SELA WARD has spent a lifetime proving she’s much more than just a pretty face. Her high-school classmates in the east- central Mississippi city of Meridian were among the first to call attention to her mesmerizing hazel eyes and chiseled cheek bones when they gave her the title of “most beautiful.” Two decades later, People magazine agreed. She’s graced countless covers and stolen the spotlight on the big and small screens.
But Ward’s heart, it turns out, is equally lovely. Even as she has ascended into the ranks of Hollywood stardom, this belle has never forgotten her home state, using her energy and influence to return historic structures to their original beauty and helping to change the lives of children in need.
Ward’s childhood memories of life in Meridian are as sweet as her easy smile. “There was lots of cane-pole fishing, swimming lessons in the lake, flag football on the neighborhood field and the annual Lakemont [neighborhood] picnic,” Ward tells us. “We played outside until dark and didn’t have a care in the world.”
When she wasn’t exploring outdoors, this oldest of four children could sometimes be found on the stage. She joined the Meridian Little Theatre’s cast of “The King and I” at age 12 and soon dreamed of a life beyond her home state’s borders. “When I was a child, I felt I was living in a small room and there was this big world out there just waiting for me,” she told Parade in 2011. “I had such a thirst for life. I wanted that big world.”
So after spending her college years at the University of Alabama, where she was crowned homecoming queen, Ward packed her bags and headed for New York City. Modeling jobs came easily, but it wasn’t long before she
had a new destination in mind: southern California and the lure of a life in front of a different kind of camera. She was a natural actor, and the link between her talent and her Magnolia State roots wasn’t lost on her. “Mississippi has an uncanny amount of accomplished artists,” she reflects. “From actors to writers to painters
to musicians, there is definitely something in the water that has created such an amazingly rich, creative environment to draw from.”
Ward worked regularly in film and television during the 1980s, but her breakout role came in 1991 when she was cast as free-spirited alcoholic artist Teddy on the NBC drama “Sisters.” That part led to her first Emmy Award in 1994; she picked up a second Emmy in 2000 for the equally popular series “Once and Again.”
Off screen, Ward was making room in her life for more than the typical Hollywood trappings. She married venture capitalist Howard Sherman in 1992, and with her future family in mind, she felt herself drawn back to the place she had sworn off decades earlier. “My roots are deeply embedded in Mississippi,” she explains of her decision to acquire the 500-acre property outside Meridian that she now calls Honeysuckle Farms. “I was born and raised here, and therefore my Mississippi life is a huge part of my inner world.”
Today, Ward and her husband and their two children, Austin and Anabella, return each summer for extended stays on the farm, where family and friends frequently join them for parties, scavenger hunts and sleepovers.
The contrast from their everyday activities has been a welcome one for the kids in particular. “As they have grown older, they have realized that life slows down in Mississippi, and we find the joy in the simpler things,” Ward tells us.
The actress’s ties to her native land are so strong that she devoted her bestselling 2002 memoir, Homesick, to the subject. “So many of us have moved away from the modest place that was too small to hold our dreams, too quiet for the noise we were born to make,” she wrote in the book. “Yet for all the success we may have found in the big city (or sprawling suburb), we are discovering there is a cost. We have strayed too far from the humble things that endure, and given short shrift to the rituals and traditions that give meaning and continuity to our lives.”
With her focus back on her home state, Ward also set her sights on giving back to the community that had nurtured her for so long. She was instrumental in the restoration of Meridian’s Grand Opera House, constructed in 1890, and the nearby Weidmann’s restaurant, an 1870-built downtown institution. Reopened in 2006, the theater —now the centerpiece of the Mississippi State University Riley Center for Education and Performing Arts
—retains many of its original historic details and once again draws top performers, while Weidmann’s makes a perfect pre- or post-performance stop for visitors.
But her most meaningful project has been the creation and growth of Hope Village for Children, a Meridian facility that provides a permanent and caring home environment for abused and abandoned children. The idea for the center was born when
Ward met two young brothers at a local shelter; they had been removed from an unstable family home and were soon to be separated for foster care. “We have a lot of needs in Mississippi, especially for children,” she says. “…My heart nearly broke thinking what being separated from each other would do to them, and I knew there had to be a better way.”
Hope Village was founded in 2000 and now houses several such vulnerable children on a 30-acre campus, where they live in small group cottages and are provided with therapeutic services, recreation, educational help and assistance in transitioning to independent living as they grow up. In 2013, Ward hosted a benefit gala for the charity in Meridian, where she welcomed celebrity friends including Gary Sinise, Lance Bass and LeAnn Rimes, among other donors.
“The most important benefit of my celebrity status is that I can use it as a platform,” she told the Mississippi Legislature in 2001. “…I am committed to helping Mississippi.”
Returning to her roots doesn’t mean Ward has left the spotlight, however. She was a recurring friendly face on the set of “House” for seven years, and she was actually sitting on her Mississippi farm- house’s front porch when she got a call to join the cast of “CSI: NY” in 2010. Her portrayal of DNA expert Jo Danville lasted until the show was cancelled in 2013. Most recently, she was part of the star-studded lineup in the movie Gone Girl. She is also producing two films now in production.
No matter how busy her Hollywood life gets, though, Ward knows where her heart will always lie. “…Though I’m not in the South most of the time, I am undeniably of the South,” she wrote i¬n Homesick. “Its customs and ways have shaped me as sure as the great Mississippi formed the Delta. And it is to the South I always return when I need comfort, solace and respite from the rigors of city life.”
Mississippi's Leading Lady
Beauty goes far beyond skin deep for this Meridian-born actress and humanitarian.
"The roots of my family tree run deep in the red dirt of Mississippi."
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