UM Museum Named to List of 51 ‘Most Astounding University Museums’

Facility in national spotlight for fourth time in five years

The University of Mississippi Museum has been named one of EdSmart’s ‘51 Most Astounding University Museums.’ Photo by Kevin Bain/Ole Miss Digital Imaging Services

OXFORD, Miss. – The University of Mississippi Museum and its extensive collection of art, scientific equipment and Greek and Roman antiquities are in the national spotlight once again, this time being named to EDsmart’s list of “51 Most Astounding University Museums.”

The latest recognition is the fourth time in five years the museum has been named to an esteemed ranking of national academic museums. It came in at No. 17 on the EDsmart list, one spot ahead of Princeton University’s facility. Harvard University’s Museum of Natural History ranked No. 1 on the list. 

The museum was the highest ranked Southeastern Conference institution on the list and only one of three SEC schools mentioned. Auburn University’s Jule Collins Smith Museum of Fine Arts was listed as No. 22, and the University of Florida’s Museum of Natural History came in at No. 26.

Robert Saarnio, director of the University Museum and Historic Houses, is proud of the recognition, which he said is entirely a credit to the “brilliant professional staff and the ecosystem of support and goodwill” that surrounds the museum on campus and in the community.

“The exceptional strengthening of the museum in recent years is notably a tribute to highly supportive university leadership, to the Friends of the Museum board and all of our members, and of course to our team here for such dedicated commitment to our well-being,” Saarnio said. “Suffice to say, the campus-based museums that appear in these rankings are those whose parent institutions understand the power of arts and culture to enrich and augment a teaching, research and service mission.”

EDsmart said it recognized university museums that provide a gateway to the past and to culture, and choose to house important objects from science, art and more. Each and every object weaves a thread into a tapestry of humankind’s history, EDsmart said. These museums also add research opportunities to the universities they inhabit. 

“The University of Mississippi Museum is located in Oxford and offers a wide variety of collections, which include 19th-century scientific instruments, such as telescopes and models,” EDsmart said. “You can also find a collection of American Art, which includes items from Mark Tobey, John Marin, Arthur G. Dove and many others.

“You will also find several paintings, folk art and more at this museum. One of the highlights this museum offers is William Faulkner’s home, Rowan Oak.” 

Earlier this year, the UM Museum was named to College Rank’s 50 Most Amazing College Museums in the country, which was then the third time the museum appeared on national rankings lists in five years – a first in the museum’s 78-year history.

The museum provides the campus and Oxford community with unique collections, annually rotating temporary exhibitions and acclaimed educational programs for lifelong learners of all ages. Its programming for children, schools and families reaches 14,000 young north Mississippians each year.

The Seymour Lawrence Collection of American Art includes an exceptionally significant Georgia O’Keeffe painting, as well as work from other 20th century artists including Arthur Dove and Marsden Hartley.

Students learn about Barlow’s Planetarium at the UM Museum. Photo by Robert Jordan/Ole Miss Digital Imaging Services

The museum’s collection of Greek and Roman antiquities contains more than 2,000 sculptures, terra cotta and bronze artworks, decorated pottery and coins, and a variety of artifacts that date from 1500 B.C. to 300 A.D. The majority of this internationally renowned collection was donated to the university by archaeologist and professor David M. Robinson in 1958.

The Millington-Barnard Collection of Scientific Instruments originated with the university in the 19th century. About 500 instruments that were used to teach Ole Miss students from 1848 to 1861 are housed in the museum.

The museum also has a collection of Southern folk art from the late 19th to 20th centuries by artists using a range of nontraditional materials. The permanent collection contains work by Theora Hamblett, Sulton Rogers, James “Son” Thomas and Pecolia Warner, among many others.

Also part of the museum are historic houses, including Rowan Oak, home of Nobel- and Pulitzer Prize-winning author William Faulkner. This iconic site has attracted visitors from all 50 states and 58 different countries in a recent 12-month period.

Besides its collections, the museum also offers many educational opportunities for members of the community through lectures, adult studio workshops, family activity days, children’s art classes and summer programs.

For more information about the museum, its programs and scheduling a visit, go to http://museum.olemiss.edu.

UM Sophomore, Cancer Survivor Makes Most of Gift of Life

Allie Allen and her mother bonded through simultaneous battle with disease

Allie Allen, a UM sophomore majoring in integrated marketing communications, has been battling a rare form of brain cancer since she was 14. She caries a full courseload and is determined not to let her diagnoses define her. Submitted photo

OXFORD, Miss. – In 2013, Allie Allen was the 14-year-old captain of her junior high dance team when she started to feel strange every day around lunch. After the brief, but indescribable sensation passed, she would become exhausted. 

