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Country Music Hall of Famer, Spring Scholarship Speaker Helps MC Alum Recover from Grief

Reba McEntire is scheduled to serve as guest speaker at Mississippi College's Spring Scholarship Banquet April 12.
Reba McEntire is scheduled to serve as guest speaker at Mississippi College's Spring Scholarship Banquet April 12.

Ron Kyzar has never met Reba McEntire. Yet the Mississippi College alumnus shares a deeply personal bond with the Country Music Hall of Famer that has endured for more than three decades.

In April 1991, one of Kyzar’s dearest friends, Dudley Hutchinson III, died in an automobile crash. Exactly one month later, a similar accident claimed the life of Kyzar’s niece, Beth Ladner.

“For about six months, I was shaking my fist at God, asking, ‘Why did You take two really good young people away?’” Kyzar said.

Tormented by grief, Kyzar met some friends at a hunting camp in Rankin County and discovered he had left his keys to the camp’s gate at home. In the early morning darkness, he popped a new CD into his truck’s player, and began listening to “For My Broken Heart” – an album of songs McEntire had dedicated to eight members of her band who had died in a plane crash just a few months earlier.

“Every song on that album was about dealing with loss, dealing with pain, dealing with suffering,” Kyzar said. “It gave me an opportunity to grieve. It was extremely cathartic for me. I literally cried for an hour and a half.”

He said one song in particular touched his heart. In “If I Had Only Known,” McEntire explains what she would have done differently if she knew it was the last time she would ever see her band members alive on Earth.

“That one day at my hunting camp, it was like, ‘OK, I now have released my grieving, and it’s time to move on,’” Kyzar said. “Since that day in 1991, I have wanted an opportunity to tell Reba that God used her in her moment of grief to minister to me in my moment of grief with this album and that particular song.”

Kyzar and other supporters of Mississippi College will have the opportunity to see McEntire in person when the country music singer, actress, and businesswoman will headline Mississippi College’s Spring Scholarship Banquet at 6 p.m. on Tuesday, April 12, in Anderson Hall in the B.C. Rogers Student Center. Tickets are still available for the Office of Giving and Development-sponsored dinner, the largest fundraising event at the Christian University.

Katrina Pace, executive director of giving and development, said proceeds from the banquet will benefit scholarship recipients at the Christian University.

“This is the single most significant event from a fundraising standpoint for our students,” Pace said. “It’s always a fun time, and Reba will bring a lot of energy. We want to translate that energy into our scholarship program.

“The beneficiaries of this event above all others are our students who will receive the scholarships.”

One such student is Alya Shanklin, a freshman biology major from Thibodaux, Louisiana. The aspiring physician said receiving the Clarence Dewitt Smith Scholarship – one of the many scholarships funded by the banquet’s proceeds – helped jump-start her promising career.

“The support MC receives from donors and others who attend the Scholarship Banquet is important because it allows students to pursue their dreams, and it relieves the financial burdens a lot of college students face, especially during their first year in college,” Shanklin said. “God willing, I will become a sports medicine doctor one day. I’m really passionate about sports, and I hope to help athletes deal with injuries, whether physical or mental.

“MC is an amazing school with a great biology/pre-med program. The scholarship allowed me to come to MC.”

Jackson Breedlove, a shortstop on the MC baseball team, received the Hollis and Julia Todd Scholarship. The sophomore public relations major from Decatur, Alabama, credits the academic award for allowing him to pursue his goal of becoming a youth minister one day.

“After graduating from MC, I would love to go to seminary and get a master’s in divinity,” Breedlove said. “I’m so thankful for the scholarship program because without it, I wouldn’t have had the opportunity to meet these awesome people at MC and go to school here.

“The support of people who are willing to be good stewards of what God has given them means a lot to people like me who are allowed to go to school because of that support.”

Shanklin said having a well-known performer like McEntire support Mississippi College by appearing at the banquet speaks volumes about the entertainer’s character.

“It shows that Reba cares about students,” Shanklin said. “She doesn’t have to do this. She’s a celebrity and can go about her life. But she’s putting her time and effort into coming to MC. I appreciate that.

“I remember as a young child watching her on the ‘Reba’ TV show. Having her come to our campus is like coming full circle, having her back in my life.”

Philip Gunn, speaker of the Mississippi House of Representatives, will introduce McEntire at the banquet, and Worship Collective, the Department of Music’s Christian performance ensemble, will sing “Back to God,” a selection from McEntire’s album, “Sing it Now: Songs of Faith and Hope.” MC alum Barbie Bassett, WLBT traffic tracker and an MC 2007 Distinguished Alumnae, will interview McEntire on stage.

“I think it’s always important for alumni like Barbie Bassett to come back to campus and help foster the sense of community that makes up MC,” said Pace, who mentioned another local media celebrity who attended MC – Maggie Wade, WLBT news anchor – serves as an MC Foundation board member. “It’s important for students to see them return to campus once they’ve been successful in their careers.

“Barbie’s always willing to come back to campus and participate in events like this, and we welcome her back to campus to host this Q and A session.”

McEntire’s appearance continues an impressive line of dignitaries who have lent their time and talent to the MC Scholarship Banquet since its inception in 2008. The list includes Drew Brees, Dr. Ben Carson, Sen. Bob Dole, Steve Forbes, Rudy Giuliani, Chuck Hagel, and Condoleezza Rice. The event has raised more than $4 million to assist students at Mississippi College.

“The level of speakers we’ve had and the amount of money we have raised for student scholarships are impressive,” Pace said. “We’ve had people from different professions and backgrounds who have an interest in Christian higher education come to this banquet.

“But this is the first time we’ve had a Hall of Famer with so much star power in the music world come speak. It’s important to bring people with a fresh point of view to this flagship event.”

No other choice for a speaker at the banquet could have been more meaningful to Kyzar than McEntire, who, following their shared – but separate – experience with grief, released a new album, “Starting Over Again.” It became another pivotal moment in the life of the owner of Ronald Kyzar Financial Services in Clinton.

“Hearing that album was like God telling me, ‘It’s time to move on,’” Kyzar said. “’You’ve got years left of living. You can’t continue to dwell in grief and anger.’”

In the years since his liberating encounter with McEntire’s music, Kyzar has seen several of her performances at the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville, Tennessee, and not long ago, attended her concert in Biloxi. He has become a dedicated fan, not only of McEntire’s music and show business persona but also of the individual herself.

“Half of Nashville would say that Reba McEntire has personally invested in their careers,” he said. “I would be surprised if you could find anybody in the music industry in Nashville - the live-stage performers, the people in the band, the people behind the scenes, the lighting people, the electricians – who didn’t say that she had some measure of influence on their careers.

“She’s an extremely ‘give back’ person. The fact that she’s coming to little bitty MC doesn’t surprise me because even though she’s made a gazillion dollars, she doesn’t see herself as exalted above other people. This is true to her nature to want to give back like this.”

When McEntire makes her long-awaited appearance at MC, Kyzar and his wife will be in the audience to greet her. And who knows? He may be able to check off one of the boxes on his all-time “Bucket List.”

“I’ve just always wanted to tell her how God used her to help me work through my grief and push forward and start over again,” Kyzar said. “I’ve taught Sunday School for 40 years now, and I’ve used some illustration from Reba McEntire in some Sunday school lesson probably 100 times. She’s just one of those people God uses and is probably not aware of it most of the time.

“I’d love to tell her that I thank God quite often that through Reba McEntire, He healed me coming through a grieving process. People need to hear that from time to time: God uses them in small ways to provide God’s peace or affirmation, or His encouragement. And she did that for me.”