Military Student Works with Nonprofit to Raise Money for UM Veterans

Walkers for Warriors group gives back to Ole Miss through 'Walking Dead' cosplay enterprise

Nicholas Roylance is a theatre arts major at the University of Mississippi, a disabled military veteran and a member of Walkers for Warriors, a nonprofit organization that raises money for military veteran students at Ole Miss. Photo by Kevin Bain/Ole Miss Digital Imaging Services

OXFORD, Miss. – Four years ago, University of Mississippi student Nicholas Roylance was injured in training exercises during his time as an active duty member of the United States Army. That accident during drills left Roylance wounded, angry and searching for his path in life.

Roylance eventually found his place at Ole Miss, pursuing a career in acting while using his talents, in partnership with a start-up nonprofit, to help raise money for veterans like himself.

“I signed up for the military because I wanted to do my part for the country, but I also wanted to live after that,” Roylance said. “I found my (outlet) in my art: acting. I want to change the stigma surrounding veterans, that they can be seen as humans and seen as artists.”

Roylance, originally from San Francisco, generally sports long black hair, usually topped by a black baseball cap. He often carries a smattering of facial hair and wears a black leather jacket.

Fans of the AMC series “Walking Dead” can paint a perfect mental image of Roylance by picturing the character Daryl Dixon.

Nicholas Roylance (left) and Gene Russell (right) have a photo taken with a fan at a ‘Walking Dead’ cosplay convention. Roylance, a UM theatre arts major, and Russell are members of Walkers for Warriors, a nonprofit that raises money for military veteran causes. Submitted photo

Roylance is one of the “team leaders” of Walkers for Warriors, a nonprofit that raises money at “Walking Dead” cosplay conventions to help fund services that benefit veterans at the university. The Walker Stalker cosplay conventions are hosted in cities around the world to give fans opportunities to interact with cast members as well as costume experts, such as Roylance, who are adept at portraying characters from the acclaimed show.

Walkers for Warriors’ first major donation to the university was for last month’s Ole Miss Wish. The organization gave $7,500 to the family of Ole Miss Wish Kid Benjamin Clark to go to Disney World.

Clark, son of Mississippi Air National Guard 172nd Airlift Wing chaplain Maj. Caleb Clark, is in remission from B-cell acute lymphoblastic leukemia.

Roylance’s story does not include a trip overseas and a return home with medals signifying valor in combat.

“My service is very tragic,” he said. “I got hurt and a lot of people had to take over and deploy for me.”

Roylance’s consideration of soldiers and their lives after service led to his eventual involvement with Walkers for Warriors, an organization that allows him to give back to fellow veterans while taking advantage of his natural appearance and his acting ability.

But Roylance didn’t set out to be a cosplay star; instead, he wished to become a TV and film actor. That dream started when he was young, but it grew intense as an adult as he tried to find an outlet for his post-service frustrations.

“When I came out of the military, I was angry at everybody,” he said. “I had nothing to do and no one to yell at, and then acting and cosplay gave me a purpose.”

Roylance, who has appeared in a couple of movies, is majoring in theatre arts at Ole Miss. Acting created a natural outlet for Roylance to get into cosplay, he said.

“I love acting because I get to be somebody else,” Roylance said. “Cosplay was a cheap and easy way to start acting while putting smiles on people’s faces.

“As an actor, I want people to enjoy my work, but if you’re telling me I can just dress up in costume and make someone smile? Sign me up.”

It was at a “Walking Dead” cosplay convention in Atlanta in February 2018 where fate would have Roylance meet his future Walkers for Warriors partner Gene Russell.

Roylance, who portrays Daryl Dixon, and Russell, who is a spitting image of character Negan, had both wrapped up appearances as their respective characters when they happened to share a table and start talking. They began working together at conventions, and Russell told Roylance that he had created a nonprofit for wounded veterans, but it had never really gotten off the ground.

“The idea sat dormant, but when Nick and I first met, he explained that he was a disabled veteran,” said Russell, an insurance adjuster from Atlanta. “I said, ‘I have this nonprofit for disabled veterans; why don’t we start gearing (cosplay) for the benefit of veterans?'”

“The fact that we even found each other and said, ‘hello’ is remarkable,” Roylance said.

Gene Russell (left) and Nicholas Roylance raise money for the nonprofit Walkers for Warriors by portraying ‘Walking Dead’ characters Negan and Daryl Dixon, respectively. Roylance is an Ole Miss student majoring in theatre arts. Photo by David Yerby

Roylance and Russell felt that veterans organizations around the country could do more to directly help those they serve.

The two began working with Mary Loveland, director of Walkers for Warriors, and daughter Grace Loveland, president. The nonprofit gives money it raises to veterans services, with the sole beneficiary being Ole Miss.

The group raises money through interaction with fans, who come to meet the celebrity look-a-likes, have photos taken and purchase prints and other merchandise.

The partnership between Walkers for Warriors and the university allows services to be provided to student veterans on the “ground floor,” said Andrew Newby, UM assistant director of veteran and military services.

“Walkers for Warriors does wonderful things that deliver tangible results immediately, as opposed to other larger groups that provide things for nameless, faceless veterans,” Newby said. “Walkers for Warriors benefits real veterans in our community, on our campus and in the Ole Miss family.”

The link between the nonprofit and Ole Miss was an obvious one, according to its founders.

“The partnership with the University of Mississippi seemed like a perfect fit,” Mary Loveland said. “Nicholas, being a student veteran, was clearly the impetus for the relationship and has continued to work diligently to develop and enhance the partnership.

