Posey leaves legacy of kind-hearted change agent

By BY SLIM SMITH THE COMMERCIAL DISPATCH,

Editor’s Note: Don Posey was one of Indianola High School’s most outstanding athletes, excelling in multiple sports, including basketball and track. Posey passed away last week, and Slim Smith of The Commercial Dispatch in Columbus penned this tribute. His obiturary and the remainder of this article appear on Page 3.

Don Posey, who died Wednesday at age 75, will be most broadly remembered as Oktibbeha County's first county administrator, but he will also be remembered as a member of the 1963 Mississippi State basketball team that snuck out of town to play in the NCAA Tournament in East Lansing, Michigan, against an integrated Loyola-Chicago team, in defiance of segregationist Gov. Ross Barnett and the Jim Crow attitudes that dominated the era.

Posey was a sophomore on the team and was content to play a supporting role.

He continued to play a supporting role the rest of his life, those who knew him best recalled this week.

"You won't find a better man," said his longtime friend and motorcycle-trip partner John Thomas. "He did so much for so many people, with nobody knowing what he did. He didn't want recognition or accolades. If you needed help, it didn't matter who you were, what your status was. Rags or riches, it was all the same."

Emily Garrard, who Posey hired as the county's comptroller in 2002, succeeded him as county administrator when he retired in 2013. She said her former boss was a pleasure to work for.

"He was so easy-going, pleasant," Garrard said. "He didn't get upset about anything much. He strived to help others."

"He was a great listener, a very thoughtful man," said Linda Breazeale, who served with Posey on Oktibbeha County Hospital's Board of Trustees. "Don came on the board in 2016, a very important time for the hospital. The main thing is you could always count on him to listen very intently. He asked good questions and led with great wisdom. He voted in ways that were supportive of the community's interests and the hospital's interest."

County administrator

Posey, who had previously been in the insurance business, became the county's first county administrator in 1996. Prior to then, the duties fell on the chancery clerk.

"He really set up how the county administrator's office operated. He pretty much invented the job in a lot of ways," Garrard said. "He was a pleasure to work with and easy to get along with. But if there were rules, he absolutely insisted that you follow the rules. He was a great boss and a great friend, too."

Those qualities also were evident in his private life.

"I lost my dad three years ago and my mom last year," Thomas said. "Don -- I always called him Posey -- was like a big brother to me. He was just very level-headed. He never made rash decisions. When you came to Don with something, he would really listen. He wouldn't interrupt you. He just took everything in. Then, he'd really think it through before he gave his opinion. If you agreed with him, that was fine. But if you didn't agree, he was fine with that, too."

Bonding over bikes

Thomas had known Posey for years, but they didn't become close friends until about 15 years ago when Posey placed his mother in the Starkville Manor nursing care facility, where Thomas served as regional vice president.

"He would come to visit his mom after he got off work and when he was leaving, we'd sit and talk for a little while," Thomas said. "One day, he mentioned he used to ride motorcycles. I'd say, 'Posey, if you get a motorcycle, I'll get one, too.' Every day, that's how we'd say goodbye, talking about getting motorcycles. This went on for about a year, then I just decided I was going to put him on the spot. I bought a motorcycle and drove up to his house. I told him, 'OK, Posey, it's time to put up or shut up.' He had a motorcycle the next Saturday. He was, I think, about 60 years old."

Together, the two friends would take an annual motorcycle trip to Lynchburg, Tennessee, to visit the Jack Daniels distillery. Although neither man drank Jack Daniels, they always picked up the commemorative Jack Daniels bottle as collectors' items and enjoyed the ride along the Natchez Trace.

They would also attend the motorcycle rally in (Oktibbeha County's) Sturgis each year.

"We didn't go to any of the parties or anything," Thomas said. "We would just set up a tent, drink Coronas and people-watch."

'Game of Change'

Posey, like the other 11 young men who made up the 1963 MSU basketball team, was proud of the role he played in what has become known as the "Game of Change."

MSU lost its first-round game to eventual national champion Loyola-Chicago, but the images and symbolism from the game even being played struck a serious blow to the idea of segregation during the height of the Civil Rights Movement.

His teammate, Jack Wofford, said Posey was an important member of that team, even though his playing time was limited.

"Every member of the team played an important role and Don took his role very seriously," said Wofford, who like Posey, came to MSU as a freshman in 1961.

"We were very close as a team," Wofford said. "Back then, I think Leland Mitchell was the only player that had a car. So we spent a lot of time together. Don and I practiced together, played together and bummed around campus together. He was easy to like, just an easy-going, down-to-earth guy."

Posey came to MSU on a track scholarship (high-jumper) from his hometown of Indianola, but earned a spot on the freshman basketball team.

"If you really stretched him out, he was about 6-foot-4," Wofford said. "He was the first person I can remember who could dunk a basketball with both hands. Back then, that was something you just didn't see very often."

At the time, Wofford said he and his teammates didn't grasp the historical significance of the "Game of Change."

"I think Don felt the same way we all felt: We just wanted to play in the NCAA Tournament," Wofford said. "It wasn't until much later, that we realized the importance of what we did. Don was very proud of that, but not in a bragging way. That just wasn't Don."

Wofford, who manages

Welch Funeral Home, spent part of Thursday afternoon meeting with Posey's family, including Posey's wife of 51 years, Mary Lou.

"It was an honor to serve the family because I knew him so well," Wofford said. "But personally, it was tough. We were bosom buddies at State."

Goodbye

Thomas was with Posey when he first fell ill on Dec. 28.

"We were sitting at his dining room table when he started to talk about a sudden pain he felt in his back," Thomas said. "I knew something was wrong, because Don didn't complain. He wound up going to the hospital and they sent him to Jackson (University of Mississippi Medical Center). He had what they call an aortic dissection. They sent him home, but he had another one a week later."

An aortic dissection is a rupture of the aorta, often caused by an aneurysm.

The survival rate, even in the best cases, is no better than 30 percent.

But if Posey knew that, he never shared it with anyone.

"I talked to him Tuesday night," Thomas said. "He said he wanted to go fishing. I told him not to worry about that. 'You just get better and we'll go fishing when you're better.' ... I could tell he was getting tired, so I told him, 'I love you' and he told me he loved me. That was it. He died the next day."

Slim Smith is a columnist and feature writer for The Dispatch. His email address is ssmith@cdispatch.com.