Editor’s Note: This column is being reprinted due to an error in the headline. We regret the error and are happy to set the record straight.
On Sept. 6, 1920, Jack Dempsey KO’d Billy Miske in three rounds for the heavyweight boxing title. It marked the first time Miske had been knocked out and the first time a prize boxing match had been broadcast on the radio.
But Sept. 6, 1920, was also the day a little boy was born to a farmer named Rhodes and his wife who lived not far from the Neshoba County Fairgrounds. His name was Cecil and he was eventually one of seven — three other boys and three girls.
As his 100th birthday approaches in just days, “Mr. Cecil” told me about walking with his brother to school when he was just 5 years old and his brother Hayes was 7. Though Cecil wasn’t enrolled yet, he liked going to school and Hayes liked being late. He’d cut through the pastures on their 1-mile walk to catch the “bus” — a covered wagon pulled by a pair of mules — and take as much time as possible to do so.
As a young boy, Cecil’s Sunday school teacher would take the Junior Boys Class during the summer months on an open flatbed truck down to a swimming hole on the Chunky River for fun times together. Mr. Cecil said he and his friends thought the place was so big it may as well have been the Atlantic Ocean.
At age 10, Cecil understood it was time for him to give his life to the Lord and follow Jesus, so he was baptized in his neighbor’s cow pond — after they cleared out the bovines, of course.
At age 22, he was drafted into the Army Air Corps and served as ground support on a base in England, witnessing bombings and watching friends take off and only some return, until the war was over in late 1945. The only rifle he ever fired in the military was on the practice range, he said, but his role was nonetheless important. He doesn’t like to read or watch most things about the war because it brings back difficult memories, and when people thank him for his service, he’d rather they express thanks to those who were not able to come home. But he’s glad he was able to do his part.
After he came home — sadly to find that his mother had died on his 25th birthday and the Red Cross had been unable to contact him to let him know — he married his sweetheart Olivia and raised a family in Brookhaven. He taught school and coached baseball and basketball. He taught Sunday school at First Baptist and he retired after 33 years with the Lincoln County Health Department.
Like that first radio broadcast of a prize match, Mr. Cecil has been around for a lot of firsts — the introduction of traffic lights, vacuum cleaners, microwaves, DVDs, cell phones and TV. He’s seen great progress and tragic events.
But his smile and positive attitude are perennial. Generations of Mississippians and people far beyond have had the joy of meeting and talking with Mr. Cecil and experiencing his positivity.
In the many times I’ve spoken with him, Mr. Cecil has usually said something like, “I know I’ve told you before, but …” and recounted the story of his trips to the Chunky River swimming hole. It’s a great memory for him.
Perhaps the only thing he’s told me more often and with greater joy is how much God has blessed him over the course of his life.
Whether he lives to 100 or many years beyond, one thing is sure to come from his mouth every day — “I’ve just been so blessed.”
Brett Campbell can be reached at ChunkyBrett@mail.com.