Family influence

By MEGAN PHILLIPS,

Legacy of public service instilled in Neely Carlton Lyons by great-aunt

Although Neely Carlton Lyons comes from a family with many successful and hardworking members, many of whom have worked in public service, it is her great-aunt, Zelma Wells Price, who has influenced Neely the most. 

“Her full name was Zelma Wells Price. She was raised in Calhoun County. She came from a large family, and she was by all acclaims an entrepreneur and strong person, both in will and character from the very beginning,” Neely said.

Within the entire family, Neely called Zelma the focal point.

“She was a leader and helped others ... She was the sister of my grandmother, Hazel Wells Carlton.”

While working, Zelma decided to become a lawyer. She was self-taught and, after passing the bar exam, practiced law in Greenville where she ran for the Legislature.

“She ran for the Legislature in the ’50s and became, not the first female to serve in the Legislature, but she was the first female to serve on a money committee in the House… That’s a position of prestige and power and influence. Her legislative career was marked with a great deal of leadership in that regard.”

Notably, Zelma was a huge point of influence in the mid-’50s, when discussions were held to move the state medical school from Oxford to Jackson, and change it from a two-year to a four-year program.

Neely’s father and Zelma’s nephew, Frank Carlton, lived with Zelma and commuted with her to session so he could work at the capital post office.

Right before it was time to vote on relocating the medical school, Zelma and Frank were involved in an accident.

“The story is that the two of them were on a one-lane bridge at night and played chicken with another car and lost,” Neely said as she told the tale. “They drove off into a ditch and wrecked and she said to my father, ‘Frank are you OK?’ and he said, ‘Yes, ma’am, I am,’ and she said, ‘Well, I’m not. Go get help.’ That accident led to her being hospitalized for a broken back.”

During the time Zelma was hospitalized for her injury, the vote came up to move the University of Mississippi Medical Center (UMMC) to Jackson.

“Through, I am sure, all types of effort on the part of many, arrangements were made for her to come to the capital and cast the deciding vote to take the bill beyond committee consideration to the floor. She cast the deciding vote… I’m not sure she recognized in that moment how many lives would be touched. But she certainly was willing to stand in the door, if you will, and open the door for all possibilities.”

 

Zelma went on to become the first female to serve as a trial court judge in Mississippi. While working as a county court judge in Washington County, where Neely and her mother and father were raised, Zelma had the opportunity to place women on the jury.

“At that time, women were not allowed to serve on the jury in accordance with the rules of civil procedure in Mississippi. Every time she would do it, the losing party in each case would file an appeal to the Supreme Court and ask for a reversal on error for having women serve on the jury.”

In response, the Supreme Court wrote nasty opinions to Zelma about the inappropriacy of what she was doing.

“Allegedly, she was quoted as saying, ‘Well I’m going to keep doing it until y’all read the constitution.’ That would have been in the 60s, so not that long ago. History has a way of seeming very distant and yet it also has a way of being just like yesterday.”

To Neely, Zelma made the extraordinary ordinary.

“And when you grow up in a family of extraordinary people, which is how I feel about it, there’s the message that we are all here for a purpose and the obligation to serve. I feel like her continuing legacy to me is a legacy of public service and finding that opportunity to extend my professional life into an opportunity to help others.”

Neely is a graduate of University of Southern Mississippi and of the University of Mississippi Law School. Her undergraduate degree is in economics with an emphasis in international business.

But most notably, Neely is the youngest person ever elected in Mississippi history to the Mississippi state senate. 

 

One of Zelma’s friends and contemporaries, former governor Evelyn Gandy, was an adjunct professor at the University of Mississippi Law School when Neely attended.

“At the end of the semester, which was the end of my three years of law school, she came to me and told me about her friendship with Zelma, and really placed on my heart the consideration of public service. (She) said that she felt like that was a calling that I needed to acknowledge and that she would support me and she did.”

Those words resulted in Neely running for the state senate almost immediately after graduating from law school.

“And then I became the youngest person ever elected in Mississippi history to the Mississippi State Senate.”

During her eight years in the senate from 1996 to 2004, Neely served on the appropriations committee her first term and the finance committee her second. She was also vice chair of the judiciary committee during her second term.

“I did a lot of work around domestic violence during that time period. I really feel like I worked a lot around mental health and developed a relationship with the mental health community, particularly around substance abuse disorders.”

After her first child, daughter Marissa Maatallah, was born in 2003, Neely decided not to run again in order for someone to serve long term for the Mississippi Delta.

“When you are representing an area like the Delta, where there is a population decrease, one of the things that you have to be aware of is that places like the Delta really, truly benefit from long-term service… When I got pregnant and realized all the new obligations I was assuming as a new mom and made a conscious decision that I wanted to be a mom and prioritize that in my life, then I knew it was time for me to let somebody else serve.”

 

Soon after she left the legislature, Neely returned home to Greenville, where she wanted to focus on her family and practice law. After about three months, former governor Haley Barbour called to ask Neely to work for him.

“I thought I was going to go home and be a mom and practice law in Greenville with my firm… I got a call from Governor Barbour and he said, ‘Would you like to come work for me?’ I had no idea that that type of door would open up to me, and I did enjoy working for Governor Barbour.”

Neely moved from working in the legislative branch to working with executive agencies, “developing both strategies for how to implement the programs that they were authorized to run and also relationships so that the legislators who are making decisions about how to run those agencies have the right information.”

After working for Barbour, Neely worked for the Mississippi Department of Public Safety and the Mississippi State Medical Association in public policy.

“I knew that my time in his office was likely coming to an end, but I did not believe that my time in public service had come to an end. I was hired as the chief of staff at the Department of Public Safety.”

Later, Neely received a call from the state medical association, which was located down the street from where she lived.

“Everything about it was more appealing to my family life, which was a big focus for me. But it’s also a public policy set that I was familiar with, and the people, the relationships that I had with the association went back to when I was in the legislature… That was an important next step for me in my career.”

For the past three years, Neely has been  associated with Butler Snow law firm where she focuses on regulatory and government relations.

“I think it’s part of my personality that I rarely see barriers, that for me there are opportunities and hurtles, but I rarely see barriers… I’m very grateful for all the doors that have opened for me.”

Neely has twin boys along with her daughter Marissa: Josh and Adam Maatallah. Both are 12 years old, and Marissa is 14. She is married to Doug Lyons.