Published on Monday, June 25, 2018
Media Contact: Alana Bowman
Nestled in a cabinet just around the corner from the dean’s office in the University of Mississippi School of Dentistry are six large three-ring binders labeled “SCRAPBOOK.” For the past 44 years, Agnes Triplett has been the keeper of these historical archives, but on Friday, June 29, she is going home and leaving the tomes to her successor.
Triplett has been a fixture at the school since before there was a school, before there was a physical building at least.
“I was the third person hired,” Triplett said. “There was the dean, Dr. Wally Mann, the first dean of the school, and there was Jane Cross who was his executive assistant. They were looking for a secretary.”
Triplett was married to her Brinkley High School sweetheart, Robert “Tripp” Triplett, and had just graduated from Jackson State University’s business administration program when she applied for the job.
“I had finished college, but I finished early, in December,” she said. “When I decided to march in May, I had already been working several months. I remember thinking I was the only person in line who had a job.”
She had received offers for two jobs, one with the federal government and the one she ultimately chose to accept at the new School of Dentistry which was authorized during the 1973 regular session by the Mississippi Legislature, House Bill No. 165.
The year was 1974, 11 short years from the date that Medgar Evers was killed in Jackson, an event that Triplett remembers well. She was in high school at the time. The Civil Rights movement was anything but distant history. Only four years earlier, the federal government had forced integration of Jackson Public Schools.
For a young, African American woman to be chosen for such a prestigious position was remarkable in a state like Mississippi, and her appointment did not go unnoticed.
“When I first started, the question that was asked most was, ‘How did you get the job? I know a lot of people who applied for that job. How did you get it?’” Triplett said. She was quick to let them know she was well qualified.
“Well, besides typing 100 words a minute and my interview, that was about it. I felt like if you did your work and did as good as you could, that was all that mattered,” she said. “So that’s the way I went with it. And I had Dr. Mann’s support.”
She said that Mann told her he loved the way she laughed and loved talking to her. “He said he just automatically liked me personally as an employee. I had some challenging situations, but not a lot of them – not enough to make me leave,” she said. “I just embraced them and went on. Rather than being hurt, I think it just made me more determined.”
About five or six years into Triplett’s time as secretary, Cross, the dean’s executive assistant, began to experience health issues. Triplett said that Cross was a single mom and a very hard worker.
“I had started noticing that her desk would just be bombarded with stuff,” Triplett said. “So I started getting things off her desk to try to help her. Finally, one day she came in my office and she said, ‘Agnes, I can't do it anymore.’" Cross recommended that Triplett take her place as executive assistant.
“I said, ‘I can't do your job.’” Triplett recounted. “She said, ‘You've been doing my job ever since I was sick.’"
Triplett said that when she was offered the position as executive assistant, she took is reluctantly. “I was afraid to take it,” she said. “I was nervous, but it worked out.” It continued to work out for the next eight deans and almost 40 more years.
Triplett said that with each new dean, she asked if they wanted her to continue on as executive assistant. “When you are executive assistant, you are really close to this person,” she said. “You learn their ins and outs. You learn their likes and dislikes. So you want to be the right person for the position.”
Triplett related that Dr. Perry M. McGinnis Jr., dean from 1992-2001, said, “That’s the first question Agnes asked me, and I’d be crazy if I didn’t keep her.”
“It's been a learning position,” Triplett said. “People say it's the same job, but it's really not. Every dean that has come in here has been totally different. Each dean has had totally different approaches to situations and problems at the school. It hasn't been the same.”
For example, Dr. Wallace Mann, first dean, was a precise and formal man who took pride in writing the perfect letter.
“I remember distinctly that he was a writer. He loved to write,” Triplett said of Mann. “He and Barbara Austin kicked it off right away because she liked to write as well.” Austin is the former director of public affairs at UMMC.
“He was very particular with his letters,” Triplett said. “We had a rough time going through letters because we battled over commas and semicolons.” She said Mann was a perfectionist and getting one letter completed felt like it took forever. “When it was done, it was a work of art.”
When Mann left the school, Dr. Harold Grupe, chair of periodontology, served as interim dean for about six months. “He loved being dean,” Triplett said. “He said that was the best time of his life.”
Following Grupe as dean was Dr. John H. Hembree. He was dean from 1987-92.
“He was so different,” Triplett said. “I had worked for Dr. Mann who was strict and precise and accurate, and then I had a dean who said, ‘I guess I'll wear socks today.’ It went from one extreme to the other. He was a character. That's all I can say.”
She said that Hembree insisted that his calendar be worked around his deer hunting schedule. During a time of upheaval at the school – when the school barely avoided being closed – Hembree’s genial personality and laid-back attitude smoothed disagreements and provided balance, Triplett said.
“That was the most horrible thing that ever happened when I was here,” she said of the close call. Determined to “go down with the ship,” Triplett said she’d stay to write the last memo to whomever it needed to go. In the end, Hembree was successful in smoothing ruffled feathers to keep the school open.
At a recent reception celebrating Triplett’s retirement, Dr. David Felton, ninth and current dean, said, “As most of us who have served in this capacity will tell you, we actually work for Agnes rather than her working for us. She's been a great emissary for the dental school. She has incredible institutional knowledge that we will dearly miss.” He also pointed out her love of gardening and popcorn and her skill as a backseat driver.
“Agnes has been great to work for,” Felton said.
There were several students from the first class to graduate from the dental school in attendance at the reception: Dr. John Smith, interim assistant dean for student affairs, assistant dean for admissions; Dr. Frances Gordy, professor; and Dr. Daniel Quon, professor.
Smith said that the school will be losing a “treasure of information.” He said a phrase he repeated often was, “Go see if Agnes can tell you.”
“I will always remember Agnes’s funny little laugh and appreciate the kind and helpful lady that she is,” Gordy said.
“Agnes is the glue that holds the dental school together,” said Quon.
In remarks at her retirement reception, Triplett could not help being a little emotional.
“I will truly miss my interactions with all the faculty, staff and students,” she said. “I have developed lasting friendships. I'm honored to have worked here at the University of Mississippi School of Dentistry. I will miss everyone.”
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