2011 · STORIES
by Susan Lassetter on December 04, 2011
When Monica French and David Holifield began to clear out their grandmother's attic, they expected to find some insight into their family's history. Instead of uncovering just a few keepsakes, what they found was a nearly complete record of the life of Lay West Sr., their great-grandfather.
"We had a lot of boxes to go through because they had saved everything, but through some digging we were able to put things in order and piece together the story of his life," French explained.
A native of McCarley, West earned an electrical engineering degree in 1906 from Mississippi State, which was known at the time as Mississippi A&M. He went on to work as a draftsman for Timkin Roller Bearing before joining the Works Progress Administration during the Great Depression.
French explained that times were tough and after his graduation, West would travel to where there was work, often leaving his wife, Zilpha Amabelle Hill, and three children—Laura Louise, Lay Jr. and Betty Jane—at home.
"He would go to wherever there were engineering jobs, just living out of a tent with a cot. He would be gone for months at a time and would send money back to his family," French said. "If you look at his resume you can see that he only stayed places a few months at a time, but he had steady work and that's what mattered back then."
Neither French nor Holifield was surprised to discover that their great-grandfather had to make sacrifices in order to provide for his family; it was a fairly common experience for people who lived through the Depression. However they were surprised to discover the lengths he went to in order to indulge his natural desire to learn.
"He was continuously trying to learn and would sock away money in order to pay for lessons," French said. "He took flying lessons even though he didn't have a plane and couldn't go anywhere. He took painting lessons even though he wasn't an artist. It didn't seem to matter what it was, as long as he was learning."
"And when she says 'he socked it away,' she means that literally," added Cynthia Martin, one of West's grandchildren. "He would keep money in socks in the back of his filing cabinet. When he passed away we found a sock full of quarters with a note that indicated it was for repairing his old Chevy so that he could drive again."
Martin said that West would probably be considered a "techie" today because he always had to have the latest technology, which in his day meant becoming the first in his neighborhood to have a telephone. He raised his own telephone poles so that he could tie into the city's lines a quarter of a mile away.
"My fondest memories of Pa involve his electrical engineering training," Martin said. "Even the memory of him giving me a transistor radio for my birthday. I really wanted a doll, but by getting 'me' the radio he could investigate the technology and listen to the news when he sat outside watching me play."
West was also an avid reader. The family found lots of textbooks and non-fiction books that were his.
"We can tell they were his because he would make notes in the margins if he disagreed with something," French said. "It's not uncommon to find whole paragraphs written on the side or things marked out and words changed."
Texts weren't the only things West would take issue with. Because of his socially conscious nature, he took the initiative to write to politicians and public figures when he was upset with a policy or believed something was wrong. Holifield said they found files containing copies of letters he had sent out, and in many cases a reply from the recipient.
"If he got upset about something he would write a letter—-to the governor, congressmen, even J. Edgar Hoover," Holifield said. "The neat thing is these men responded. It's interesting to read."
It was somewhat surprising to the family to discover that West was so outspoken about public matters, because he was very reserved about his personal life. Martin fondly describes her grandfather as stoic. She said he wasn't one to get emotional or reminisce about his past, with one notable exception: the night Mississippi State's Old Main dormitory burned down.
Home to more than 40,000 men during its 40-year lifespan, Old Main was legendary for its rowdy residents and their hi-jinks.
"I remember we were watching the news and they showed Old Main burning. He said it felt like loosing a friend," Martin recalled. "That's the only time I remember seeing him cry and one of the few times that he actually sat and told stories. He said those were some of his best memories. He dearly loved Mississippi State. Because of him I knew to stand and sing the fight song before I even knew the Pledge of Allegiance."
Holifield added, "He was very proud of MSU. That's one thing that is obvious from going through his things. He was active in the Alumni Association and stayed in touch with many of his classmates. Even though he traveled all around the country during his life, he never lost his love for Mississippi State."
Among the discoveries made in the family's storage spaces was West's well-preserved university uniform from 1906, as well as countless photos and documents, which include report cards, football game programs, admissions materials, and even a letter offering him a subscription to the new, weekly edition of The Reflector. There were also notebooks full of engineering class notes, and a stack of letters he and his future wife exchanged while he was away at MSU during their courtship.
The family donated the uniform and copies of the Mississippi State-related photos and documents to the University Archives where they can be preserved in order to help pass on the history of MSU and its students to the next generation.