She shrugged it off until a practice at Schilling Middle School in Collierville, Tennessee, when the spell hit so hard she completely stopped dancing. She saw a doctor who first thought it was anxiety, or simple exhaustion from being an active person in a growing body.

But Allen soon found out it was something far worse. She had been suffering focal seizures and was diagnosed with a golf ball-size brain tumor.

She faced the tough decision of having surgery or delaying the procedure to go to nationals with her dance team. She danced, but once the competition was over, she opted for surgery, an eight-hour ordeal that led to the discovery that her tumor was an extremely rare form of brain cancer found almost exclusively in toddlers. The teen was told she wouldn’t live to graduate from high school. But her story didn’t end there.

After two bouts with cancer, she’s a University of Mississippi sophomore majoring in integrated marketing communications. She had a 4.0 grade-point average her first semester and finished her freshman year with a 3.6 GPA. 

“I won’t let cancer define me,” she said. “I take 126 pills each week, but I try to live life as much as I can. I just have to work twice as hard as everybody else.”

Her upbeat demeanor belies the struggle her life has been. After treatment stopped the tumor from growing in 2013, it began to grow again in 2015. On top of that, her mother, Debbi Allen, had been neglecting a concerning lump in her breast while her daughter underwent treatment. Once she saw a doctor, Debbi found out she had breast cancer that had spread to her lymph nodes. 

“We both lost all of our hair,” Allie said. “We were baldies together. It was a unique experience.” 

The two found themselves going through radiation treatments together after Debbi completed her chemotherapy. They moved into an apartment in downtown Memphis to be closer to hospitals for seven months while they underwent treatment.

“It was bonding,” Debbi said. “We spent every second together.”

Allie’s determination to live a normal life despite her long, difficult battle with cancer is inspiring, her mother said. She wrote about her experiences on her blog, dancerwithcancer,” which she wanted to use as a tool to help others going through the same struggles. Her nature definitely had an effect on Debbi, who drew strength from Allie during her own health struggles.

“I’m very, very proud,” Debbi said. “I’m raising a good one.”

Debbi’s cancer is gone. Allie still has a small tumor in her brain. Her kind of cancer has a high rate of recurrence, so she has to get scans at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital about every two months.

“I’m not in remission,” Allie said. “We’re just watching my tumor and praying that it doesn’t grow because they haven’t discovered a cure for me yet.”

UM sophomore Allie Allen (left) has been battling a rare form of brain cancer since she was 14. She and her mother, Debbi Allen, both were treated for cancers at the same time in 2015. Submitted photo

It’s easy to wonder why the two wound up in the incredibly unlikely scenario of a mother and daughter having cancer at the same time. Debbi says her daughter has one theory that makes her sad. 

“She says to me, ‘I heard you praying over me when I was in the hospital,” Debbi said. “I heard you asking God to take cancer from me and give it to you.’ I got my cancer a few months later.”

Despite being dealt such a tough hand, Debbi said her husband, Eric Allen, a pilot for Fed Ex, has been extremely strong and caring as his wife and daughter have gone through their treatments. She credits him and the couple’s son, Zach Allen, for being there for her and her daughter. 

These days, Allie doesn’t dance anymore, not because she can’t. She’s just a busy college student with a full schedule of classes and being active with Tri Delta sorority. She also has a new passion that she learned while being treated at St. Jude. 

Being bald during the awkward teen years was tough, but she found that she loved doing her makeup. 

“When I was bald, makeup was something I loved,” Allie said. “It showed that I am a girl and into girly things.”

She works with a spa, doing makeup for brides and others. She finds that work extremely rewarding. 

“I love making girls feel pretty,” Allie said. 

She also raises money and makes appearances on behalf of St. Jude. She hopes to work full-time for the hospital one day so she can help support its mission to help children with cancer. 

Though she battles side effects from medicines and treatments, Allie doesn’t do any less than a normal college student would, including handling her own laundry and chores. She has parts of the workings of her brain missing, she said, so she has to work harder than most on schoolwork. 

She also lives every day with a reminder of what she’s been through in the form of a spot on the side of her head where her hair won’t grow back. Her mom gives her credit for rocking a pixie haircut that suits her, nonetheless.

