Over the last couple weeks, Jackson lost several bright lights of our big city. We salute the memory of three who will be missed by many. Thalia Mara moved to Jackson in 1975 at the age of 64, the age when most of us are planning our retirement.
She came to start a professional, national-level ballet company, the Jackson Ballet. After growing frustrated with the small audiences for dance performances, she convinced city leaders to secure the International Ballet Competition for Jackson in order to raise appreciation for ballet, says her niece Leanne Mahoney, now the director of the Thalia Mara Arts International Foundation. Securing the IBC has raised the city's stature as a hub for the arts, even as it has created an audience for fine performance. Every four years the IBC returns to the city it first put on the international map in 1979. The fact that Jackson has also been the site of the international exhibits from Russia, France and Spain, as well as "The Glory of Baroque Dresden"—opening March 1, 2004—can be traced, in part, to the international exposure generated by the IBC.
Mara was IBC artistic director until 1994, when she turned her focus to the foundation she had created in 1991, to "preserve, nurture and advance the education, understanding and love of the arts in all their manifestations," as the foundation's mission statement reads. The foundation brought the World Performance Series to Jackson in 1999, giving the area the gift of world-class events.
Those who knew her well say Mara will be best remembered as a mentor who inspired her students far beyond dance; they take the lessons she taught into the rest of their lives. Vicksburg native Anna Fowler, now 43 and running her own dance studio in Santa Rose Beach, Fla., started studying with Mara at age 15 in Jackson. "I really feel like Ms. Mara changed my life completely. I was a young dancer, and she gave me the confidence to become a professional." Fowler says she could not have attended Julliard at age 17 or danced professionally in companies such as the Berlin Ballet without the influence and support of Mara. "She cared about me as an individual."
In 2000, Blue Cross Blue Shield named Mara an Ageless Hero. On their Web page, Mara is quoted as saying: "What brings me the most satisfaction is to have been able to contribute to the growth and development of the natural talents of many Mississippians and to have contributed to raising the consciousness of Mississippians to the greatness of this state and its people."
Larry McCool, a popular auctioneer and volunteer spokesman for legislation banning smoking in public places, has lost his fight with lung cancer. McCool had never smoked and was convinced that his disease was the result of second-hand smoke. His doctor, Ralph Vance, joined McCool in a moving public service announcement about the dangers of second-hand smoke. McCool's last statement on it, "We should all accept the responsibility of leaving our children clean air," is a challenge to Mississippians who care about others.
We will also miss the warm smile and exuberance of Roger Haverfield, who was a waiter at George Street Grocery for many years. Wearing his signature straw hat, the Belhaven resident was one of those classic Jackson figures who never seemed to forget a face. His passing has left a serious void. May he, and all of our lost heroes, rest in peace.