I am an Elk - Meet Ricky Eplin
Logan, West Virginia in the southwestern part of the State lies at the confluence of the Guyandotte River and Island Creek. Named for the famed Mingo leader Chief Logan the Orator, it was the hub of the regional coal industry in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The Logan Coalfield was the main source of industry in the area, primarily south of town. Though the climate was mild, winters did bring snow and summers the occasional heat wave in the high nineties. In the 1800’s Logan was the home of Devil Anse Hatfield – yes, the very Hatfield of the Hatfield-McCoy Feud. And in the twentieth century, heavyweight boxing champion Jack Dempsey would call Logan his hometown. Hugh and Betty Russell decided that they were tired of the coal dust and snow, and with their three-year-old son, Ricky Dale Eplin moved from Logan to Carriere, Mississippi in Pearl River County.
High Russell worked as a radio and television repairman, working first in the Hub City of Hattiesburg, north of Carriere for a year and then opening his own shop, Russell’s TV in Picayune, MS. Young Ricky moved around various elementary schools from Pearl River Central in first grade, East Side Elementary in second grade, West Side Elementary in third grade and then finally the White House School for fifth and six grades. The school changes were necessary as the family moved from home to home. Ricky explains the moves, “As business got better, we would move into a better house. By the time I got to Jr. High, we finally moved into a house and [dad] said this is where we are gonna stay.”
As a young boy, Eplin played Dixie Youth Baseball, where he could be found in the infield either at 3rd or 1st bases or sometimes pitching. In 1960, his team, Bank of Picayune won the regional championship. As a Boy Scout, Ricky rose to the rank of Life Scout but lost interest in the organization. “My dad was the type that everyone worked,” says Ricky. “I sold newspapers for the Picayune Item. Bought a paper for a nickel and sold it for a dime.” He would stand on street corners and visit the hospital wards hawking the newspaper. “That’s the way I made my spending money.”
He also learned a bit about electronics repair and often worked with Hugh in the family repair shop. When he was fifteen though, he decided that was it. “I was adjusting the yoke on a picture tube, and it arced. I was blown across the room. I was convinced I wasn’t going to work with electronics and never went back [to the shop].” In Junior High and High School in Picayune, Ricky says he liked chasing girls. “I wasn’t there,” his wife Mary says, laughing at the idea of Ricky doing this.
Ricky’s senior history teacher, Colonel Emmett, USAF retired had a considerable influence on the young man’s future – and for the Pascagoula Elks Lodge 1120 as well. You see, Emmett’s example to Ricky encouraged the young man to become a teacher. Ricky wanted to go to college and in the summers, he worked for St. Regis Paper Company in the boxing division. Hugh gave him the option to attend Pearl River Community College or the University of Southern Mississippi. Ricky chose Hattiesburg with Hugh promising to pay for tuition and books. Ricky, though, had to find a way to house himself and eat.
On the second day of college, Eplin went to work for Gilliland Electronics, which at the time was in downtown Hattiesburg. “The people I worked for were the salt of the Earth,” says Ricky, “They worked around my schedule.” He became such an integral part of the family at Gilliland, that they left him in charge to mind the business when they went on Christmas vacation. He worked at the business for three and a half years supporting himself through school. Many times, supper for Ricky would be a quart of Old Milwaukee and a load of hot garlic bread from Pasquale’s Pizza.
At USM, Eplin focused on his degree in History and Secondary Education. He was fortunate to have Dr. Don Gonzales and Dr. William Scarborough, both well-regarded figures at USM, as instructors. (Author’s note: I too also was fortunate to have both of those instructors many years later and can attest to their character.) He completed his student teaching at Purvis Junior High school where the teacher supervisor was the assistant principal at the school. That instructor would hand over the class to Ricky on his first day, walk out and not return. It was sink or swim, and Ricky swam.
Ricky had a good friend named Betty Sue, whom he had asked out for a date one Friday evening. He had to set a double date with his friend Thomas “Red” Smith because Betty Sue’s friend Mary needed a date too. “Betty Sue walked through the door followed by Mary. I looked at Thomas and said, you have to take Betty Sue, I’m gonna marry that one,” pointing to Mary. Says Mary, “I really didn’t have an opinion of him. I just went along with the flow.”
