Daughter's loving, humorous obituary for Mississippi man goes viral

03/13/2013 7:53 AM

03/13/2013 7:53 AM

He enjoyed buttermilk in a martini glass, garnished with cornbread. Not one to suffer cats, "Law and Order" or Martha Stewart gladly, he liked his women smart and his eggs deviled, and he eschewed fashion as we know it in favor of high-waisted shorts, basic T-shirts and a grass-stained Mississippi State University baseball cap.

He was a member of a bacon of the month club. He crowed like a rooster during phone calls to his grandchildren. He excelled in "never losing a game of competitive sickness." He referred to daylight-saving time as "The Devil's Time."

In short, Harry Weathersby Stamps was an individual.

South Mississippians who read it were treated to perhaps the most entertaining, warm and enlightening obituary seen in years. Through the obituary's loving humor, gentle candor and laugh-out-loud moments, those apparent few who never took a class taught by Stamps got to know him -- and regret they didn't meet him in life.

The obituary went viral in the Twittersphere and on Facebook.

"He wouldn't know what going viral means. He would have thought that was a disease he contracted, which would have excited him to have another illness to lord over folks," said daughter Amanda Lewis, who wrote the obituary. An attorney who lives in Dallas, she wrote it during the trip to Long Beach, Miss., where Stamps died at home on Saturday, surrounded by his family.

"My sister, Alison, teaches English as a second language at MSU, and she edited it for me," she said. "He so was not a 'the trumpets of Heaven are blowing' sort. This is who my dad was.

"I kept thinking of things -- there are a lot of things I just couldn't put in there -- and I thought, 'Mama's not going to let me run that.' But she read it and said, 'That's him,'" Lewis said.

"Probably the best compliment I've gotten is that at least six people asked if he wrote it," she said.

Alison Stamps said her father's story is hard to summarize.

"It's hard to capture him in just one story," she said. "For all of us, he was like this."

She recalled vacations.

"Every vacation was about visiting historic sites. There was one year we went to Yorktown, Jamestown and Williamsburg; he always wanted us to learn something at the same time," she said. "He was one man in a family of strong women, but he appreciated it. His worst nightmare would be to have to go to an outlet mall while we shopped, but he would do it. If we went on vacation and did the historic spots, he would take us to the outlet mall for our shopping."

Stamps had been a kidney dialysis patient for a couple of years, Lewis said. "His health wasn't good."

That didn't stop the Southern gourmand in him. Boiled peanuts, pork chops, turnip greens, his own homemade canned figs, Vienna sausage on crackers, bacon and tomato sandwiches on Bunny Bread -- Stamps' gastronomic interests read like a who's who of real-life Southern classics.

"After he was diagnosed with diabetes, he told me, 'Life's not worth living if I can't have butter on my sweet potatoes.' That pretty much summed up his point of view on things," Lewis said.

He grew up in New Hebron, Miss., where his father owned the Western Auto store and was mayor of the small town. When his father died when Stamps was 12, his aunts and cousins stepped in to help his mother, Wilma.

Stamps and his wife, Ann, married almost 50 years ago. He taught his two daughters practical things, like how to change flat tires, fish and choose a hammer.

He taught government and sociology at Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College's Jefferson Davis campus.

"He was dean at JD for years. He started at the Pascagoula campus, then when they opened the JD campus, he taught there," Lewis said.

Stamps was Hancock Bank co-chief executive officer John Hairston's American history professor at Jeff Davis when he was a freshman. He recalled several wise lessons, which he calls "The World According to Stamps." They include:

"Bad things happen to a country, whether economically or socially, when the people in charge think they are smarter than everyone who came before them. Good things happen when the people in charge study what the last leaders did when the same crisis happened.

"And my personal favorite," Hairston said. "When great people in history are quoted, imagine yourself there and consider what they were actually thinking. Did Paul Revere really ride through the night yelling, 'The British are coming!' Did Nathan Hale really say, 'I only regret that I have but one life to give for my country.' What were they really thinking when they said such things? Were they so intelligent and thoughtful that the message was to soothe their families, or rally the troops, or get a certain reaction. What else did they say? What were they thinking?"

Friend and former JD colleague Wayne Catlett said Lewis's obit "pretty well captured the essence of Harry. It's almost as if Harry had written it. It's something he would have appreciated."

Catlett started teaching at JD in 1987 and worked with Stamps until Stamps' retirement in the mid-'90s.

"When I first started at JD, people would ask me, 'Have you met Harry Stamps?' I hadn't but once I did, I found out why they asked me. He definitely was one of a kind," he said.

"He always found humor in every situation. It was a great way to cope with life. Whatever it was, he managed to get through it by laughing at it and getting you to laugh," Catlett said.

Students loved Stamps, and the feeling was mutual, Catlett recalled.

"They referred to his class as the Stamps Comedy Hour," he said. "He was a brilliant teacher, incredibly interesting. And you know, I have never heard a student or anybody else say a bad thing about Harry. They all couldn't wait for his class."

Then there were the phone calls.

"I would get a call from him. He'd call me into his office, and when I'd get there, he'd say, 'Wouldn't a pork roast be good right about now?' or 'Wouldn't you love to have a big, messy tomato sandwich, the kind you have to stand over the sink to eat?'" Catlett said, laughing.

Stamps was a skilled communicator and a "student of human nature," Catlett said. "He could see beneath the surface. He found a way to communicate with everybody, to talk with them and work with them.

"He was the most unpretentious man I ever met. He was unimpressed by pretense," he said.

Lewis referred to her father's ennui with pretense when she said he "despised ... Southerners who used the words 'veranda' and 'porte cochere' to put on airs."

While he had little patience with such matters, he was never unkind, Catlett said.

"He would poke fun, but it was good natured, and he laughed at himself, too," he said. "He was a simple, good, intelligent, loving person. Everybody was better for having been around Harry.

"You never forgot Harry Stamps," Catlett said. He recalled a story Stamps told him about having surgery at an out-of-town hospital.

"The anesthesiologist came over to his bed and said, 'Are you Mr. Stamps?' He said he was, and the guy said, 'You taught me.'

"'Oh really?' Harry said. 'And what did you make?' 'A "B," I think,' the guy said," Catlett recalled. "'You know, it's not too late for me to make a grade change,' Harry said."

Another former colleague, Sissy Beacham, remembered a trip to Delgado Community College.

"The faculty went there for a meeting. On the way, the bus broke down but we finally got to campus. We got into the assembly but then we found out there was a bomb scare and we had to evacuate. Well, the Delgado people were upset and took us around campus on a tour, anything to distract us," she said. "They took us to lunch a bit early, and when we got to the dining room, you could tell they weren't ready for us, because they started slinging what looked like white sheets on the table and silverware was being passed out of industrial tubs and so was the butter. Harry had this way of talking out of the side of his mouth, and he would make one little comment after another, and he could keep a straight face but most of the rest of us couldn't. We were trying so hard not to laugh.

"He really was such a dear, sweet man with a dry sense of humor, but it was all gentle," she said.

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