The positive vibe her presence gives off doesn’t match up with what someone might expect from a person who has fought cancer twice and lives with a brain tumor. 

Allie’s drive to be “normal” comes partially from a realization that many of the friends she made who also had cancer are no longer alive. She lives for them. 

“I really think about that all of the time,” Allie said. “It’s called survivor’s guilt. I think about my last dance. Then, my tumor was stable and it hadn’t grown. A lot of my friends had gotten re-diagnosed with their brain cancers around then. That should have been me.”

While she works through survivor’s guilt, she also takes comfort in knowing that she has been given a gift: the opportunity to keep on living. 

“They told me I wouldn’t make it to my high school graduation,” Allie said. “Statistics don’t mean anything to me, but only God knows when my time will come. No one really knows what is going to happen. I know that there is a plan for me out there.”

Meet Micah Bowen, July’s Staff Member of the Month

Micah Bowen

Micah Bowen, ID Center coordinator, has been selected as Staff Council’s Staff Member of the Month for July. To help us get to know her better, she answered a few questions for Inside Ole Miss.

IOM: How long have you worked at Ole Miss?

Bowen: I started at the ID Center as a student worker in 2002 and became full time in 2004.

IOM: What is your hometown?

Bowen: Oxford, Mississippi. 

IOM: Talk about your favorite Ole Miss memory.

Bowen: Attending softball games with my daughter, Morgan.

IOM: What do you enjoy most about your position or the department in which you work?

Bowen: At the ID Center, we don’t see a specific group of people; we see everyone! Because of this, there’s always something new and interesting to look forward to daily.

IOM: What do you like to do when you are not at work?

Bowen: Spend time outdoors, enjoy family life, draw.

IOM: What is one thing on your bucket list?

Bowen: I want to take my children to visit Washington, D.C.

IOM: What is your favorite movie?

Bowen: “Dirty Dancing.”

IOM: What is your favorite Ole Miss tradition?

Bowen: Fireworks at the baseball stadium on Independence Day. 

IOM: What is a fun fact about you? 

Bowen: I collect rare American currency and coins from foreign countries.

IOM: If you could have lunch with anyone alive or dead/fictional or real, who would it be and why?

Bowen: Benjamin Franklin, due to his scientific and political achievements and his status as one of America’s founding fathers.

IOM: What are three words you would use to describe yourself?

Bowen: Driven, loyal, creative.

IOM: If you could visit one time or place in world history, what would it be?

Bowen: Ancient Egypt.

IOM: If I could be an animal for a day, I would be a(n) ____ .

Bowen: An eagle.

To nominate a colleague for Staff Member of the Month, email staffcouncil@olemiss.edu with the name of the individual you’d like to nominate as well as why you feel he or she should be recognized.

UM Ranks Best in Mississippi for Job Placement

OXFORD, Miss. – Data on job placement rates over a decade show University of Mississippi graduates are the best in the state at finding employment and keeping it, according to a new ranking from Zippia.com.

The ranking takes into account 10 years’ worth of data on job placement rates as part of Zippia’s rating for the best colleges in each state for finding a job. The data shows that after 10 years, 90.8 percent of UM graduates are still employed with a median income of $52,700.

That’s not only the best percentage of all Mississippi schools, but it also tops a number of institutions in the Southeastern Conference. UM ranked fifth in the SEC, according to the data.

The top university in the nation was Virginia Military Institute, which has a 96.6 percent job placement rate.

Zippia is a career expert site based in San Mateo, California. To see the full ranking, click here

CME Senior Capstone Projects Aid Willie Price

Students design and build solutions to real-word problems at preschool

OXFORD, Miss. – The 3- and 4-year-old children at the University of Mississippi’s Willie Price Lab School find themselves living out the phrase, “little people, big world.” 

Recently, students in the university’s Haley Barbour Center for Manufacturing Excellence completed two senior capstone projects to design and build products that helped students at the preschool. One called “Step Buddy” gave Willie Price students a solution to a common problem: the children aren’t able to reach the sinks and water fountains in Kinard Hall, which are designed for adults. Another product, Big Cajon, is a smaller-than-normal hand percussion instrument for students to play along with their teachers. 

Edward Lieser, a Chicago native who earned a bachelor’s degree in finance earlier this year, was the CEO of Step Buddy. He said the idea began when a faculty member at Willie Price came to the CME and talked about the issue of sinks being too high for children to reach. 

