Friday, February 12, 2016

Mary Eleanor Wyatt

There have been some writers inquiring about Mary Eleanor Wyatt's life, interactions with Kate Freeman Clark, and influence on the Marshall County Historical Museum.

The following is what we told these writers.  I hope you enjoy the descriptions and stories about this wonderful woman.

Alexa Ashmead recalls "I remember staring at her and thinking she was the most beautiful woman on this planet.  I prayed that I would look half as beautiful as she did.  Her eyes sparkled with mischief, her presence was full of commanding patience, and her unique voice was very calming.  She was extremely humble and did not think highly of herself. I urged her to sing to me every night, because I looooved her voice.  I couldn't get enough of her.  I loved her very much."

"Her father, O.B. Kerr , was raised in the Smokey Mountains where the entire family was raised on two books, the King Jame's Bible and the Complete Works of William Shakespeare.  They were taught to read the Bible by age four, Shakespeare by age five, and the alphabet by using the letters on the stove.  His way of speaking greatly influenced my mother"  added Gwen.

Mary Eleanor was raised with her father's accent and phrasing. Both she and her father would constantly say "mayhaps," "methinks," and other phrases from Elizabethan English. "A Speech professor, who was entranced with Mary Eleanor's voice and speech, followed her like a shadow throughout meetings and tried to record the phrases that would tumble out of her mouth," said her daughter Jo.  

Life History:
Mary Eleanor Wyatt was born December 27th 1916 in Memphis, TN and died June 1st 2000 in Holly Springs, MS.  

She was the daughter of Orange Baxter Kerr and Aline Cox Kerr.  They raised her to be self sufficient and a critical thinker.  Like her father, she was able to tinker and manipulate many mediums to create her own designs.  
Above is a photo of one of Mary Eleanor's pieces.  She used the scraps of metal from her father's factory inside the Depot. 

She helped her father in his factory at the Depot.  She even learned Spanish so she could correspond with and complete foreign orders.  However, her career path (after attending the "W" College in Columbus, MS) was to be a biochemist.  She went to Memphis and worked at University of Tennessee on sickle cell disease treatments with Dr. Dabbs.  There she met her future husband Rhea Lution Wyatt.  They lived in Memphis, until he finished medical school.  

The two moved around a lot in their home state of Mississippi including Shubuta. Then, Mary Eleanor moved to Ann Arbor, Michigan where her husband did postgraduate work with Jonas Salk on the polio vaccine.  

Mary Eleanor and her husband found it humorous that they were housed with the international students. At the time, this University seemed to consider Mississippians to be foreigners.

Rhea Lution Wyatt finally achieved his credentials and the two came back to Mississippi with their first child (Gwendolynn).  After a year in West Point, they decided to move back to the Depot where they lived happily.

Dr. R.L. Wyatt and Mrs. Mary Eleanor Kerr Wyatt

Interactions with Kate Freeman Clark:

Mary Eleanor did know Ms. Kate Freeman Clark and was one of the few to be invited into her home (repeatedly).  Mary Eleanor would take Ms. Kate meals, do errands for Ms. Kate, and often sit and chat with Ms. Kate on a variety of topics.  It took a long time before Mary Eleanor even learned about Ms. Kate's paintings.  Ms. Kate did not talk much about her life as a painter; and, when she did, she did not tell Mary Eleanor about the size of her extensive collection.  

When Mary Eleanor asked Ms. Kate why she gave up her painting,  Ms. Kate replied, "Once my mother died there was no point."  Her mother was Ms. Kate's painting companion and would clean Kate's brushes while her daughter painted.

When Mary Eleanor asked why she didn't sell the paintings, Ms. Kate answered, "I never sold my paintings, for I could not sell my children."
I believe this is a photo of Ms. Kate.  She usually wore her gray hair loosely at the back of her head and was sometimes seen wearing a pinafore apron.  
At this time, Ms. Kate's house was not well painted and the picket fence was not painted at all. Her family home was all overgrown with plants. This was done on purpose.  After returning home, Ms. Kate could not stand nature being controlled.  Ms. Kate said, "She had grown up with manicured front lawns and sidewalks in New York."  She was sick of all of the cement and wanted greenery back in her life.

The greenery was full of wildlife, including Ms. Kate's pet geese and cats.  Geese would shoot out of the brambles and grass to attack the unwary traveller.  Jo, Mary Eleanor's second daughter,  would get lunged at by the geese through the picket fence on her way from school to her music lessons. She wisely stayed as far away as possible on the sidewalk to avoid being pinched.  Sometimes, Jo would see the pride of cats hunting through the tall grass.  Ms. Kate's yard, full of meter-high weeds, felt like a miniature jungle.   

Mary Eleanor learned more about Ms. Kate's life after she saved all of Ms. Kate's family letters and keepsakes from being destroyed.

In the 1960s and 1970s, Mary Eleanor worked at the Kate Freeman Clark Art Gallery every Saturday and Sunday.  Her daughters helped their mother with the Kate Freeman Clark Art Gallery.  Jo remembers doing her school work amid Kate's beautiful paintings.
I believe this is a photo of Ms. Kate's house in Holly Springs, Mississippi.  Ms.Kate's mother is standing out front with a gentleman.

Runner of the Marshall County Historical Museum:

Lois Swaney, Pat Williamson, Mary Eleanor and others helped  to start the museum.   After Lois left the Marshall County Historical Museum, Mary Eleanor took charge.  She ran the Marshall County Historical Museum by herself for ten years (1970's to 1980's) from 9 am to 5 pm.  She was officially opened 5 days a week; but, if called, she would open it to anyone who requested.  

Mary Eleanor decided that the objects in the museum should be documented and accessioned meticulously.  She was so determined to do right by the museum that she took correspondence courses on how to keep up with items, catalog, and maintain a museum. 

For instance, she put an identifying number on the each item with Indian Ink (so it wouldn't fade or rub off) and learned to categorize each item appropriately.  Her system is still used to this very day.

One of the most important collections was from Kate Freeman Clark's estate.  There was a detached building (possibly a detached kitchen or servant quarters) filled with items.  Even the chimney was full of letters and photographs.  The trustee called Mary Eleanor, for he was demolishing the small building and, if she wanted anything from it, she had only a few days to get it out.  He did not care if she threw it away, kept it, or donated it to the museum.   Mary Eleanor gathered friends and family to clean out the entire building and save Ms. Kate's things.  

Mary Eleanor read and cataloged Ms. Kate's family letters.  Mary Eleanor read so many letters that the past and present began to blur together.  The people of the past had similar names and personalities of the people of the present.  She felt like she knew these people intimately through their thoughts and actions.
Photograph of a newspaper clipping found at the Holly Springs Library.

Every day at the museum was unique.  One day, the walls and ceilings of the second floor of the the museums had to be replastered. Unfortunately the workers were not very neat.  Plaster dust was smeared  all over the floor.  With the Pilgrimage coming up eminently, Mary Eleanor with her first daughter Gwen quickly cleaned and repainted the entire second floor.  They finished just in time for the Pilgrimage opening ceremonies.  No one knew the chaos they had tamed.

Her daughters, especially Gwen, helped their mother with the Marshall County Historical Museum.   Gwen even added a diorama to the museum.  Both helped their mother take care of our local treasures and create events.  Mary Eleanor even had her baby granddaughter (Alexa) join her at the museum and board meetings. The picture below is a quilt event at the museum.

However, as soon as Lois Swaney came back to town, Mary Eleanor happily handed the torch back to her.  
Photograph of a newspaper clipping found at the Holly Springs Library.

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