If one were to put a face on Mardi Gras, a handful of names might come to mind — with Susan Hunt’s at or near the top of the list. That’s because she and her family still carry the torch for all things Mardi Gras. At age 75, she is one of the most significant keepers of Coast Carnival history.
“If you cut her wrist, she’d bleed purple, green and gold,” says Bobby Mahoney of Mary Mahoney’s Old French House restaurant.
“She’s not going to bleed red — that’s for sure,” adds Nancy Rogers, executive director of the Gulf Coast Carnival Association.
Rogers has worked behind the scenes with GCCA since she was 15 and has directed the association for 20 years. “It is always so wonderful to have someone family related to work with to offer insight on all of the traditions,” she says. “Susan and her sister (Martha Hunt Tripp) are both still involved.”
Rogers says she talks mostly with Susan about GCCA, but all of the Hunts still play a role in the association.
Susan grew up seeing Mardi Gras history roll out right in front of her. Her grandfather was captivated by a Mardi Gras parade that passed in front of his home in 1892 when he was age 4 and later was instrumental in forming the organization that became the Gulf Coast Carnival Association.
Historian Murella Powell captured a slice of the Hunt family’s Mardi Gras history in a book called “ ‘Skeet’: The Public Life of Walter Henry Hunt … American” and in a pamphlet prepared for the Mardi Gras Museum. Powell says Biloxi Herald reported on masquerade balls, parties and dinners in the late 1880s. In 1908, Biloxi held the first Mardi Gras parade with 17 floats, 150 flambeau carriers, a 12-piece Herald Newspaper Band, grand marshal, the mayor and city councilmen.
In 1916, Susan’s grandfather, Biloxi’s mayor and two other men drew up a charter of incorporation titled “The Biloxi Carnival and Literary Association.” In 1929, other Coast cities joined in, and in around 1949, the literary association became the Gulf Coast Carnival Association.
Susan’s grandfather served as grand marshal and parade chairman for 44 years. Susan’s father, Walter Kenner “Skeet” Hunt, became general manager of GCCA and parade chairman in 1950. Like his father, he stayed involved for many years; he became the first captain of the association in 1953 and served in that role for 18 years. When Walter “Skeet” Hunt was asked why he put so much of his time and effort into something he wasn’t paid to do, he responded, “When I see the faces of the children as they watch the parade, that’s payment enough.”
Serving children and the community is a thread that runs through the Hunt family and leads right into Susan’s life as well.
When Susan graduated Biloxi High in 1959, the options for women were limited: “nurse, teacher, secretary or you got married,” she says. Susan easily says, “school was not my bag,” but her guidance counselor, Elizabeth Munro, was able to persuade her to attend Mississippi University for Women in Columbus, Miss. Susan says she really needed the structured environment of an all-women’s school — because if she had a choice between studying and partying, she’d choose socializing for sure! She graduated with a degree in library science and elementary education, and that led her into teaching, her life’s passion. She taught and was principal in a number of places, retiring after 33 years, but didn’t end her work with children. She holds Parent Academies and is the certification manager for Biloxi Excel By 5 program in 2009. In her “spare time,” she has “worked” as a hostess at Mary Mahoney’s on Saturdays and special days for the past 30 years.
“Yeah, when she started, people were all lined up to get in here,” says Bobby Mahoney. “I had to tell her to stop talking to people; we have to seat ‘em and feed ‘em!”
Susan hugs, chats and cuts up just like that with so many Biloxians, one might think she knows EVERYONE in that city.
“I don’t think there’s anyone she doesn’t know,” says City Councilman Kenny Glavan after getting his hug and kiss from Susan. “She even knows people who are moving down here!’
Susan never married but she has “children” all over the Coast. She calls anyone she taught “her children,” and whenever you see her you’ll find her hugging and fussing over her “children” who are adults now.
“My passion …,” Susan says, pausing as she tries to formulate the right words. “It is to make a difference in children’s and people’s lives.” And that seems to be the Hunts’ way of doing things.
During the early days of Mardi Gras, all the preparations were made at the Hunt home, except for decorating the floats, she recalls.
“Mardi Gras was a part of our lives,” she says. “We lived with Mardi Gras all year long. Our house had costumes, liquor, beads, etc. all year long!”
She continues, “Mardi Gras was a tradition which began with my grandfather, and the tradition continued through my parents — Ruth and Walter Kenner “Skeet” Hunt; my uncle and aunt, Bartlo and Mona Hunt; and my aunt, Phyllis Hunt Graham. The tradition continues as my sister, Martha, and I are still very active with the Gulf Coast Carnival Association.”
Susan and her sister continue to be involved with GCCA in various roles. Susan is a member of GCCA, serves on the Mardi Gras Museum Board, Children’s Marching Parade Committee, and participates in the parade. She also serves the GCCA royalty and their guests at City Hall on parade day. “If you’re not on the list, you’re not getting in,” she says.
Her sister, Martha, serves in the Children’s Marching Parade and is a chairperson for the Show Box Float Contest.
Why do they still stay so involved? Susan says, “As stated by my parents, ‘That’s payment enough for us just to see the smile on the children’s faces as the parade goes down the street”!
Martha adds, “Because it was and still is a family tradition. … My parents were always telling us we should give back to the community. Helping gave us pleasure knowing that the children and people of the community could benefit from the fun of Mardi Gras.”