“Our team felt as if we could effectively remedy the situation with a solid design that met all of the desired customer specifications,” Lieser said. “Very quickly, the project became more than just a ‘capstone project’ as our team was consistently engaged, trying to make the Ole Miss community, specifically Willie Price, a better place.”

The goal of the capstone projects is to engage the senior CME class in a yearlong entrepreneurial, “real-world” experience that involves designing a new product and building a “company” around it. 

In the beginning, students had to utilize a comprehensive engineering design process that was taught in previous CME courses to bring the product to life. From there, each team was to create an organizational structure, develop a concurrent working relationship with a local customer, determine accurate costs and profit projections and ultimately manufacture the product at the center. 

They also had to meet all production timelines. 

Ole Miss seniors Peter Dowling, Chris Sevigney, Kaitlyn Meyers, Kyle Khan and Arthur Smith, all from business, accountancy and engineering, were members of the Step Buddy team. It provided a great work experience, Lieser said. 

“Throughout the project, I think we all got a taste of the real world in not just manufacturing, but business and real life as a whole,” Lieser said. “Critical lessons in effective communication, project management, meeting deadlines and quotas, cross-functional collaboration and more were all taught through experience.”

Evan Turner and Paige Lohman created Big Cajon. Originally, the design called for a full-sized drum, but after meeting with Willie Price staff, they heard concerns about it being too tall for the students. Turner and Lohman made their design about 30 percent shorter, without changing its tone. 

“Our team spent this semester and last semester applying the concepts we learned through the CME curriculum in order to finalize a prototype, design a process layout and complete two one-hour production runs,” said Lohman, of Moline, Illinois, who graduated in May with a degree in mechanical engineering.

Jack McClurg, CME associate professor of practice, praised both groups of students for their work. 

Step Buddy was vitally important, he said. 

“Eddie Lieser and his group did a fine job analyzing the current situation and needs by visiting the school, recognizing the need and working with the students and administrators to make functional, safe products for the children to use,” McClurg said. 

The Big Cajon team was flexible in their production line, which allowed them to easily change their product to best fit the customer, he said. 

“After visiting with the school, there were concerns about the cajon being too tall for the children to use safely,” McClurg said. “This resulted in a redesign of the cajon to be about 30 percent shorter, while not affecting the tonal quality of the drum box too much.

“This team ended up building 10-to-12 small cajons for the children and delivering two full-scale units for teachers.”

Cochran’s Papers Shine Light on Nation’s Major Issues

Collection includes correspondence, documents, photographs, recordings, scrapbooks and memorabilia

Former U.S. Sen. Thad Cochran is donating his papers to the UM Modern Political Archives. Cochran, an alumnus and supporter of the university, is shown speaking at Chancellor Jeffrey Vitter’s investiture in 2016. Photo by Kevin Bain/Ole Miss Communications

OXFORD, Miss. – Former U.S. Sen. Thad Cochran’s papers will be donated to the University of Mississippi, providing 3,500 linear feet of documents and nearly 6 terabytes of digital files that offer insight into some of the nation’s most significant political events over the past 45 years.

Cochran, a UM alumnus, was first elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1972, and in 1978, the young congressman won an election to replace longtime U.S. Sen. James O. Eastland, who had retired. This election marked the start of a nearly 40-year career in the U.S. Senate, during which Cochran distinguished himself as chairman of both the Senate Agriculture Committee and the Senate Appropriations Committee, one of the most influential and powerful posts on Capitol Hill.

Time magazine dubbed him the “Quiet Persuader” for his polite manner and knack for consensus building. He retired April 1 as the 10th-longest-serving senator in American history.

“The people of Mississippi gave me the honor of representing them in Washington, and I tried to do my best to make decisions that were in the best interests of Mississippi and the nation,” Cochran said. “I hope this archival material will reflect those efforts.”

Cochran majored in psychology and minored in political science at Ole Miss, and was the head cheerleader and a member of the Phi Kappa Phi honor society. After graduation, he served in the U.S. Navy and later returned to campus to earn his law degree and serve as editor of the Mississippi Law Journal.

While he served in the U.S. Senate, Cochran held many leadership roles, and journalists praised him for his focus on getting things done, rather than playing politics.

“These records not only document his years of service representing Mississippi in the U.S. House and Senate, they will also offer future researchers insight into matters of local, state and national significance,” Chancellor Jeffrey S. Vitter said.

