By Bob Darden/The Greenwood Commonwealth
GREENWOOD — Willis Durden “Dan” McGeary’s love of aviation took him far away from his family’s roots in Leflore County, but his devotion to the Delta and to his alma mater — Mississippi State University — lives on.
McGeary, the last surviving heir of a prominent Delta family, died in 2011 at the age of 91. He willed his family’s farm, Sidon Plantation, to Mississippi State University.
The bequest includes 2,069 acres of farmland and 568 additional acres around Sidon as well as one of the oldest homes in Leflore County.
The $8 million bequest of real estate — the largest in university history — is designated as “unrestricted,” meaning agricultural lease proceeds from the property will provide an annual source of revenue for the university as part of its Bulldog Properties program.
“My husband wanted to leave the plantation and farmland to MSU because he felt the university would be good stewards of the property and because of his genuine fondness and appreciation for the school,” said McCreary’s widow, Joy Andresen McGeary.
Farmer John Doty Porter, who rents Sidon Plantation, had high praise for McGeary’s vision and dedication. “He was a wonderful man. He was very generous,” Porter said.
Porter’s late father-in-law, Buddy McNeer, began farming Sidon Plantation in the 1970s. Porter joined his father-in-law’s farming operation in 1977 and took over when McNeer died in 1992.
Even though he was born into a farming family, McGeary had wanted to be a pilot from the age of 10. That dream led him to Mississippi State College, now known as Mississippi State University, in 1940, and he earned a bachelor’s degree in aeronautical engineering.
Upon graduation McGeary worked for several aircraft manufacturers as an engineer before enlisting in the U.S. Army Air Corps. He became an aircraft commander, flying B-24 combat missions in Europe during World War II.
For his military service, McGeary was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross.
At the end of the war, he returned to Mississippi and managed the family plantation. He later became a captain with American Airlines, where he worked for 29 years before retiring.
“Willis was always very adventurous, and he loved flying,” Joy Andresen McGeary said. “He even took the first flight on a Concorde jet that went around the world.”
In his later years, McGeary resided in Marina Del Rey, Calif.
He hadn’t been back to Sidon in years but was always accommodating when it came to the plantation’s tenants, Porter said.
“Mississippi State University is extremely grateful to Willis McGeary for allowing us to transform his treasured possession into a valuable resource for students, faculty and programs of the university,” said Jud Skelton, the university’s director of real estate giving.
McGeary’s foresight and vision will help future generations of Bulldogs, he said.
“The gift is remarkable, not only for the level of generosity, but also for the investment in future generations and the demonstration of confidence he placed in Mississippi State,” Skelton said.
Information from: The Greenwood Commonwealth, http://www.gwcommonwealth.com