A love of the game of tennis and a sincere appreciation for Mississippi State University have led Jeannie Swain Mullen to impact women’s sports in a major way.
The Ridgeland resident has established the Mullen Endowment for Women’s Athletics at Mississippi State. The endowment will help recruit future student-athletes to MSU by providing up to five scholarships for talented and deserving individuals who are part of the varsity women’s tennis program. Additionally, the endowment supports women’s facilities, enhancements and beautification.
“It is important to support young women who participate in varsity sports as a way to finish their education and receive a four-year college degree,” Mullen said. “I am the grateful beneficiary of two college scholarships, so helping other young women with similar financial needs finish their education and begin working toward the fulfillment of their own hopes and dreams is a natural fit.”
A full tennis scholarship enabled Mullen to earn a two-year liberal arts degree in 1977 from Miami Dade Junior College. Without the finances or proficiency to play local qualifying tournaments for the pro tour, she began seeking another scholarship for two more years of college. Her search yielded a full scholarship from former Mississippi State women’s tennis coach Libba Birmingham.
At Mississippi State, Mullen played tennis from 1978-1980 as she worked toward a bachelor’s degree in social work she earned in 1980. She also holds a master’s degree in public policy and administration from MSU, graduating with a 4.0 grade-point average in 1982.
For Mullen, her time in Starkville was bittersweet as both of her parents passed away while she was enrolled. However, her MSU education helped her overcome the challenges their deaths presented.
“I lost my father in my junior year, and my mother in my senior year," Mullen recalled. "Looking back on it now I am certain that finishing a degree and finding a decent job to support myself would have been very much in doubt without MSU.”
She continued, “I am just so grateful that under those difficult and unforeseen circumstances, my education was secure financially. I found myself with no support system and suddenly on my own in every way. The structure of classes, tennis practice and team matches were all crucial for me to stay focused on something positive and productive.”
With Mississippi State degrees in hand, Mullen became a budget analyst for the Commission of Budget and Accounting in Jackson, then director of the budget division at the State Fiscal Management Board and eventually senior staff member for the mayor’s office for the City of Jackson. She also worked in the brokerage business, and returned to that sector following her husband’s death, working there until retirement.
Although she gives credit to Mississippi State for helping her establish a firm foundation, in a sense, Mullen was an accidental Bulldog, having no connection with the university until she became a student.
Mullen was born in Newport, Rhode Island, into a military family. Growing up, she lived mostly on the East Coast, as dictated by her father’s commissions as a lieutenant commander in the United States Navy. The family eventually settled in John Reid Swain’s native Miami, Florida, where Mullen spent most of her formative years and cultivated an interest in tennis.
“My dear mother, Mona Jean Chesney deserves all the credit for my love of tennis and all that has come from my involvement in the game," Mullen explained.
She continued, “I doubt my mother ever imagined when she first introduced me to tennis and afforded me with afternoon lessons at age 14, the kinds of doors this wonderful sport would open for me. From the people that I have met to the life that I have lived, I’m convinced it wouldn’t have happened had she not sent me for that first after-school lesson.”
Her passion and transformative scholarship opportunity conspired to bring Mullen to Starkville, where she continues her relationship with Mississippi State by encouraging and supporting the dreams of aspiring female athletes.
“I have always believed that young people, young women in particular, miss an early and important opportunity to learn critical life and business skills when they don’t participate in an organized sport,” Mullen said. “Every sport encourages and develops leadership skills, teamwork, self esteem, self confidence, a healthy competitiveness, a sense of fair play, the ability to perform in the face of adversity, resilience, and analytical skills, among many other benefits.”
In recent years, Mullen’s appreciation for Mississippi State has grown, as has her understanding of how private support provides the university with a competitive advantage.
The lessons in giving she learned from two fellow alumni, Richard Rula and Richard Puckett, who have both served on the MSU Foundation board. Rula, a 1970 civil engineering graduate, is president of Hemphill Construction Co. and Puckett is a 1977 general business administration graduate who is chairman and CEO of Puckett Machinery Co. Mullen plays social and recreational tennis with them at River Hills Club in Jackson.
“What started out as a common love of the game has developed into wonderful friendships with each of them, their spouses, Sherry and Mary, and their families,” Mullen said.
Initially, Mullen met Rula through her late husband Wayne who was a graduate of Mississippi College in Clinton and a competitive tennis player. The two men were teammates in various men’s leagues over the years, and she played mixed doubles with them.
“If you spend any time around either Richard, you pick up on their personal commitments to MSU,” Mullen said. “Both of them have always taken the time to answer my questions about their work with MSU and how the giving process works. They have also led by excellent example through their own personal giving.”
Mullen admits her gift to women’s athletics was influenced by her personal time at MSU, her positive experiences as a student-athlete and the examples set by others.
“The game of tennis has blessed me with a wonderful and interesting life, meaningful friendships, memorable travel to far-flung places and a healthy lifestyle,” said Mullen, who reached No. 1 in women’s national 35 (senior) doubles in 2001. “For these many blessings I thank both my mother and Wayne.”
She continued, “Sharing a love of tennis was a wonderful part of the seven short years Wayne and I had together. He encouraged me in every way to pursue my dreams, on the tennis court and off. It is also through Wayne’s financial success that I am able to make this gift to MSU.”
The endowment from Mullen was carefully planned to “result in something meaningful, tangible and lasting,” and she believes her support accomplishes this.
“Last year I had the great pleasure of meeting several members of the MSU women’s tennis team—what a lovely group of happy and healthy student-athletes," Mullen said. "I was particularly struck by their strong academic emphasis and by their future career plans. MSU is beautifully represented by these young women, and I know the future will bring more Lady Bulldogs like them.”
By Amy Cagle