“The SVA program at University of Mississippi is extraordinary and, in my opinion, should be emulated throughout the university level in this country.”

Eventually, Walkers for Warriors may expand its benefactors to other universities or organizations, but for now, its sights are set on even bigger impacts for Ole Miss, Roylance said.

“Right now, we are working on compiling thousands of dollars, because the next donation we want to be super-substantial,” Roylance said. “We want to give Andrew enough money to say, ‘Wow, I can do anything I need.'”

Newby said he already has plans in mind.

“We are hopeful that as we gain more space on campus in the future, we will be able to partner with Walkers for Warriors in outfitting a dedicated one-stop-shop for our military-connected students,” he said. “As we see growth in terms of veterans coming to campus, we will need more space and personnel to accommodate these wonderful students, and the partnership with Walkers for Warriors will make this vision a reality.”

For Roylance himself, the goal remains an acting career. He hopes to continue his studies at Ole Miss and eventually move back to his home state of California to pursue a serious film and television career.

Anyone interested in supporting Walkers for Warriors can visit https://www.walkersforwarriors.com/. There, guests can contact members of the nonprofit to find information on cosplay convention schedules or donate.

UM Cadets Ready to Run in Egg Bowl Tradition

ROTC students will carry game ball from Calhoun City to Oxford

Ole Miss ROTC cadets reach the Calhoun City town square and are welcomed by cheering fans during last year’s Egg Bowl Run. This year’s run, which will bring the ceremonial game ball for the annual Egg Bowl game to Oxford, will be Monday (Nov. 19). Photo by Kevin Bain/Ole Miss Digital Imaging Services

OXFORD – Two dozen ArmyNavy/Marine and Air Force ROTC cadets from the University of Mississippi will arrive by van in Calhoun City Monday morning (Nov. 19) on a mission to retrieve the ceremonial game ball for the 91st Battle for the Golden Egg, but it will be their feet that bring them home to Oxford.

The ROTC’s Sixth Annual Egg Bowl Run will feature Ole Miss cadets taking turns trekking more than 40 miles, from the Calhoun City town square to the Lyceum, with the game ball in tow after receiving it from cadets from Mississippi State University. The transfer of the ball is to occur around noon at the gazebo in the Calhoun City public square.

The football will be signed by MSU coach Joe Moorhead, and Ole Miss coach Matt Luke will sign the ball after the cadets return it to Oxford.

Waiting in Calhoun City will be residents of the town, as well as fans who come from all over Mississippi to see the cadets meet, circle the town square with the ball, trade cheers and friendly trash talk, and eventually part, heading back to their respective universities.

“It’s breathtaking (when you come into town),” said Ole Miss Army ROTC cadet Sam Faulkner, an Egg Bowl Run veteran. “It’s a really fascinating site to see that amount of people show up in support of the Egg Bowl Run.”

The Egg Bowl Run began in 2013 as a way for Ole Miss ROTC to show its support of Ole Miss athletics. The event serves as a fundraiser for the Rebel Battalion Cadet Activity Fund. Supporters can visit the Army ROTC Facebook pagewhere a link will be posted to direct people to a donation website.

“Our cadets think this run is so important,” said Sgt. 1st Class Anthony Douglas with UM Army ROTC. “These cadets run in rain and sleet without ever complaining or feeling sorry for themselves.

“From the moment that they take over carrying the ball, their singular focus is to get that ball to the Lyceum. There’s a lot of dedication and resilience they will have to exhibit come (Monday).”

Laura Edwards, president of the Calhoun City Chamber of Commerce, said the event usually hosts some 500 fans, split down the middle between each school. Fans host tailgates, and there are activities for all ages. The National Guard provides an interactive military display for children and adults to enjoy.

Ole Miss ROTC cadets receive the handoff of the ceremonial game ball from Mississippi State University cadets at the Calhoun City town square. Rebel cadets will run the ball back to the Lyceum on the Ole Miss campus during this year’s run, which is set for Monday (Nov. 19). Photo by Kevin Bain/Ole Miss Digital Imaging Services

Along the run back to Oxford, Ole Miss cadets greet fans and supporters, sometimes passing out candy to children along the route, Faulkner said.

“There is a really good split between fans of both schools to support the runners,” Faulkner said. “We have good support along the route with people who stop to cheer us on and say, ‘Hotty Toddy!'”

The tradition is catching on with Ole Miss fans, and support continues to grow, Douglas said.

“We’ve had a steady increase in fan participation,” he said. “Every year, there’s a few more Ole Miss tents and shirts in the Calhoun City square. Knowing that Ole Miss fans are there at the handoff means a lot to us all.”

And while the focus of the Egg Bowl often remains on the football field, Edwards said the Egg Bowl Run is a way to shift the attention to those who will serve the country.

“Our military doesn’t always get the thanks and notoriety that it should,” she said. “I think we need to keep that on the forefront of our children’s minds. They need to understand that freedom isn’t free.

“It needs to stay something that we have respect for, and we need to respect what (these cadets) do.”

Cadets see the run as a good chance to connect with not only their own classmates, but also with counterparts from MSU.

“I know a lot of older guys in the program that I’m friends with that said this is something you should experience,” first-time Egg Bowl Run participant Cole Cromwell said. “It’s a good way to meet cadets from Mississippi State and build connections.”

Douglas said he hopes Ole Miss supporters will show Calhoun City and the Ole Miss cadets a true Rebel football atmosphere.

“We would prefer that the Calhoun City square looked more like a game-day Grove scene,” Douglas said. “It would be icing on the cake if businesses and the LOU community lined University Avenue on our way back into town or if they met us at the Lyceum at the conclusion of the run.”

