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A Father’s Inspired Career

Gift Creates the Lilly INSPIRE Awards for School of Education

Tom and Connie Lilly enjoy time together at their Oxford, Mississippi, home.

“He ain’t heavy, Coach. He’s my brother.”

Those were the words a young boy spoke to Sale Trice Lilly Sr. after being offered help in carrying his handicapped younger brother home from football practice. That exchange resonated throughout Lilly’s life as a lifelong educator in the Mississippi Delta.

“In his life, my father sought to follow the example of the Good Samaritan parable,” said Thomas G. Lilly, who earned a law degree from the University of Mississippi in 1960. “As an educator, he very early exhibited a desire to see all children in the public school system receive a good education.”

Following his father’s example, Lilly and his wife Constance, both of Oxford, Mississippi, have established the Sale Trice Lilly Sr. Education Inspire Awards Endowment with a gift of $116,000 to the UM School of Education.

The endowment will establish the Sale Trice Lilly Sr. Education INSPIRE Teacher Award and the Sale Trice Lilly Sr. Education INSPIRE Principal/Administrator Award, each recognizing a deserving School of Education student who demonstrates a strong commitment to teaching underserved populations in Mississippi.

“We want to do something special to honor, recognize and support those who, like my father, have chosen as their life’s mission to help educate the children of Mississippi and instill in them a love of learning. In doing so, we believe we have honored my father and what he stood for.”

Born in 1906 in Pontotoc County, Mississippi, Sale Lilly spent most of his life in the Yazoo-Mississippi Delta area — the distinctive northwest section of the state. A natural athlete, he was accomplished on the track and ball fields despite only having good vision in one eye due to a childhood injury.

Lilly attended Ole Miss on an athletic scholarship from 1925-1928, playing both halfback and quarterback positions on the football team as well as baseball and track. He married his high school sweetheart, Margaret Butt of Montgomery County, Mississippi in 1928, which caused him to lose his scholarship.

Needing employment, Lilly began a lifelong career in education in 1928, taking a position as coach, athletic director, principal and math teacher at Winona High School. He returned to Ole Miss to complete his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in 1930 and 1931, before returning to a career in education at Belzoni, serving in a position similar to the one he held in Winona until his appointment as superintendent under the Belzoni School Board.

Lilly served as president of the Mississippi Literary and Athletic Association and chairman of its executive committee.  As such, he was Mississippi’s representative in the National Federation of High School Associations.  He also served as superintendent of schools in Charleston, after which he returned to Belzoni where he served as Assistant Superintendent of the Humphreys County Public Schools and director of Title I, ESEA.

The Lilly family has a rich history with Ole Miss and the state of Mississippi, and it was Sale Lilly’s legacy that inspired Tom Lilly to make a major gift, said Alyssa Vinluan, an annual gifts officer with University Development.

“I’ve enjoyed getting to know Tom and Connie,” Vinluan said. “I was touched by Tom’s stories about the impact his father had on students during his teaching career in the Delta.

“Tom and Connie’s gift will inspire today’s educators and administrators, much like Tom’s father did, and we are honored to recognize Sale’s legacy in this way.”

The two educator awards will be given annually in an amount of $2,000 or more, making them the largest awards presented by the School of Education.

Dean David Rock described the Lilly Awards as “transformational.”

“With these awards, we are going to have the ability to recognize monetarily an outstanding teacher and leader for what they’ve accomplished over the course of their careers, something we’ve never had the chance to do before,” Rock said.

“With this gift, Tom and Connie show their appreciation for Sale Lilly’s accomplishments while also sharing their gratitude for Mississippi’s current educators. We greatly appreciate their generosity and their passion for supporting education.”

For Thomas Lilly, the awards are a way to continue the Good Samaritan tradition that shaped his father’s commitment to helping others.

“We hope Ole Miss student teachers and educators will understand that the establishment of these awards has been made to acknowledge and recognize that teaching is among the most important and noblest of all professions,” Lilly said. “We also hope the awards will inspire recipients to remain in Mississippi and pursue their calling in the Mississippi Delta.”

To make a gift to the Sale Trice Lilly, Sr. Education Inspire Awards Endowment, mail a check to the University of Mississippi Foundation, with the fund’s name noted in the memo line, to 406 University Ave., Oxford, MS 38655; or online at https://give.olemiss.edu.

For more information on supporting the School of Education, contact Billy Crews, development officer, at [email protected] or 662-915-2836.

By Mary Stanton Knight