3 Inspired People

Stories Jason Browne | Photographs Masa Hensley

DERRICK BECKOM, COLUMBUS

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Derrick Beckom. Photographed by Masa Hensley.

Finally! Confirmation! Mississippi State Troopers wear their shirts that tight on purpose … to make you think twice before any shenanigans.

“You want to look the part because, with this job, appearance is everything. You want to look physically fit, and we in the Highway Patrol pride ourselves on looking sharp,” says Derrick Beckom of Troop G in Starkville and the 2012 Mississippi Trooper of the Year.

Nobody has worked up the gumption to test Beckom yet. “No encounters so far. And I attribute that partly to staying in shape and looking the part. People tell me when I give them an order to stand still, ‘You don’t have to tell me that.’”

At 6-foot and 240, the Iraq war vet, former firefighter and college football player from Eupora is a commanding presence, with an equally official voice and demeanor. But he’s keenly aware that any day could be the day that a routine traffic stop goes off the rails.

“The physical training at the academy was gruesome. They beat you up the whole time, but I figured it out on graduation day. We’re out here riding around alone. The training was designed so you could survive by yourself,” says Beckom.

The training also helped him tear open a door on a burning car and snatch a big, unconscious guy out of it before it exploded in July 2011, on the day of his and his wife Vickie’s wedding anniversary.

Considering the modern tension between citizens and law enforcement, responding to accidents on the highway and the memory of that big guy in the burning car, Beckom is confronted with his own mortality on a regular basis. It’s why he spends every second off duty building relationships with his family and community. He attends as many of his four children’s athletic events at Columbus High as possible, doing the supportive dad thing but also connecting with their classmates, doling out advice earned through spending his entire adult life in public service.

“I don’t give them details about what I see, but I give them hypotheticals. I might tell them, ‘This is what I had to deal with today … .’  I’m not sure how much of it sinks in because kids have so much on their minds, but I want to give kids a familiar law enforcement face they can relate to. I want to be there for the younger generation in any way I can,” says Beckom.

NELLE ELAM, STARKVILLE

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Nelle Elam. Photographed by Masa Hensley.

If Nelle Elam used to be your art teacher at Starkville High School, and you see her around, and she doesn’t remember your name, she didn’t forget you. She just forgot your name, but she didn’t forget you.

“I can tell students where they sat and describe their artwork, but at 82, names are hard,” says Elam, Mississippi’s Teacher of the Year in 1989 and Disney’s National Outstanding Visual Arts Teacher in 1990.

Her husband Bill says it happens every time they go downtown. Former students will see her, or find her on Facebook, and spill their guts about what Mrs. Elam meant to them in high school.

The beloved architect of SHS’s highly touted art program had a knack for doling out self-esteem to her students. Having begun her pursuit of an art degree in her 40s, well into raising a family with Bill, Nelle had already developed a kinetic empathy that she wielded in her classes. “I had raised children. I wasn’t afraid of kids,” she says.

So it came to be, after being hired as SHS’s very first art teacher in 1978, that Nelle touched the lives of thousands of students, some of whom became world renowned artists and curators.

“Mama Nelle challenged me like none other. She nourished a passion for art that few others noticed,” says Paul Jackson, a highly successful watercolorist and a Signature member of the American Watercolor Society since the age of 30. “There was an atmosphere of family that Mrs. Elam fostered. She made the world a bigger, brighter place.”

Another of Elam’s students, Andy Harkness, found top-tier success animating Disney movies like “Pocahontas” and is currently an art director on Disney’s next big movie, “Moana.” He said he hears Mrs. Elam’s voice in his head to this day.

“The lessons and phrases that are uniquely Mrs. Elam were placed carefully in my 16-year-old brain and, for the past 25 years, are still teaching me,” he says.

Her message was the same for all students, regardless of their natural talent for art.

“I always told my kids, ‘Never compare yourself with anyone else. Only compare yourself with yourself. It’s important to believe in yourself and know you have the right to pursue the things you want,’” she says.

Elam’s gospel of constant improvement buoyed an SHS art program that has grown into one of the best and award-winningest in Mississippi and sent her to Disneyland for the National Teacher Awards, where she was introduced to the press by a “Magnum P.I.”-era Tom Selleck.

Retired now for 20 years, Nelle spends more time now in the kitchen than the studio. One of the mantras of her class — “Explore all your options” — has taken on new meaning without the structure of a lesson plan to guide her art.

“When you pick up a paintbrush you can go in a hundred directions. The problem is, when you know what good art is, you know what to strive for. I used to tell my kids, I may not be the best artist, but teaching art is the thing I do best. And that is what I wish for each of you. To do the thing you most want to do.”

KAY MCELROY, CALEDONIA

Kay McElroy. Photographed by Masa Hensley.

Kay McElroy. Photographed by Masa Hensley.

It’s a bit nuts to think that lions and tigers live in Lowndes County. And it’s a bit frustrating to know that you can’t go pay $50 for the family to gawk at them.

So we trust Cedarhill Sanctuary founder Kay McElroy when she says the habitat is for the animals, and no one else.

“This is their lifetime home. They never leave. And they’re not asked to do a thing,” says Kay of her 500-pound cats. “We don’t let people come tour us like a zoo. We want their life to be as comfortable as possible.”

But it’s not as if Kay and her staff are hogging all the quality time with these giants, petting them in the enclosures and singing Disney songs. Not even Kay, the predator whisperer, communes with the animals.

“We have a strict lockout procedure and we’re never in the pen with the cats at the same time. Exotic cats are never pets,” she says. “They rub on the fence and purr, but don’t think for one minute if I went in there, I wouldn’t be in severe danger.”

Kay admits she’s been tempted to open Cedarhill’s gates to the public and charge admission to see its 300 animals, which include everything from cats that could literally kill you to potbelly pigs. Money is extremely tight these days, but since incorporating in 1990, Cedarhill has been solely funded by donations — mostly small $25-per-month-type donations, about half a million dollars per year with no federal, state or county support. Apparently there are a lot of people out there who believe in Kay’s mission to offer these animals the most dignified life available in Mississippi.

That probably has a something to do with Kay’s resolve to be an advocate for the animals first. It wasn’t about educating people, although Mississippi State Vet School students do gain some truly memorable experience at Cedarhill. And while it has never been about being the face of the issue, Kay has lobbied successfully for exotic animal legislation in the state.

It was always about getting as many humans as possible out of these wild animals’ lives. Twenty acres of well-fenced grass, where tigers can swim and lazy lions “lie in the shade and watch the world go round.”

Kay knows the name of the game now is visibility. She’s been “trying to figure out the Internet and Facebook.” Her children and grandchildren are carrying the torch, running a website, Facebook and Twitter and promoting Cedarhill to a new world, while honoring Kay’s vision of giving these animals some peace.