3 Inspired People

Stories Carmen K. Sisson | Photographs Whitten Sabbatini


Photographed by Whitten Sabbatini.

Photographed by Whitten Sabbatini.

Be forewarned: Whatever you had planned is going to slip downstream and out of sight when you enter Dr. Harry Sherman’s world. And you’re not going to mind one bit.

Today, school children from Oktibbeha County are returning to the Plymouth Bluff Center near Columbus, Miss., after a morning spent on the Tombigbee River. They are breathless and excited, and this pleases Sherman.

It took two decades for the nature center to move from concept to completion, but he never lost faith. Now, retired from a lengthy career as a professor of botany and biology, he devotes his time to coordinating the center’s public programs, from organizing weekly seminars to stocking the natural history museum with new exhibits.

This morning, he was spreading crushed limestone on one of nearly five miles of walking trails. This afternoon, he is bouncing along the wooded paths in a golf cart, introducing plants with the familiarity of cherished friends.

“This is just sort of my life,” he says. “It’s what I enjoy doing. Without it, life would be rather monotonous.”

The joy of Plymouth Bluff is in the sharing, and he is tireless in this effort. He doesn’t mind questions. It’s like bragging about your kids, he says.

Martha Jo Mims, who co-founded the Mississippi Hall of Master Teachers with Sherman, says though he is no longer in the classroom, he is teaching by example.

“I think his life is in sync with the world around him,” she says. “The trees, the plants — when he talks about them, it’s like he’s talking about family; and when he speaks, you can be sure he will be succinct and it will be meaningful. I learn something every time I’m with him.”

Speaking of which, ask him about the toothache tree. You’ll be glad you did.


Photographed by Whitten Sabbatini.

Photographed by Whitten Sabbatini.

Some people need to be the life of the party. They are the loudest, the flashiest, the tempest behind every tour de force.

But if you’ve enjoyed one of the Columbus Arts Council’s (CAC) events lately, you may have overlooked the soft-spoken powerhouse behind it all.

That’s OK with CAC executive director Tina Sweeten, who took the helm in May 2011. She’s not interested in accolades — she’s too busy dreaming up ways to use art as a catalyst for building community while seeking ways to expand the CAC’s already wide range of cultural offerings.

These things are not inexpensive, and Sweeten’s background in non-profit management and grant writing has proven to be a godsend in this time of shrinking budgets. Since her arrival, she has raked in $168,017 for the Arts Council and the community. Her approach has been so successful that she’s now teaching a grant writing class in Starkville where she lives.

Sweeten’s day-to-day duties can range from the prosaic to the ethereal. She’s just had to scare up $15,000 for a new roof on the building that will soon need a new coat of paint; at the time of this writing she was making travel arrangements for an internationally known opera singer who will perform in Columbus and she’s always involved in a complex choreography that brings five or six nationally known acts to town to perform for area school children.

Sweeten is blessed with an enthusiastic corps of volunteers and recently hired programing dynamo Beverly Norris.

“I’m excited about the direction we’re going,” she says. “There’s a lot of energy here, and I want to maintain the momentum. I don’t want people to just think ‘paintings’ when they visit us at the Rosenzweig Arts Center. I want them to feel the Arts Council has created a place where they can come for all types of things.


Photographed by Whitten Sabbatini.

Photographed by Whitten Sabbatini.

Friends thought she had the perfect marriage. No one knew how often Marsha Monaghan Ballard’s husband knocked her down and kicked her, his boots leaving a trail of carefully-concealed bruises.

For 22 years, she hid her secret. But with the courage to leave came the courage to speak out and keep speaking out, imbuing other victims with the strength she found when she stood up and said never again.

The Aberdeen, Miss., resident has been a member of everything from the Monroe County Chamber of Commerce to state, national and local realtor associations.

But she is most proud of her 16-year tenure as a board member for Safe Haven, a shelter for victims of domestic violence and sexual assault. Though she is no longer on the board, she remains committed to its mission, speaking frequently to raise awareness.

Faith West, Ballard’s high school drama teacher and a close friend, says her candor leaves audiences shaken but enthralled.

“For those who have not experienced anything like that, it’s mind-boggling,” West says. “In going through this, having to pull herself up by the bootstraps, she has accomplished miracles.”

Ballard says the danger is highest when a woman tries to leave her abuser. Well-meaning friends often turn away when victims need them most.

“People are embarrassed,” she says. “They don’t want to hear about it, don’t want to know.”

Nearly three decades have passed since Ballard’s divorce, but the fear lingers. Sometimes, she admits, she still has nightmares. She finds meaning through helping others.

“People in this town rallied around me,” she says. “I want to give back and let women know it can be better; you just have to make it that way.”

She also hopes to change public perception.

“So many people think, ‘She asked for it,’ or, ‘She probably deserves it,’” Ballard says. “But nobody deserves to be treated like that.”