Annie B. Stith has always been passionate about flowers. She’s been growing them at her home in Shannon since 1936 and, more recently, she’s planted a patio garden at Samaritan Gardens Personal Care Home in south Tupelo, where she’s lived for the past four years.
But her real passion is the education of young people.
“When I was a teacher, I had children reading in six weeks,” said Stith, who was decked out on this fall day in a leopard-print suit, complete with matching hat. “I didn’t gossip or sit in the teachers’ lounge smoking and talking. Baby, I taught school.”
Stith, who has no children of her own, proudly declares her age as 97 years, seven months and 16 days.
“I’m living one day at a time,” she said. “I think every day is a gift from God. I’m here because I know I’ve lived right. I help anybody I can.”
Teacher of everything
Stith began her teaching career in the Union Grove community in Monroe County. The schoolhouse was one room with a wood stove and a pipe that vented out through the roof. There were two teachers. Stith taught first, second and third grades.
She went on to teach at Plantersville, Wren, Nettleton and Shannon for a career that spanned 40-something years.
“I had children coming in to school crying because they hadn’t had a bite to eat all morning. Now, how’s that child going to learn? I sent milk to every hungry child I could. They didn’t have to be my cousin’s child or my friend’s child. I was blessed by every child I helped.”
Stith’s favorite grades to teach were first and 12th.
“First grade, because I caught them when they needed big help,” she said. “And in 12th grade, they were ready to enter the world. I told them, ‘Don’t go out when you get this diploma and buy yourself a brand new car. All you need is a motor that runs and four good tires.’ Some listened. Some didn’t.”
Stith, who was born March 18, 1912, said when she started school, paperwork and forms were unheard of.
“You didn’t have to have a birth certificate or nothing. I went across the pasture to school holding on to my auntie’s apron. We only got an eighth-grade education, but baby, I tell you what. An eighth-grade education back then is like a college education today.”
When Stith began teaching, she received $3 a day and had to travel 30 miles round-trip to school.
“Now, they get that for a second of work. And back then, you taught everything – English, math, science, history. Now, they just go by what their diploma says they can teach.”
When Stith was teaching junior high at Wren, she had a big map of the United States in her room.
“Each student had to find out everything they could about a state – the congressmen, the state flower, the average rainfall. We took that project to a competition in Tupelo and they won first place,” she said. “I taught my students to do their best in everything.”
Vegetables on the way
Stith and her husband, R.T., who died in the 1960s, set up housekeeping in Shannon in 1936 and she began planting flowers of every sort. Daffodils and daylilies still bloom every spring and summer at the old house, which she still owns and hopes to return to one day.
She and R.T. also had a big garden, which she helped plant and harvest.
“We ate cabbage and cucumbers right out the ground,” she said. “One year, I had the first cantaloupe in Lee County. I’m telling you, I’ve never bought a watermelon at the store. They just don’t taste real. We killed beef and pork every year. Baby, when I was raising them, you could smell a ham cooking two miles down the road. That was the real stuff then.”
Earlier this year, Stith, who sometimes uses a rolling walker, began missing her garden. So she decided to plant one on the patio at the personal care home.
“It was just looking so dull here,” she said. “People here carry me to buy flowers. And a lady who works here buys me plants when she finds a good sale.”
Fifty pots line the fenced-in area. In the summer, she had butterfly bushes, dianthus and marigolds, along with tomatoes and peppers. This fall, she’s planted mums and pansies.
“See that butterfly bush over there?” she said. “A woman had it in a little bitty pot and she was going to throw it away. She thought it was dead.”
Now, the four-foot-tall plant thrives in a five-gallon pot.
“Next year, I’m going to have me a real garden right over there,” Stith said, pointing to a large sunny area just beyond the fence.
“I guess I’m going to have to buy Miss Annie a tractor to get it going,” said the Rev. George Pulliam, who owns Samaritan Gardens. He smiled affectionately at Stith and shook his head in wonder.
“Yes ma’am, I’m going to have everything,” Stith said matter-of-factly. “Okra, corn, watermelons, cantaloupe, turnips, mustards. Everywhere there’s a row, I’m going to plant something. I don’t need it, though. I just want to see it grow. I’m going to keep doing this, baby. I’ve got to have my flowers.”
Stith said some residents will come out periodically and admire her handiwork.
“And some don’t care nothing about them, or anything else,” she said. “But not me. Every night I thank the Lord. I’m living one day at a time.”
Ginna Parsons/NEMS Daily Journal