When Fannye Cook was born in Mississippi in 1889, women were not allowed to vote. They couldn’t serve on juries. Some states had yet to officially grant women control over their own earnings. In a time when females were often regarded as unsuited to science, business or politics, Cook rewrote the script. 


The inquisitive farmer’s daughter from Crystal Springs grew up to become a meticulous scientist and a tenacious champion of wildlife conservation in her home state, where unchecked trapping, logging and market hunting were taking a dire toll. She died in 1964, but audiences will have an opportunity to “meet” the intrepid Fannye when she makes a visit to her alma mater, Mississippi University for Women, during homecoming.  


Cathy Shropshire, as Cook, along with Marion Barnwell and Libby Hartfield, co-editors of the recently-released “Fannye Cook: Mississippi’s Pioneering Conservationist,” will meet the public at The W’s Fant Memorial Library at 2 p.m. March 23. 




Who is Fannye Cook? 


The people of Mississippi and its wildlife owe a debt of gratitude to Cook that can never be repaid, writes Mississippi Wildlife Federation Executive Director Brad Young for the jacket of the book released in December 2017 by The University Press of Mississippi.  


After graduating in 1911 from the Industrial Institute and College (now MUW), Cook went on to become the driving force behind creation of the Mississippi Game and Fish Commission — now the Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks.  


She founded and directed the Mississippi Museum of Natural Science (initially called the State Wildlife Museum). She led the push to create a system of wildlife management areas and to protect the Gulf of Mexico barrier islands. She reveled in “the early rising on an April morning in preparation for the quest of wild turkeys and the quiet entering into mixed pine and oak forest … ” And she exulted in “wading through acres of swamp water infested with alligator and cottonmouth moccasins to reach heronries … ” Such an outing, she once said, “gives rise to emotions of fear and exhilaration not produced by any other experience.”  


It’s fitting that a book about such an accomplished woman is the collaborative effort of four other women of achievement.  




Friends and colleagues 


Delta State University educator and The W’s 1998 Alumni Achievement Award recipient Dorothy Shawhan authored the book, but when Shawhan unexpectedly passed away in 2014 during the second editing, Marion Barnwell and Libby Hartfield stepped in as co-editors to see the project through. 


Barnwell is a writer and professor emerita of English at Delta State. Hartfield is director emerita of the Mississippi Museum of Natural Science and co-host of “Creature Comforts” on Mississippi Public Radio. 


“Dorothy and I were really great friends,” Barnwell said. “I knew that when she died I would do whatever I could to finish the book.” Hartfield, who became fast friends with Shawhan during the book process, felt the same way.  


Enter Cathy Shropshire. 




In character 


Shropshire portrays Cook in half-hour presentations being made at universities, book stores, museums, nature weekends and any other setting where a message of determination and conservation resonates. The Jackson area wildlife biologist has much in common with the woman she portrays. Shropshire served for more than 11 years as executive director of the Mississippi Wildlife Federation and is retired from the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks.  


Cook’s life was a full one; choosing what to include in the theatrical enactment wasn’t easy. Shropshire, however, sorted out priorities. 


“I want people to understand the kind of time she was living in. I want them to understand she was stubborn. I want them to understand she cared very much about education, that she enjoyed her fieldwork and that she was a religious person. … I want them to understand she didn’t let anything stand in her way,” said Shropshire. 


“Cathy has an ability to portray her in such an uncanny way,” Barnwell said. “She does make the things Fannye Cook did come alive.” 


Hartfield remarked, “She becomes Fannye Cook. It adds something so special to the book signings.” 


Experiences that informed the advocate Cook came to be are varied — from teaching in the Panama Canal Zone (as well as in West Point and Louisville), to working for the Internal Revenue Service in Washington, D.C., and with the Smithsonian.  


“And there was such an interesting connection between Fannye and Eudora Welty, who also went to MUW,” Hartfield pointed out. Cook boarded with the Welty family for many years. Eudora sometimes included anecdotes about the interesting tenant in her letters.  


One passage read: “Once in the West she was climbing a mountain and as she got level with the top, she saw a rattlesnake looking right into her eyes. She just looked right back. She knew all about him.” 


More about the Cook-Welty connection is found in the book, which is already in its second printing. 


“It’s been very popular,” said Barnwell. “I think part of it is because people want to hear this one-woman show. I think it’s magic to have somebody portray Fannye Cook.” 


While Cook was a well-known scientist in her day, Hartfield said, her accomplishments are probably not more widely known today, at least in part, because she was a woman in a period when men dominated the world of science.  


Cook’s dedication to the natural world never wavered. On the day before she died, in April 1964, she led a group of young people on a bird-watching expedition, at the age of 75. Her indomitable spirit emerges again in Shawhan’s book about her life, completed by her friends Barnwell and Hartfield, and in Shropshire’s enactment. 


“I wish so much that Dorothy could be here, but I think she would be very happy that the three of us are doing this,” Barnwell said. 


One high point of the journey for the friends was the November 2016 dedication of the Fannye Cook Natural Area, about 2,600 acres of green space in Rankin County. Several of the Cook family were able to attend. Shropshire was there as Cook. 


“What made me feel good was I did do a small speaking part in the dedication … Fannye’s niece was there, and she apparently turned to her cousin and said, ‘She’s just like her.'” 


Editor’s note: The Fannye Cook presentation at 2 p.m. March 23 at Fant Memorial Library is open to the public. See the complete MUW Homecoming schedule at longblueline.muw.edu.


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