Virginia Alice (V.A.) Bookhart Patterson was born November 10, 1938, to John and Mary Alice Bookhart in Jackson, Mississippi. She died peacefully with her daughter and son-in-law at her side on February 8, 2021.
V.A. grew up in Jackson and was a graduate of Murrah’s first high school class in 1956. She graduated from Millsaps College in 1960, and, as a newlywed, moved to New Orleans, where she would spend most of the next twenty years, with brief sojourns in Berkeley, California, and Austin, Texas. In the 1960s, V.A. lived in the French Quarter where she embraced the joy of dancing in the streets in second lines. In those years she built a nascent interest in history into a career in historic house administration, serving as Administrator of the Hermann-Grima Historic House from 1976-1978, and Assistant Director of the Gallier House Museum from 1978-1980.
V.A. returned to Jackson in 1980 as the first Curator of the Manship House and oversaw the restoration of the historic house museum and grounds, turning it into a premiere state attraction. Over the years she served as a consultant and educator on historic house museums and decorative arts, and mentored and encouraged scores of upcoming museum and arts administrators.
It was V.A.’s work in the arts for which she will probably be best remembered. Always a supporter of emerging artists, she was fiercely proud of the state’s creative culture. It is not possible to fully detail the range of her activities in Jackson, but a few highlights included serving as the Executive Director of the Craftsmen’s Guild of Mississippi from 1997-2002, and as Executive Director of VSA Mississippi from 2003-2013. Nothing pleased her more when traveling outside the state to have someone comment on her jewelry so that she could explain that it was crafted by a Mississippi artist. V.A. could be counted upon to show up at gallery openings, readings, musical performances, plays, dance competitions, and more. For her work in the arts, V.A. received the Community Arts Leader Award from the Mississippi Arts Commission’s Governors’ Arts Award in 2018.
V.A. loved connecting people, and she loved a party. Her list of civic activities was long, but a very few include serving on the Board of Goodwill Industries Volunteer Services, the Jackson Symphony League, and Grace House. She was active in the Junior League of Jackson, Colonial Dames, and the Debutante Mothers’ Club. V.A. was honored with the Goodwill Industries Volunteer Services (GIVS) Salute Volunteer Award in 2017. V.A. was an active communicant at St. Andrew’s Episcopal Cathedral, where she served in a number of leadership positions, including the vestry, and was a part of the “back row” group who developed strong friendships from their vantage point from the back of the church.
Sherry Lewis, who profiled V.A. in Mississippi Today in March, 2018 (https://mississippitoday.org/2018/03/03/v-patterson-crucial-component-mississippis-creative-circle/), said of her, “V.A. was a constant, enthusiastic and much beloved presence on the Jackson arts and culture scene. She didn’t just support it. She showed up — a warm body and a warm and generous spirit to cheer on all the creative output and activities the city offered. If there was ever a walking (or marching!) embodiment of community spirit, she was it.”
Much of V.A.’s work was behind the scenes. She would facilitate a key introduction, give quiet words of personal encouragement, provide gracious suggestions on how to improve a grant application, and welcome newcomers and find places for them to bloom. She befriended people from all walks of life. She never sought the spotlight; she derived satisfaction from making sure that others had a spotlight shone on them. V.A. herself never stopped learning and continually challenged herself to keep up with evolving social issues, especially as they impacted Jackson.
V.A.’s decades-long work with people living with HIV/AIDS should be more well-known. She began connecting with and assisting people diagnosed with the disease in the 1980s, when there was still fear and a stigma associated with the virus. She acted as a surrogate mother for many young men who faced bleak prognoses, some of whom had been rejected by their families. She continued this work as a member of the Episcopal AIDS Committee from 1998 to the present.
V.A. was extremely proud of her long-time membership in the Krewe of Kazoo, and she marched (or rode in a golf cart) each year at Hal’s St. Paddy’s parade. In 2018 V.A. served as the parade’s Grand Marshal, an honor that she cherished. She claimed that participating in the parade gave her an excuse to dance down Capitol Street without embarrassing her daughter, but the author of this obituary can affirm that her mother’s spirited willingness to embrace exuberance and fun for its own sake made her very proud.
V.A. is survived by her daughter Jennifer Bookhart Peters and son-in-law Todd Peters, and two grandchildren, Ben and Sam, of Austin, Texas. She leaves behind hundreds of friends who loved her dearly and a community where she left a huge impact.
Donations in V.A.’s memory may be made to Goodwill Industries of Mississippi (http://goodwillms.org/), St. Andrew’s Episcopal Cathedral (http://standrews.ms/), or to any arts organization of your choice.
A small graveside service for immediate family will held in the weeks to come, with a larger Celebration of V.A.’s life scheduled when friends and family can gather safely in person again.