Editor: This story was originally published September 21, 2020 as “Still Smiling, A bouquet for Joyce Sumners.” At that date, Mrs. Sumners was at Sanctuary Hospice House in Tupelo and not expected to live more than several days. However, she surprised everyone by recovering enough to leave hospice and move to St. Catherine’s in Madison County. She was noted for her unusual ability to recover from ailments and injuries. She battled on and lived two more years. She did not fully recover at St. Catherine’s, but was mentally alert and in remarkably good humored until a few weeks ago. Her health worsened about October 1, and continued to decline. Her extraordinary life ended Saturday, October 15, 2022.
Look up the word noble and you will find synonyms including honest, honorable, upright, decent, magnanimous, trustworthy, and sublime.
Many in northeast Mississippi know all those words can be correctly applied to Joyce Sumners.
Invariably gracious, kind, and cheerful, Joyce Sumners comes as close as anyone I have known to being a natural aristocrat. Not an aristocracy of birth or wealth or power, but that kind of aristocracy esteemed from the earliest days of the American republic: The Aristocracy of Merit.
She has the gifts of beauty, empathy, grace, wisdom and humor and has shared those gifts generously. For more than eight decades, Joyce Sumners has been giving and giving and giving still more.
The UNITE organization honored her as its “Volunteer of the Year” in 2016. As with other UNITE Volunteer of the Year award winners, the philanthropic work of Joyce Sumners has actually extended over a great many decades.
Trying to list all of the individuals and organizations that have benefitted from the tens of thousands of hours of volunteer work Joyce Sumners has performed would be futile.
Among the most visible of her efforts has been her work with the auxiliary at Baptist Memorial Hospital-Union County. By even a conservative estimate of her half century of volunteer work at the hospital, Joyce Sumners has given well over 25,000 hours. From running the hospital gift shop to delivering books, newspapers and flowers to patients in their rooms, she has been on the job at the hospital. Thousands of Baptist patients and their families have been cheered by the light of her thousand-kilowatt smile.
Joyce’s late husband Les Sumners, a prominent attorney, who served as president of the state bar association, was an original member of the Tupelo Symphony Board. Thus, her work on behalf of what is now known as the North Mississippi Symphony Orchestra (NMSO) began with its founding 49 years ago in 1971. She served on the board after her husband’s death in 2005. In recent years she has been the key player in the successful effort to bring NMSO here to play with and for New Albany public school children.
Much of her work has been in encouraging others, quietly supporting whatever she knew was beautiful and good. She worked to support institutions such as the Methodist Church, the Union County Heritage Museum and the public schools. She worked privately to recognize and support individual accomplishments, perhaps simply complimenting a young girl for her good manners or congratulating a Boy Scout on his latest merit badge.
Joyce never sought or needed the limelight. She creates her own light wherever she is.
Margaret Anne Murphey, executive director of NMSO for its first 42 years, spoke to me recently of her long friendship with Joyce Sumners. We discussed that Joyce is not well, perhaps going through the “valley of the shadow.” She added another word to describe her long-time friend. “Joyce is valiant,” said Mrs. Murphey.
VALIANT. I wished I had thought of it. Valiant, of course, valiant!
Joyce Sumners has endured and overcome more ailments than most people in her 87 years. Her resilience and positivity have been astonishing. Cancer, broken bones from falls and car wrecks, multiple joint replacements, heart surgery — she bore the pain and frustration of therapy and recovery time after time.
And she rarely stopped smiling.
She lost Les, whose nobility matched her own, 15 years ago. She kept on smiling through the tears. Then, a few years after Les died, the home in which their three children had grown up caught fire. She escaped unharmed, but the house was seriously damaged. She had it repaired and rebuilt, never despaired, kept on smiling, and moved back in when the craft people finished.
A leading professional woman in Union County, herself a notable warrior-princess, told me last week: “I’ve always wanted to be like Joyce.”
Joyce Sumners is having some rough days right now.
She is still smiling. Valiant.
Sumners Volunteer of the Year: http://newalbanyunionco.com/unite-awards-18-grants-and-honors-volunteer-of-the-year/