3 Inspired People

Stories Carmen K. Sisson | Photographs Whitten Sabbatini

Mary Tuggle, Columbus
Some callings whisper softly, a barely perceptible rustling of spirit. Some blow in with the force of a tornado — or three. 

Mary Tuggle’s parents raised her and her six siblings to understand that they were not rich but they were privileged. They volunteered as bell ringers for the Salvation Army. They cut hay for the Boys Ranch.

She can’t remember a time when she didn’t know about Palmer Home for Children, which fosters orphans and children from troubled families. Someday, she thought, I’ll volunteer there.

She grew up, married and had children of her own. She launched a successful wholesale and retail nursery.

From time to time, she thought of Palmer Home. She knew they had greenhouses where the children grew flowers and vegetables because occasionally they called for advice. She always made time for them.

Her children grew up. Her husband passed away. Tornadoes came and went, damaging her businesses. After the third tornado, children from Palmer Home came to help clean debris. Soon, Tuggle decided to close her business and join the staff of Palmer Home as a greenhouse grower, overseeing 12 greenhouses and a flourishing array of young plants and lives.

Nearly 80 children live on the 110-acre site in Columbus, and though Tuggle doesn’t always know the breadth of their stories, she sees the depth of their pain. Many have families who simply can’t care for them. Others have no family at all.

Children over 11 are required to find a chore, and for many, working in the greenhouses is the chore of choice. As the seasons change, Tuggle watches the plants — and the children who tend them — grow stronger.

They learn to nurture and be nurtured. They learn patience, persistence and pride. Some have even grown up to pursue professions in horticulture.

As they grow, she grows with them. “Before, it was about the bottom line, but here, it’s not about me,” she says.

“It’s about the children. It’s the Lord’s work — I know it is. I’ve been blessed hands-over.”

Nannie Bennett, West Point
There are things you do for money, and things you do for love. Then there are people whose hearts are so big, so full, that everything else is squeezed aside, and heart no longer beats for self but for all humanity.

Nan “Nannie” Bennett grew up in a time when “volunteering” wasn’t part of the rural Mississippi lexicon. Helping others was just what you did, whether it meant raising a barn or harvesting crops before winter’s chill. 

By day, she and her nine siblings played in the fields of the family farm. By night, the self-professed “Daddy’s girl” fell asleep in the warmth of the home her carpenter father kept snug and safe.

When she learned that other families struggled to keep a roof over their heads, she knew she had to do something. She found her purpose at the West Point/Clay County Habitat for Humanity, and for 20 years she has helped low-income families realize their dreams of home ownership.

She’d grown up by her father’s side, helping him build everything from doll houses to chicken houses. In building homes for others, she found a home of her own.

“I saw that it was a ministry that could help people with housing, and I knew what a tug of war it could sometimes be,” she says. “It just kind of grew on me when I saw the help we could give the community.”

In her spare time, she serves as secretary of the West Point Planning Commission and as a Sunday School teacher and trustee at Mt. Hermon Baptist Church.

She believes in unity, but most of all, she believes in love.

“Take time to love, because that’s the lifeblood of a person,” she says. “It’s such a great feeling to give.”

Jack Hollister, Starkville
Funny thing about hobbies — give them a little nurturing and some room to grow, and the next thing you know, you’re knee-deep in the throes of a beautiful obsession.

Family practitioner Dr. Jack Hollister didn’t start out with the intention of becoming a champion daffodil grower. In fact, when he saw his first daffodil, he didn’t even know what it was called. It was pretty; he knew that much. Clumps of the flowers grew all along Old West Point Road, leading to the 20-acre property he had just bought.

And so it began. The search for the name of this wondrous flower. The first purchase of a 150-bulb collection. The first day spent with hands in soil. Joining the American Daffodil Society and poring over garden catalogs. Spying a pink daffodil and thinking, “Oh, that’s pretty.” Buying more bulbs. Discovering the Central Mississippi Daffodil Society. Attending a Jackson daffodil show, where he was the youngest person in a room of enthusiasts. Taking a collection of blooms to a Nashville show and bringing home 30 blue ribbons. Deciding that was so much fun, he wanted to do it again.

And again.

These days, he grows between 500 and 600 varieties of daffodils at his Starkville home, labeling and maintaining flower beds with meticulous precision.

People sometimes laugh when they hear about his hobby, but he doesn’t mind. Growing daffodils has a way of keeping a man humble, he says. A hot summer day of digging bulbs doesn’t leave much room for ego. It brings you down to earth.

Until you see a swath of color on a drab spring day. That can send even the most grounded spirit soaring.

“God’s nature is beautiful,” Hollister says. “No matter what we do, God does it better.”