stores, three dry goods stores, three Italian grocery stores, two Chinese grocery stores, Mr. Scott Blanchard’s grocery. There was also a hardware store, a hotel, a barber shop and two trains. The train that came through at night was called The Owl.

The Mississippi River was at flood stage in 1927. Levees were not as high as they are now. Men from here took shifts walking the levee for fear someone from Arkansas would dynamite our levee to keep the pressure off the Arkansas levee. The levee did break just south of Scott. The water flooded Greenville to the south and east. Greenville became a “tent city” on top of the levee. The water came north between Benoit and Beulah. Daddy took sister and me down to see the water. He parked the car about where Highway 446 meets Highway 1 now. We walked on the railroad until water was on both sides of us. That was a scary feeling for us then. We were thankful we were not flooded. About 1929 or 1930, a government group was sent to build the levee higher and stronger.

Our teen years continued to be good ones. We had a good group that just like to have fun together. During those depression years, nobody had any money. We would meet on weekends and make candy, dance, play games, cut watermelons or have hay rides. We had scavenger hunts all over town, go frog gigging and walk up the levee road hunting in all the barrow pits.

Leila Lyle, Tease’s niece, could usually get her car on Sunday afternoon. (We) would pile in and off to Rosedale we would go on the old gravel road. Someone would probably have a nickel and we would go to Mr. Lewis’ Drug Store and blow the horn for curb service. He always had older teen boys as “car hops.” We would order a package of Dentyne gum and six glasses of water. Lots of flirting going on!

In the early 1930s, our group got interested in tennis. There were several courts in town at one time, but none lasted. Daddy built us a court in the south yard that had once been a cow pasture. There was always a crowd at our house. We played in Shaw, Duncan and Greenville. When folks were playing at our house, sister and I, while waiting our turn, would play cards on the front porch. Those were the good ole days.

Our crowd spent a lot of time playing tennis, swimming and dancing. It was during this time that the dances at the Rosedale Courthouse became special. There was one dance in the summer and one at Christmas. The parents would chaperone. One night a boy from Greenville had too much to drink. Daddy took him out and walked him around during intermission. Several of the boys from Greenville had a problem with drinking too much. Our local boys did not drink. I guess they didn’t have money to buy liquor.

Tease made our evening dresses, school clothes and Sunday clothes. We always had the right thing to wear.

In the summer, we would board a school bus and go to Lake Chicot at Lake Village, AR. We would take a picnic lunch, swim and dance at the pavilion. We crossed the river at Greenville on the ferry. The last ferry left Lake Village at 11:30 p.m. We had to be sure to be on the dock before that time.

Sister and I graduated from Gunnison High School in 1935. Sister and I enrolled at Delta State Teachers College that fall. We roomed together for the first two years. She quit after her second year to get married.

I was elected “Friendliest Girl” during my sophomore and junior years at Delta State. I finished Delta State in 1939. Teachers were a dime a dozen. I finally got a job teaching first grade in Houlka, MS for $72.50 a month for eight months. During the so, 1940-41 school year I taught at Wade School east of Drew.

I got a better job, 1942-43 in Benoit teaching fifth grade. Barnet Dribben was the superintendent and Velma Williams was my elementary principal. The people of Benoit were so good to the teachers. We were given permission to go to the Benoit Outing Club anytime. At that time the club was an old river boat on the lake. It was fun to go out there to eat, dance to juke box music and shoot pool.

While teaching in Benoit, I roomed with Jane Michie from Cleveland. Jane was dating Neal Leftwich. She asked me to date Neal’s brother, Gene, who was home from Officer Candidate School at Mississippi State University and had just made second lieutenant. It was a blind date. I agreed to go. Jane’s mother in Cleveland was having us all over for dinner that night. We piled into Neal’s convertible coupe, in the front. It was January and too cold to ride in the rumble seat. After dinner we went to the Delta Club and danced to the juke box. On the way home, Neal stopped the car. There was no traffic due to rationing. (Stamps to purchase gas were rationed during WWII.) We got out and danced on the highway. While dancing, Gene asked me to marry him. I laughed. We dated the next two nights getting to know each other. He had orders to report to Fort Hamilton, Brooklyn, New York. After he left, he wrote often and called.

In March he asked me to come to New York before he was to ship out. I took time off from school. Tease went with me. The second night there we decided to get married before he had to go overseas. We had to get permission to waive the three-day waiting period. We got married on March 15, 1943 in The Little Church Around the Corner, better known as the Church of the Transfiguration.  “Beware of the Ides of March.” Sister was in Mississippi crying because she and daddy could not be there. 

I returned to Benoit to teach and as it happened, Gene’s orders were cancelled. When school was out in June, Gene came down to get me to go back to Brooklyn. We explored the city, going to concerts in the park or to major league baseball games. Soldiers got in baseball games and theaters for 18 cents. I was late getting back one afternoon. When I came up from the subway, which was at the end of the block where we lived with the Davis’, an elderly Polish couple, Mr. Davis was waiting for me. One day, Mrs. Davis said to me, “You don’t look Jewish.” I said I wasn’t Jewish. She said, “The lieutenant is.” She thought we had dropped the Jewish spelling of our name, just like they had. Leftwich is actually English.

Gene finally got his orders to go overseas. I returned to Benoit to teach. He came home from the war in December 1945. He had been in the D-Day invasion on the beaches of Normandy, France.