Leigh McWhite, UM political papers archivist and associate professor, said the senator’s papers would shine light on subjects ranging from wildlife conservation to the return of veterans from the Gulf Wars and also the recovery of the Mississippi Gulf Coast from Hurricane Katrina.

The collection includes correspondence, documents, publications, photographs, recordings, scrapbooks and memorabilia, as well as electronic records.

“The Modern Political Archives is honored to be the steward of the Thad Cochran Collection,” McWhite said. “With this donation, Sen. Cochran is preserving an important historical resource on the last quarter of the 20th century and the first part of the 21st. The University of Mississippi is grateful for this gift, and future researchers will be as well.”

The Modern Political Archives is a unit of the UM Libraries’ Department of Archives & Special Collections. Its holdings include the records of Mississippi’s congressional delegation, members of the state Legislature, governors, and federal and state judges. It includes the papers of former Sen. Trent Lott, Sen. James O. Eastland, former U.S. Rep. Jamie Whitten and current U.S. Sen. Roger Wicker. It is a nonpartisan entity and welcomes researchers of all ages and interests.

Congressional collections are an obvious resource for biographers examining the life and career of important political figures. However, most researchers who study these records are more interested in examining specific historical topics.

McWhite said the scope of subject matter in congressional collections is almost unbelievably immense when one considers all the ways in which modern government permeates society through regulations, legislation, investigation and appropriation spending.

“At the same time, these collections allow researchers to examine information on the local scale of Mississippi communities and to study the grassroots opinions of constituents on all manner of subjects,” McWhite said.

Cochran was honored at Commencement in May with UM’s Mississippi Humanitarian Award, which is presented only rarely to exceptional figures who have played a major role in shaping the state. He is the fourth recipient of the award since its creation in 2001.

The university also plans to honor Cochran in November with an event that will raise funds for law school scholarships and faculty support, and the proceeds will also benefit the effort to archive the senator’s papers. For more information about the event, contact Suzette Matthews at suzette@olemiss.edu or 601-937-1497.

The law school is looking forward to the event, said Susan Duncan, dean of the School of Law.

“Sen. Thad Cochran is one of our most esteemed alumni, and we are so proud of the work he has done for the state of Mississippi,” Duncan said. “We are very excited to honor him this fall and highlight all of his accomplishments.”

Meet Camille Toles, June’s Staff Member of the Month

Camille Toles

Camille Toles, administrative coordinator for the Office of Institutional Research, Effectiveness and Planning, has been selected as Staff Council’s Staff Member of the Month for June. To help us get to know her better, Toles answered a few questions for Inside Ole Miss.

IOM: How long have you worked at Ole Miss?

Toles: Almost three years.

IOM: What is your hometown?

Toles: Oxford. I was born and raised in Taylor, but Oxford has always been home.

IOM: Talk about your favorite Ole Miss memory.

Toles: The day I got an opportunity to be a part of this community. Ole Miss has so much to offer and so many possibilities.

IOM: What do you enjoy most about your position or the department in which you work?

Toles: What I enjoy most are the people whom I interact with daily, being staff, faculty, grads and undergrads. I also enjoy the relief on one’s face when they have reached a solution to an issue that I was able to help resolve.

IOM: What do you like to do when you are not at work?

Toles: I like to follow my kids to their sports events and activities, sing and just relax outside when I can.

IOM: What is one thing on your bucket list?

Toles: To be able to see the many places I want to visit. It’s a lot. Travel is what I want to do.

IOM: What is your favorite movie?

Toles: Oh my, there are so many. I love all Marvel movies. I remember as a child I use to watch “The Wiz” every day. That’s an all-time favorite. It stars Michael Jackson and Diana Ross.

IOM: What is your favorite Ole Miss tradition?

Toles: Ole Miss football tailgating – a beautiful sight to see. People enjoying each people.

IOM: What is a fun fact about you? 

Toles: I’m a basketball, volleyball, powerlifting, softball, baseball, cheerleading and football mom. 

IOM: If you could have lunch with anyone alive or dead/fictional or real, who would it be and why?

Toles: Michelle Obama! Just because we have the same birthday. I think she is awesome, smart, beautiful and a great person.

IOM: What are three words you would use to describe yourself?

Toles: Loyal, fair and kindhearted. But never a pushover.

IOM: If you could visit one time or place in world history, what would it be?

Toles: The past is the past! I would love to see the future and see the first female president of color.

IOM: If I could be an animal for a day, I would be an ____ .

