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Magnolia Hill: a dream realized atop a hill, crowning twenty beautiful rolling acres, the home of Mary and Sam Haskell pays homage to faith, family, and friends.

Mary and Sam Haskell could easily finish each other's sentences, but they don't, being two of the most gracious people imaginable. In fact, each seems eager to let the other take the spotlight, even in the simplest conversations. This utter synchronicity, which defines their 34 years together, began when Texas freshman Mary Donnelly first set foot on the Ole Miss campus and was spotted by senior Sigma Chi Sam Haskell of Amory. The rest, as they say, is history.

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"History" is a dominant theme in the story of their 28-year marriage, which began joyfully in 1982. And a profound sense of history is the foundation upon which they built their Georgian Colonial-Revival dream home in Oxford, "Magnolia Hill."

The lush, landscaped setting is decidedly rural in feel, but as Mary laughs, "We can walk across the back of the property, through the trees, and be downtown on the Square in just a few minutes!" They do this often and particularly enjoy having a meal at the Beacon, an Oxford institution where many of their early dates took place.

Because they share such a strong passion for their Southern roots, and Mississippi in particular, their firm plan for their Oxford house was to exclusively use local artisans and craftspeople. There was no question about who would draw the plans: architectural designer Frank Tindall is a best friend from college days, as is his wife, Marsha Hull Tindall, who performed with both Haskells in "The Group," the Ole Miss singing/dancing ensemble. "They were our best friends back then, and remain so today," says Sam. "Frank was wonderful to work with. He understood what we wanted: a place that looked as if it had been here for a hundred years. That's the best compliment visitors can give when they walk through!"

Frank Tindall says, "I'm really happy that the Haskells trusted me enough to involve me in every decision that went into the final realization of their dream." Far from testing the limits of a friendship, as such massive projects can often do, Frank adds, "I think that this brought us all closer."

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Working with Joby Jackson of Winona to landscape the expansive grounds, they retained as many of the old hardwoods as possible, clearing only what was necessary to create the long drive. Every tree and shrub they replaced was indigenous to our state.

Mary, crowned Miss Mississippi in 1977 and an intuitive and gifted designer in her own right, was completely handson throughout the planning stages. She enlisted another former state queen, Lynda Lee Mead Shea (who went on to become Miss America in 1960). Mary, Lynda, and Frank formed a creative triumvirate that operated seamlessly to achieve the Haskells' vision. Sam says, smiling, "Those three, whom I call 'the committee,' have so much talent that I tried to stay out of the way, for the most part! But occasionally, I'd be summoned as a 'tie-breaker' if they had a friendly difference of opinion about a particular molding, fabric or color." To Sam's great relief, he notes that "about 75 percent of the time" he got lucky, and stated a preference for whatever his wife's favorite had been!

Shea, owner of Shea Design and French Country Imports in Memphis, their interior designer and dear friend, claims that she had a wonderful time helping the Haskells decorate "Magnolia Hill." "We have so much in common!" the Natchez native says of her friends. "Ole Miss, the pageant, and our love of Mississippi. They have been a joy to work with. Throughout their 30 years in Hollywood, they never lost sight of their love for their home state, and I think this house is the ultimate expression of that."

While the grand residence is firmly grounded in the Southern-plantation vernacular, and is furnished with many of their beautiful family pieces from generations before, there is no mistaking the deeply English influence. This is fitting, as Sam has cherished a love for British history, and royalty in particular, from childhood. His extensive knowledge of the lives of the kings and queens of England could easily have landed him a career as a royal biographer or archivist, had he not chosen entertainment as his livelihood. And it was his position as Worldwide Head of Television for Hollywood's iconic William Morris Agency that led directly to one of the couple's most treasured friendships--with His Royal Highness, The Prince Edward, youngest son of HM The Queen Elizabeth II and HRH The Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh. Prince Edward and his wife, HRH The Princess Sophie, Countess of Wessex, became friends of the Haskells when Sam became the prince's American agent for his company, Ardent Productions. They have shared many philanthropic endeavors, including Sam's work as president of The Duke of Edinburgh's Award Young Americans' Challenge in the United States. And Prince Edward has helped Sam with one of his most valued charities, the annual "Stars Over Mississippi" extravaganza, staged in Amory, that honors Sam's late mother, Mary Kirkpatrick Haskell. This event has raised millions of dollars in scholarship money for deserving students.

