An aptly named cottage on Main Street may be small, but it overflows with the memories, music and the love of Jim and Mary Ann Schnur.
- story and photos by Ellis Anderson
Inside, the home reflects the same philosophy. There’s not a whiff of pretention as one walks through the house. Room colors embrace guests and furniture groupings invite long conversations.
The walls and shelves of the historic cottage are showcases of memorabilia from a rich past. Meaning carries more weight than matching here. Artwork they’ve collected and reminders of their long careers as educators are displayed along with framed keepsakes from their marriage 60 years before.
Mary Ann points out their wedding license, dated 1957. Jim’s profession is listed as gas station attendant. There’s no space on it for a woman’s occupation.
“That didn’t matter then,” says Mary Ann, laughing.
The couple’s favorite rooms are the cozy nook where Jim practices tuba, and the just-added, screened-in porch with skylights where they often soak in the hot tub together. Mornings and evenings may find them on the front porch visiting with friends who have popped over, or greeting neighbors as they walk past.
Both Mary Ann and Jim grew up in a front porch culture – at least in the summertime. The two were born and raised in Dunkirk, New York, on the shores of Lake Erie. The midsized town was comprised mostly of commercial fishermen and manufacturing workers, many of them immigrants from far-flung countries.
Mary Ann says she didn’t realize how poor her family was. One of seven children, her nickname was “Hap” because of her sunny disposition. Jim was the youngest of three, with a sister 11 years his senior. He credits her for introducing him to music, taking him into Buffalo as a “wee lad” to see the big bands that were popular in the ’40s and ’50s.
Jim began playing trumpet in elementary school. In the high school that he and Mary Ann both attended, he performed in the school band and with friends for post-game dances.
“And this girl would swoon over him,” says Mary Ann.
Mary Ann confided about her crush to her older brother. The matchmaker approached his friend Jim and said, “Hey, when are you going to take my sister out?”
Mary Ann was 14 and Jim was 15. The year was 1952. They’ve been together ever since.
When they married five years later, Jim was working his way through the state university at Fedonia. “Our plan was survival,” he says, grinning. The student – and now father – would work factory jobs at night and attend classes in the day.
After earning his B.A. in education, he pursued a master’s degree. For a time, the young family lived with Mary Ann’s mother. Space was at such a premium, Mary Ann had to set up an ironing board in the bathroom to use as a table while she typed Jim’s papers for school.
Jim started out teaching fifth graders in a tiny town, but his innovative approaches soon had him working as math coordinator. This gave him an “unplanned springboard” into higher education. Friends encouraged him to apply for a university position in math education at Geneseo, one of the premier public liberal arts colleges in the country. Jim landed the job on the condition that he complete work toward his doctorate.
Once again, he was working full-time and going to school. This time, Mary Ann was a fellow student. The couple’s two children were 10 and 12 when she began pursing a degree in foreign language education. Later, while Jim served as department head and then associate dean at University of Northern Iowa, Mary Ann earned a master’s degree in special education.
The couple moved to Texas when Jim became Dean of Education at Lamar University, while Mary Ann utilized her advanced degree by working in special education. In 1984, University of Southern Mississippi offered Jim a deanship overseeing the College of Education and Psychology.
Although the average dean’s tenure is only five years, for the next 13 Jim oversaw six departments and 100 faculty members. Mary Ann obtained her Mississippi certification and worked as an elementary school guidance counselor.
The Schnurs’ home in Hattiesburg was a large one, built for entertaining faculty and graduate students. But after visiting friends on the coast, they began shopping for a second home.
A few years after Jim’s 1997 retirement, they purchased a Bay St. Louis place in the Garden Isles neighborhood which they christened the Canal House. Jim revived rusty handyman skills and the couple spent years remodeling the home while dividing their time between Hattiesburg and the coast.
Looking to eventually downsize and move full-time to the coast, the Schnurs began shopping again, this time in Old Town. They were attracted to its charming historic district and proximity to shopping and restaurants. Mary Ann had only two priorities on her wish list – window boxes and a window seat.
When a 900-square-foot cottage next door to friends on Main Street became available, they didn’t hesitate, despite the diminutive size. They purchased it in 2005 and put the Canal house on the market.
But the Main Street cottage didn’t get its name until later that year when Katrina demolished most of the town. Despite the surrounding devastation, the Schnurs’ new home suffered relatively little damage. Hope still stood amid the ruins.
The couple says that neither thought twice about leaving Bay St. Louis, despite that their ties to the community were relatively new. Both rolled up their sleeves and began volunteering for those less fortunate. Jim even volunteered for the volunteers, performing for them as part of the Mississippi Coast Jazz Society.
“There was an esprit de corps that emerged here,” Jim says. “It was great to be a part of that. I never want another hurricane, but I wouldn’t have wanted to miss that.”
The Schnurs continued to divide time between Hattiesburg and the coast until 2014, when they moved to the Bay full time. Downsizing has been a challenge, but a 600-square-foot master suite addition to the back of the house has helped. Mary Ann now has her window seat and window boxes. Their most recent project converted a deck to a screened porch.
Mary Ann calls it the “Take Me Away” room and says the hot tub is large enough for them to lounge in it “toe to toe.” A wall of lush bamboo just outside filters light while providing optimum privacy.
The Schnurs admit storage at the cottage has been an issue, but they built in shelving and overhead cabinets into most of the rooms. Sofas open up into beds for guests, and tables expand to accommodate more diners. “You have to adjust your thinking to utilize a small space,” Jim advises.
But there’s always room for a tuba. After retirement, Jim began playing music again, a passion he’d tucked away during his career. This time around, he took to tuba instead of trumpet and joined a group at Southern.
He remembers the first time he played with the group: “I walked into the practice room; there were 12 tuba players and eight euphonium players. They were all music majors on scholarship. I tried to keep from making a fool of myself, but I just made a fool of myself.”
That did not dampen his enthusiasm. Jim says his passion now is playing tuba and string bass with the Mississippi Coast Stompers, a jazz/Dixieland standards group that will be celebrating its ninth year soon. They frequently play gigs, including a steady one at the Silver Slipper Casino’s champagne brunch (on the first and second Sundays of each month).
Mary Ann is musically inclined as well. The couple sang with Coast Chorale for 10 years (including a performance in Carnegie Hall), and recently, Jim gave her a ukulele for her birthday.
“I’m a late bloomer all the way around,” she quips. “Watching the Stompers play is like magic to me. They play with no written music, it’s just amazing.” It seems clear that she still swoons watching Jim play.
“Playing is what keeps this old man going,” Jim says, smiling. “And this fine woman.”
The fine woman meets his gaze and smiles in return.
“We’ve come a long way in our journey,” she says. And one understands she's not talking about miles.