Toles: An eagle. 

To nominate a colleague for Staff Member of the Month, email staffcouncil@olemiss.edu with the name of the individual you’d like to nominate as well as why you feel he or she should be recognized.

UM Students Post Strong Showing in National Russian Essay Contest

Director of UM Russian language program provides encouragement, guidance

OXFORD, Miss. – University of Mississippi students won medals in the 2018 American Council of Teachers of Russian essay contest for college students, placing among the top in the field of nearly 1,300 essays from 60 schools across the country.  

The National Post-Secondary Russian Essay Contest, which was established in 1999, has become a signature Russian language contest for students taking Russian at colleges and universities around the country. Three judges in Moscow read each essay and independently ranked them. Four UM students were recognized. 

The UM students worked very hard and produced some excellent essays, said Valentina Iepuri, UM assistant professor of modern languages and director of the Russian language program.

“I’m really proud of them,” Iepuri said. “I was moved to tears by their work.”

In Category C, Level 4, Nika Arkhipova, a senior nutrition and dietetics major from Moscow, won a silver medal for her essay on her hometown, which mentioned the music she grew up hearing, including the songs “Moscow Nights” and “Golden City.” She also won a silver medal in the same category last year, which is for native Russian speakers.   

“I tried to write about everything I like about it, including some historical facts about it, and some architectural and other information related to the city,” Arkhipova said. “I mentioned (a) couple of songs I grew up listening to about Moscow.” 

Amy Cain, a junior political science major from Southaven, won a bronze medal in Category A, Level 2, for her essay on living in Memphis, Tennessee, and spending her summers in Albuquerque, New Mexico. She said the Russian professors at UM did a great job of preparing her and other students for the challenging contest.

“I sent in an essay last year as well, but I guess that does not make the task any less intimidating the second time around,” Cain said. “It’s a whole different experience from writing class assignments with a textbook and dictionary open. While the topic is broad, the hardest part is narrowing down the topic to something you actually know how to articulate in Russian.”  

Philip Ouyang, a sophomore chemistry major from Kunming, Yunnan, China, received an honorable mention for his essay about the Chinese city he was born in, including information about the lifestyles, climate and the seagulls that migrate there from Siberia during the winters. 

“I am interested in Russian language and have been to Russia once when I was in junior high school,” Ouyang said. “Writing the essay to me is like recalling the precious journey. As a newbie for Russian, of course, I don’t have enough vocabulary to depict the scenes, and Dr. Iepuri helped me (with) a few words and cases as well, which is pretty helpful for memorizing commonly used phrases.”

Olivia Myers, a sophomore international studies major from Baton Rouge, also received an honorable mention in the same category as Ouyang. She wrote about UM and also her Louisiana hometown, but also how she wants to live in St. Petersburg someday. She said she was nervous, but it all came together nicely, thanks to the preparation with Iepuri.

“The experience of taking on this essay reassured me that Russian is a passion that I want to continue,” Myers said. “I love how learning a language never ends, and I plan to use Russian in my daily life not only in school but also for my future career.”

Daniel E. O’Sullivan, chair of modern languages and professor of French, said the strong showing isn’t surprising. 

“Every year, Dr. Valentina Iepuri encourages several of her students to enter into the Russian essay contest, and every year, one or more of her students place in the competition,” O’Sullivan said. “It is a testament to her dedication as a teacher and to the hard work of her students.”

UM Graduate Juggles Life as a CPA, Trading Card Artist

Gordon Wills' second set of Marvel trading cards recently released

University of Mississippi alumnus Gordon Wills designs Marvel-licensed art for Upper Deck trading cards. Images courtesy of Gordon Wills

OXFORD, Miss. – University of Mississippi alumnus Gordon Wills (BAccy 07, MAccy 08) is like a superhero in some ways. By day, he has a desk job, but by night, he finds himself in a world full of characters battling evil for the good of mankind. 

He isn’t Superman though. He’s a husband, dad and CPA, but he’s also been working as a sketch artist for the Upper Deck Co. on Marvel trading cards, drawing characters he grew up admiring. Wills, a Memphis native, had drawn for fun during his childhood but laid down his art supplies until he was finishing his master’s in accountancy at Ole Miss. Most of his friends had already graduated and moved on, so he found he had more time to draw. 