MSU cadets will leave Starkville at approximately 5 a.m. Monday. They will meet and exchange the ball with Ole Miss cadets around noon, and then Ole Miss cadets will return to campus and take the ball to the Lyceum about 9 p.m.

Times may vary, but a link will be shared on the Army ROTC Facebook page where fans can keep track of the runners’ progress via GPS, Douglas said.

Officer Trainees on Display During ROTC Pass in Review

UM cadets, midshipmen continue storied history with annual program

Navy ROTC midshipmen salute during the annual Chancellor’s Pass in Review ceremony Nov. 8 in front of the Lyceum. The annual tradition is designed to inspect troop readiness and features cadets and midshipmen from the UM Army, Navy/Marine and Air Force ROTC programs. Photo by Megan Wolfe/Ole Miss Digital Imaging Services

OXFORD, Miss. – Scores of cadets and midshipmen stood steadfast at attention for inspection Thursday (Nov. 8) in front of the Lyceum during an annual tradition designed to demonstrate the discipline and training they have received as ROTC students at the University of Mississippi.

Cadets and midshipmen from the university’s Army, Navy/Marine and Air Force ROTC programs dutifully followed commands from their squad leaders as they awaited the Chancellor’s Pass in Review, an annual event that has a long history in the military and at Ole Miss.

“The chancellor’s review fills my heart with pride,” said Lt. Col. Theresa Beaver, chair and professor of aerospace studies and commander of the UM Air Force ROTC. “All of our Ole Miss cadets and midshipmen work very hard preparing for this event, and I feel extreme pride when I join Chancellor (Jeffrey) Vitter in his inspection of these extraordinary young men and women who have committed themselves to a life of service to our nation.”

Vitter acknowledged the sacrifice inherent with signing up for the Reserve Officer Training Corps.

“It’s an honor to be standing here today amongst a group of heroes – our students – whom have put aside their personal interest for the sake of serving something larger than themselves,” Vitter said. 

The chancellor noted that the university and its ROTC programs have a storied history of service to the state and the nation.

“This year is the centennial anniversary of Army officer training at the university,” he said. “I applaud you – cadets and midshipmen – for upholding this proud legacy.”

The Pass in Review event has been conducted annually since the inception of the ROTC programs. The ceremony is a tradition that gives a commander an opportunity to inspect troop readiness.

“The fact that Chancellor Vitter and the Ole Miss family chose to celebrate this important event with us is testament to the great support we receive and the great relations we’ve developed with this community,” Beaver said.

Vitter acknowledged the accomplishments of each branch before inspection.

Cadets and midshipmen from the University of Mississippi’s ROTC programs stand at attention Nov. 8 in front of the Lyceum for the annual Chancellor’s Pass in Review. Photo by Megan Wolfe/Ole Miss Digital Imaging Services

Army ROTC

Army ROTC was established March 11, 1936 at UM.

“Under the direction of professor of military science Lt. Col. Josh Taylor, the Army ROTC mission is to develop leaders of character, imbued with the warrior spirit, for all components of the Army: active duty, National Guard and Reserves,” Vitter said.

As of August 2017, more than 1,760 cadets have received commissions through UM Army ROTC.

Vitter recognized retired Col. Bobby Towery, president of the Ole Miss Army ROTC Alumni Board, along with many other distinguished veterans in attendance.

“I want to thank all the veterans who are here today who answered our nation’s calling in a time of need,” he said.

Navy/Marine ROTC

Vitter touted the university’s naval ROTC as pioneers in accepting women into the program.

“In 1972, four years before women were accepted into the Naval Academy, the first women were accepted into the University of Mississippi naval program as midshipmen,” he said.

The Navy ROTC is under the direction of Capt. David Neal. UM is among 77 colleges in the nation with Navy ROTC programs.

Air Force ROTC

Vitter recognized the emergence of the Air Force ROTC program in 1947, and highlighted its evolution into today’s Department of Aerospace Studies, under Beaver’s leadership.

“The UM Air Force ROTC program has over 375 graduates who have served in many positions of responsibility and earned numerous academic and military achievements,” he said.

Graduates of the university’s ROTC programs are competitive nationally and serve in the same capacity as those from other ROTC programs and service academies, Vitter said. He noted that since 9/11, each ROTC branch has produced graduates who “have served with distinction in support of our nation’s defenses around the world.”

UM Hosts Secretary of Veterans Affairs for Warrior Week

Student veterans, programs on display during visit from Robert L. Wilkie Jr.

Secretary of Veterans Affairs Robert L. Wilkie Jr. speaks with UM public policy students Nov. 2 at the Trent Lott Leadership Institute. Photo by Kevin Bain/Ole Miss Digital Imaging Services

OXFORD – The University of Mississippi hosted U.S. Secretary of Veterans Affairs Robert L. Wilkie Jr. last week during the university’s observance of Warrior Week.

Wilkie, a member of the U.S. Cabinet and an officer in the Air Force Reserve, spent time meeting with members of the Student Veterans Association on campus Friday morning (Nov. 2) at the Veterans Resource Center. There, he heard questions and concerns from student veterans on a variety of topics.

“I was here to tell them that the VA is a place for them as they move on in life,” Wilkie said. “That it is more than just a hospital or a clinic. We have a lot of educational services that ensure, in most cases, that young veterans have the funds to go to school.”

As the student veteran population gets younger – for the first time since the 1970s, more than half of U.S. veterans are under age 65 – Veterans Affairs hopes to cater its services toward younger beneficiaries, Wilkie said.

