3 Inspired People

Story Carmen K. Sisson | Photographs Whitten Sabbatini

OLIVER MILLER, COLUMBUS

Photographed by Whitten Sabbatini.

Photographed by Whitten Sabbatini.

He was just a boy, sitting in the glow of a television, entranced by Bruce Lee and “The Wild, Wild West.” But no matter how much he daydreamed, karate classes weren’t in the family budget. A class at Mississippi State University (MSU) changed everything, and today, Oliver Miller dedicates his life to giving Columbus youth the opportunities he never had.

Miller, 57, has taught martial arts since 1977, first at MSU and now at his College Street studio in Columbus and twice a week in Amory.

What started out as a simple desire to fund his passion has become a passion of its own.

Sometimes, when he watches a child struggling to learn a new move, he is reminded of his early days — before the championships, before the accolades.

“You get to see a little kid start thinking and learning his body, learning how to step back and throw a punch,” he says. “Initially, they can’t do it, but you watch them thinking it through, and it’s really amazing.”

Omar Ballard, 29, was the runt of his middle school football team, high on desire, low on confidence. Miller impacted his life so much that Ballard thinks of him as a second father.

“He saw something in me,” Ballard says. “He was a tremendous motivator, motivating me to train hard, play hard. He instilled hard work and discipline — the tenets of karate and of being a man.”

Ballard is a staff sergeant in the Army National Guard now and works high security details for the Department of State. He calls Miller three times a week, still seeking his encouragement.

“I keep a positive attitude with the kids,” Miller says. “I try not to shy them away or talk down to them. This whole thing is about motivating them and reassuring them they can do it.”

CHERRY DUNN, COLUMBUS

Photographed by Whitten Sabbatini.

Photographed by Whitten Sabbatini.

A century ago, there was a piano in every parlor. Instead of passive listeners, people were actively engaged with making and performing music.

If Dr. Cherry Dunn had her way, the world would still be like that.

Dunn, founder and director of the Columbus Girlchoir, started the organization in 2004 after hearing a performance by the Mississippi Girlchoir. It was so beautiful, she wanted to bring that same beauty to local girls, giving them the opportunity to learn self-confidence, concentration, inner discipline, teamwork and, hopefully, develop a lifelong love for music.

What began as a small group of 12 has grown to two choirs and 75 girls representing 17 schools and home schools in the Golden Triangle.

Dunn admits that music has been her passion since she was a child, and now, between her work with the Girlchoir and her role as assistant professor of music at Mississippi University for Women (MUW), she is surrounded by it daily.

The biggest challenge is getting people to recognize that music is as important — and lasts longer — than sports and other extracurricular activities.

“Music is something no one can ever take away from you,” she says. “No matter how old you are, you enjoy it. It’s a real commitment, but it’s something you will have your whole life.”

She loves her work at MUW, but the Girlchoir is near to her heart, she says. At the end of May, the girls will perform at Carnegie Hall in New York. But no matter where her students perform, she is proud when she hears them sing well.

“I love it,” she says. “Every day I get up excited to hear my singers. It’s just a passion that never gets old. So many songs, so little time.”

VICKIE BURRIS, WEST POINT

Photographed by Whitten Sabbatini.

Photographed by Whitten Sabbatini.

The West Point arts scene may be one of the best-kept secrets in the South, but it’s not likely to remain that way.

Vickie Burris dreams in Technicolor. And as a board member with the West Point/Clay County Arts Council, the dreams that jolt her from sleep are the ones that proclaim the city’s assets with the subtlety of Jackson Pollock. She keeps a notebook close at hand so no idea gets lost in the ether. Her question is always: “What can we do to bring art to West Point?”

Since joining the board in late 2011, she has earned a reputation as a master organizer and a paragon of positivity. If you need someone to take charge, she’s the one, board president Monte Brasfield says.

For last year’s Art Walk, she set a goal of engaging 10 business sponsors, 20 artists and 100 visitors. Before long, she had solicited 16 businesses and 54 artists — so many she had to turn some away. More than 1,000 people flooded the streets in an outpouring of support.

West Point is like that, she says. In the absence of economic growth, the tight-knit community has found a new point of pride: A culturally vibrant quality of life that is the envy of the state.

That suits the arts council’s grant writer just fine. She wants to expose West Point to the world and the world to its wonders. When she sees joy on people’s faces, it touches her soul and inspires her to give more.

“She has a big heart for the community,” Brasfield says. “She’s always one of the first to step up and make everyone feel good.”