3 Inspired People

Stories Carmen K. Sisson | Photographs Whitten Sabbatini


Photographed by Whitten Sabbatini.

Photographed by Whitten Sabbatini.

When you ask people about Gary Miller, most will tell you he’s a top-notch hay farmer, growing some of the highest quality hybrid Bermuda grass in Noxubee County.

They will mention his work with the local Lions Club, where he serves as secretary and treasurer and helps get eyeglasses and hearing aids for those in need. They will mention his deep devotion to his faith and the way he teaches Sunday School and leads the choir at Concord Baptist Church in Macon.

Few talk about the accident he had in 1980 while working as a lineman for the 4-County Electric Power Association. They don’t talk about the damage 7,200 volts of live current can do to a man, the way it took Miller’s left arm, the way it took both his feet.

Instead, he talks about it; to anyone he feels needs to hear the story. There was the quadruple amputee in Houston. There was the boy from Louisiana. He can tell within a few minutes whether they’re ready to hear what he has to say.

“You go through a stage of depression, but you can cry five-gallon bucketfuls,” Miller says. “Once I turned it over to the Lord, it all started falling into place.”

At the moment, he’s recovering from rotator cuff surgery; this is the second time he has worn his right arm out by overuse. He does much of the repair work on the 40-acre farm, finding new ways to continue the work he loves.

“He doesn’t let anything hold him back,” says Dennis Reginelli, regional extension specialist for Mississippi State University Extension Service. “I’ve never met anybody like that. So many people out there are healthy and can’t do half what he can do. I’m just amazed when I see him.”


Photographed by Whitten Sabbatini.

Photographed by Whitten Sabbatini.

If there’s a party in Starkville, chances are Paige Lawes is involved, as either the hostess, the organizer or the guest of honor.

Lawes, a self-described “military brat,” spent much of her life moving around, so when she left Hawaii in 2001 and came to Starkville, she quickly made herself at home. Her business, Three Generations Tea Room, would have been enough to keep her busy, but she knew there was something missing in the college town, and it wasn’t more cowbell.

Starkville needed bagpipes. And kilts. And Irish jigs. So Lawes started small, planning an intimate gathering of like-minded people to celebrate the birthday of 18th century Scottish poet Robert Burns. It was so successful that in 2003 Lawes organized the Golden Triangle Celts, which now boasts about 250 members.

She joined the Starkville Area Arts Council and received the 2012 Award of Excellence in the Arts. She got involved with the Cotton District Arts Festival, and she spearheaded a steering committee in charge of Starkville’s year-long 175th birthday bash. She began hosting an annual Christmas party to raise money for local organizations like OSERVS, the Oktibbeha-Starkville Emergency Response Volunteer Services. And, most recently, she brought the Central Mississippi Scottish Highland Games to the area.

While everyone else is talking, Lawes is quietly getting things done, seeing the big picture as well as the details, says longtime friend John O’Bannon.

The key to community involvement is finding your passion and immersing yourself in it, Lawes says, and it starts at home. You can begin with at least one technology-free meal a week to encourage family conversations. It might be hard, but don’t give up.

“People are so busy,” Lawes says. “You’ve got to work to be reconnected. People have got to come back together.”


Photographed by Whitten Sabbatini.

Photographed by Whitten Sabbatini.

Bobby Miller is sitting on the floor in his Columbus home, talking about his favorite sport — barefoot water skiing. On the wall behind him are photographs of him clinging perilously to a rope, water spraying high into the air as a boat pulls him across the Tombigbee. Nearby is the stationary bike he wanted for his birthday.

Miller, 85, tries to stay active. About the only time you will find him sitting down is when he is watching the NASCAR races or checking his email. He also does yard work, volunteers with the United States Coast Guard Auxiliary, and most recently, received his Merchant Marine license.

Miller began barefoot water skiing as a teenager, and though the sport takes a great deal of physical strength and endurance, he hasn’t let age slow him down. He sheds his shoes and hits the water around Memorial Day every year and skis throughout the summer until Labor Day.

It’s a good workout, and it’s the main way he stays in shape. Other workouts just left him sweaty and tired, Miller says. Barefoot water skiing is not only fun but also refreshing.

In his younger years, the Lee High School Class of 1946 graduate was called “River Rat,” and though people marvel at his relative good health — no arthritis, no high cholesterol or high blood pressure — he just shrugs and attributes his longevity to good genes and clean, healthy living. He is one of the founding members of the Tombigbee Stump Jumpers and has taught generations to water ski, including children as young as 3 years old.

Nowadays, he notes, most young people would prefer to be pulled in an inner tube rather than learn to ski. But for his family and friends, it has been a bonding experience.

So when does he plan to quit?

Not any time soon, he says. Not any time soon.