He and another Ole Miss graduate, Megan Sellers Wills (BAEd 07, MA 08), married, settled in Metairie, Louisiana, and started a family. The family would watch TV shows on Disney Junior, and Gordon Wills became fascinated with the animation he saw on the screen. Spreading a large piece of butcher paper on the kitchen table for art time became something fun he and his daughter could do together. 

“She would follow me around the table and color it in,” Wills said. “It kind of got me used to the drawing the muscles again. It was something I could do with her that nobody else could do.”

He also found that drawing helped him decompress from the stress of daily life. This outlet was extremely valuable to him while he was studying for the CPA exam. He was also using social media sites to connect with other artists. He posted short animation and other artwork to his Instagram page, and his profile was getting noticed.

He’d had Marvel comic trading cards during his childhood and started drawing his own Marvel cards for fun. He began talking to other artists on social media about finding opportunities to draw them professionally and came across an online form for submissions to be considered. The decision wasn’t easy though. 

“I was nervous about submitting to this for fear of failure,” Wills said. “It took a while to take that step out there, but it was good for me to get the positive reinforcement to get the confidence.”

His submission was well received. He was commissioned to do his first set of cards in August. In November, he delivered his first set, which featured Thanos, Spider-Man, Cyclops and Avengers characters. He was proud of how it turned out.

Gordon Wills

Earlier this year, Upper Deck ordered another set of Marvel characters from him. This time, the subject was “Black Panther,” the international blockbuster movie that has smashed box office records and drawn critical praise for offering the world one of the first black superheroes. His “Black Panther” set was recently released. Wills joins Ole Miss alumnus Jesse Holland Jr. (BA 94) in having a connection to the film. Holland was commissioned by Marvel to author an origin story novel ahead of the film’s release. 

Wills continues to look for opportunities to draw professionally and has enjoyed networking with the community of comic book artists, editors and other creative professionals. One of those people was familiar. Trey Treutel (BBA 07), editor at The Cardboard Connection, a website about sports cards, entertainment cards and other collectibles, had also graduated from Ole Miss. The two had known each other from living in the same residence hall. 

Treutel’s website has checklists and other resources for artists such as Wills to use. Treutel said he’s been impressed with his friend’s success. 

“I appreciate how he can capture the essence of these iconic Marvel characters but still maintain a style that is uniquely his,” Treutel said. “I think it is very cool that my dorm neighbor from freshman year supplies drawings for Upper Deck and Marvel.”

Wills will continue to work on art projects, in addition to his job at a bank in Covington, Louisiana. He’s hoping to start selling his art at conventions. As a father of a young daughter and son, he’s also hoping to get involved in a children’s book project at some point. 

He said his wife, family and friends have been supportive of him and his art, which brings him joy. 

“It doesn’t feel like work,” Wills said. “It has really been a neat experience for me, and it kind of opened up a whole new world of opportunities for me.”

Q&A: UPD Capt. Thelma Curry Reflects on 40-Year Career

Longtime officer has been a part of university's transformation and growth

University of Mississippi Police Capt. Thelma Curry (left) has retired. Looking back on her 40-year career, she said she cherishes the time spent interacting with students at events like this ‘Coffee With A Cop’ in 2016. Photo by Thomas Graning/Ole Miss Communications

OXFORD, Miss. – Thelma Curry, a captain in the University of Mississippi Police Department, has been a familiar face on campus for more than 40 years, but she recently put down her badge for good. 

Curry, UPD’s captain of support operations, retired May 31 after a career that began on campus when she was an Ole Miss undergraduate. She was an intern with UPD and was encouraged to apply for an open patrol officer position. She was hired and never looked back.

Through the years, she’s worked for seven different UPD chiefs and has seen the university grow from just a few thousand students to more than 20,000 on the Oxford campus. 

On her last day of work, she took a break from cleaning out her office to talk with Inside Ole Miss about her time at the university. Here is the interview in its entirety: 

IOM: Tell us how you got started at Ole Miss.

Curry: I came to school here as a freshman in 1975, and in 1977 I started working for the police department as a student worker. Along the way in my junior year, I was getting ready to do my internship and a position came open within UPD, so I decided, with some encouragement from some other folks, who said, “Why don’t you apply?” I did. Luckily, I got the position.

It’s so funny because when I was asked then how long I expected to be here, I said, “Two years at most, until I finish my degree (laughs).” Along the way, I finished the police academy and then before you knew it, it was five years. The years just passed so fast.

 The beauty about UPD is every day at work is different. You never know what you’re going to do.

