Vocal Mississippi Education Leader Retires

Maryann Graczyk proudly pointed to a picture of her standing with Richard Dreyfuss. She has rubbed elbows with celebrities, politicians, and prominent Mississippians during her 50-year education-career.

"I'm very proud of what I've done."

That long career came to an end in Mississippi, far from where it began. Graczyk started teaching at the age of 17 in New York. She was diagnosed with uterine cancer and was sent to Keesler for treatment. It was a move she dreaded.

"I got down on my knees and said good Jesus in heaven, what did I do to get sent to MS? At that particular time, it was just the culmination of the civil rights movement and that was going on heavily in the state and we were leery about coming here."

Graczyk says she walked into a Harrison County school and was surprised at the classroom conditions.

"It was stifling hot in warm weather months, and so cold in cold weather months. There were no materials."

Graczyk says she noticed other problems teachers were facing -- low pay, barely any benefits, and very little respect. In the early 70s, Graczyk helped organize a local chapter of the teacher's union, American Federation of Teachers, to bring about change.

"Mississippi is not a union friendly state and the administrators here were very frightened if unions came into their schools."

She put up a stubborn fight for teacher's rights, despite being threatened and harassed.

"We're much better off now in terms of schools. They have supplies in them that weren't there before. We have certified personnel. Many places have smaller classes. The salaries are better. The benefits are there, when they didn't exist."

As Graczyk packed away the memories Friday, she recalled her biggest achievement -- pushing for a law that requires air conditioning in every classroom.

"I almost cried. I had to get up and walk out of the meeting because I knew where it had started, and those of us who were almost fired because of this and were constantly harassed."

Graczyk said all her hard work over the years has paid off.

"The toughest part of my job was just trying to convince people that our union was a good thing. We weren't out there to cause trouble. We were out there to benefit the school district and kids."

MAFT vice-president Greg Kelly will take over Graczyk's job. Graczyk plans to continue doing education consulting work and write a research project on the history of the AFT.