Elise Winter
Former first lady of Mississippi Elise Varner Winter reacts to questions from Elbert Hilliard, former director of the Mississippi Department of Archives and History, Wednesday, May 20, 2015 in Jackson, Miss. Winter wrote a book based on her entries in a personal daily journal that she kept as the first lady of Mississippi during the 1980-1984 term of her husband, former Gov. William F. Winter. She died July 17, 2021. AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis

Former First Lady Elise Winter Dies at 95 After Life of Work for Equity, Acceptance, Compassion

Elise Winter spent four long years as first lady of Mississippi in the governor’s mansion in downtown Jackson during William Winter’s eventful term that saw the first real education reform come to Mississippi. Built in 1839, the drafty East Capitol Street edifice had been a favorite place to host parties for Winter’s predecessors, but the Greek Revival-style home was an early outpost for Winter’s work in the community, which spanned nearly seven decades and ended only with her death on Saturday, July 17, at the age of 95.

JoAnne Morris
JoAnne Prichard Morris, who helped the former first lady write her memoir, considered Elise Winter a friend. Photo courtesy JoAnne Prichard Morris

“It wasn’t a perk for her to live in the mansion and have nice parties,” says JoAnne Prichard Morris, a long-time friend of Winter who helped compose her memoir, “Once in a Lifetime: Reflections of a Mississippi First Lady.” 

“She took every day as a job,” Morris says. These workdays were made even longer by Winter’s night-time musings, as she recorded herself talking about her experiences as first lady long after her husband had gone to bed.

Once transcribed decades after her departure from the mansion at the close of her husband’s term in 1984, Winter’s vocalized recollections would span thousands of typed pages. It would take Morris and and Winter three years to comb through them all, with Winter providing clarification and elaboration as they went. 

Morris, who previously worked as a book editor for the University Press of Mississippi, remembers fondly the days she spent surrounded by the pages of Winter’s memories. “It was a wonderful experience. We got to be friends, and I spent a lot of time at her house, many times on her porch,” she said today. “Sometimes, she would fix lunch for me, and we would sit and talk about (the book).”


Once in a Lifetime: Reflections of a Mississippi First Lady
Elise Winter recorded her recollections of being first lady each night after her husband had gone to bed. This oral history would turn into her 2015 memoir. Courtesy University Press of Mississippi

Not All Iced-Tea Afternoons

Some of the memories the former first lady and Morris shared pre-dated William Winter’s rise to statewide fame, as Morris had met the wife of Mississippi’s 58th governor on the campaign trail of William Winter’s failed 1969 gubernatorial bid. But the women’s conversations went back to the very beginning of Winter’s life. 

Elise Winter detailed her early brush with politics as the daughter of Senatobia’s mayor in north Mississippi, living on the town’s Main Street in a house that she and her parents shared with her grandparents. Winter would eventually leave the safe cocoon of that family home to attend Northwest Community College to study history before transferring to the University of Mississippi, where she met her husband after his tour in World War II concluded. 

It wasn’t all iced-tea afternoons, though, as Winter’s memories included her struggle to improve a state that was just 10 years past the forced integration of its schools when she assumed the role of first lady. Discontent to sit idly by while her husband pushed for legislative change, Winter often accompanied him on his travels around the state. One such trip took her to Parchman Prison Farm in the Delta—officially the Mississippi State Penitentiary—where she watched her husband greet men who would never be able to vote for him through the iron bars of their cells.

William and Elise Winter on their wedding day. Courtesy Winter family/southdocs.org

Winter never forgot the horrors she witnessed within the walls of one of the nation’s most infamous prison systems, and she pushed for reforms that would improve the lives of its inhabitants. Her work led to increased funding for state correctional facilities and the construction of a visitor’s center at the women’s prison in Pearl, Miss.

Seeing, Tackling Historic and Systemic Inequities

Like her husband, Elise Winter saw the systemic strife and inequities that led to Mississippi’s growing prison population, and she made eliminating these barriers a priority for her time in and out of the Governor’s mansion. When confronted with the deep-seated racism of a state that had spent all of its electoral votes on staunch segregationist presidential candidate George Wallace just 12 years earlier, Winter shared a table with Leontyne Price and Margaret Walker Alexander and later worked with the William Winter Institute for Racial Reconciliation.

The former first lady recognized that ongoing disparities still bring a high cost for Black Mississippians, who were too often shut out of a high-quality education due to underfunding, overcrowding and the white segregation academies. Her husband’s legislative answer to these questions of access and progress came in the form of the Mississippi Education Reform Act that instituted compulsory school attendance, created State-funded kindergartens and increased teacher pay, among other reforms. Morris is convinced that the bill’s passage was made possible by Elise Winter’s devoted, statewide campaign in favor of it.

A historic photo of Gov. William Winter, his wife Elise Varner Winter and his daughters. Courtesy “The Toughest Job”/https://southdocs.org/

“She made speeches all over the state for two years, and she went to schools and to meetings,” Morris recalls. “She was really essential in making his administration as successful as it was.”

Elise Winter continued to work for the success of the entire state long after her husband’s retirement from public office, becoming the founder of the capital-area chapter of Habitat for Humanity. Her interest in public housing wasn’t limited to the boardroom, as Winter continued to visit job sites well into her 80s, even pitching in with the construction of the organization’s 600th home at the age of 89. 

“Mrs. Winter has been the heart and soul of this organization, working tirelessly for more than three decades so that more families in Jackson and the tri-county area will have a decent place to call home and a brighter future,” Executive Director Merrill McKewen said in a statement. 

Elise Winter
Elise Winter was never content to remain at the governor’s mansion, instead accompanying her husband on his travels across the state. She also founded the capital-area chapter of Habitat for Humanity. Courtesy William Winter Institute for Racial Reconciliation

Similar tributes have poured in from across the Magnolia State, but Morris says the flood of obituaries merely reminded her of an eulogy that Winter herself once wrote upon the death of a man formerly incarcerated at Parchman whom she had helped secure employment upon his release. 

During her remarks, Winter held up a dollar bill that the man had given her, a memento from his first-ever paycheck. She had kept it, all this time, and it had gained a deeper meaning for her with his death.

“(I am reminded) of the lessons about acceptance and compassion that he and the other inmates taught me,” Elise Winter concluded simply.

Donations in Elise Winter’s memory can be made to Habitat for Humanity, Mississippi Capital Area, 615 Stonewall St., Jackson, MS 39213. Memorial services will be held at a later date once it is safe to gather again.

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