United Way at 50: Tupelo founders faced initial skepticism

By Carlie Kollath/NEMS Daily Journal





TUPELO – The founders of the United Way of Northeast Mississippi were initially discouraged from forming the organization.
Leaders from the Community Chest, one of the forerunners to the United Way in Tupelo, in 1961 asked the head of the United Way from Memphis to talk to them about starting their own United Way chapter.
Jack Reed Sr.’s recollection of Steve Nelson’s advice to them: “He said, ‘I’m just here to discourage you. What you are trying to do is very difficult and I’m not sure you’re going to be very successful at it.”
But they pressed on and founded Lee United Neighbors, which became the current United Way of Northeast Mississippi.
And today, the United Way celebrates the completion of its 50th campaign. Reed and Mem Leake, two of the original founders, will be at the 11:30 a.m. party at First United Methodist Church. Tickets for lunch are available at the door for $10.
With Julius Berry leading the way, Leake, Reed, George McLean, John Rasberry, John Osberg and C.C. Eason founded United Neighbors 50 years ago because they wanted a way to more efficiently help nonprofit agencies.
“We had the same people asking the same people for money every week,” Reed said.
The Community Chest had been helping since the 1950s, but it only had a budget of about $22,000. Reed and Leake said the community needs were much greater than that and they needed a way to fundraise better.
They liked the United Way’s setup because it offered them ways to let employees contribute through payroll deduction.
“The payroll deduction was the secret to our success and it still is,” Reed said.
They set their goal the first year at $100,000 – triple the amount that had been raised previously by the organizations. They asked employees to contribute 25 cents a week, “the price of a pack of cigarettes” was how they marketed it back then.
They had $103,446 pledged in 1961.
The money supported 23 nonprofits groups in Tupelo, including the Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, the Red Cross, Cerebral Palsy Clinic (now Regional Rehab), Lee County Library, Tupelo Junior Auxiliary, the Goodfellows, Lee County Welfare Department, the hospital auxiliary and agencies that supported mental health, polio treatments, heart health and cancer treatments.
Plus, money went to YMCAs and YWCAs throughout the city. The group gave money to white and black YMCAs, because in 1961, the organizations were segregated.
Today, the United Way supports 66 health and human service nonprofits in Lee, Itawamba, Union, Pontotoc, Chickasaw, Prentiss and Tishomingo counties. Supported agencies include Meals on Wheels, The Salvation Army and various food pantries.
More than 100,000 people benefit from funds pledged through the United Way, according to Susan Morgan, UW’s director of marketing and communications.
As of Wednesday, UW has raised $2,290,815 during this year’s campaign.
It’s the largest campaign amount raised in the agency’s history, according to Melinda Tidwell, executive director of the organization.
The UW currently is in the process of allocating the funds through its fund distribution committees in each county. All the money raised in a county stays in that county unless the donor specifies otherwise.
Payroll deductions still make up the bulk of the pledges, with Tidwell estimating about 20,000 to 25,000 individuals participate in employee campaigns.
People give to the United Way for several reasons, she’s found. One of the top reasons?
“It makes the money go further,” she said. “All of these agencies do great things. It’s hard to give to so many great causes. By giving to the United Way, you are supporting all of those causes.”
Giving to the United Way also provides security to the donors because each of the agencies are vetted before they are accepted into the program.
“We want to be very accountable and to make sure that these agencies are here for the long run,” she said.
Tidwell has been with the United Way for 21 years as of next month. She said she’s seen the number of individual donors grow as the organization added more territories in 1982, 2000, 2001, 2003 and 2007.
Yet, she’s also seen a smaller number of people giving more money “because there aren’t as many employees as there used to be,” she said.
The economic uncertainty going forward worries her, as plants and other businesses adjust their employee levels. But, she’s hopeful at Toyota’s interest in participating with the campaign.
“The people here are just so giving and so generous,” she said. “I do believe some of that goes back to the original men who started this. They wanted everybody – no matter their station in life – to have an easy way to give back,” she said.
Reed and Leake are still involved with the United Way. The organization has changed over the years – going from all volunteer to now a mix of paid staff and volunteers – but both of the original founders are quick say how proud they are of the organization and of the residents who are involved with it.
“I never imagined that it would have been this big,” Leake said.
Added Reed, “I think it’s just great. I’m proud to be associated with it. It’s fun to be a start of these things.”
carlie.kollath@journalinc.com