Contact: Marianne Todd
MERIDIAN, Miss.—Morgan Dudley might be the best kept secret at the MSU Riley Center.
When not poring over contracts or managing an issue before a show—which could be an M&M run to satisfy the sudden sugar craving of a visiting artist—Dudley operates in the theater’s shadows as its conferences and events director, providing the support needed to make each event go unhitched.
But on Saturday, the spotlight turned on Dudley herself as she reigned as queen of the Meridian Mardi Gras Parade.
“With me, what you see is what you get. I march to the beat of my own drum,” said Dudley, who admits her glitzy sequined Mardi Gras costume was a far cry from her down-to-earth working wardrobe.
She isn’t used to being in the limelight, she said, and she’d rather see glitz and glamour on the stage than on herself.
“This is where this place really shows its magic,” she said of the beloved historic theater. “When the house lights go down, and the performers walk on stage, and it’s show time, that’s what it’s all about.”
Mark Davis, president of the local nonprofit Arts and Community Events Society, which promotes local quality of life in Meridian through cultural arts and events, said Dudley was nominated by the local Mardi Gras committee and selected because she’s always eager to lend a hand.
The Mardi Gras Parade is co-sponsored by ACES and Mitchell Distributing, he said.
“We’re celebrating members of the community who have gone above and beyond in working with us to promote the community and make it a better place to live,” Davis said, adding that the committee chose Matt Schanrock, director of Mainstreet Meridian, as king of the parade for his hard work and dedication to the Queen City.
Dudley herself was ingrained with a strong sense of community while working in her family’s business, Lott Furniture Company of McComb.
“My dad always said, ‘You get out what you put in,’ and that’s been true my entire life,” she said. “If you want to see results, you have to put in the work.”
A Mississippi State University graduate, Dudley earned her master’s degree in business administration from MSU-Meridian in 2023.
But she didn’t start there.
In 2009, she entered MSU intent on earning a degree in animal and dairy science, a pathway to veterinary school. Then life took a different turn.
“My dad took me to orientation in Starkville, and on the way back to McComb, we had some time to kill, so we took a detour. He said, ‘I’m going to show you where your ancestral family is buried.’”
But it was a hot June day, and Dudley, being a teenager, wasn’t thrilled with the impromptu field trip to Damascus Baptist Church on Highway 495, just north of Meridian.
“I said I would never go back there,” she said.
Eighteen months later, after she entered her sophomore year, the father she dearly loved succumbed to cancer.
Wrought with grief and uncertain about the future, her education was derailed.
“He died during Christmas break,” she said. “I was 20 years old.”
She switched her major to business administration, graduated and moved to Meridian, where she commuted to McComb every other week, wearing the many hats that would keep her family business afloat.
“I did accounting and taxes, human resources, anything that needed to be done,” she said. “I grew up not knowing anything but work. I watched my parents every day in our business, and it didn’t stop because the door closed at 5.”
In 2018, when a job opened for an assistant ticket manager at The Riley Center box office, a job Dudley had always dreamed of having, she jumped at the opportunity, but it was a position that didn’t last long.
“We had an unexpected vacancy for an executive director, and the decision was made not to fill it,” said Terry Dale Cruse, MSU-Meridian associate vice president and head of campus. “So immediately we moved Morgan into a new role of facilitating contracts and volunteers and working as house manager. It has proved to be a great decision.”
Since then, Dudley has found her niche, and these days, having come full circle, she occupies a home with her husband and daughter, a mere 10 minutes from her ancestral burial grounds.
“Not a day goes by that Morgan isn’t making someone else’s life easier,” Cruse said. “And she does it with both a sense of humor and a decorum of grace, even when obstacles are mounted high in front of her. She is the indispensable comrade every leader dreams of having.”
Once, on the morning of a sold-out gospel show, the band phoned with bad news: their bus was broken down in Vicksburg and no vehicles were available to transport a dozen people, their instruments and wardrobes. To make matters worse, the weather report called for severe thunderstorms throughout the day.
Dudley sprang into action, securing three vans and two additional drivers, and had the entire band on stage and ready for sound check by noon.
“The weather cleared up before the performance,” she said. “That’s our goal at The Riley Center, to deliver with finesse. If I thought this job was easy, I wouldn’t be doing it right, but I love being able to get my hands dirty. What we do here as a team is to execute every event as if it’s the only one happening, and I think we do a good job of that.”
Mississippi State University is taking care of what matters. MSU-Meridian is online at meridian.msstate.edu.