The Valdosta Daily Times
“Today is a great day,” declared 90-year-old Emma Stevens Murrah as she was gently assisted from the hairstylist’s chair to under the dryer. “Every day is a great day.
“I began teaching school at age 20, I retired at age 60, and I have had all these years to play.”
What a wonderful attitude, I thought, as I heard “Miss” Emma at Bangz Hair Salon in Valdosta. It had been decades since I had seen the kindergarten teacher who won 1980 Georgia Teacher of the Year and was runner-up for National Teacher of the Year.
I spent a lovely Friday morning with this thoroughly charming and funny woman at her countryside home near Hahira as she reminisced about her life. We sat on her back porch where she comes to pray each morning, enjoy her daylilies and sometimes catch sight of an endangered blue indigo snake which she has nicknamed “Big Blue.” When the sun gets too hot on the back porch, she’ll switch to the front porch across from son Jody Stevens’ home where she can sit in her University of Georgia red chair and enjoy watching the bluebirds.
“Last night, the birds were twittering, making their sleepy sounds; the locusts and rain frogs were singing,” she said.
With such a good attitude, one might think “Miss” Emma had never known pain, but she has suffered though the loss of son Mark Stevens in a gun accident at almost 19 years old and the death of two husbands.
“Why am I so content?” she once asked son Jody Stevens.
“You’ve always enjoyed life and embraced it,” he replied. “You knew challenges would be a part of life, and you have met them.”
Stevens said his mom “didn’t fear or dwell on them. She took each day as it came.”
The former Emma Tatum Maughon was born in Richland on Dec. 5, 1920, the oldest of five children born to the late Grover Maughon, a school superintendent during the Great Depression, and Esther Maughon, a music and voice teacher before she married. So, it was quite natural “Miss” Emma would choose a career in teaching.
She completed two years at Abraham Baldwin Agricultural College before graduating from UGA with a Bachelor of Science in Home Economics. She was selected as one of the 10 most outstanding home economics seniors and had been invited to join all honor societies which were available to home economics students. She would only teach home ec one year.
“I didn’t like to cook and didn’t know how to sew,” she admitted.
But the many family development courses she took helped her as she started a kindergarten in the back of her home on Oak Street. Students from Valdosta State University, where she received a master’s in education at age 54, would come and observe her classes. After 11 years, she would work as a kindergarten teacher with both the city and county school systems.
“There were four of us who put standards in day care and started Head Start,” she said. “We found out a lot of daycare workers had parked out in front of a shopping center and left the children.”
“Miss” Emma trained daycare workers and also made a difference in the lives of migrant children. Traveling from place to place, the migrant children would be stuck in the back of the classroom coloring, she said.
“We developed a system so the (future) teachers could know what the children could do when they moved,” she said.
“I set up kindergarten for migrants in the county at Westside Center,” she said.
When she was in the Valdosta Junior Service League, she and a group of the members would go out into the community and bring special needs children into her kindergarten and develop some sort of program for them. This was the beginning of special education in the community.
Dr. Harvey Miller told “Miss” Emma she was so healthy except for her legs. She has had three knee replacements.
“I probably picked up every child in Valdosta that’s grown,” she said. “I remember chasing Ward Turner down Baytree.”
Her orthopedic surgeon Dr. John Kendrick told her, “You skipped, you jumped, you ran, and you picked up one kindergarten child too many.”
“Long time ago, you had one doctor for everything,” she said. “Now you have doctors from head to toe.”
Daughter-in-law Vickie Stevens lovingly keeps up with “Miss” Emma’s medical appointments and takes her to them.
In addition to her Teacher of the Year honors, “Miss” Emma was also a Fullbright Scholar to India and was a recipient of Boy Scouting’s highest volunteerism honor, the Silver Beaver Award. Both her sons were Eagle Scouts.
“Miss” Emma’s first husband was Joe Stevens, who during WWII was an aerial photographer interpreter, who studied photographs to locate enemy positions, camouflaged military installations and equipment, roads, industrial centers, rivers, wooded areas, and determined the nature of terrain, and interpreted photographs to evaluate enemy strength.
“He helped plan D-Day,” she said of her husband of 38 years.
Later, he became a soil scientist for the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
After her first husband died, she was a widow for eight years before her childhood sweetheart, George Murrah, called her. It had been 50 years. Murrah had gone to Guadalcanal with the Navy as a medic. During 1942-43, Guadalcanal was the scene of bitter fighting between Japanese and Americans, in which the latter were victorious.
“He worked in my uncle’s drugstore in Richland,” she said.
Murrah had gone on to become a pharmacist and had been honored as Pharmacist of the Year in Ohio.
“I could never get you of my mind,” the widower told her when he called.
They were married on Aug. 3, 1985, when she was in her 50s.
Last year, she was honored on her 90th birthday. Half of those present were the grown-up kindergarten children she had taught.
“I didn’t know you were supposed to get this old,” she said, exhibiting her characteristic good humor. “I love it.
“Every age is good, and this is a stage of life when you have to make a lot of adjustments. My latest adjustment is having to get a hearing aid. I don’t want one to interfere with my diamond earrings. I’d rather be deaf.”
When Vickie Stevens takes mother-in-law to the grocery store, “Miss” Emma sits in the motorized chair, and off she goes.
“There’s a way to live comfortably, but you have to search it and find out,” she said.
When her son suggested she have lunch with her friends, she replied, “They’re all dead.”
“Aging doesn’t have to be something to dread,” she said. “You accept where you are and go from there.
“I’ve done what I was put on earth to do ... to look after little children.”