By STEVEN NALLEY
James Stidham wears cowboy boots to work every day.
His office is full of cowboy memorabilia: cardboard standees of Clint Eastwood and John Wayne, a John Wayne clock and a straw hat fashioned by faculty at Millsaps Career and Technology Center into a “John Wayne Award.” For the past 25 years, Stidham has been director of Millsaps, and Millsaps Teacher Academy instructor Patty Newsom said she will be sad to see him go.
“He will be missed sorely,” Newsom said. “We were one of the first three Teacher Academy programs to open in Mississippi, and he supplied me with all the technology I needed to teach with, like SMART Boards and computers, so that I could teach my students how to become teachers. On his behalf, we will always do what’s right and best for the students because that was his motto. He (will leave) big boots to fill.”
Stidham will be retiring from Millsaps at the end of the month, leaving a legacy that has kept Millsaps on the cutting edge of career technology for more than two decades.
Before becoming director of Millsaps, Stidham said, he was director of the Webster County Career and Technology Center. In July, the Mississippi Department of Education honored Stidham for a total of 30 years of service as the longest-serving career and technical program director in Mississippi.
Stidham explained his decision to end this long career in three words.
“I got old,” Stidham said. “I’m 63 years old. I’ve totally enjoyed my position here. I can’t say enough for Starkville as a community and the way they’ve treated me. I couldn’t ask for a better place to work. I think it’s just time to change leadership. I don’t want us to stand still. I think it’s time to go forward.”
Linda Jack, agricultural science teacher at Millsaps, said avoiding stagnation has always been important to Stidham. Not only has he pushed his faculty and his students to be their best, she said, but he also built connections with state education officials to ensure the students and teachers have the best technology and other assets available.
“He has been very good at locating us funding so we can afford the new technology (and) the new equipment,” Jack said. “Because of his involvement in professional organizations, he’s been on the cutting edge of new programs. He has a very high work ethic and expects that of his faculty and his students.”
Millsaps horticulture teacher Rusty Coats said when he first came to Millsaps, there was only one greenhouse on campus. Today, he said, there are three greenhouses, largely because of the premium Stidham places on progress and success. He said Stidham also created an awards banquet to celebrate Millsaps students’ success at competitions, and his support has allowed Coats and Jack to build a successful, competitive Future Farmers of America chapter.
“I have been here 20 years ... (and I have) been teaching 30 years, (and) I’ve never been around a man I respect more,” Coats said. “I was telling him the other day, when I found out he was retiring, that my daddy, my high school basketball coach and Jamie Stidham were right there together.”
Coats said Stidham has built a program where students understand they are being trained for careers and behave professionally. Stidham’s secretary, Stephanie Sherman, said Stidham is also flexible with his faculty, understanding the importance of putting family first.
“He really creates an atmosphere of teamwork and cooperation and consideration for each other,” Sherman said. “It really is a family group here. (He) definitely (has) a personal caring for all his employees, while maintaining his authority every morning in this building. There is so much respect for him. He will be missed a great deal.”
Stidham said he has seven grandchildren, and he plans to devote more time to them, babysitting, going to ball games and being a grandfather. He also has a small horse farm, and he said his wife has given him a special opportunity to bring out his inner cowboy in retirement.
“My wife has bought me a brand new tractor as a retirement gift,” Stidham said. “I’ve never had a new tractor before. I’m ready to go to work.”