Mildred Brown was sorting through her mother Mildred Butler’s things when she stumbled across a piece of Liberty County history, a photo of young girls and their mentors from the Cosmopolitan Club at the 1982 World’s Fair in Knoxville, Tennessee.
She knew right off she had found something important, a piece of history her mother, Mildred Butler, had held on to for more than 30 years.
“Many of the women in the photo still live in Liberty County and have gone on to do wonderful things,” Brown said.
Among the women in the photo is Verdell Jones, now vice chair of the Liberty County Board of Education and a business owner with her own State Farm agency.
In 1982, Jones was in her 20s and did some volunteering with the Liberty County Cosmopolitan Club, a service organization with roots that go back 40 years. That earned her an invitation to the World’s Fair.
“I’m adventurous and I’m always looking for an opportunity to explore and spread my wings, so when they asked me to go my answer was an immediate yes,” Jones said. “I do remember being at the World’s Fair and just being able to experience some of the things that happen in different countries.”
Jones went on to live in Italy for six years. Her husband was in the U.S. Air Force and she visited several European countries. She’s now a business owner and licensed minister. She’s started a ministry called 18-33, a faith-based lifestyle networking ministry designed to reach people between those ages.
The Cosmopolitan Club, with roots that go back 40 years, was a likely inspiration.
“Those ladies (of the Cosmopolitan Club) were so unselfish. They gave of their time, energy and resources to pour into our life. It is a direct result in helping us become who we are. The trip was one thing but was more important was that group of women who felt the need to give back and help the younger ladies. They’re in my hero club.”
And she has some advice for the girl she was in the 1982 photo. “Dream bigger and trust God more,” Jones said.
Since its founding, the Cosmopolitan Club has served Liberty County in a number of ways. It raises money for scholarships for high school seniors and volunteers in community service activities. It also hosts the annual Miss Teenage Liberty County pageant.
Janet Bryant Jones, a kindergarten teacher at Liberty Elementary School, was the 1981 Miss Teenage Liberty County pageant winner.
Perhaps 15 at the time, she made the trip to Knoxville.
“I did enjoy the trip. We learned a lot from the different countries represented there but the main thing that stood out was the long bus ride,” Bryant Jones said.
She already knew she wanted to be a teacher.
“Ms. Butler was a substitute teacher. I guess I wanted to follow in her footsteps,” Bryant Jones said. “I knew a lot of women that were teachers in my church and I had a lot of role models.”
Bryant Jones had a child soon after graduating from high school and decided to continue her education. It took her six years of night school and weekend courses until she accomplished her goal of being a teacher. She has taught in Liberty County for about 17 years.
Bryant Jones’ advice to the person she was in 1982?
“Just follow your dreams no matter how long it takes and don’t give up. Never give up.”
Ronda Gross Walthour came back from the World’s Fair with a crystal reindeer set she gifted to her mother.
“The set was a reindeer with two little babies. I don’t know why I bought that,” she said laughing. “I thought that was the neatest thing. I remember the trip but the only thing I remember from the trip was the little gift I bought back to her.”
Walthour works for the Liberty County Board of Elections office. She is the senior elections assistant and deputy registrar. And what wisdom would she impart to the girl she was in 1982?
“Strive for excellence in all you do and do everything that you do for the Lord,” Walthour said.
Deputy Vernecia Mells of the Liberty County Sheriff’s Office was a 14-year-old pageant contestant in 1982. She recalled doing a dramatic monologue by Nikki Giovanni, an American poet and writer, for her talent showcase.
But the trip was the real eye opener.
“The trip exposed me to an area I probably wouldn’t have ever gone to,” Mells said. “I’m grateful for every opportunity afforded me during those childhood days.”
As a teen, Mells wanted to be an administrative clerk because she was fascinated with dressing up in suits and high heels. She did administrative work from 1989 to 1996 for the University of Georgia extension office.
She started working as a deputy under sheriff Don Martin. Mells said she never considered working in law enforcement, but realized it was another way to help people.
Now, Mells is also an ordained minister and pastor for a church in Screven County. She would tell the girl in the photo that was her to “Never give up on your dreams. View obstacles as opportunities. It doesn’t matter where you come from, it’s where you’re going and to know that you can do all things through Christ.”
Barbara Lloyd, a patient account representative with Liberty Regional Medical Center, was another pageant contestant. She said she doesn’t remember much about the trip, only how “very prominent the club was.”
“Those older ladies really put their heart and soul into getting candidates for the pageant,” Lloyd said, adding that she hopes kids today always follow their dreams and have good self-esteem.
Dr. Sonia Bacon was 11 when the photo was taken. Her grandmother, Lola Dixon, was a member of the club.
“I spent a considerable amount of time with the adults in the organization and they always took a particular interest in educating young people and exposing them to unique experiences,” Bacon said.
Bacon said when they got to Knoxville she expected to see a huge theme park. The first thing she noticed was the Sunsphere, the symbol of the 1982 World’s Fair and an indication that it wasn’t the typical fair, she said.
“I remember a lot of exhibits related to science. At the time, it all seemed futuristic,” Bacon said. “There was so much that I didn’t understand at the time which made it difficult to store in memory. The most memorable displays were the Sunsphere, the representations of different countries and the Coke exhibit.”
Bacon’s favorite memory from the trip was listening to the older women speak about how advanced the world was in 1982 compared to their childhood. Their stories made her think about the future and the importance of science.
“After experiencing the World’s Fair, I better understood that scientists are real humans working each day to make life better,” Bacon said.
Back then Bacon wanted to study the human brain. The fair opened her mind about physical science and the possibilities of new technology.
“The World’s Fair made The Jetson’s lifestyle seem less like a cartoon and more likely to happen in my lifetime,” she said.
Bacon became a teacher. She taught physical science and worked in the technology department for the Liberty County Board of Education, and said she wants to continue to make young people aware there’s world beyond Liberty County, one from which they can learn.
“I want our youth to gain experiences from abroad and return with new ideas that will build our community and economy,” Bacon said. “The women and men in the Cosmopolitan Club continuously encouraged me and modeled how to be productive, help others and live a meaningful life.”
Bacon’s advice to young women is to learn as much they can from elders, take advantage of every opportunity to explore, invest in the community and strive to be part of something positive.
Louise Baltimore took her daughter Blythe to the World’s Fair at the urging of her mother-in-law, a club member. Her favorite part of the trip was meeting different types of people.
“It was a large variety of people, white, black, Mexican, Asian, Puerto Rican—you name it, it was there,” Baltimore said. “I enjoyed the trip going and coming back and everyone got along. It was a pleasure going on that trip and being with those people”
Baltimore was a substitute teacher at Liberty Elementary at that time. She’s now getting ready to retire from AAFES on Fort Stewart and then see what else life has to offer. That’s her advice to young women today. Get out there and go for it, she said. Pursue your dreams.
“That trip overall was a great experience for me. I have been on trips but never a trip to the World’s Fair. You have to be there to really get the feel and enjoy it. It was educational, it was fun,” she said. “I got to meet so many different people and again I thank the club that I was able to go.”