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Marilyn Prather Colyer: A Pioneering Life

Dwalia South

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The world has always set great store in lauding “THE FIRST” to achieve a milestone accomplishment. Almost every American can recall that the first man to walk on the moon was Neil Armstrong back in 1969. More difficult to name is the long list of those early astronauts who paved Armstrong’s way to glory. Harder still for Americans to recall (and, yes, swallow) was that the first and most brave human to journey into outer space was Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin 8 years before!

None of these pioneering historic feats would have been possible were it not for the intrepid brothers, Wilbur and Orville Wright, who made that very first airplane flight at Kitty Hawk in 1903. The list of pioneers in flight goes on, but there is one characteristic that each of them possesses, and that is the ability to overcome their very realistic fears to reach their goal.

This month, I want to feature another of my long time friends whom I have only recently realized fits the definition of a true PIONEER, as “one who goes before, preparing the way for others, and facing the great unknown” ... Marilyn Prather Colyer.
One Small Step for a Girl

In 1966, when we took up classes at RES for our 6th grade year, ‘Dalphine’ (her middle name) was how I knew her. We were together in Mrs. Delco Owen’s room and it did not seem to me to be an unusual or groundbreaking situation at the time. I now realize that she was ‘the first’ black student to enter Ripley Elementary School.

Children aren’t born with prejudice, they learn it from the example behaviors of their elders. Regretfully, I never really understood how hard things must have been for her then... the fear she must have felt to face this task alone. From day 1 she was always just another classmate and good friend to me. We were both ‘outsiders’ I suppose. I was always a fat little backwoods girl and she alone had transferred in from the still segregated Line Street School.

Only recently have I truly appreciated that Marilyn Prather was at the time Ripley’s equivalent of an astronaut, boldly going where no child had gone before.
Flashing Forward 56 Years

My classmate, Marilyn, was in the clinic for a routine check up back in January and while catching up on the news I learned that she was about to receive a very noteworthy honor down at her Alma mater, Mississippi State University. She told me about the awards presentation that was planned at State in observation of Black History Month... and lauding her for having been ‘the first’ black woman on MSU’s very first women’s basketball team in 1975. We began a reverie of the several other instances where Marilyn had been ‘the first’.

I was dumbstruck that this had gone unrecognized and told her that a story should be published in the SENTINEL marking this wonderful honor she was about to receive. Then I realized that I wanted to be the one to make that report!

Following her awards weekend, Marilyn and I met for lunch at Mi Pueblo and over taco salads reminisced about those early school days we had shared.

I learned that her arrival to grade 6 was called “Pre-Integration.” I had never heard that term before last week. I asked why she was sent alone to our school. She told me that it was all her Daddy’s doing.

Leaving the segregated Line Street school and attending Ripley Elementary School was simply an option for parental decision at that time. Technically, the Supreme Court had ended racial segregation in US public schools in 1954, but the changes were a long time coming in the rural South.

Marilyn said … “I was always so very mad at my Daddy for making me a guinea pig, making me leave my school and going over there with y’all by myself where I wasn’t wanted. It was so hard to stand out there on the playground mostly alone day after day during that first year. I didn’t have any friends except you, doc, and some of those rowdy boys made fun of me and called me that “N-word.” But now I know my daddy did it because he wanted the best for his children. He was a true activist for equal rights and desegregation.”

The father she spoke of was Arnie Prather, a Rust College graduate who became a principal at Ruckersville School in Tippah County. Arnie possessed a true compassion for all children, and along with his wife, Annie Alexander Prather, was the father of 11 of his own. In his later years, Mr. Arnie himself accomplished ‘a first’ as a black officer in the Ripley Police Department working for Mayor Kerry Hill.
High School, College, and Beyond

Marilyn not only survived, but excelled at Ripley School, both in scholastics and athletics. She lettered on the track team for 4 years, served on the student council, and was an honor graduate in 1973.

As a student at Northeast MS Junior College, and despite the fact that she had never played high school basketball, she became a walk-on member of the Lady Tigers basketball team... ‘the first’ black woman on the team at Northeast. Even more amazing was during her sophomore year when she was named “All Regional.”

