An Unlikely Road from Ole Miss


In the staircase of the Student Union at the University of Mississippi, there were was a brief excerpt from a poem, the Heart of Ole Miss. And part of that excerpt was this – “The University gives a diploma and regretfully terminates tenure…”
 
Last month marked 23 years since that diploma was given and my tenure there terminated. Ole Miss did what it good for me and set me free. For those two decades and change, I’ve been proud to be an alumnus of the University of Mississippi.
 
So it was incredibly heartwarming and validating this year to have the Ole Miss Alumni Association look back on those years and say, hey, we’re proud of you, too.
 
 
When I was an undergrad at The University of Mississippi
, I never dreamed the direction my career would take me. My ambitions were that at this point in my life, I’d be a weekly newspaper publisher. To say that helping to put tiny spaceships on giant rockets sending people to the moon was not on the map would be understatement.
 
And yet, those years in the journalism school at Ole Miss were the foundation for everything since. Reporting and writing professors like Joe Atkins and Robin Street taught not just the basic knowledge of the craft of journalism; they taught something far more valuable – how to become knowledgeable. A journalist had to be able to go into any unfamiliar situation and quickly gain the ability to communicate competently about it. Like schools or courts or county government. Or rockets.
 
In my younger days, I dreamed of winning the Silver Em award, the highest recognition Ole Miss gives its alumni for their accomplishments in careers in journalism. My career has long since taken me in a direction that doesn’t lead to a Silver Em, and I joke that I, instead, want the award for least-likely career for an Ole Miss journalism grad.
 
And that’s kind of what this article is.
 
The funny thing was, when they contacted me, I actually had the most recent issue of the Review on my desk, because I was about to write and tell them they should publish a feature about Chris Cianciola, the deputy program manager for NASA’s Space Launch System, which ain’t half bad for an Ole Miss engineering alum. (There’s a lot lot of Mississippi State alums on the SLS program and not a lot of us Ole Miss folks, and I love that all the State grads answer to a UM alum.) When they contacted me about an article, I immediately told them I was flattered, but they’d really rather write about Chris. They took down his name for a future article, but said they really wanted to write about my unlikely story.
 
And, I gotta say, they did a pretty decent job with it. Nobody’s ever written my story like this before, and I’m not displeased with the result.
 
“The University gives a diploma and regretfully terminates tenure, but one never graduates from Ole Miss.” – Frank Everett, UM BA’32, BL’34

“The University is Respected, But Ole Miss Is Loved”


This was in my Facebook feed this morning:

Screen Shot 2017-11-03 at 10.36.49 AM

I’ve had the opportunity to go some amazing places and see some awesome things supporting NASA’s Space Launch System, but getting to take my rocket back “home” to Ole Miss will always be a favorite.

For the first six years after college, when I was still working in newspapers, it looked like I was on track to eventually accomplish the career dreams I had when I was a print journalism major there.

In my mind, it’s a far, far greater testimony to how well my Ole Miss journalism prepared me to see now how far it’s carried me from anywhere I’d ever dreamed.
It’s been a little while since I’ve been published in a newspaper or magazine, but I’m still proud of my The University of Mississippi – Ole Miss j-school education, and grateful to folks like Samir A. Husni, Joe Atkins, Robin Street and Judy Crump for the foundation they gave me.

Interviewing The Man Who Taught Me To Interview


Joe Atkins at his Lafayette County, Mississippi home.

Joe Atkins at his Lafayette County, Mississippi home. Photo by Lauren Wood, Mud & Magnolias

Twenty years later, there aren’t a whole lot of my former professors I still keep up with. And there’s a case to be made that Joe Atkins​ might have been an unlikely candidate to be one of the few, since I failed one or two of his classes, depending on how you count.

But Joe, as much as anyone, is the person who taught me to be a reporter. Not just the technical aspects of how to be a reporter, but what it means to be one. He was tough but fair, and played a huge role in the foundation of the arc my career would follow.

So it was very interesting to get to write an article about Joe for the most recent issue of Mud & Magnolias about his first published novel, Casey’s Last Chance.

