Three women come home to Natchez to be presenters on 2010 NLCC program

Published 12:00 am Sunday, February 21, 2010

Natchez — Three women who grew up in Natchez and moved away years ago are returning to present programs reflecting their careers during the 21st annual Natchez Literary and Cinema Celebration, Feb. 25-28. The conference theme is “Humor in the Deep South.”

Presenters are Lynda Lee Mead Shea of Memphis, Tenn.; Sarah McLaurin Vahlkamp of Danville, Ky.; and Jane Feltus Welch of Prospect, Ky.

They hold in common that all are Natchez High School graduates, all went away to college, married and raised families, and all three love Natchez.

But their similarities end with their talents, interests and careers.

Shea, the daughter of the late Herbert and Sis Mead of Natchez, attended The University of Mississippi, Oxford, as an English major. She hit the national spotlight in 1959, when as a student at Ole Miss she first won the Miss Mississippi title and then the Miss America 1960 title.

Her year-long reign as Miss America took her all over the country. Afterward, she attended the Parsons School of Design in New York and later became an allied member of American Society of Interior Designers.

Married to Dr. John J. Shea Jr. of Memphis and the mother of three children, in 1982 she founded Shea Design in Memphis, a company that focuses on residential interior design. Two years later, she founded French Country Imports, a large Memphis shop. Her work on residences, inns and public institutions can be seen in national publications.

At the NLCC she will introduce Sam and Mary Haskell, who will present programs at 7:30 p.m., Feb. 26, at the Natchez Convention Center. A longtime friend of the Haskells, Shea is the designer of their new home in Oxford.

“I am thrilled to be participating in the Natchez Literary and Cinema Celebration, especially this year when ‘humor in the deep South’ is the very timely topic,” Shea said. “Sometimes I think we forget the healing benefits of laughter.

“Just being in Natchez and absorbing all of its magic and mystery is reason enough for a trip home, but looking over the roster of speakers and events convinced me to come early and stay late,” she said. “I don’t want to miss a thing!”

Sarah Vahlkamp, daughter of the late Jane and Gilmer McLaurin of Natchez, received a bachelor’s degree in mathematics from Mississippi University for Women, Columbus, and a master’s degree from Vanderbilt University, Nashville, Tenn., before beginning a teaching career. She later received another master’s degree in library science from the University of Kentucky, Lexington, and worked many years as a certified school librarian in Danville, Ky.

Married to Charles G. Vahlkamp, Professor Emeritus at Centre College in Danville, and the mother of two children, for years she has studied the literature of the South. A fan of Southern oral history, she has an extensive collection of stories of the South.

At the NLCC, she will present a program, “Double Names, Conniption Fits and ‘Kiss My Foot’: Laughing at Ourselves with Eudora Welty and Other Southerners,” at 2:30 p.m., Feb. 25, and again that day at 5 p.m. Enhancing the program is a cameo appearance of the character “Sister” in Eudora Welty’s “Why I Live at the P.O.” by Judy Daniels Wiggins of Copiah-Lincoln Community College in Natchez.

“I’m thrilled to be a part of the NLCC and to return to my hometown,” Vahlkamp said. “Although I’ve attended many of the celebrations during the past 20 years, this is the first time as a presenter. It is an honor, and I’m looking forward to enjoying the many stimulating programs.”

Jane Welch, daughter of the late William and Lucy Feltus of Natchez, holds a bachelor’s degree in drama from Sweet Briar College, Sweet Briar, Va., and is a graduate of the Neighborhood Playhouse School of Theatre in New York City. She was married to the late James S. Welch, an attorney in Louisville, Ky., with whom she had three children.

Her interest in acting led her to perform in film, television and theater, including a national tour of “Other People’s Money”; in Story of a Marriage, a film directed by Horton Foote; in several New York plays, including Lily Dale by Horton Foote; and in dozens of stage plays in regional theater, including “Driving Miss Daisy,” “Waiting to Be Invited,” “Three Tall Women” and “My Fair Lady.”

Welch will present a program, “Life in the Theatre: The Agony and the Ecstasy,” at 11:15 a.m., Feb. 27. She will make particular references to her association with the playwright and screenplay writer Horton Foote, winner of two Academy Awards and a Pulitzer Prize for his screenplays and stage plays.

About returning to Natchez, Welch said, “For better and for worse, part of who I am is because of Natchez. The nurture, and, I might add, the admonition, of growing up in a small town where so many people care about you and take an interest in you grounds you with enough confidence to deal with the really terrible competitive world of theater.

“I’m pleased to be given the opportunity to thank the descendants of all those beautiful, loving and demanding people who helped fetch me up,” Welch said. “I expect to learn about my craft from all the great people participating in the symposium.”

The annual NLCC is sponsored by Copiah-Lincoln Community College, Natchez National Historical Park, Mississippi Department of Archives and History and Mississippi Public Broadcasting. Partial funding is from the Mississippi Humanities Council.

Most of the conference is free. Information about the entire schedule is available by calling 601-446-1289 or toll-free 866-296-6522 or by visiting www.colin.edu/nlcc/agenda.