IOM: Talk a little about how you went from easing into that job when you were young to figuring out this is where you wanted to be, and what you wanted to keep doing. How did it hit you?

Curry: I just felt that I was helping the students. I was continually taking classes, so I was in school and in classes with a lot of students and just seeing them around, and if they needed something, even though I was a patrol officer, they felt comfortable coming to me and talking to me.

Then, being involved in a lot of different staff activities, it just kind of like, “This is OK. This is where I want to be.”

IOM: What is it you like best about working on campus?

Curry: I guess it’s truly the family atmosphere that you see here. Every August and September, you get a new group of people to speak to and be involved with, and, of course, seeing the campus grow as it has. There were 4,000 or 5,000 students when I started, up to more than 20,000 now.

You can tell how the campus has changed and grown for the betterment of the students. Throughout all of the years, UPD has been focused on the students and their safety and making sure we get them out of here in a safe environment.

IOM: Talk a little about that. I know you have seen a change in the campus since you started 40 years ago. Talk about what it was like when you started, compared to what it is like now.

Curry: Oxford itself wasn’t as full blossomed, you may say, as it is now. There were very few activities for students to participate in off-campus. The majority of their activities were on-campus and we didn’t have as many residence halls as we do now.

It was just that wholesome feeling, and the students pretty much got along. There always have been some type of issue going on, but through it all, the students always come together with the administration and they always work through the problems.

IOM: Are there moments in your career that stand out to you? A few memories that you’d like to share that will always stand out to you, things you’re proud of?

Curry: In recent years, I think one of the biggest things is seeing students in various activities like the Big Event, when it first started and getting students involved in different activities, going out and helping the community. If they get out and give back to the community, through events like RebelTHON, they’re doing stuff for other people.

I think that makes a person well-rounded, when you’re looking after the needs of others. That makes them feel like part of the community and it sets some standards for them in life, like placing an importance of taking care of others and looking after the needs of others.

IOM: Today is your last day. What are thinking about? What’s going through your mind?

University of Mississippi Police Capt. Thelma Curry

Curry: I had a moment this morning. I was like, “Oh, Lord. This is my last day leaving the house to go to work at UPD.” It’s bittersweet.

At some point, everyone has to call it quits, in a sense, but it’s been a great career. I look back – we only had 13 patrol officers, and now we’re up to, like, 22. I’ve served through seven UPD chiefs. Just going through all of the different changes and each one of them had a different focus, missions, but still we all worked toward the greater good and toward the university’s mission to provide security for our students, the staff and visitors alike.

For the most part, UPD has always been well-received by students. We try to be interactive with them. They don’t see us as the bad guy, so to speak. People know we’re here to provide law enforcement services, but there are those other things that we do.

When I first started, we provided ambulance service to the campus, as well as police duties. We had EMTs. That was a service we provided, and just watching that change go over, it is just different aspects of the whole campus. We have substations for students. We have tried to be in the community with students so we’re more accessible to them.

IOM: What’s next for Thelma Curry? What do you plan to do?

Curry: First I’m going to rest a little bit (laughs). I’ll also work part-time at Kroger, so I will do that for a little while longer. I want to still be involved in the community, but some things I’ll stop doing.

For a while, I didn’t know how to say no, then I had to learn how to say no. I want to get back involved with some things. I have served on various committees.

When I became crime prevention coordinator in 1977, I became a board member of Family Crisis Services of Northwest Mississippi, and throughout the years I stayed involved with that because, at first, it’s kind of like a grassroots organization in that it has very little funding, so the volunteers and the staff do a lot of the work. I saw how it benefited those victims of family violence.

Of course, I will stay involved with United Way. You can see the good that United Way does for all the different organizations and people that they help. I resigned from the board last fall, but I will continue to help out. Also, I have been volunteering with the food pantry. That is another need that is being fulfilled. I also plan to be more involved in church activities. 

IOM: Is there anything else you’d like to say to the Ole Miss community?

Curry: The faculty and staff have been great. As far as the students, I have had so many people that I have met along the way, people I can call on for various reasons and there is always an answer or a willingness to help out in any way possible.

I think when they say that this is one of the best workplaces, I can truly say that it is, but you have to put your heart into it and be involved with everything that is going on and do your part. This is the only way a real family works; it is everyone being a part and looking for the greater good. The greater good is the education of the students and having a welcoming atmosphere so that anyone who steps on this campus can feel like they belong.

If we get all of that accomplished, this will continue to be a great university and a place that people will want to come and enjoy.