Most of my stories for Mud & Magnolias​ are assigned to me, but this is one I asked to be allowed to write. I thought it would be an interesting subject, which is was, and I wanted to be able to help promote his book, which you should read. What surprised me, however, was how interesting the interview prep was. I’ve known the man for over 20 years now, but I’d never actually researched him before. He’s even more fascinating than I realized.

The experience of the interview itself was also interesting. I was a pretty decent reporter back in my day, and even if I’m not in the newspaper business anymore, I do get opportunities to keep those skills from becoming too rusty. It’s been a long time since I’ve been nervous about conducting an interview. But I’ve also never before interviewed the person who taught me to interview someone. Going into it, I almost expected to be corrected on my technique. In reality, we had a really great conversation about the differences between journalism and fiction, the creative process, the future of the newspaper industry, and a lot more. The hardest part of the process was how much I had to leave out of the article.

Ole Miss historically has a great journalism department and produces great student journalists (I read Tuesday that The Daily Mississippian​ just won another regional best daily student paper award), and professors like Joe Atkins are a bit part of why. I was blessed to be one of his students 20 years ago, and am honored to call him a friend today.

And, in conclusion, buy his book.

Re-Pressed Memories


OK, this is another one of those posts that my sporadic blogging has caused me to be posting way too late, but I didn’t want to not.

Earlier this summer, I got to do a bit of time-traveling.

You see, this year, Ole Miss’ student newspaper, The Daily Mississippian, turned 100, and a grand reunion was held at the university’s journalism school building.

Six years ago, we’d had a mini-reunion of several of the people I worked with, a sort of surprise birthday party I threw myself when I turned 30 (I knew it was my birthday party, most of the rest of the group didn’t). We’ve talked ever since about how we should do it again, and this time possibly plan far enough ahead to involve some of the more far-flung staff members who weren’t able to make it that time. When we found out about the 100th anniversary event, it seemed like the perfect opportunity.

And, really, it was.

I saw friends that I hadn’t seen in 15 years, and, even with those I see more often, it was really great seeing everybody together.

The DM staff my first two years there was a very close-knit group, and I think we all imagined we would be friends forever. Over the years, we’ve drifted apart some from time to time, but it’s very neat seeing how, almost two decades later, we always tend to drift back together. And, as I’ve alluded to here, it’s been a rough summer for me, and it meant a huge deal for me to be surrounded by old friends who still love me. During my time at Ole Miss, far more than my dorm room, the journalism building, and the friends I shared it with, were home, and it was nice getting to be home that way again for a couple of days this summer.

Nik Dirga, who, being in New Zealand, wasn’t able to make the reunion, wrote a cool piece about the anniversary anyway, and I have to brag that The DM was named the 14th best student newspaper in the nation recently.

Foe? Sure.


This is the latest in my series of blog entries taking a fresh look at a variety of topics. I’ve set up a page on the blog explaining the project and linking to my entries. This post’s topic is “Enemies.”

 

Me at a DM reunion held a few years ago holding a picture of the photo I used on my columns when I started writing for The Daily Mississippian. Photo by Lain Hughes.

I should have been editor of The Daily Mississippian.

At the end of my sophomore year at Ole Miss, I decided to run for the editorship of the student paper.

I was the only person who met the qualifications to be editor.  They allowed two other candidates to run.  Next, of the three of us, I was the only one to finish the test demonstrating competency to be editor.

Then there was a meeting of the editor selection committee, composed of students, journalism professionals, and members of the university staff. I could relate the stories I heard of what happened in that meeting, or of the outside factors that supposedly biased the selection, but they really don’t matter. Long story short, I wasn’t selected.

I was upset.

In fact, I was bitter. Bitter against the system I felt had cheated me, and bitter against the candidate who won.

I left the official student publication and launched my own local entertainment publication. By any reasonable measure it was unsuccessful, lasting only four issues, but it succeeded in the important area of letting me spread my wings and get experience I couldn’t have gained at The Mississippian.

Over time, my bitterness faded.  The selection committee most likely did me a favor. I had potential; I needed discretion. Losing the editorship earned me some personal maturity and pursuing my own publication  earned me some professional maturity that I would have missed out on had things gone differently.

The candidate who was selected was a different matter. She hadn’t done me any favors. She got something that I had worked hard to be qualified for and she wasn’t. She squandered the opportunity she’d been given. That bitterness was harder to let go.

