Leaving a Legacy
Gift Keeps Memory Alive
Story by Susan Collins-Smith • Photo by Kevin Hudson
In 2016, Myrtle native Michael Hale was looking for a meaningful, lasting way to remember his late wife, Vicki M. Smith.
He knew a garden park in Myrtle and a donation benefiting the Mississippi State University Extension Service Master Gardener program would be fitting tributes and something that would have brought her joy—because of her love for flowers and for Myrtle.
Both Vicki and Michael were born and raised in the small town northwest of New Albany, and they built their retirement home there. They became certified Master Gardeners through the home horticulture training program in 2010.
With help from state Master Gardener leadership, Michael put together a plan to build a 2-acre garden on property he owns in Myrtle. Additional land is available to make the garden as large as 5 acres, but it will be built in phases. The garden will include an educational building and landscaped spaces to accommodate meetings, family gatherings, and individual enjoyment.
Vicki contributed to the community throughout her life, even though her career kept her on the move—first as a flight attendant with Delta Airlines and later with Michael in the family business.
“Vicki loved Myrtle, and philanthropy was important to her, even in small ways,” Michael explains.
As a student, she was an accomplished dancer and pianist, successfully representing Myrtle and Union County in many county, regional, and state contests. Even in high school, she felt it was important to give back through her talents by teaching tap, ballet, and jazz to younger students.
In the late 1990s when her mother needed a nursing-care facility, Vicki established and directed the Sunshine Inn, Union County’s only designated assisted-living facility.
“While she was visiting different facilities, trying to find one for her mother, she decided that Myrtle needed a small boutique home in a quiet, country setting where residents could enjoy fresh air, flowers, and personal attention,” Michael says. “She wanted to provide a caring environment where each resident enjoyed an atmosphere of top-quality care.”
In early 2009, Vicki had a stroke, leaving her partially paralyzed and confined to a wheelchair. But she still had enthusiasm for life and gardening. She convinced Michael to join her in the Master Gardener training sessions held at the Extension office in Union County. The Master Gardener program offers individuals 40 hours of training in home-horticulture topics in exchange for their volunteer service.
“Vicki was the gardener. She loved to have beautiful flowers and plants in the landscape. She did all the work while I sat by the pool and admired her projects,” Michael laughs.
The Master Gardener program offered Vicki a social and creative outlet in spite of her physical challenges.
“It seems like some of your friends forget you when you go through trials in life, but we made a new set of friends by doing this,” Michael says. “Vicki was limited in what she could do, but the Extension staff, Master Gardener president Lisa James, and the other class members were great to us. They always made her comfortable and helped her participate to the fullest of her ability.”
Gina Wills, Extension agent in Union County, said the Master Gardener program was a great fit for Vicki.
“Vicki and Michael were very active in the group,” Wills recalls. “It was something you could tell that they enjoyed. They are service-minded people and our Master Gardeners are very involved in our local area.
“Our community calls on Master Gardeners all the time. They have a strong relationship with civic groups and organizations who call on them for volunteer service on a regular basis. People trust them because they know they are reliable and informed,” Wills explains.
In additional to the garden park, Michael made a generous donation to Vicki’s memory to Extension through the MSU Foundation. Funds will be used to help expand the Master Gardener program in counties all over the state by buying supplies for projects and providing for other similar needs.
“We are grateful to Mr. Hale for this generous gift to the Master Gardener program,” Extension Director Dr. Gary Jackson says. “We look forward to working with him to grow the program statewide and to honor his wife, Vicki.”