Wilkie’s visit offered Ole Miss students and leaders an opportunity to showcase the commitment being made to veteran and military personnel. 

Andrew Newby, assistant director for Veteran and Military Services, said he was proud to show Wilkie that Ole Miss is making strides in improving the lives of student veterans across campus.

“His visit shows the student veterans of Ole Miss that, as an institution, we have gained invaluable support from the top down, and it is incredibly important to each and every one of them,” Newby said. “It is wonderful to have Secretary Wilkie on campus because we are working to become the standard for caring for student veterans on a college campus.

“Having the leader of the Department of Veterans Affairs on campus gives us the ability to showcase our progress.”

Wilkie is no stranger to the university – his ties to Ole Miss go back generations. Somerville Hall was named after his great-great-grandmother, Lucy Somerville Howorth. His great-grandfather, Abram Somerville, used to walk him around campus in the 1970s.

“I have seen (Ole Miss) through the eyes of a child, and it is great to be back,” Wilkie said.

Wilkie, who served as counsel and adviser on international security affairs to former Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, spoke with students at the Lott Leadership Institute on Friday and also visited the Mississippi State Veterans Home in Oxford.

Chancellor Jeffrey Vitter touted Wilkie’s appearance on campus during a welcoming event at the Lyceum.

Secretary of Veterans Affairs Robert L. Wilkie Jr. presents a Department of Veterans Affairs coin to Ole Miss Wish Kid Benjamin Clark and his father Caleb Clark Nov. 2 at the Lyceum. Wilkie met the Clarks while visiting Ole Miss for Warrior Week. Photo by Kevin Bain/Ole Miss Digital Imaging Services

“We are very honored to have our Secretary of Veterans Affairs Robert Wilkie here, especially with this week being Warrior Week and Military Appreciation Weekend,” Vitter said.

On Friday night, Wilkie attended the inaugural Veterans Alumni Gala and participated in the pre-game coin toss at Saturday’s Ole Miss football game.

Wilkie said he enjoyed his trip to Oxford and admired the improvements the university has made since he visited as a child.

“The last time I came to a game here, (Johnny) Vaught was still here,” Wilkie said. “It’s changed a lot since then.”

Ole Miss Wish Granted to Cancer Survivor

Benjamin Clark honored with Disney trip, memorable weekend thanks to Student Veterans Association

Ole Miss Wish Kid Benjamin Clark celebrates with his family when he hears that he is going to Disney World courtesy of the nonprofit Walkers for Warriors and the Student Veterans Association. Photo by Megan Wolfe/Ole Miss Digital Imaging Services

OXFORD – The crowd of nearly 60,000 roared Saturday (Nov. 3) as Darth Vader led stormtroopers out of the northwest tunnel onto Hollingsworth Field at Vaught-Hemingway Stadium. Standing alongside his family, 13-year-old Benjamin Clark, sporting an Ole Miss cap and vest, threw up his hands and cheered as the legendary Star Wars character approached with a signed football from Rebel coach Matt Luke.

On the video board, Luke, joined by Andrew Newby, assistant director of the University of Mississippi’s Office of Veteran and Military Services, told Clark that he and his family were receiving an all-expenses-paid, five-day trip to Disney World, courtesy of the nonprofit Walkers for Warriors.

After hearing this, Clark – who is in remission after being diagnosed with B-cell acute lymphoblastic leukemia in late 2015 – grinned, tossed his football into the air, caught it coolly and threw up a “Fins Up” sign to the thousands of cheering fans.

It was the culmination of a weekend’s worth of events honoring the Yazoo City native, who was this fall’s Ole Miss Wish Kid.

Benjamin’s trip to Oxford – which featured leading the team through the Walk of Champions, touring athletics facilities and firing the ROTC cannon – was more than just a Rebel fan’s perfect Saturday morning. On Friday, Benjamin was proclaimed the university’s first “Kid President” and signed a proclamation ordering all future Ole Miss Wish Kids serve in the same role.

Benjamin said he was honored to be able to represent future children who are battling hardships.

“Being kid president was a little pressuring at first, but then it was super exciting,” Benjamin said. “It makes me feel great, and I want other kids to come and have a good time like I did.”

Andrew Newby (left center), assistant director for Veteran and Military Services, signs a proclamation declaring Ole Miss Wish Kid Benjamin Clark as ‘Kid President’ of the University of Mississippi on Friday (Nov. 2) as Chancellor Jeffrey Vitter looks on at the Lyceum. The proclamation states that all future Ole Miss Wish recipients will also serve as ‘Kid President.’ Photo by Kevin Bain/Ole Miss Digital Imaging Services

Ole Miss Wish is a philanthropic effort of the Ole Miss Student Veterans Association. The program works with military families to give children the Ole Miss experience.

Benjamin’s father, U.S. Air Force Maj. Caleb Clark, is a chaplain with the Mississippi Air National Guard’s 172nd Airlift Wing.

Benjamin smiled constantly throughout the whirlwind of activities, despite the occasional fatigue and other side effects from his ongoing battle with leukemia.

“He is a trooper,” his mother, Teri Clark, said. “Ninety-five percent of the time, he is smiling and doesn’t let it get him down. He’s more concerned about other people and making sure everyone else is comfortable.

“He’ll get down and talk to smaller kids, younger children. He gets down on their level and talks with them and encourages them. He’ll say, ‘Look at me; I can take it.'”

Benjamin’s illness has forced him to deal with things most other teenagers do not have to think about. It’s his ability to deal with these hardships that attracted Newby and the Student Veterans Association to Benjamin and made him an easy choice for Ole Miss Wish.

