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MNA leader champions state’s nurses, eyes higher ground

Ricki Garrett has managed a hiking store, taught school and helped others hone etiquette skills. Since 2004, she’s represented the state’s 37,000 nurses.

But “W” alums know her best as “Miss Poole.”

“I was awarded the Emma Ody Poole fellowship to attend the graduate school of my choice, given each year to the student who best exemplified Miss Poole, the infamous physical education teacher at the ‘W,’” explained Garrett, executive director of the Mississippi Nurses Association, who graduated from the Mississippi University for Women in 1973.

Garrett’s accomplishments come as no surprise to those closest to her. Boot camp started early in life for Garrett, the eldest of two daughters born to Charles, then a lobbyist for BellSouth, and Sissy Rayner, a homemaker. The tight-knit family of four also owned and operated The Camping Center and The Hinushi Trading Post, Jackson’s first hiking store. Influenced heavily by strong schoolteachers, Garrett followed in their footsteps and taught English at Jackson Preparatory School for three years after earning a master’s degree from Ole Miss.

In 1992, when her two sons, Walker and Oliver, were in the eighth and fifth grades, Gov. Kirk Fordice appointed her to a 12-year term on the State College Board. A month into the appointment, she found herself immersed in the controversial Ayers Desegregation Case, and the volunteer position quickly turned into a demanding, full-time role.

“The United States Supreme Court had remanded the Ayers desegregation case back to the state,” explained Garrett. “Judge Biggers asked the College Board and the plaintiffs to develop a proposal, and the College Board proposed closing two institutions — Mississippi Valley State University and Mississippi University for Women, my alma mater. It didn’t make any sense to me to solve a desegregation case by closing a historically black and a historically female university, so I was one of two board members to vote against it.”

During the trial in Oxford, Garrett was subpoenaed by the plaintiffs to testify against the College Board plan.

“It was the most difficult thing I’ve ever had to do, but I’m proud that both Mississippi Valley and the ‘W’ are thriving today,” she said. “I think if you’re straight with people and do what you say you’re going to do, although they might not agree with you, they respect your decision.”

Garrett continued to be an influential voice for the Institutions of Higher Learning. In 1995, she helped establish a statewide College Fair, which has become a successful annual event. In 1999, she was elected College Board president, and until her term ended, she also represented the state on the Council of Board Chairs for the National Association of Governing Boards. She also served as board vice president for Mississippi EdNet and presided over the Mississippi Stadium Commission. She was governor-appointed to the Mississippi Commission for Volunteer Service.

Nearly a decade after her College Board appointment, Garrett and her two-years-younger sister and best pal, Susan Puckett, established Etiquette and Protocol Associates to teach business etiquette, dining skills and international protocol to business executives — attributes that became even more important for Mississippi leaders after Nissan and Toyota contributed significantly to the international presence in the state.

Soon acknowledged as leadership material by her peers in healthcare circles, Garrett was elected chair of the Southeastern Executive Directors of the American Nurses Association soon after taking over as executive director of the Mississippi Nurses Association. On the state level, she was charged with tripling the association membership and improving educational opportunities for nursing school applicants to help cure the prevailing nursing shortage.

Garrett quickly became involved with the Mississippi Society of Association Executives and American Society of Association Executives. That same year, Garrett was awarded the “W’s” first Woman of the Year Award.

To boost her understanding of higher education, Garrett is in the process of completing a Ph.D. from Jackson State University. “I’m writing my dissertation now and hope to graduate in August,” she said. “It’s been so wonderful being a student again. It’s been a challenge with a full-time job, but it’s also one of the most satisfying things I’ve ever done.”

At press time, she was also preparing for the June 21 wedding of her son, Walker, an Army air traffic controller stationed in Germany. She and her husband of three decades, Jesse, a long-time pharmacist with the VA Medical Center in Jackson, will host the event at the family’s home in Clinton. The couple’s younger son, Oliver, is a Nickelodeon set production assistant.

“I have so many goals that it’s difficult to fit them all into one lifetime,” admitted Garrett. “Although I haven’t run for public office yet, I’ve always thought it would be interesting to serve in an elected position. I also love higher education and would enjoy serving as a university president. But I don’t know of anything more interesting and challenging than what I’m doing now. Nurses are unsung heroes, and I’m honored to represent them.”

Contact MBJ contributing writer Lynne W. Jeter at Lynne.Jeter@gmail.com.


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