Elise Winter, former first lady of Mississippi, passes away


JACKSON, Miss. (WJTV) – Former Mississippi First Lady Elise Varner Winter, the widow of Gov. William Winter, passed away on Saturday, July 17, 2021, in Jackson. She was 95.

During her time as first lady, she played a principal role in the governor’s efforts to reform the state’s educational system. Winter helped lead a statewide grassroots campaign, along with her husband. She made speeches, visited classrooms and explained the governor’s plans.

In a special session, the Legislature passed the 1984 Educational Reform Act, ensuring the state a system of kindergartens, compulsory attendance laws, and other improvements.

While she was first lady, Friends of the Mansion was organized under her supervision. Supporters contributed to acquire historic artifacts for the Governor’s Mansion.

She also helped found Habitat for Humanity Mississippi Capital Area (HFHMCA).

“Mrs. Winter has been the ‘heart and soul’ of this organization, working tirelessly for more than three decades so that more families in Jackson and the tri-county area will have a decent place to call home and a brighter future,” said HFHMCA Executive Director, Merrill McKewen.

Winter was born May 9, 1926, to Mamie and William Elliot (John) Varner in the Senatobia, Mississippi. After high school she attended Northwest Junior College in her home town and lived at home, transferring to Ole Miss as a junior. 

She was introduced to William Winter by her brother, who was his roommate at Ole Miss. The two married in 1950. Her husband passed away in December 2020 at the age of 97.

Winter is survived by three daughters Anne Winter, Lele Gillespie and Eleanor Winter; five grandchildren, Dr. Winter Williams, Dr. Zach Williams, Ty Gillespie, Caroline Gillespie, and Grace Gillespie; and five great-grandchildren. 

Memorial contributions may be made to Habitat for Humanity, Mississippi Capital Area, 615 Stonewall, Jackson, MS 39213.

A memorial service will be announced at a later date. Condolences to the Winter family may be mailed to P.O. Box 427, Jackson, MS 39205.

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