“The thing I want Benjamin to take away from this weekend is that he is such a powerful example of what it means to go through hard things well,” Newby said. “His attitude is absolutely inspiring, because he doesn’t let on that he’s having a hard time.

“He is such a bright soul, and giving him this experience has been a joy for all of us.” 

Benjamin met Jordan Ta’amu on Friday during his tour of athletics facilities and tossed a football with the Rebel quarterback during pre-game warmups. After leading the team through the Grove along the Walk of Champions, an experience he called “overwhelming,” Benjamin greeted each player and coach as they came onto the field.

“(Coach Luke) told me I was going to have a fun day, and said I was the team’s good luck charm,” he said.

Benjamin’s love of Ole Miss stems heavily from his love of watching Rebel football with his father, and he said getting to play a major role in the game-day experience Saturday was special.

Newby said Benjamin’s interaction with Ta’amu, who Benjamin called “very kind,” was a highlight of the weekend.

“Watching the two of them just enjoy the morning together is something I’ll remember for a long time,” Newby said. “Jordan and Benjamin just talked about life. There was no rush, there was no worry.

“It was beautiful, and it really made his experience that much greater because it showed him that he matters.”

Ole Miss Wish Kid Benjamin Clark high-fives Tony the Landshark on Saturday (Nov. 3) after receiving news that he and his family were given an all-expenses-paid trip to Disney World at Vaught-Hemingway Stadium. Benjamin is a cancer survivor and was honored on campus by the Student Veterans Association. Photo by Megan Wolfe/Ole Miss Digital Imaging Services

After firing the ROTC cannon when the Rebels took the field, Benjamin was given the shell casing, which he plans to put on his desk at home as a keepsake of his Ole Miss Wish experience.

A patient at Blair E. Batson Children’s Hospital at the UM Medical Center, Benjamin is inspired by his situation to help others when he gets older.

“The past few years, the nurses in the hospital have taken care of me and made this trial a lot easier to bear,” he said. “Because of that, I want to be a pediatric nurse to do all those things they’ve done for me.”

Walkers for Warriors co-founder Nicholas Roylance joined the Clarks on the sidelines Saturday to celebrate their trip. Like Roylance, Benjamin is a big Star Wars fan, and the costumes and pageantry of the presentation fit the Walkers for Warriors style.

The nonprofit generates money by attending cosplay conventions for “The Walking Dead.” Walkers for Warriors raised more than $7,500 to pay for flights, hotel, resort passes, food vouchers and everything else that goes along with a Disney World trip.

“I’m elated (to give Benjamin this opportunity),” Roylance said. “I just wanted to give the kid a hug and tell him to have a good time.”

More than $1,200 in spending money was raised for Benjamin by the O.D. Smith Masonic Lodge No. 33, of Oxford, and Belk Ford.

“This opportunity with Ole Miss Wish and Veteran and Military Services at Ole Miss was the perfect chance to make a lasting impact in a young man’s life,” said Ray Dees, the lodge’s junior warden. “This family has already experienced so much, and as a military family they already give of themselves, so the Masons wanted to give them a wonderful experience, and this was a great chance to do just that.”

Caleb Clark said it was an honor for his family to experience all it did over the weekend, but he also was proud to see the way the university recognized current and former student veterans during Warrior Week.

“I think it’s vitally important to emphasize that military and education aren’t distinct from one another,” Clark said. “I always like to see a strong connection between education and the military.

“It’s important for people to see (service members) as living, breathing, thinking, problem-solvers. So many of our folks on staff at 172nd are Ole Miss alums.”

In mid-April, Benjamin will mark a major milestone in his cancer treatment as he gathers with family and friends to celebrate the end of chemotherapy. Soon after, on April 28, he and his family plan to pack their bags for Orlando to visit Disney World.

Ole Miss Wish Kid Benjamin Clark (center) is joined by his family on campus for a weekend of festivities. Benjamin celebrated his Ole Miss Wish with (from left) his sister, Carolyn Grace; father, Maj. Caleb Clark; brother, Joshua; and mother, Teri. Photo by Kevin Bain/Ole Miss Digital Imaging Services

“We decided we were going to Toy Story Land first,” Benjamin said.

“We’ll be done with chemo and then going on this trip,” Teri Clark said. “It’s going to be a whole big ‘No Mo Chemo’ party.”

Teri Clark said she was thrilled to see her son, and the rest of her family, be treated so kindly and given gifts they will remember for a lifetime.

“Throughout Benjamin’s whole cancer journey, people are like, ‘I don’t know how you do what you do,'” she said. “But you just do what you have to do. We’re just dealing with the hand that we’ve been dealt. We don’t do anything extraordinary.

“And it’s really overwhelming and humbling to be given the blessing that Ole Miss gave us.”

9/11 Survivor to Speak to UM Student Veterans, Alumni

Inaugural Veterans Alumni Gala fosters community and student opportunities

Will Jimeno

OXFORD – Faith, hope and love will be the message from World Trade Center survivor Will Jimeno as he speaks at the University of Mississippi’s inaugural Veterans Alumni Gala, set for Nov. 2 at The Inn at Ole Miss.

The event, hosted by the Ole Miss Student Veterans Association, is designed to let student veterans network with alumni, build relationships and develop a community better suited to helping its members once their college careers conclude.

Jimeno, who was an officer with the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey in 2001 and was buried under the rubble of the World Trade Center for 13 hours, plans to challenge attendees to live life to the fullest after serving their country.