Out first child was born March 11, 1948, Mary Ellen. She was christened on June 18, 1948 at the Benoit Union Church, which was a combination of Methodist and Baptist and Presbyterian. The regular minister had swapped pulpits that Sunday with the Hollandale minister. He had forgotten it was Ellen’s christening. The visiting minister agreed to perform the ceremony. All I could find to put water in was an empty peanut butter jar.

In December 1948, Gene bought Uncle Scotts grocery store in Gunnison. We moved to Gunnison and lived upstairs at Tease’s. Daddy had died by this time. We opened the store on January 1, 1949.

During the spring of 1949, Mr. Bell called to see if I could teach a section of the third grade in Gunnison until school was out. I managed to get a nurse for Ellen and taught the remainder of the school year. In 1950 I taught the fourth grade for a teacher who was sick.

Using the G.I. Bill, we built our home on the lot that used to be the orchard next to Tease. We moved into the house in July. I was pregnant and I do believe it was the hottest summer ever.

Eugene Porter Leftwich III was born October 24, 1951. Porter was allergic to milk and had to drink goat’s milk, which was hard to find.  The Goyer Company salesman gave us his allotment of goat’s milk as not all of his customers stocked it in their stores.

When Porter started school in 1957, I started teaching sixth grade in Rosedale. I taught there until I retired in June 1978. I will always remember my time there. I loved it!

Porter had a lot of friends in Gunnison. Most of the boys played baseball. Gene coached Little League so they could play with boys from other towns. Gene was also Boy Scout Master for four or five years. Our family always took a summer vacation. Most of the time we went to see a major league baseball team, visiting Houston, St. Louis and Atlanta. (Mary Ellen remained a lifelong Atlanta Braves fan.)

Our yard was the gathering place for boys after school for wiffleball, football, baseball and motor scooters. Scooters going up and down the levee and jumping the ditches sent many a prayer to the Lord and put many grey hairs in my head. 

After Gene and I retired in 1978, we started traveling more. We went to Europe, Mexico, took cruises, traveled across the United States and cruised through the Panama Canal. The most meaningful trip for Gene was when we went to England and France for the 50th reunion of D-Day in 1994. 

Sister and I joined the Mississippi Delta Chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) in Rosedale in January 1996. After retiring, I also joined the bridge club and the sewing circle. Margaret Brown taught me to needlepoint. Katherine Caldwell of Rosedale taught me to knit. I also became more active in the church. I enjoy district meetings and the study groups.

    In the year 2000, my life started to change. Gene died on December 28. We would have been married 58 years in March 2001. Sister died in March 2002.

I am continuing to live in my house in Gunnison and am so blessed with good health. I am able to take care of myself and drive to Rosedale, Cleveland or Greenville. I have the best friends and they keep a good check on me. Betty Hood calls nearly every day. She and Kenneth call when they are going out to eat at night, usually The Blue Levee in Rosedale, and invite me to go. Nell Kent and I go to Cleveland to pig out about twice a month.

I was so honored to be recognized in 2008, at Delta State’s homecoming. I finished Delta State Teachers College in 1939. In the 69 years since graduating, I have only missed one homecoming. 

I find myself with two dogs. I had not had a dog in twenty years. A cute little black and white puppy came running down my drive one October morning. I tried to run it away but it hid in the shrubs. I couldn’t let it starve, so after two days, I put food out. Big mistake! I had a puppy that would not come near me but she had a home. A couple of weeks later an older blonde dog appeared. Same story. She would not leave but was being a mother to the puppy. I named her Lady and the puppy, Pup. Everybody thought I was crazy! Two dogs and you are 92! I love them both and they are so much company and are outside dogs – good protection! Pup has learned to follow me to the post office and goes to church each Sunday. She sleeps at the door until church is over. Lady stays home and clears the yard when I drive in the driveway.

In March 2011, I was not feeling well. Dr. Blaylock admitted me to the hospital. Colon cancer was found. Surgery was performed, the cancer contained and removed. God was not ready for me.

Our Methodist Church (Gunnison) is barely holding on. A faithful few are trying to keep it going. (The Gunnison United Methodist church closed in 2018.)

Porter and Debbie (his wife) gave me an Endowed Scholarship in my name to Delta State for Christmas. It is for an elementary education major. I was floored and so grateful. It is something I had wished but couldn’t afford to do. We have met the first recipient. She is Audra Dorrough from Ruleville. I am so proud to have this Endowed Scholarship.

I am so blessed to have lived a good life. I am signing off. I have left many things unsaid, friends and events unmentioned. I have had a wonderful life. The Lord has blessed me in so many ways.

At the end of A Brief Account of My Life, Mary Ellen listed some things she remembered occurring during her lifetime. They included: the 1927 Mississippi River Flood, the Great Depression, D-Day, television in the 1950s, computers and internet, cell phones, putting a man on the moon, Pres. John Kennedy’s assassination, The Beatles, first American taken hostage in Viet Nam War, cable and digital TV, 2001 terrorist attacks on New York and the Pentagon, iPhones, Facebook, air conditioners and our first window unit, as well as a nickel bottle of Coca Cola.

Mary Ellen Arnold Leftwich died January 5, 2022. She was 105 years old.

Still, Collins has made a reputation all his own. “Yeah, people say that you could put a bathtub in a parking lot, and I could catch a fish in it!” he laughed.