Resident Spotlight: Warner Dickerson

Warner Dickerson

Man with a Vision

Early in life, Dr. Warner Dickerson envisioned a “ladder” that would take him out of poverty to a level of comfort and fulfillment. From the life of a sharecropper to one that incorporated becoming a community leader and a top executive in the state of Tennessee, Warner Dickerson overcame many obstacles to achieve that goal.

Born in rural Haywood County, Tennessee in 1937, Warner Dickerson grew up in a family of sharecroppers. When he was just a toddler, he followed his mother into the cotton field, pulling the lowest cotton bolls and putting them in his mother’s sack. As he aged, he was given a pillowcase of his own to fill. Warner was the last of six children; the older five were girls. According to Warner, his sisters begged for a brother and when he came along, they smothered him with love. In fact, they were so overprotective that it interfered with him doing the things most boys want to do, like playing football.

When Warner was nine years old, the family moved to Memphis and the economic status of the family improved greatly when his father found employment helping to build railroads. Warner was able to attend better schools and graduated from Booker T. Washington High School in 1956. He took vocational courses there and specialized in automotive mechanics. When he decided to enter Tennessee State University in Nashville, he declared his major in Mechanical Engineering. Much to his surprise, that major had nothing to do with automobiles! Eventually, he declared a different major and graduated with a Bachelor of Science in Mathematics in 1961.

Warner & Arcola
Warner & Arcola

While living in Nashville, Warner met his future wife, Arcola Leavell, on a blind date. According to Warner, “Initially, Arcola had absolutely no romantic interest in me. I couldn’t understand this, since I thought I was ‘the cat’s meow’! Then, in trying to figure out why she wasn’t interested in me, I discovered that she had the character and qualities I wanted to be with for the rest of my life”. Warner evidently found the way to win her heart and they were married in 1960.

Warner made the decision to teach in schools. Education became the “ladder” to achieve his goals. He says that the philosophy of Marian Edelman on education mirrors his own. That is, “Education is for improving the lives of others and for leaving your community and world better than you found it.” He and Arcola moved to Memphis eventually, and while teaching, both continued their education. Arcola completed requirements for a B.S. in Home Economics and Warner earned a M.S. degree in Mathematics from University of Memphis in 1967 and an Ed.D from University of Sarasota, Florida in 1979.

Warner began his career teaching mathematics at Carver High School, then moving to LeMoyne College, and then to State Technical Institute of Memphis, eventually becoming Vice-President. While there, he developed several programs which were applied to prison reform. These programs attracted the interest of other states and countries. The Governor of Tennessee, Lamar Alexander, recognized the talent and experience of Warner and appointed him as Tennessee State Commissioner for Vocational Education. He remained in that position for four and one-half years, traveling the state and being responsible for one-fourth of the state budget. Once his political life was over, Warner and his family moved back to Oakland, Tennessee and he became Superintendent of Schools for Fayette County. He retired in 1990 and he and Arcola moved to Olive Branch, MS.

Warner’s professional career and family obligations were all encompassing, and he and Arcola had a son and a daughter to rear. Yet, Warner found time to become a community activist and volunteered many hours in helping to improve his community. His past political life and frequent speaking engagements gave him the opportunity to mingle with the power structure of Tennessee and Memphis. Also, as an active member of Greenwood CME Church, Warner became a Bible teacher and eventually Director of Education.

During their lives, Warner and Arcola had time and resources to travel. They have visited Spain, Portugal, Mexico, Jamaica, Bermuda, Canada, France, Puerto Rico and many other places. Warner developed a hobby of collecting rocks and driftwood. His love of motors was manifested in riding a motorcycle every day until he could no longer leave Arcola, who had begun to show signs of dementia. This was the determining factor for them to move to Kirby Pines in September, 2019. Arcola moved to Job’s Way and until the pandemic of COVID-19, Warner visited her twice a day. He says that the most difficult thing he has ever experienced, tapping on his heart, is the situation that now exists where he has had no personal contact with Arcola for a year. He is only able to see her on face-time and through a glass door.

Warner says, “I am pleased with the comprehensive nature of Kirby Pines in the matter of health care, safety, culture and family style”. He is involved with the men’s Bible and Alzheimer’s Groups and loves to read. He remains close with his son and daughter. “They have been a tremendous support system for me”, adds Warner.

Warner Dickerson’s persona reflects a gentle, soft-spoken and professional gentleman. When you hear the story of his life, one realizes the impact h has had on others. A true model of ambition and overcoming much adversity, Dr. Warner Dickerson will leave a legacy to those who follow. What a great addition he is to the Kirby family!

Written by Joan Dodson, Resident, Kirby Pines