“What I always share, whether I’m speaking to veterans or anyone else, is faith, hope and love,” Jimeno said. “That’s what helped me survive on 9/11 and that’s what helps people survive every day.

“Speaking to a group of veterans – there are many people in that room that have had their own World Trade Center, be it in combat or seeing a comrade fall next to them. Faith, hope and love is what we do with ourselves after we were hit with our World Trade Center analogy.”

Before becoming a Port Authority officer, Jimeno served four years in the U.S. Navy.

“Events like (the alumni gala) are a great honor to speak at,” Jimeno said. “I get to spread the message about what my team did on 9/11 and what we as Americans overcame.

“But it also allows me to honor veterans that serve and protect us. I always had a deep desire to serve our country. The military taught me a lot, and my military service runs deep.”

The ultimate goal of the black-tie gala is to build relationships between current student veterans and Ole Miss graduates, said Andrew Newby, assistant director for Veteran and Military Services and organizer of the event.

“I want our students to have allies when they graduate, those who’ve seen their progression from veteran to student to graduate. I want them to impart wisdom by making an investment in the student veterans who’ve already given of themselves in their call to service.”

Newby will present awards to five student veterans chosen from an application and essay process. Each award is different and reflects the essays written by applicants.

The Initiative, Spirit, Perseverance, Genius and Leadership awards will be chosen by the executive committee of the Student Veterans Association based on how each applicant’s essay portrays one of the traits represented by the award.

Besides connecting with alumni, student veterans will have an opportunity to meet state and national dignitaries, including Robert Wilkie, secretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs; U.S. Sen. Roger Wicker; U.S. Rep. Trent Kelly; and Gov. Phil Bryant.

Proceeds from the gala will go toward the Welcome Home Campaign, which creates initiatives and programs for student veterans at Ole Miss. The gala, which is sold out, begins at 6 p.m. with a cocktail hour, followed by dinner and speakers.

“By connecting student veterans to our alumni within their current fields, students can engage them with questions and receive guidance on how to succeed in their chosen degree path,” Newby said. “If, at the end of the night, a young engineering student veteran is able to make a meaningful connection with an engineer from Ole Miss, the night has been successful.”

University Honoring Military through Warrior Week

Events organized to highlight service, recognize military

The University of Mississippi is honoring students and alumni who served in the armed forces with a series of events called Warrior Week, which culminates Nov. 3 when the Ole Miss Rebels host the South Carolina Gamecocks at Vaught-Hemingway Stadium. ROTC cadets and military veterans will be honored on the field throughout the game. Photo by Robert Jordan/Ole Miss Digital Imaging Services

OXFORD – The University of Mississippi is honoring its military veteran students, faculty and alumni during Warrior Week (Oct. 29-Nov. 3) with a series of events designed to recognize members of the armed services in the Ole Miss family.

“The University of Mississippi’s support for veterans and military families reflects our commitment to helping these important members of the Ole Miss family navigate their transition into civilian life, and it is a vital part of our institutional investment in building healthy and vibrant communities,” Chancellor Jeffrey Vitter said.

“We value our military students greatly for their service to our country, and for the leadership, life experience and maturity they bring to our campus community. As we continue making great strides in how we support our 1,400-plus military-connected students, Warrior Week is a wonderful way for the university to honor their tremendous sacrifice and service.” 

The university’s mission to honor and support its student veterans does not go unnoticed by its military faculty and staff.

“Warrior Week affords the LOU community a chance to see our past, present and future veterans’ accomplishments, and to see these veterans in person that are being recognized,” Army ROTC Sgt. Anthony Douglas said. “Warrior Week reminds the university that it has its own veterans, and that the university should be proud to be affiliated with these veterans that have honorably served our country. 

“Warrior Week also allows our veterans to feel welcomed, and to have their service and sacrifice recognized by their community.”

Throughout the week, a variety of events and activities will honor veterans and their service, culminating in the Nov. 3 Military Appreciation Game against South Carolina.

Ole Miss Wish

On Friday and Saturday (Nov. 2-3), 13-year-old Benjamin Clark, who was diagnosed with B-cell acute lymphoblastic leukemia in 2015, will be presented his Ole Miss Wish. His weekend will include a variety of activities catered to his interests.

Clark will be the first Ole Miss Wish child to serve as Kid President for the day and will make a proclamation from the president’s desk.

He will be joined by his parents, Teri and Caleb Clark, and siblings Carolyn Grace, 12, and Joshua, 11, all of Yazoo City. Together, the family will experience the sights and sounds of an Ole Miss game day, while also participating in the Walk of Champions through the Grove, among other events.

“Benjamin is super-excited. He just loves Ole Miss,” Teri Clark said. “He keeps telling me not to tell him anything about it. He keeps saying, ‘I want to be surprised.’ It’s going to be a special thing.”

Caleb Clark is chaplain for the Mississippi Air National Guard’s 172nd Airlift Wing, a position he has held for nearly a decade.

Caleb Clark said he looks forward to enjoying the weekend festivities in Oxford with his family, but he is also glad to know that all the Ole Miss service members will be recognized.

“I think it’s vitally important to emphasize that military and education aren’t distinct from one another,” said Caleb Clark, whose grandfather, Roy E. Clark, is a resident of the State Veterans Home and an Ole Miss alumnus. “I always like to see a strong connection between education, academia, training and the military.”

Ole Miss Wish is a philanthropic effort by the Student Veterans Association that works with military families to provide children with meaningful experiences at the university in partnership with the Division of Intercollegiate Athletics.

