Lure of Ole Miss vitalizes Oxford Ward
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OXFORD, Miss. Oxford was named in the first half of the 19th century, according to Bishop Paul Roberts, as part of the community's campaign to land Mississippi's state institution of higher education. Adopting the name of the prominent center of education in England was campaign strategy that worked, giving rise in 1848 to the University of Mississippi or, as it is more affectionately known, Ole Miss.
Thus, the city in the north-central part of the state became a prominent center in Mississippi and is now, appropriately, a Church center as well. Members flow to the Oxford Ward, Memphis Tennessee Stake, from five northern Mississippi counties.
While the university community is a vibrant nucleus of the ward, its roots are 20 miles west in Batesville. Residing there are descendants of early convert James Riley Bevell, giving multi-generational stability to the ward.
One of his granddaughters is Robbie Taylor, 79 years old, who speaks proudly of her grandfather who joined the Church in Mississippi in 1882.
"I have seen the Church grow and grow," Sister Taylor said. "It's unbelievable almost. It's wonderful."
Sister Taylor's cousin, Lucile Stroupe, 88, also lives in Batesville, as do her grown children Bill, Patricia and Marilyn. During an interview at Sister Stroupe's home, they talked about tithing and the bear fight.
At the beginning of the Depression, their grandfather, James Blaine Bevell affectionately known in the family as "Big Dad" was struggling to support his family, and with Church activity. As the family story goes, he committed that if he found a way to make any money, he would pay tithing on it. About that time, a circus came to town and one of its attractions was a bear. There was a standing offer of a cash prize to anyone who fought the bear. "Big Dad," accepted the challenge. He got 80 cents for the bout and kept his promise to pay tithing. From that time on, he was active in the Church, his grandchildren said, and never wanted for anything temporally the rest of his life. Oh, and of the bear fight, they noted, "Big Dad" lost.
"Going to our grandparents' house is a happy memory," Patricia said. "There was so much love in the house."
They said "Big Dad" loved to have the older grandchildren read to him from the Book of Mormon.
Bill remembers a time, when their car didn't have any tires, driving into town for Church on the wheel rims.
Marilyn remembers one time when there was no one to help her grandfather, who couldn't walk later in life because of a hereditary disease, crawling into the building where Church meetings were held.
The road from Batesville to Oxford winds through beautiful rural countryside of rolling hills covered with forests and fields. Among these fields is a literary tradition, one that is focused in the bucolic Oxford area. It is home to popular contemporary author John Grisham. The Rowan Oak Estate, now owned by the University of Mississippi, is where Pulitzer Prizing-winning author William Faulkner lived during the prime of his life.
The modern athletic facilities of Ole Miss immediately on the south approach to the city quickly give way to the more traditional buildings of the campus. At the entrance is a monument to students who became Confederate Civil War soldiers the University Grays. The monument also lists one of their commanders Sidney Albert Johnston noteworthy in Church history as the leader of the U.S. troops sent to Utah in what is known as the "Utah War" of 1857-58.
Across a grassy quad is the Lyceum, made famous during the Civil Rights era of the 1960s when National Guard troops enforced the enrollment of James Meredith as the first African-American student admitted to the university.
Less dramatic is the Y building, a simple two-story structure dear to longtime Church members as one of the earliest meeting places of the branch in Oxford.
Complementing the Batesville saints are the members living in Oxford, a group made up mostly of transplants and university students.
One such transplant is Bishop Paul Roberts. After graduating from BYU, he applied and accepted to go to law school at the University of Mississippi. He and his wife, Carrie, moved there and before he finished his degree, he landed an internship in the U.S. Attorney's office in Oxford. After graduation, he was offered a position as Assistant U.S. Attorney which he accepted. Now he and his family are content southerners.
Another transplant couple from Utah are Ron and Beth Bartlett. Brother Bartlett, retired after 26 years as a German professor at Ole Miss, was a driving force in the establishment of the Church in Oxford during the past quarter century. He said a position in the German department was first offered to another member of the Church who turned it down because there was no Church presence in the area. When Brother Bartlett was offered the position, he accepted, seeing an opportunity to establish a Church presence in the area. So with a doctorate from BYU and a wife who shared his love of and talent for music, he moved to Oxford and was an early Church leader there. He is also a prominent citizen, sharing not only his German, but his music and his talent for art and poetry as well. He has created sculptures displayed all over the university and community, and, in fact, the world.