August 2020

Cecil Culpepper: Much More than a Junior College Professor

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The first impression of former MDCC Western Civilization and History teacher, Cecil Culpepper might be one of an ordinary, mild mannered man. But beneath the clean cut, humble surface was a soldier, a bit of a rebel and a generous amount of creativity and discipline. Culpepper passed away in August of 2018 but his memory lives on through his children, his MDCC co-workers and many others.
 
Born in Lambert, Mississippi, Culpepper’s family moved to Long Beach where he grew up. Educated at Mississippi State, he graduated with an Education Specialist Degree. Culpepper would soon join the Army as a helicopter pilot who flew numerous successful missions during Vietnam. He settled down in Inverness with his (late) wife, Sissie – a Greenwood native whom he had met at State. They had two children, Beth and Ryan and were members of the First Baptist Church there and became part of the fabric of the small Delta hamlet.

 Culpepper came to MDCC in the 1960s when the Moorhead campus was known as MDJC. He taught for 37 years. Brenda Grubb and Sherilyn Jones were part of the department that Culpepper was part of and headed up for some time.
 
“We all shared a hallway,” Jones said. “I was the young kid on the block at that time. I always thought he was straight and narrow but I wasn’t raised like that. I was a child of the 60s. He kind of scared me a little bit and then I found out he drove motorcycles and wasn’t so straight and narrow at all (laughing.) He was very much a liberal thinker, probably more liberal than I was. He was very interesting but very private.”
 
Jones recalled a conversation with Culpepper after she gave a test that every one of her students across five classes failed.
 
“The next day I walked in and my office window was broken out. Cecil walked by me and said, ‘You must have given a test that was way too hard. But you’re going to learn. And we’ll get your window fixed.’ I gave a lot-easier tests after that.”
 
Grubb remembers beginning her MDCC career the same year that Culpepper came on board.
 
“He was the kindest, most reserved, unassuming person, very quiet and to think he was in the Vietnam War as a helicopter pilot. You would have never guessed that,” Grubb said. “He was a very fair person in the classroom. He was all business in his classroom.”
 
Grubb also described him as “a super fine Christian man who just did everything right in his life. He was a wonderful husband and he adored his wife and his children. He was so proud of his children.”
 
She also noted that her co-worker “went about doing his job as he should have. He was one of those the students didn’t like because he kept them the full time in his class. You didn’t get out of his class early. He was very dedicated in making sure that he fulfilled his end of what he was supposed to do. He was a rule follower and if he was told to do something as a teacher, he did it and never thought about not doing it. You could not find anything wrong with Ceil Culpepper.”
 
Outside of the classroom, Culpepper was a handyman not afraid to tackle any household task and also took on the challenges of woodworking. He gardened and also was part of the Inverness city government as an alderman. His children, Beth and Ryan gave more insight into their father.
 
“He was the quiet type and not real super outgoing but real proud of his military service. That carried over into his love of teaching history and military history,” oldest daughter Beth Culpepper Keating said.
 
Culpepper spent two years in the Army in Vietnam as a helicopter pilot and continued his service with the Army National Guard.
 
“He was part of the Mississippi Guard Team that helped re-install a statue on the Texas capitol building because they didn’t have the right helicopter equipment,” Keating said.
 
The Texas Guard’s helicopter couldn’t perform the meticulous task but the Magnolia State had a helicopter designed for just such a job. For his precision work in restoring the Goddess of Liberty statue to its intended perch, Culpepper and his crew were honored with being “Texans for a day” by then Texas Governor Mark White.
 
Both Culpepper kids attended MDCC and had their dad as a teacher, much to their chagrin.
 
“I tried to stay in the back and stay out of trouble,” she said.
 
“What I got out of his class is that the examples he’d use in his teaching he’d pull from his military experience. Things he never mentioned at home and I’d catch him after class and say, ‘you never said that at home.’ And he said, ‘you never asked.’”
 
The kids remember their dad working at home to type up his tests while they were growing up.
 
“Then he’d use me as a control group and make me take his test,” Keating said.
 
Later in his life, Cecil followed his wife Sissie’s lead in getting motorcycles.
 
“She got her a motorcycle and convinced him to get one so he could ride with her,” Keating said.
 
The duo did a few trips, a longer one into the Smokey Mountains but mainly stayed close to home on their two-wheel journeys.
 
Ryan remembers his dad not being happy when a young lady in the front row of class “painting her nails.” But another student seemed to push the wrong Culpepper buttons taking a nap during their educational time together.
 
“He grabbed one of his metal garbage cans and dropped it right next to them,” Ryan said. “I guess he was kind of perturbed that someone wasn’t as interested in history as he was.”
 
During his military time, Culpepper was awarded the Purple Heart. He also documented quite a bit of his military journey through letters he sent back home.
 
“I started reading some of them and it was pretty interesting to read his perspective. He wrote pretty descriptive letters,” Keating said.
 
Culpepper was also quite detailed, according to his children.
 
“He kept books (financial) and he had records of everything spent and earned. I found the amount of money spent when I was born in 1974. He always had a notepad in his pocket and he’d write it down. And he always wore a white t-shirt,” Ryan said. “He’d go around town in that. A t-shirt and pair of jeans.”
 
After his retirement from the classroom, Culpepper stayed busy working as a handyman for his church, gardening, did a bit of cooking and worked on his woodworking skills.
 
“He like to build stuff – tables and such – he was real handy. I think that was his escape from the house. And he was a big gardener,” Keating said.
 
Culpepper’s cooking skills came about when he developed a sweet tooth.
 
