Like many other parents, Cindy and Scott Blackwell are testing the waters as empty nesters. One month in and things are going pretty good. Sure, evening meals look different and the grocery bill has decreased dramatically, as has the laundry load, but that’s O.K.
It wasn’t long after they dropped off their twin sons, Ethan and Stuart, at Mississippi State for their freshman year, that Scott, who serves as executive director of the Department of Housing and Residence Life at Southern Miss, was situating students in residence halls around the USM campus, while Cindy was knee deep in faculty development on campus.
The Blackwells have been in the Hub City for the last eight years. The couple met in graduate school at Texas A&M. After moves here and there – Ft. Worth, Michigan, Stillwater – to pursue and complete degrees, they found themselves back at A&M to get their PhDs, pretty much at the same time.
The boys were born while Cindy was in graduate school.
“The twins were born on Thursday of spring break and I was back in the classroom the following Tuesday,” Cindy said. “I was in grad school; you really don’t get maternity leave.”
Scott said when he hears about these three-plus months of maternity leave from others, “we kind of roll our eyes.”
Upon graduation from A&M, they both got jobs at Oklahoma State University, which Scott said isn’t always easy.
“I grew up in Texas (Dallas) making fun of Oklahoma, so I kind of felt like that was God’s way of putting the joke back on me,” Cindy said.
“Oklahoma is wonderful but when you think about that center of the country, it’s so hot in the summer and so cold in the winter.”
“We just couldn’t,” Scott said.
That last winter they decided they couldn’t do this anymore.
“The last three winters were pretty brutal,” he said. “The four-season thing was overrated.”
“We just like it hot year ‘round,” Cindy added with a laugh. “Like, where can we go where it’s hot?”
That place wound up being Hattiesburg and The University of Southern Mississippi.
“We’re a higher-ed family,” Scott said. “We go where there is work, or a university or college town.”
Scott brought home some information about a job available at USM, which was a whole lot of what he was looking for. It also allowed him to move up, while Cindy, who said she was doing too much as a faculty member, was looking to cut back.
At OSU, in addition to her regular job, she was taking part in a couple of grants that took her to Africa, Mali and the like and kept her gone anywhere from three to six weeks a year, in addition to conferences which took her all over the country. With two small boys at home and no family nearby to help out, that wasn’t ideal, even though Scott said they managed.
“We were never outnumbered by little people and always had things in hand,” Scott said proudly.
“Her rigorous travel schedule and pursing tenure paid off, so we don’t have too many regrets. Tenure was awarded as well as a promotion in rank so that certainly has helped her be successful here.”
Her first year on campus, Cindy served as adjunct and her first job was a class with then-USM President Dr. Martha Saunders.
“My first job here was a class with her,” she said.
“No pressure there,” Scott said.
“But it was joy. I loved everything about it. We had a lot in common with our teaching philosophies, how we approached teaching, content and everything. We just had a wonderful relationship.”
When Saunders’ official university portrait was dedicated in 2018, Cindy was asked to speak at the dedication ceremony.
“We got here when Student Affairs was really in its heyday – Joe Paul, Sid Gonsoulin, a wonderful mentor, Eddie Holloway, we couldn’t have gotten here at a better time got to experience their leadership,” Scott said.
“Our first year here was also Larry Fedora’s year here; we had season tickets,” Cindy said. “Larry had been at OSU, as had we,” Scott said. “Good things come out of Oklahoma.”
The move to south Mississippi wasn’t difficult for the boys, who were 10 at the time.
But Cindy and Scott did make them a promise they wouldn’t uproot them again as they made their way through high school.
“Buying a house with a swimming pool wasn’t a bad move either,” Cindy said.
Scott said where he grew up, swimming pools were only for the rich and famous.
“But it’s kind of nice to have a little body of water in the backyard and it takes up some grass, so I don’t have as much to mow,” he said.
The Blackwells always said all they needed in a move was a solid Episcopal church, a swim team for the boys, who had been on a team from a very young age, Blue Bell ice cream and Shiner Bock beer. With Mississippi being a Shiner Bock and Blue Bell state and with Trinity Episcopal, they felt like it was meant to be when they got here.
Time outside of work has changed significantly during the last month now that they are empty nesters.
“We thought about downsizing, selling the house and maybe sending the boys a text message about where they could go for Thanksgiving,” Scott said.
“But we might be in Disneyworld for Thanksgiving because we may not have a home,” Cindy said.
“We are having a lot of fun; we miss them but are having a lot of fun,” Scott said. “Somebody told me at church the other day that life starts when the kids leave home.”
The two dogs, who are sisters, are getting more attention and a lot more treats, getting handouts from both mom and dad.
“For the last 18 years the boys have ruled the roost, so it’s nice to be able to focus on the two of us now,” Scott said. “Dinner looks different, the laundry load is a lot smaller, meal times are shorter, we’re eating out more, easier meals and we go when we want.”
And while a meal might mean cheese and crackers or guacamole and chips, they haven’t resorted to cereal.
While the Blackwells would have loved to have had the boys on the Hattiesburg campus, being in higher education they knew the fraternal twins needed that get-away-from-home experience.
“That was important to us,” said Scott.
One son is studying civil engineering, while the other has a math/stats interest with a sports lean.
“We both feel good about them both being in Starkville,” Scott said.
“Besides, on this campus, their mother is the academic integrity officer and their father is executive director of housing; who wants to do that?” Cindy said.
One day during mid-September Scott received a call from his counterpart at MSU. Debating whether to answer the phone or not, fearing the boys had found trouble, the friend only wanted to talk about work.
Scott describes that as a tense few seconds.
“Our sons have grown up in the higher ed environment, so they are sort of programmed that when you’re 18, you go to college, have a good time, but stay focused, but we’re only 1 month into it. Hopeful they are going to do what they need to do,” Scott said.
Cindy tries to text a quote to the boys on a regular basis, which sometimes is silly dumb stuff, but at other times something inspirational about going out and taking the world by storm.
The couple is anti-helicopter parenting. “We vowed not to overparent,” Scott said, “but it’s fun when we hear from them.”
The Blackwells are big fans of Disneyworld. Another good part of their move south was they were within driving distance of the Orlando, Florida, park.
They actually fell in love with the whole concept while visiting Disneyland, their first trip out of graduate school. The boys were three at the time.
They’ve done five trips to Disneyworld.
“We have a lot of fun there,” said Cindy, who has a plan and a matrix for the whole trip. “We are the family. We are the people who are at the gate before it opens. And with those extra magic hours, we’ve ridden every ride we want to ride before 10 a.m. We’re pretty hardcore.”
She said they threatened the boys that to overcome their sadness after dropping them off at MSU, a Disney trip might be in their future. But a new semester started all too soon and a visit to Mickey and Minnie didn’t happen, but another trip is in their future.
“If they ever need a housing director for their college interns program, they’ve got a house mom and house dad here,” Scott said.
Scott said they are hopefully optimistic about the future.
“She’s told me I cannot retire in five years like I would like to,” Scott said. “For now life is good.”