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Both Mary and Sam have remained humble and grateful, unwavering in their Christian faith and sense of family, despite living the fast-paced life of Hollywood glamour. In addition to raising their two children Sam IV, 22, and Mary Lane, 21, Mary achieved success of her own, as an actress and singer, having released three popular CDs, and taken lead roles in over 20 TV movies. And Sam has been known for his work packaging mega-hits such as The Cosby Show, The Fresh Prince of Bel Air, Mad About You, Everybody Loves Raymond, Lost, and Murphy Brown (just to name a few). In 2009, Sam realized another lifelong dream when Random House published his memoir dedicated to his adored mother. Promises I Made My Mother quickly became a national best-seller, and much of his time in recent months has been devoted to promoting this tribute to a remarkable woman, and dedicating the proceeds to causes he knows she'd be proud to support.

She would certainly have been proud of her son and daughter-in-law for creating this warm and welcoming monument to tradition, entirely brought into being by Mississippi craftspeople. Builder Roy Bright of New Albany took Frank Tindall's plans and made them into three-dimensional reality. The floors are hundred-year-old heart of pine, expertly installed by Donny Provence. The intricate cabinetry, mantels, and reclaimed cypress paneling were the handiwork of Paul and Stoney Wilbourn of Grenada. Pontotoc native Johnny Wilder fashioned the exquisite ironwork of the stairwell and balconies. The team crafting and installing the multi-step Georgian crown moldings and detailed arched cased openings was led by Jimmy Hamblin of New Albany, and the large kitchen features all Viking appliances.

Each artisan played his own vital part in this aesthetic symphony, and the astonishing achievement of Brookhaven native Don Jacobs is certainly no exception. The talented muralist rendered a phenomenally detailed masterpiece in the circular main entry hall, with its swirling stairwell. Done entirely in sepia tones, with small artist's brushes, it is a panorama of special places in the Haskells' past that they hold dear. Mary's ancestral home, "Pride Station," in Alabama, and the small town square of Amory, with its movie theater where Sam saw many a film as a star-struck youngster, the barber shop where he got his hair cut, the Park Hotel where he had Sunday lunch after church, are all depicted affectionately. Several historic academic buildings at Ole Miss hold pride of place, and the Haskells' love for the state's piney woods and the mighty Mississippi river are honored on two sweeping walls.

Throughout the home, family portraits of Sam, Sam IV, and Mary Lane by Jason Bouldin of Oxford, along with works by Yvette Sturgis of Jackson, and William Dunlap originally from Mathiston, form a treasured collection of Mississippi artists. Tables and walls are adorned with hundreds of photos of family and friends including Bill Cosby, Ray Romano, Dolly Parton, Delta Burke, Lily Tomlin, Morgan Freeman, Debbie Allen, Sela Ward, Tony Danza, Kirstie Alley, and Their Royal Highnesses The Prince Edward and The Princess Sophie.

"Symmetry is important to me, both in architecture, and in my life," notes Sam. Their house is indeed perfectly balanced visually and spatially, with mirror-image twin parlors flanking the foyer--one a large dining room that features a long banquet table, handed down from Mary's grandparents, and a sitting room opposite. Over each fireplace are identical gold-leafed mirrors, that once belonged to Mississippi Governor Hugh White. Beyond each of these rooms are matching conservatories--one that serves as a card room, the other as a breakfast room. Behind the latter sun-filled space is a long cabinet-lined passage, that houses the couple's large china and crystal collection, including a set of decorative Wedgwood plates that were commissioned by King George VI and Queen Elizabeth (parents of the present monarch), and given to President Franklin D. Roosevelt and his wife Eleanor, after the royals' visit to America in 1939. These plates were left to Dr. William Turner Levy, an Episcopal priest and dear friend of Mrs. Roosevelt, in her will. Dr. Levy, in turn, gifted them to his close friends, Mary and Sam, knowing of their friendship with Prince Edward.

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Around every corner, on every tabletop and shelf, there is a collection of objects that all come with stories attached, and Mary and Sam derive great pleasure in sharing them. Sam's first-edition books and vast array of royal memorabilia, some pieces dating back to the reign of King George III in the 18th century, fill his cypress-paneled library. A signed photograph of the Duke of Windsor and Wallis Warfield Simpson shares space atop an antique chest with a framed snapshot of the Haskells' late, much-missed dogs, Weaver and Wilson. In the family den, vintage posters of Sam's two favorite movies of all time, Gone with the Wind and The Wizard of Oz, accompanied by the autographs of all the principal cast members, share the limelight with still more family photos, including a cherished one of daughter Mary Lane starring in a high-school production of Hello, Dolly!

Royalty--of both the British and Hollywood varieties--have played strong supporting roles in the Haskell story over the course of their exciting lives, but it's clear that for these two, faith, family, and friends take star billing. And they look forward to many long years of joy, sharing their exquisite "Magnolia Hill" in Mississippi with those they love.

by brenda ware jones | photography by tom beck
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Author:Jones, Brenda Ware
Publication:Mississippi Magazine
Date:Sep 1, 2010
Words:1765
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