By Chris Young,
Contributing Writer,The Celebration of Life for Gov. and Mrs. Winter included recognition from a former U.S. president, former MS governor and former MS Supreme Court judge PHOTO BY CHRIS YOUNG
William Forrest Winter, Mississippi’s 58th governor who served from 1980-1984, passed away December 18, 2020. Less than a year later his wife Elise Varner Winter passed away July 17, 2021. With COVID waning, their celebration of life was finally held May 3, 2022 with The Two Museums filled to capacity, including the Neilsen Auditorium and at the adjacent Neilsen Hall of History where the event was broadcast live on large video monitors.
Seated on the dais were Spence Flatgard, Mississippi Department of Archives and History Board of Trustees President, former Governor Haley Barbour, President William Jefferson “Bill” Clinton, Rueben Anderson, Former Mississippi Supreme Court Justice and Katie Blount, director of The Mississippi Department of Archives and History.
Governor Winter was known for reforming public education in Mississippi, encompassing his three greatest passions – history, education and racial justice. He served fifty years on the MDAH Board and the opening of The Two Museums is part of his legacy.
He was born in Grenada and became aware of racial inequities at a young age.
He graduated from the University of Mississippi and served in the U.S. Army and then the Mississippi Army National Guard during World War II and the Korean War. He returned to the University of Mississippi for his law degree. He went on to serve in the Mississippi House of Representatives, as state tax collector, then as state treasurer before an unsuccessful gubernatorial bid. He was elected as lieutenant governor and then again was unsuccessful seeking the governorship. Finally in 1979, earning 61% of the votes in the general election, he became governor of Mississippi.
Among his many accolades, he was selected for the 2008 John F. Kennedy Profile in Courage Award in the Lifetime Achievement category for his work in advancing education and racial reconciliation.
First Lady Elise Winter shared her husband’s passions and was a full partner in his administration and is said to have played a strategic role in the Education Reform Act of 1982. She also championed cultural events, hosting dinners and discussions in the Governor’s Mansion with notables such as Leontyne Price, Margaret Walker Alexander and Eudora Welty.
She was known for visiting Parchman Prison in the Mississippi Delta and advocated for better living conditions, improved funding and more realistic rehabilitation opportunities. After her time as First Lady she became highly involved in Habitat for Humanity in the Jackson Metro and served on Habitat’s International Board. She was born in Senatobia and transferred to University of Mississippi from Northwest Junior College and was introduced to William Winter by her brother, who was his roommate.
In tribute after the passing of a former inmate who served at the Governor’s Mansion, she wrote “[His service] made me realize again that social standing or economic status or sectarian creed or race does not make any difference in the sight of God – that we are his children and we must continue our miraculous journey together, learning to love one another as we go forward.”
Governor Barbour shared one of his favorite William Winter stories, encapsulating the high regard that he had for him. “Despite me being a Republican operative he asked me if he ought to run for governor in 1979 and I told him what I thought – I told him I thought he was the democrat that would make the best governor if the state elected another democrat.” Barbour reminded there was quite a good possibility of that happening since Mississippi had elected democrats since Reconstruction, more than 100 years in a row.
Judge Rueben Andersen had the honor of introducing President Clinton, but before doing so drew attention to our congressman from the 2nd District, Bennie Thompson, who he has known for over fifty years. Shifting his remarks to the Winters, he indicated, “We would not be in these buildings today were it not for William Winter.” About the state flag he said that Winter shared a commitment to change the state flag. “He was on my mind when I accepted the old flag the day that it flew for the last time over our state capitol.” He went on to say “that flag would have never come down had Governor Winter not started in the early 80’s to bring to everybody’s attention the damage that that flag was doing to our state.”
President Clinton spoke fondly about the Winter, about their passions and their drive that truly impacted Mississippi and beyond. He indicated that “life makes friends in funny ways and that all I know is that the minute I met William Winter I never had a scintilla of doubt that whatever happened in our friendship and in our lives that I was with one of the most authentic people I would ever know.” He brought a memento with him that he and Hillary had been given by the Winters over forty years ago. He encouraged the audience to read what William Winter had said about keeping score, and keeping score in the right way. He concluded stating that “I am honored to be here, in reverence and in joy, to honor two people who kept score in the right way and it left them off in a good place.”
Once the remarks and speeches concluded, the Arrow Singers from Clinton High School, Pearl Singers from Pearl High School and Viking Singers from Warren Central High School combined for a rendition of the Battle Hymn of the Republic.
The entire Celebration of Life for Governor William Winter and First Lady Elise Winter can be viewed via the MDAH YouTube page: A Celebration of Life at the Two Museums.docx or https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sTTAIPU7RtA. Visit this page to hear all the speeches as well as Strong & Quiet Voices, Lives of Service – a narrated video montage.