Elizabeth Gwin, 1909-2014 Photo by: Chris Jenkins/MUW University Relations
August 13, 2014 10:37:01 AM
Elizabeth Gwin, a spark of a woman whose passion for helping others burned for more than a century and led her to become a trailblazing Girl Scout and one of the most cherished, enthusiastic Mississippi University for Women alumna, has died.
She was 105.
Welch Funeral Home in Starkville is handling arrangements, which are incomplete at this time.
Gwin died Tuesday. She was the oldest living MUW alum.
A Spanish major, she graduated in 1930. During her senior year the university's yearbook described her as a woman with "good common sense, a clear mind and excellent judgment."
That description, the people who knew her said, stood true until she died at home in Starkville.
MUW President Jim Borsig, who said Gwin's presence alone commanded respect, said the university community feels her loss.
"(She) was an elegant and eloquent representative of her alma mater, a role model to countless young people and cherished not only by The W, but by all who knew her," Borsig said in a statement Tuesday. "She enriched our lives and I will miss her wise counsel and boundless optimism."
She was born in 1909 and grew up on Seventh Street South in Columbus. After graduating from The W, she married Howell Gwin. The couple lived in the Delta for a while, where Elizabeth Gwin taught piano.
But they eventually moved to New York City so Howell Gwin could pursue a doctorate at Columbia University. Once there, Elizabeth Gwin, looking to help with the family's finances, answered a newspaper advertisement for a modeling job and was hired by the Charles Amour agency.
Many years later, when remembering her stint as a New York City fashion model, Gwin credited Emma Ody Pohl, a longtime dance professor at The W, with teaching her how to walk a runway.
The Gwin family landed back in Mississippi when Howell Gwin took a teaching position at MSU. It was then that Elizabeth Gwin became heavily involved in Girl Scouts. It was a relationship that lasted more than 40 years. Her impact on that organization is still felt today.
She started as a volunteer and became the executive director for the Prairie Hills Girl Scout Council, which is now known as Girl Scouts Heart of the South. People who knew her said she was quick to offer praise and gentle in persuasion. During her tenure, council membership grew from 400 to 5,000 and she was instrumental in securing the land for Camp Tik-A-Witha in Van Vleet, near the Tombigbee National Forest, according to the Girl Scouts Alumnae Association website.
Jenny Jones, the senior director of community engagement with Girl Scouts Heart of the South, said that without Gwin, Camp Tik-A-Witha would not exist today.
"Ms. Gwin was an example of everything Girl Scouting," Jones said when contacted Tuesday. "A woman of courage, confidence and character who truly made the world a better place...she will be missed but never forgotten for her legacy."
Throughout her life, Gwin kept close with her university. She served as a MUW Alumni Association Board member (president, 1988-89) and was also a Foundation Board member. Two years ago she spoke on campus at the rededication of Poindexter Hall. She was 103. She needed no notes.
"She was a very inspiring, dedicated leader," Allegra Brigham, interim president at MUW from 2010-2011, said on Tuesday evening. "She was a first-class lady, a gentle lady."
Brigham, referencing Gwin's brief modeling career, said she always carried herself with class.
"Just an incredible human being," Brigham said.
After her husband died, Gwin lived alone in Starkville, where she would serve guests Cajun coffee and homemade cheese straws. She kept her hair bobbed, stayed active in her church and walked two miles each day.
In an interview earlier this year, she hinted that the key to a long, blessed life could be found in a search for purpose.
"I was just a little old Columbus girl," she said, "but I've been fortunate. Of course, I've lost loved ones in the length of my life, but I have had no dramatic crises. I've just been living and staying busy. I believe in seeking challenges."
Dispatch reporters Nathan Gregory and Sarah Fowler contributed to this story. Material was also culled from a column published by The Dispatch in March that was written by Betty Stone.