Marilyn credits her coach, Millard Lothenore, for his undying support and encouragement during those 2 years. Her quote about Coach Lothenore... “I never knew a man who had more of God in him!”

In 1975, she continued her education at MSU where she ‘walked-on’ as a player for the first women’s basketball team there. She was instrumental in helping the team through 2 winning seasons during their very first years. She was named 1 of 2 players on the MS Lady Bulldogs to make “All State.” Marilyn then graduated from MSU in 1977 with a degree in Physical Education.

After college, Marilyn was ready to apply her knowledge and her drive to succeed. Ironically, her first job was back at her old Line Street School building in 1977, but with school consolidation it was now the Ripley Elementary School. Principal Edsel Cummings hired her to teach and they initiated ‘the first’ ever Physical Education 3 curriculum at RES.

After this year, an opportunity presented itself at the Tippah Department of Human Services in Ripley. She then became a social worker for the next ten years! In her next decade of employment, she was hired as the Special Education (SPED) teacher at Falkner Elementary School and was later promoted to the SPED Supervisor/ Director for the North Tippah School District. She obtained her Masters and Specialists Degrees from the University of MS.

After retirement she formed her own company, ‘Colyer Consultants, LLC’. In this new adventure she worked for 5 years training and mentoring new Special Education Directors and teachers.

These days, she and her husband, James Wayne, are far from retired... they are the owners and operators of Colyer Backhoe and Trucking and also J and M Rentals.
At Home in White Oak

The Colyers have a blended family of 4 children, 17 grandchildren, and 4 great-grands. The family suffered a devastating heartbreak last summer when Marilyn’s daughter lost her battle with breast cancer. Evelyn Ann Brooks was only 35 and left behind a young son, Ethan Crayton, whom Marilyn and James are now rearing. Her nest is no longer empty!

Marilyn is a devoted member of the Union Grove United Methodist Church where she serves in many positions, not the least of which is as a lay speaker there. She is a conference and district officer of the United Methodist Women.

The MSU National Alumni Association sponsored Black Alumni Weekend 2022 on the campus on Feb. 17-20. The weekend’s theme “50 Years of Athletic Inclusion” honored the legacy upheld by Black student athletes since Frank Dowsing, Jr. and Robert Bell donned the Maroon and White 5 decades ago. The two joined the Bulldog football team in 1969, becoming MSU’s first Black student athletes.

At the Friday Athletic Luncheon, Marilyn Prather Colyer and 4 other MSU ‘first in their sport’ athletes were splendidly honored to receive the Dowsing-Bell Awards presented by MSU President Dr. Mark Keenum and Athletic Director John Cohen.
There’s No Such Thing as ‘Ordinary People’

In college, Marilyn was a member of the Chi Mu Omega-Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority. Their motto is “Service to All Mankind.” Marilyn has continuously maintained active participation in this very altruistic national organization of historically Black women collegians. AKA is not a ‘party’ sorority by any stretch of the imagination. Its membership is over 300,000 women worldwide.

As our Mexican lunch break together ended all too quickly, she was leaving to pack for the 90th annual gathering of the AKA Southeastern Regional conference. Marilyn would be 1 of 6,000 registered attendees descending upon Memphis for the near week long convocation. The focus of this meeting was the AKA Global Impact Project with a goal of gathering in 5,000 sets of children’s pajamas to give to the patients at St. Jude and LeBonheur Hospitals. Marilyn herself had just purchased 174 pairs of PJ’s to add to the project!

Long ago, the great theologian C.S. Lewis wrote, “There are no ordinary people. You have never talked with a mere mortal.” By this he meant that every contact we have with another human will have eternal consequences. Every day we find opportunities to make a difference in people’s lives through the quiet example of a gently faithful life or through simply encouraging another world-weary soul. A Christ-like life has a powerful effect on others.

My very brave classmate, patient, and long-time friend, Marilyn Prather Colyer, is certainly no ordinary person. This ‘lady of firsts’ fits the bill of a truly awe-inspiring PIONEER!

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