Holly Travis is still a few months from graduating from Starkville High School, but a few years ago, she was able to step into the high heels of a Rockette.
Travis was part of a skit re-enacting the life of Bessie Bernice Ballard, a 1944 graduate of Starkville High School who became a Radio City Music Hall Rockette. The skit was part of the Starkville School District’s Living Legacy Tour, and Bernice was one of several famous Starkville natives memorialized.
“Since I’m a dancer, I thought it was neat that there was someone (from Starkville) who actually made it in the dance world as a Rockette,” Travis said. “It was fun because I actually got to be in the skit (about) the person I had done the research on.”
Travis is one of several students and teachers planning to bring back the Living Legacy Tour of Oddfellows Cemetery on April 27 after a two-year hiatus.
Ginger Tedder, SHS social studies teacher, said a key reason for the hiatus was the job transfer of all three of the tour’s originators: Millsaps teacher April Dill, Tedder herself and Mandy Kinney, who taught drama in the SSD at the time. Dill said both she and Tedder were working at different SSD schools when they started the tour, and Kinney moved out of the state when they moved to their current positions.
That was 2010, Tedder said, and the obstacles from the transfer process have now been resolved.
“We are delighted to return this great project to our students and the community,” Tedder said. “Also, we are delighted to announce (science teacher) Parker Blakeney of Starkville High School as a new coordinator this year. She will be a great asset to the project.”
Tedder said past tours have had featured such citizens as famed African-American baseball player James “Cool Papa” Bell, local civil rights activist Douglas Conner, Revolutionary War veteran William Minter Hillhouse, and William “Bud” Miley, a World War II veteran known as the “Father of the American Paratrooper.” She said the program also incorporates historic figures associated with Starkville who were not necessarily residents, such as Johnny Cash, who spent time in the Starkville city jail, and George Kelly Barnes, a former Mississippi State University student who is better known as mobster “Machine Gun” Kelly.
The tour is not limited to people buried in Oddfellows Cemetery itself, Tedder said, and in addition to historic figures, the tour has also memorialized people who have passed away in more recent years, Tedder said. These include Army Cpl. Robert McDavid III, killed in action in Iraq, and Hannah Pote, the namesake of the Hannah Pote Run for Education who died in a car accident while still a sophomore at SHS.
“We were on her soccer team, and we were just talking about Hannah,” Travis said. “Hannah’s character wasn’t actually in the skit.”
To bring these figures to life, Tedder said, students conduct research in coordination with the Oktibbeha County Library and Stark Annex, the Mitchell Memorial Library and the Oktibbeha County Heritage Museum. If possible, students also ask contact family members for permission to include an individual in the tour, interviewing them to learn more about the individual, she said.
Leah Gibson, a senior at SHS serving as student coordinator for the tour, said she believes the local element will make the tour more enjoyable and engaging to research than the typical history project.
“I think that would be fun research to do, because it hits home. You’re not researching someone you don’t have a connection to. You come from the same place,” Gibson said. “I think it’s a great way to expose some of our history and some of the people that have come through Starkville. It’s also a good way for SHS to broadcast our talent to the community because it’s a lot of work.”
As for ideas for individuals to include, Tedder said research has yielded many good ideas, but she and her students are also open to suggestions.
“We get ideas from anywhere and everywhere; community members contact us via email, phone, Facebook, mail, etc.,” Tedder said. “We have had people even stop us in the community just to chat about Legacy and request we consider their relative. We get our best ideas from the community. Who knows the rich, colorful history of Starkville better than its citizens?”
Tedder said community members can submit ideas or suggestions by email at firstname.lastname@example.org .