Veterans Gala

On Friday night (Nov. 2), UM will host the inaugural Veterans Alumni Gala, a program designed to recognize and honor alumni and students who served in the armed forces or will serve in the future. Besides being recognized by their peers, state and federal dignitaries and their community, veterans and cadets can use this opportunity to network and create lasting bonds that will help in their careers.

The guest of honor for the event, to be held at The Inn at Ole Miss, will be 9/11 survivor Will Jimeno. Jimeno will speak about his experiences responding to the World Trade Center with his Port Authority comrades and being trapped for 13 hours under the rubble of the towers.

“I’m looking forward to coming (to Oxford),” Jimeno said. “I hear nothing but great things about it. I’m looking forward to meeting the people and seeing the Grove and going to the football game. Events like this are a great honor.”

Bringing Jimeno in to tell his inspirational story will be a treat for student veterans and alumni, said Andrew Newby, UM assistant director for veteran and military services. Newby also hopes the event springboards current military students forward into their postgraduate careers.

“The Veterans Alumni Gala is a new effort I’m bringing to Ole Miss as an opportunity to connect student veterans with our wonderful alumni,” Newby said. “The goal is to create lasting partnerships between our alums and the student veterans that can lead to a great future for our university.”

Turkey Bowl

The week’s events kick off Monday (Oct. 29) with some friendly competition, as ROTC flag football teams from the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines will battle for bragging rights on the indoor field at the Olivia and Archie Manning Athletics Performance Center. The action begins at 8 p.m. and is open to the public.

“These games are important to the camaraderie and esprit de corps of the ROTC department because the ROTC students do not have a lot of interaction other than seeing each other conduct PT in the mornings,” Douglas said. “These games allow us to size each other up and remind each other that we are equals and are brothers in arms.”

The flag football games are a good opportunity to compete against ROTC counterparts, said Army ROTC cadet Joe Kelly, who played in the games last year and will participate again this year.

“I loved it (last year),” said Kelly, a senior majoring in management and human resources. “It’s really fun to just go against all the other military service branches.”

Football Uniform Reveal

On Friday (Nov. 2), the Ole Miss football team will unveil its patriotic-themed uniforms the players will wear during Saturday’s SEC game against South Carolina. The Rebels have made it a tradition to play one game a season in uniforms that honor service members.

Kelly, who hails from Washington, D.C., said he was impressed with last year’s military appreciation uniforms, with the Ole Miss helmet logo colored in an American flag design.

The athletics department will unveil the uniforms Friday on its social media outlets.

Ole Miss-South Carolina Football Game

ROTC cadets from the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines will be honored on the field at halftime of the military appreciation game against South Carolina. The game is part of the Warrior Week festivities. Photo by Robert Jordan/Ole Miss Digital Imaging Services

The military appreciation football game between the Rebels and the South Carolina Gamecocks will kick off at 11 a.m. Nov. 3 at Vaught-Hemingway Stadium.

Notable alumni and service members will be recognized during the game, and special guest Robert Wilkie Jr., U.S. secretary of veterans affairs, will participate in the pregame coin toss alongside Jimeno.

Cadets from each branch of the ROTC will march onto the field at halftime, an experience Kelly said is awe-inspiring, especially as someone who tried to join the football team when he came to Ole Miss.

“I tried walking onto the football team, but honestly, I wasn’t good enough,” Kelly said. “But it’s a dream come true to be out on the field and look up and see all the fans in the stands.”

Throughout Warrior Week, student veterans and ROTC cadets will be featured in videos highlighting their service and achievements.

Kelly said the recognition the university shows its veterans and active military service members makes him proud to serve, and motivates his future endeavors. He is on track to graduate in May and head into active service.

“(The recognition during Warrior Week) is very nice and very humbling,” Kelly said. “It makes you feel grateful to know there are all these people serving our country, and it’s humbling just to give back.

“I’m grateful to have the opportunity to give back to my community and my country and gain some life-changing experiences.”

Before kickoff, a military flyover will soar over the stadium.

Volunteer Efforts

Throughout the week, ROTC cadets will provide volunteer services to community organizations, including the State Veterans Home, Oxford churches and businesses.

“Military service in general is about volunteering and self-sacrifice,” Douglas said. “The general population forgets that our service is voluntary, and service members forget this as well at times, so volunteerism activities such as this event allow us to remember our roots and gives us the chance to remind the general population that we want to serve outside of our uniform.

“Hopefully, the cadets will learn more about their own humanity and how to be more humble.”

Navy EOD Demonstration

The U.S. Navy’s Explosive Ordnance Disposal/Diver team and the Army Adventure Semi will be open to the public beginning at 9:30 a.m. Saturday in the northwest corner of the Jackson Avenue Center parking lot.

The Army Adventure Semi allows guests to try out a variety of simulators that show the skills of U.S. Army soldiers.

An EOD dive tank will allow guests to interact with Navy EOD divers and their equipment. Also, the EOD team will have a robot and dive suit display set up at the Navy ROTC tent, next to the Zebra tent in the Grove.

UM TEDx Seeks Speakers for 2019 Conference

Annual event brings community together to share ideas in TED-like experience

Jandel Crutchfield, UM assistant professor of social work, speaks at the 2018 TEDxUniversityofMississippi event in February. The group is taking nominations through Nov. 2 for the event to be held in spring 2019. Kevin Bain/Ole Miss Digital Imaging Services

OXFORD – If you are someone who has something to say, you may be just the person that TEDxUniversityofMississippi is looking for.

Organizers of the event, which is designed to bring community members together to discuss a wide range of topics, are seeking nominations for 2019 speakers.