“His favorite thing to eat in the whole world was Pecan pie,” Keating said. “Momma didn’t always love to cook that much. So, he taught himself how to make Pecan pie and I have his Pecan pie recipe. Later in life he started to hone that sweet tooth and he’d start experimenting. He’d cook up several different recipes because he wanted something sweet and he figured if he wanted it, he’d have to make it. He also perfected how to cook it with the crust being firm but not burned.”
 
Culpepper was not an athlete but his children and grandchildren competed and excelled in cheer and sports.
 
“But his skill – he was a marksman. He was on the Mississippi State rifle team and when he was in the Army, he was a marksman,” Keating said. “He wasn’t a hunter but he did love marksmanship.”
 
Later in life, he and Sissie moved to South Georgia to be nearer Beth and Ryan who both live in Florida. There they were members of the First Presbyterian Church in Bainbridge and Cecil was known for his fishing skills and stories.
 
His children noted that their dad enjoyed the friends he made with other MDCC teachers.
 
“Some of his best friends were folks he taught with over there. He liked the family feel of it. He liked the family he made there,” Keating said.
 
Grubb summed up her former MDCC co-worker with, “If every man was like Cecil Culpepper. We wouldn’t have any problems.”
 
More than a history teacher, the late Cecil Culpepper, one of MDCC’s finest.

But it was her hard-working mother that helped her daughter cement her path to excellence and eventually the scholarship honor.

“She was our rock and she led by example. She worked two jobs to make sure we had clothes and shoes for the seven of us. She was beautiful and she was our everything,” Coach McDonald said. “Hard work and doing your best and treating people the way they are supposed to be treated are the principles that she taught us and we all still try to live by those today.”

The scholarship idea came to be when three life-long Sunflower County friends – Coach Clark, Mickey Thompson and Charlie McGuffee came up with the idea. McGuffee’s non-profit raises funds for many Delta causes including scholarships at Delta State University. Thompson serves on the MDCC Board of Trustees for the past 30 years and has followed her career since she arrived at Delta State.

“Burnadette has been a friend for a long time and I was excited when she took the job at Moorhead,” Thompson said. “We’ve always been good friends.”

McGuffee, executive director of Delta Regional Foundation, was visiting with Thompson when the endowed scholarship idea was born.

“We’re starting out with a $15,000 endowment,” McGuffee said. “Our plans are to get it up to $25,000.”

Coach Clark knows there’s no better coach and player to honor with the scholarship.
“You endow that name and it’s always going to be there into perpetuity,” he said. “And that Burnadette scholarship will be at Mississippi Delta Community College forever. She deserves every bit of it too. She’s a wonderful human being when you get right down to it.”

In looking at her coaching career, she calls out her team winning the state championship in 2005 as a highlight. But it was always more than just winning on the court.

“My coaching experience as a whole has been wonderful. Having the opportunity to touch young lives. Hopefully they left me better than they came. I tried to instill a lot in them. I’ve been blessed as a player and a coach. God has really blessed me.”

Coach Clark and McDonald first became aware of each other when he coached against her on the high school level. Clark was at Warren Central and McDonald was a stand-out player at Madison-Ridgeland High School. He designed some full court heated defense but she still managed to put up a bevy of points.

“I’d drop about 30 on them (laughing) and as soon as he got the job at Delta State, he came after me. We came in there together. I was the first player he recruited,” Coach McDonald said. “Then I had an opportunity to work for him as his assistant and that’s why he means so much to me.”

Coach Clark was happy to get the talented player on his team.

“That was a great sign for us and we were Division 1 at that time,” he said. “She was a great player. At the time I didn’t realize she was such a fine individual but it didn’t take long. She started as a freshman and we grew up together on the college level.”

McDonald worked as a graduate assistant for two years while earning her master’s and then left for a year before Clark called her back home. Clark had picked up one National Championship and with McDonald on board, they hung two more National Championship banners in Walter Sillers Coliseum. They both are enshrined in the Delta State University Athletic Hall of Fame. McDonald in 2002 and Clark in 2003.

“About the time I hung up the phone she was knocking on the door,” Clark said. “She did a great job. I’d imagine if they (MDCC) have a Hall of Fame, she’s going to be in it. She’s very modest and won’t tell you things like that. If there’s ever been a person who deserves anything she gets, it’s Burnadette McDonald. She came from a family where they are all just like her. If you ever meet her mother, you’d know exactly why Burnadette is like she is. Her mother is fine individual and still lives right there in Madison.”

Coach Clark did have one memory from McDonald’s playing career that he enjoys kidding her about. In a game against heated rival Mississippi College, McDonald was having a light’s out game.

“Burnadette went 18-for-19 and the only one she missed – she had a wide-open layup and she’s was going to take the ball around her body and she missed it. She looked over at me as soon as she missed and she knew she shouldn’t have done it,” he said with a laugh. “She and I still laugh about that.”

Both Clark and McDonald are in the Delta State University Hall of Fame. After her retirement from the coaching ranks, McDonald moved into administration as MDCC’s assistant athletic director. She’s still helping players achieve their potential.

“I serve as Division Chair of the HPER Department and I still teach Community Health. I’m responsible for games and game set ups. I’m the go between for the coach and the Athletic Director,” she said.

 Some of McDonald’s playing career achievements include:
 – DSU Women’s Basketball HOF 2002
 – 95-20 team record while at Delta State
 – 4 year letter winner
 – One of the Lady Statesmen’s top clutch basketball players
 – Played in 2 NCAA Semi-Final games: 1986, 1987
 – #9 in career scoring: 1,538 points
 – #10 in career steals: 188
 – All-Gulf South Conference: 1986, 1987
 – DSU’s assistant basketball coach: 1990-98.

Burnadette McDonald, a true Statesmen and Trojan, endowed forever for generations to come.

If you’d like to learn how to endow a scholarship or contribute to an existing one, please contact Jim Aycock, MDCC Foundation and Alumni, at 662.246.6274.