3 Inspired People

Stories Jason Browne | Photographs Masa Hensley

EDGAR PRUITT, ALICEVILLE

Photographed by Masa Hensley.

Photographed by Masa Hensley.

Some people are born with the Midas touch and spend their whole lives deluding themselves into thinking they deserve it. That somewhere along the road from conception to delivery they performed some good deed in utero to earn themselves inexhaustible credit for the duration of their time on earth.

Edgar Pruitt, of Aliceville, Alabama, is definitely not one of those people. He has the Midas touch, no doubt, but he’s humble enough to admit that he doesn’t know why.

“I’ve always believed God favored me. Everything I touched I did really well at. And most things I touched, I had never done before,” says Pruitt.

Five years ago, that candid, self-aware sense of humility led Pruitt, then 60, to a life of service. But in keeping with his bewildering pattern of falling ass-backwards into success, the former VP of an energy research think tank, the former technical recruiter for Coca-Cola, the former political science and law student found his calling in something he had absolutely no experience with. Farming.

He just bought a farm. The whole thing. As is. No debt. Just wrote a check.

And not just any farming. Organic farming. Hippie farming. No pesticides. No herbicides. No GMOs. The most difficult kind of farming there is. And as you’d expect, he’s doing amazingly well at it.

Now Pruitt uses the bounty from his Woodbridge Farm to feed the elderly and food-insecure of his area of rural west Alabama. But it’s deeper than that. He started off delivering the fresh food bundles in person, calling on lonely elderly folk who needed the company just as much as they needed the nutrition.

“They were so lonely. They didn’t have anybody to talk to. Eventually it was taking more time to deliver the vegetables than it did to grow them,” says Pruitt.

So he got with his pastor and started a food delivery ministry. Now there’s a small army of people delivering Pruitt’s organic broccoli and watermelon and thousands of other vegetables, grown in Tuskegee University-designed hoop houses. A squad of sympathetic ears delivering chicken raised with the help of Alabama A&M’s agriculture department. Plus beef, catfish, honey from his bee hives, and so on.

Pruitt is helping the elderly and poor. He’s helping Alabama universities and the USDA complete studies on small-scale farming practices. He’s helping veterinary students get hands-on experience. And, as always, he has no idea what he’s doing. Or what He’s doing.

“I’m still not quite sure what He wants me to do,” says Pruitt of his heavenly benefactor.

REED HAIRSTON, COLUMBUS

Photographed by Masa Hensley.

Photographed by Masa Hensley.

Reed Hairston hasn’t peaked by any means. She has her entire life to top what she’s doing at 16.

But the universe made a lot of stuff fall into place to enable her current mission. If she were 40, it’d be her masterpiece.

Or perhaps that’s overselling it. Let’s look at it from a simpler perspective.

Reed, a cheerleader at Heritage Academy in Columbus who comes from a musical family, takes guitar lessons and has a lot of musician friends at church.

Being young and idealistic, Reed looks for ways to help others. Being young and fit, opportunities to help expand further. This brings us to Reed’s intent to run in the St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital Marathon in Memphis this December.

“My family and I are actually running the half-marathon. My dad is running the whole marathon,” she says.

All pretty standard stuff, so far. Not unusual for an empathetic, motivated teen to get active while her peers spend 18 hours a day refreshing Instagram every 30 seconds on their phones.

But somewhere along the line Reed decided she could do more.

That’s how Project Holy Ground came about. It’s an entire album of gospel standards sung and played by Reed in her uptempo acoustic style, with all profits going to St. Jude’s.

“I was looking for more ways to raise funds and I had a lot of my favorite gospel songs already in my repertoire,” she says.

Where the universe came through was the circumstance of Reed’s collaborators. Although having never recorded an album, she knew multiple players who could play various instruments on the album — Marcia Lovegren with flute, Lucy, Laura and Scott Sandifer on violin and cello, and her guitar teacher, Dennis McKay, on mandolin, banjo and harmonica.

And McKay just happened to be a producer with his own recording studio in Columbus and experience recording and mixing music.

On top of all that, she had the personal motivation of seeing the benefits of St. Jude’s mission up close. Elizabeth King is the 3-year-old daughter of the Hairston family’s friends, Madelyn and John King. Elizabeth has been receiving chemotherapy at St. Jude’s since she was 21 months old. Madelyn drives Elizabeth to Memphis every Wednesday for treatment, stays overnight in a hotel room provided by St. Jude’s, drives home Thursday and never pays a cent due to the hospital’s largely donated funding.

“To see a 16-year-old being as unselfish as Reed is amazing. She went to St. Jude’s with us one day this summer and said she wanted to work there,” says King.

The album can be purchased online at projectholyground.com.

VERNELL TAYLOR, COLUMBUS

Photographed by Masa Hensley.

Photographed by Masa Hensley.

Vernell Taylor has rubbed shoulders with a lot of illustrious people, but he’s much too modest to brag about it. Taylor has been the facilities superintendent at Mississippi University for Women’s Plymouth Bluff Center in Lowndes County for 20 years. As such, he does a fair amount of work indoors in the Bluff’s lodge, booking events like family reunions and assisting visitors, but he gets to spend lots of time outside on the center’s 190 acres of verdant woodlands. And then, there are those eminent university guests he’s gotten to drive or serve in the course of his career. Folks like Eudora Welty, Roger Mudd, Bob Woodward, Ted Turner, Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, Senators Thad Cochran and Roger Wicker, governors and mayors.

He meets people from countries like India and Korea and Jamaica who come for relatives’ weddings, too. Or maybe his day will call for going out on a pontoon boat with teachers from The W’s science enrichment program, or playing with the Bluff’s telescopes with elementary students on field trips. Every now and then, he even has to go out on search parties to find hapless visitors who get lost on the trails.

Taylor’s occupation hits that perfect middle ground, that sweet spot between working inside and in the great outdoors.

“It’s something I look forward to every day. And it’s not the same scenery. Every day it’s something different,” he says.

When not taking care of guests, he’s outside, spotting armadillos digging holes, policing litter or pondering whether the grounds crew needs to trim hanging branches.

You might think Taylor gets tired of being stuck in the middle of such lush natural glory all the time. But no. Taylor confirms that it’s all as zen inducing as you think it is. There are even designated meditating spots under shade trees that overlook gullies.

Helping make the Bluff welcoming inside and out is his priority, whether visitors are famous or not.

Maridith Geuder, The W’s executive director of University Relations, says, “He’s a quiet ambassador who remembers small details such as a local politician who likes to drink Sprite with a straw. Vernell treats everyone with the same courtesy and respect, regardless of their station in life.”