McNeece named IAHS Alumna of the Year

Former Itawamba County Superintendent of Education Teresa McNeece is Itawamba Agricultural High School's 2015 Alumna of the Year. McNeece is a 1977 graduate of IAHS and said she spent some of her most formative years at the school. (Photo by Adam Armour - CLICK PIC TO PURCHASE A PRINT)

Former Itawamba County Superintendent of Education Teresa McNeece is Itawamba Agricultural High School’s 2015 Alumna of the Year. McNeece is a 1977 graduate of IAHS and said she spent some of her most formative years at the school. (Photo by Adam Armour – CLICK PIC TO PURCHASE A PRINT)

When Teresa McNeece was in junior high school, one of the school’s coaches recommended she skip playing basketball and sign up for study hall instead.

“He told me I was too small,” she said.

That didn’t sit well with her. Not at all.

“Well, that just made me more determined to play,” she said last week, which is quite a few years after wrapping up successful high school and college basketball careers, plus a long stint coaching basketball.

Too small her tail. She was having none of that.

“I was an overachiever,” she said. “Now, I’m not saying I was very good. But I was very determined … My motto is ‘do something.’ Don’t just wait for something to happen. Don’t just sit still. Be proactive rather than reactive.”

That determination has served her well over the years. This Friday, she’s being honored as the school’s 2015 Alumna of the Year. There will be a short ceremony in her honor prior to the game, starting at 6:45 p.m.

McNeece said she’s as surprised as anyone that the tomboyish kid with more spirit than a graveyard would grow up to receive such an honor.

“You look at the list of those who have had that honor, and I feel like I pale in comparison to some of those,” she said. “It’s just a great honor to be recognized by your high school. To stand out as a graduate. There’s been thousands over the years.”

Believe it or not, she’s one of them.

McNeece is a 1977 graduate of IAHS, one link in an ongoing familial chain of Fulton graduates. Her brothers and sisters — all five of them – graduated school there. So did her husband, Jeff (one year after her). And her two daughters, Anna and Sara.

While in high school, McNeece was an active member of the basketball and softball teams, making her eventual career path to becoming a high school coach in both those sports seem fairly obvious to those who knew her. After high school, she attended ICC and later Ole Miss, where she majored in education. McNeece taught in Houston, Texas, Senatobia and Mooreville before being named principal at Fairview school.

In 2008, she was elected Itawamba County Superintendent of Education. She served a single term before deciding not to run again.

McNeece knew from early on that she wanted to be an educator. In junior high, she helped special education teacher Mitzi Lindsey work with her students. Seeing the way Lindsey inspired her students sparked something within her.

“She just had the sweetest spirit about her,” McNeece said. “Those children had some struggles, but she always encouraged them. She had a way about her that made those kids feel good about themselves, even for the smallest accomplishments. That was influential on me.”

Although she said the elementary school version of herself envisioned becoming a pharmacist or … if that failed … a funeral home director, from then on, McNeece’s highest priority was to become a teacher.

Years after accomplishing that goal, McNeece set her eyes on administration.

Like many teachers-turned-principals, McNeece saw administration as a way to do good on a wider scale. Former Fulton Junior High Principal Mike Nanney encouraged her to try her hand at administration.

“You think you can make a difference with more people,” she said.

Becoming superintendent was a natural evolution of that idea.

“I felt like I would have more of an opportunity to have an impact on all the schools in all the communities,” she said.

Shown is McNeece as an IAHS junior. McNeece played several sports in high school, including basketball and softball.

Shown is McNeece as an IAHS junior. McNeece played several sports in high school, including basketball and softball.

As with teaching, McNeece said her alma mater provided her with plenty of inspiration for her own career in education. Wayne Parks was her high school principal. He was a great educator, she said. Patient when he didn’t always have to be.

Take, for example, the time McNeece — then Martin — and her friends Cindy Flurry and Barbara Johnson brought an injured bird into his office …

“The bird had flown into the window and knocked itself out,” she said. Concerned for the bird’s safety, the three friends scooped the unconscious aviator up and carried it to the principal.

“Suddenly, it came to life and stared flying around the room,” she said, waving her arms in a demonstration of the chaos. “We were on his desk, knocking papers off trying to catch that bird.”

She chuckled to herself. Parks didn’t even get mad at them, she said. Not really.

“I think that was a testament to his patience,” she said. “If there had been an alternative school, that probably could have earned us a trip … He gave me a lot of breaks along the way when I probably deserved worse punishment.”

That kind of patience and understanding went a long way in defining the kind of administrator McNeece wanted to be.

“He was very level-headed; he didn’t fly off the handle; he thought things through,” she said. “He made me realize you didn’t have to blow up at every little thing.”

McNeece said she likes to think she did Parks justice in her own administration, that what she gained at IAHS … even the lessons learned outside the classroom … have made a difference. After all, not every kid has the gumption of a Teresa Martin McNeece, the wherewithal to scoff at a statement like “you’re too small” and then prove time and time again that she can do whatever she pleases.

adam.armour@journalinc.com

About Adam Armour

Adam Armour has been writing and taking photographs for "The Itawamba County Times" since 2005. His words and pictures have earned 18 Mississippi Press Association Awards, including several "Best of" category recognitions. He has written and independently published one novel and is currently working on a second.

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