I saw her once, a couple of years later, at a wedding. Her gang and my gang avoided each other.

Over the years after that, there were only the occasional rumors, friends who had brief contact or had heard news. I didn’t really keep track, but listened when people had something to say, especially if it was bad. I wanted vindication. I wanted proof that the wrong choice had been made.

And then came Facebook. To her credit, she put in the friend request to me. She doesn’t use it much, so we don’t have much contact, but seeing her profile allowed me to catch up a bit on the intervening years.

I’ll admit, I’ll admit that, for a brief second there, I experienced a moment of schadenfreude that her life hadn’t turned out the way it seemed to be going way back when. And, making it even worse, some of it wasn’t even about that vindication I’d talked about. No, she wasn’t in journalism anymore, so there was that. But part of it was things in her personal life.

Ultimately, though, what I saw on that page was this — we’re both just people. We both weren’t who or where we were 17 years ago. She wasn’t in newspapers anymore. Neither am I. Her marriage had ended. So had mine. She’d found new things to make her happy, to fill her life. So had I. We really weren’t all that different. And the editor selection that seemed like such a big deal all those years ago really wasn’t. And the bitterness that seemed so worthwhile really wasn’t.

I’ve prided myself on not having enemies. I mean, sure there are probably people in other countries who would gladly kill me and all that, but I’m talking personally. There are people who I’ve been at odds with, and there are people I believe have done me wrong. But I’d like to think that I’m pretty good at not holding grudges. I’d like to think I’m pretty good at not letting bitterness influence me.

But if I were to be honest, there are probably people out there that I still carry bitterness against. And that Facebook experience was a good reminder that somethings just aren’t worth carrying.

For my 30th birthday, I had a secret birthday party for myself — I planned a reunion of many of my DM fellow staff members that weekend, telling no one that there was an occasion behind it. Back then, I was too petty to invite the person who became editor. If we ever do it again, I hope she can make it.

Bear With Me


Rebel Black Bear

I wrote once before, briefly, about the new Ole Miss mascot Rebel Black Bear, but I’ve been meaning to revisit it since.

First, I feel a certain amount of obligation to support the decision. I wrote a while back, and have ranted at length on various occasions about how much it bothers me that Ole Miss has been gradually losing any unique identity. For the first time in over a decade, since the ill-fated “M Flag,” something that was taken away has been replaced. The bear isn’t Colonel Reb, but at least we have something that’s “ours” that we can put on shirts.

Second, my generation, and those before me, aren’t going to embrace the Black Bear, at least not any time soon. I grew up with Colonel Reb. I wore shirts with him on it. He was very Ole Miss to me. He was our mascot, and we love him. No matter how good an idea they come up with, it’s not going to have the history and established affection of Colonel Reb. So I have to acknowledge to myself that I couldn’t have that be an expectation for the mascot selection.

Third, yes, I cast my vote, and, yes, I voted for the Black Bear. As I said, I didn’t love it, but I didn’t love any of the options. So I asked Heather what she thought her boys would like. Because, like I said, the new mascot isn’t for my generation, or the ones before me. It’s for the students yet to come. There are kids today in first or second grade in Mississippi that have never seen an Ole Miss mascot on the field. For them, the Black Bear will be their Ole Miss mascot, the same way Colonel Reb was mine. When they’re at Ole Miss, they’re going to love the Black Bear the same way I loved Colonel Reb. So the question I asked in casting my vote was, which choice is most likely to inspire those feelings in kids that are children now, and will grow up with whatever we vote on.

There’s some irony to the Black Bear. In tying it to Ole Miss, the mascot committee cited two bears with Mississippi connections, the one in William Faulkner’s “The Bear,” and the Teddy Bear, which has its origins in Onward, Mississippi. Scratch the surface, and not only are these both two stories of bears in Mississippi, they’re two stories of bears that got slaughtered brutally.

Perhaps it’s a decent choice for an Ole Miss mascot after all.

Rebel Neighbear


Well, to the best of my knowledge, Ole Miss can now claim to have the only athletic mascot that moonlights selling insurance.

Thankfully, he’s very clearly not also the Shoney Bear, and he keeps his shirt on when he’s not fighting forest fires.