Mary Emily Wilson largely flew under the radar when she was living. Same with the trust that she created to do good after her death.
Most people living today in Greenwood probably have not really thought much about her or her legacy until possibly Thursday night, when the Museum of the Mississippi Delta honored the Mary Emily Wilson Charitable Trust at the museum’s annual gala.
Wilson’s story is a fascinating one.
Born in 1913 in Memphis, she grew up in Leflore County and graduated from Greenwood High School in 1930, after which she went on a two-month summer tour of Europe with a friend. She must have not been very photogenic, as there are no known pictures of her, and no one has been able to find a copy of her high school yearbook. Her name pops up fairly regularly in the Commonwealth’s social news when she was in college in the early 1930s — first at Converse College in Spartanburg, South Carolina, then at Belhaven College in Jackson — and in the years afterward.
As a teenager, she and her parents, Mr. and Mrs. Jeff Wilson, lived on Wildwood Plantation, where he was a farm manager. They later moved into town, buying a house on South Boulevard. Mary Emily would live there for the rest of her life.
She never married and had no children. She had a famous cousin, though, Charles Merrill, co-founder of the Merrill Lynch investment firm.
In December 1962, she and Rebecca Moore bought a longtime florist shop, Greenwood Floral Co., on West Henry Street, only a few blocks from Wilson’s home. The partnership lasted only a few months. Wilson became the sole owner in April 1963 and operated it nearly until her death from cancer in 1994 at the age of 81.
As the neighborhood changed, her business declined. In her later years, the florist was frequently the target of burglars, including a break-in two days before Valentine’s Day in 1990, when, according to the newspaper account at the time, the thieves absconded with 15 balloons, a silk rose and a floral bouquet, among other things.
John Pittman, now a retired banker, got to know Wilson when he was a teenager driving a delivery van for a competing floral shop.
Later, when he was working for Deposit Guaranty National Bank, Pittman connected her with Bob Morgan, who was the bank’s trust officer and farm manager, to help her with the 630 acres of Bolivar County farmland she had inherited from her parents.
It was good farmland but not irrigated, and it still had a mortgage on it. Pittman worked out a long-term deal with a renter in which Wilson would improve the farm by putting in a couple of irrigation wells and the renter would supply the center pivots.
The rent generated enough money to supplement Wilson’s income and pay off the mortgage.
As she got up in years and her health declined, Wilson wanted to do something for the community. Working with her attorney, Keith Gragson, she put the land into a living trust, the proceeds of which, upon her death, she said should be used in Leflore County to help people with mental or physical handicaps and for educational purposes.
She made Pittman, Morgan and Gragson, until his death, the trustees.
Morgan said the parameters of the trust’s purpose were “broad enough to spread the money around over a lot of needs and facilities and persons and organizations.” It also allowed the trustees to sell off small parcels of the original holdings to have the money to improve the remaining 435 acres, thus producing higher rents, and to create an investment portfolio so as to diversify the trust’s sources of income.
“She would be just quite amazed at the number of opportunities that have arisen from this trust arrangement,” Morgan said.
The trust was a major donor to Beacon Harbor until the residential facility for the adult mentally handicapped became part of the state-funded Life Help mental health center. It paid for the handicapped-accessible curbs in downtown Greenwood. It has helped several families modify or get into homes that are wheelchair-friendly. It’s put money into ArtPlace Mississippi and Delta Streets and Pillow academies. It’s funded some scholarships to Mississippi Delta Community College. And for 20 years it’s been one of the largest donors to the Museum of the Mississippi Delta.
Since 1996, the trust has donated $1.1 million to these and other good causes.
There is no exaggerating what Wilson’s legacy has meant to the museum, said its executive director, Cheryl Thornhill. Not only has the trust contributed annually to the museum’s operating budget, but it was the largest private donor to the half-million-dollar renovation completed in 2015.
“Her money actually helped us to totally reshape the museum inside and out,” said Thornhill. “It would not have been done without the trust.”
Wilson was a bit eccentric. As she aged, her office in the florist shop began to look like a nest, with paperwork piled up around her. But she loved this town, and she wanted to do something good for it, if in a quiet way.
Just as she was pleased to get the farm she inherited out of debt, Pittman believes Wilson would be glad for all the various people and institutions the trust has helped and continues to do in her name.
“These were things that we thought Mary Emily would have been quite proud of as well,” he said.
• Contact Tim Kalich at 581-7243 or email@example.com.