It was June 6th, 1931. The smell of flowers swirled through the Thornwell campus on that warm spring afternoon. For eleven classmates it was graduation day, and for one of them, this day would bring so much joy to loved ones ninety years later.
“I was going through a collection of family memorabilia and articles of things that’s my sister collected,” said Russell Benton
Attempting to trace his family history, Benton discovered a picture of young men donning suits and young ladies in white gowns.
“[I] didn’t realize what it was when I first ran across it. But inside along with the photograph was an invitation for the graduation for that particular year,” he explained.
Russell would soon learn that the woman in the picture was his late mother, M’liss Cook.
Cook was just 12 years old when she came to live at Thornwell in 1924. Living here meant she and her younger sister and brother could stay together following the death of their parents.
“I think it was one of the most important things in their life,” Benton explained.
It was also here at Thornwell that M’liss found a passion for education. It was a passion that fueled her to reach her graduation day in 1931, and exactly 90 years later an important moment to honor her legacy.
“I said to myself, I need to get in touch with sis and see if we can go over there on that particular day and just remember the occasion,” said Benton.
So, he and his sister did just that on June 6, 2021.
She graduated exactly ninety years ago today,” Benton explained. “I wouldn’t have missed it for anything.”
As they traveled on the same pathways their mother walked, the same smell of flowers greeted them with each step down memory lane.
“There are certain milestones in people’s lives and milestones are very important. As a historian I’m keenly aware of historical dates and milestones in people’s lives,” Benton explained.
You see that milestone for M’liss Cook would be the generational spark for a long line of educators in her family.
“We have three generations of educators in our family, and it goes back to mom getting that diploma right here 90 years ago,” said Benton. “I became an educator in part because my mom had a strong belief in education. She instilled in us the value of and education and the one she received here. She was the inspiring force in my life.”
It was a force that was a ripple effect in reaching thousands of students over 90 years and unlocking limitless potential for their futures.
But on this day, it was a time to reminisce and to walk in the steps of a young woman who graduated here long ago and spent a lifetime pouring into others.
Today, her children carry on that tradition.
“I have always contributed to Thornwell in honor of her and the love she had for the place,” said Benton. “I just think you guys are doing a great job here and I know mom would be intensely proud, she and her siblings loved this place and I think she would be absolutely delighted that it’s in such good shape and going strong.”