Ricky played softball when he was not in school, and Mary followed him to watch him play. Ricky says he knew that he was in love with Mary when he was thrown out of a softball game in Hancock County, Mississippi, and was hit by the umpire that threw him out of the game. When he rolled over to get up from the ground, he saw Mary knock down the umpire in defense of Ricky. Mary says that she never really thought about marriage until Ricky asked for her hand. And it was not as romantic as you may think. Ricky found out that Betty Sue, his old friend, had scheduled another double date with Mary, and he was not going to let her get away. So, he asked and got a yes.
Now that plans were in place for a marriage, Eplin needed a job. He applied all over the place. Moss Point School District made the first offer. He traveled to the River City, interviewed with Dr. Larry Drawdy for a position, and was offered a job on the spot. Ricky and Mary came down to look for an apartment a few weeks before the wedding and found one on Charles Street in Moss Point. It was near Magnolia Junior High School, where Ricky would spend his entire career, first as a history and civics teacher for 7 years and another twenty as assistant principal.
But soon, Ricky and Mary would find a home in Pascagoula, Mississippi just adjacent to Moss Point, where they would raise their two children, Russell, and Julie. Ricky began coaching baseball for Russell, leading his son’s team to be City Champions. For Julie, Ricky coached girls’ softball and soccer. As a family, they would go tent camping usually to Destin, Florida, or to the mountains around Branson, Missouri.
Ricky had been invited three or four times over the years to become a member of the Pascagoula Elks Lodge 1120. But he was never interested. In 1993, then Exalted Ruler Bob Wiggins, whom Ricky knew from coaching baseball invited Ricky to join again. Ricky relented, but only because the Lodge had a pool, and he knew his young children would enjoy it. He was initiated on Thursday and was already volunteering for a Lodge crawfish boil two days later on that Saturday.
Ricky is one of those volunteers who if you say to be there at eight, is there by seven and does not understand why no one else is there yet. He became heavily involved in the Lodge immediately. By the time he had been with the Lodge only seven months, Ricky became Lodge secretary. “My training consisted of being handed the keys to the office. I had to study the statutes for two years [and teach myself],” he says. Of Ricky’s thirty years with the Lodge, he has been secretary seventeen of the first twenty-five years in the organization.
He has also served as Loyal Knight, Leading Knight, and Exalted Ruler – which he was within five years of becoming an Elk. He has also served as State Inner Guard, State Tyler, and the District Deputy Grand Exalted Ruler South. In addition, he has been Elk of the Year five times, Officer of the Year, Elk of the Month nine times, and has received a Lifetime Achievement Award. He has participated in and coached the Lodge's ritual team and led them to a State Championship and to compete at the National Convention in St. Louis, Missouri in 2003. The Pascagoula Elks Lodge 1120 Carnival Ball committee has been privileged to have Ricky lead the committee for many years. He has reigned as King Antlers with the late Barbara Peattie as his Queen Doe.
Ricky has been to thirteen national conventions, his favorite being Indianapolis, Indiana which he found to be a pretty location. As for State conventions, he says he has been to too many to count properly. Mary became an auxiliary member in 1993 shortly after Ricky became an Elk. The two have participated side by side over the years.
Ricky says that community involvement such as Lodge activities like the Christmas food baskets are especially rewarding and he chaired the committee for many years. “Seeing the faces on the people receiving the food…” he looks emotional as he continues, “Kids saying, ‘Look Mama, real milk.’” He continues, “If you have a good life and a good heart, you need to join the Elks.” He continues to serve as a member of the Scholarship Committee and volunteering anywhere he can still lend a hand.
Ricky is fully retired these days, and while he has faced several medical setbacks recently, he still loves his Lodge and his Elks friends. His attitude is forever positive. He feels though, that it is time for a younger generation of Elks to seek leadership roles in the Order. “I will be there for advice and help where I can, he says.”
Ricky lives in Pascagoula, Mississippi with Mary, his wife of over fifty years. They have five fur babies: Mama Girl, Flop Ear, Blackie, Sparky, and Buddy. They have four grandchildren, Bragg, Ella Rae, Arin, and Zack, who recently became an Elk himself.