Nov 26th, 2019
When you call Jackson State Community College's main phone number, the first thing you hear is the voice of Margie Lester.
She is known as the Voice of Jackson State, and if she can't answer a student's question, she knows who can. Lester has been the college's receptionist for more than four decades.
She enrolled in Jackson State after graduating from Jackson High in 1969. At the time, she didn't have the money to register, so Dean of Students Marion Smothers paid her fee.
"He was so kind and helpful," she said. "That really made an impact on me - just that one little act."
When she graduated two years later, Chester Parham, in charge of public relations for Jackson State, offered her a job as his secretary. She told him she didn't know how to take shorthand.
"He said, 'that's okay. I talk slow enough. You can write in longhand.'"
A few years later, Jackson State President Dr. F.E. Wright came to Parham's office and said the college could no longer pay for a full-time secretary for him and that he would have to share a secretary with another department.
Dr. Wright then turned to Lester and said, "I want to offer you a full-time position as college receptionist."
Besides greeting people and answering questions, the job included operating the college cord-switch switchboard, Lester said. "The switchboard was a big monstrosity. We had four telephone lines for the whole campus."
When a call came in, she had to pull a cord and place the ends in two places in the switchboard for the call to go through to the right person. Then she had to unplug the cord when the conversation was over, so other calls could come through.
If four people were on the phone, callers would get a busy signal. So, Lester took a lot of messages.
"I was constantly on the switchboard," she said. "The switchboard had no call waiting, no voice mail. I hand wrote notes."
During her breaks on the switchboard, she would often tape those notes on people's doors. "I went the extra mile. I wanted people to get their messages."
Margie in the early 70s
Today, the college has hundreds of extensions. Besides handling the main campus in Jackson, Lester can also switch calls to Jackson State's campuses in Lexington, Savannah, and Humboldt.
She is dedicated to her job and respected by her colleagues. Dee Henderson, who is now retired, gave Lester her nickname, the Voice of Jackson State.
In fact, one of Lester's most prized possessions is a framed copy of a magazine article headlined "the Voice of Jackson State." Students wrote the story, and Bank of Jackson President Gary Grisham, who remembered her from his days as a Jackson State student, matted and framed the article and gave it to her. Today, it hangs on the wall next to her.
Lester grew up on the UT Experiment Station where her dad, Joe Allen Mays, was a farmer. She has two children, Jeffrey and Jeremy, who are fraternal twins. Jeffrey and his wife, Tori, have two sons. Jeremy and his wife, Julia, have two boys and a girl.
Lester has enjoyed her many years at the college. When Dr. Wright first offered her that position in the mid-1970s, she said, "I had no idea it would lead to this lengthy employment."
She developed close relationships with many people at the college, including Dr. Walter Nelms, who was Jackson State's president from 1976 to 1997. "I really admired him," she said. "Though he was my boss, we became friends. We still keep in touch."
Lester has no plans to retire.
"I just love being around young people," she said. "Jackson State is like a family. It's a great college; it still means a lot to me."