TEDx is an independently organized community forum designed after the national TED Talk conferences. In spring 2019, the Gertrude C. Ford Center for the Performing Arts will host the University of Mississippi’s fourth edition of the program.

In a change for this year, speakers can nominate themselves by submitting information about their topic and why that topic is relevant to the UM and Oxford communities. Approximately eight speakers will be selected from the pool of nominees.

“We believe a university like (UM) should be a place for learning and hearing new and different and challenging ideas,” said Marvin King Jr., event organizer and associate professor of political science and African American studies. “It’s nice to have an event like this that isn’t part of a formal class – there’s no test, no notes, no quizzes.

“It’s just a chance to hear, in one event, eight very different ideas on eight different subjects where you can learn quite a bit in two hours.”

Nomination submissions are due by Nov. 2, and those will be pared down to approximately 15-20 finalists. The finalists will then submit a short video on their topic of choice and the final speakers will be selected by the TEDx Committee, which consists of UM students. Once speakers are selected, a theme for the 2019 program will be chosen and a final date for the event will be selected, King said.

TEDxUniveristyofMississippi organizer Marvin King Jr., an associate professor of political science and African American studies,  discusses how the event is a chance for the community to hear different ideas on different subjects and share experiences. Photo by Robert Jordan/Ole Miss Digital Imaging Services

“The best speakers are those who aren’t lecturing, but those who are having a conversation with the audience,” King said.

Anyone from anywhere is allowed to submit a nomination, but King said he hopes to focus on speakers connected to the “Ole Miss family.”

“We would love to have more alumni – those people who have their own businesses and life experiences,” King said. “That will allow those alumni to connect to the community.”

King said he originally planned for the UM TEDx events to conclude after three years, but with attendance growing, from approximately 100 at the first event in 2015 to more than 500 at the 2018 event, he felt there is a need to keep the program alive.

“We hope to one day sell out the Ford Center,” he said.

Interested speakers can apply for nomination online. Tickets will be available on the Ford Center website once an official date is announced.     

‘Same Rivalry, New Game’: UM to Host Inaugural Esports Egg Bowl

Ole Miss and MSU teams to compete in gaming competition at Pavilion

Cray Pennison, president of Ole Miss Esports, Noel Wilkin, provost and executive vice chancellor, and Jason DeShong, president of Mississippi State University Esports, speak at a press conference to announce the Esports Egg Bowl. Photo by Kevin Bain/Ole Miss Digital Imaging Services

OXFORD – The lights of The Pavilion at Ole Miss will shine brightly on esports athletes from the University of Mississippi as they take on a team from Mississippi State University in the inaugural Esports Egg Bowl on Saturday (Oct. 13) in Oxford.

Teams of gamers will face off in a variety of video games projected on the arena’s video screens in front of friends, family and esports fans. Doors open at 10 a.m., with gaming action set to begin following an opening ceremony featuring Noel E. Wilkin, UM provost and executive vice chancellor.

The event is free and open to the public.

“I’m so excited,” said Ole Miss Esports founder Cray Pennison, a junior from Mandeville, Louisiana. “I’m excited to see everyone up on the stage for the first time.

“I’ve only been told things, like, ‘Imagine what this will be like.’ But I’m excited to really see it for myself. An event like this is one of the reasons I started the esports club.”

The Esports Egg Bowl will feature some 70 players combined from Ole Miss and MSU displaying their talents to the audience, with fast-paced gaming, thumping music and all the sights and sounds of a major entertainment event.

“We want it to have that ‘ready to rumble’ feeling,” said Carrie Long, administrative assistant for the UM Department of Computer and Information Science and close supporter of the club. “We want it to be a show.”

Interested fans who cannot attend the event can watch live on Twitch using the search OleMissEsports.

The popularity of esports is booming, with televised competitions on ESPN and other platforms and millions of players and viewers worldwide.

At Ole Miss, the team is just hitting its stride. Pennison, an English major, founded the Ole Miss Esports team in early 2017. Since then, interest has grown and the club has spiked from fewer than 10 participants at its first meeting to approximately 170 current members.

Pennison said he has received emails from graduating high school seniors asking how to join the group, even before they enrolled at the university.

“When we started the club, that was the goal, to get here eventually, but not this soon,” he said. “That we got here in this amount of time is unbelievable and speaks to all the people involved in the club and shows the craze of esports across the nation.”

The Esports Egg Bowl began this summer as a pipe dream, but quickly grew into reality thanks to buy-in from a variety of people and departments at the university, Pennison said.

“It started over the summer as maybe a fun idea we could do in maybe a year or two,” he said. “We talked to more and more people, and we didn’t expect to get a lot of ‘yesses.’

“But when people didn’t say ‘no,’ we kept asking and eventually we got entire departments involved and were able to collect a supergroup of people to put this together.”

Pennison worked alongside his Bulldog counterpart Jason DeShong, president of MSU Esports.              

“I’m glad that we are able to push something like this – that is really only happening in California – down to Mississippi,” said DeShong, a second-year MSU student. “We hope to legitimize esports in the Southeast to our schools, doubters and fans to show that this is something that is rising, and we are willing to lead the pack in esports to pave the way for people who come behind us.”

Ole Miss Esports president and junior English major Cray Pennison speaks to reporters at the announcement press conference for the inaugural Esports Egg Bowl with Noel Wilkin, provost and executive vice chancellor. Photo by Kevin Bain/Ole Miss Digital Imaging Services

The spirit of friendly competition and the thrill of victory and recognition will be palpable during the event, but Wilkin said there is more to esports than winning and losing.

“It is about embracing the future, the future of online gaming, the future of sports and the future of understanding how the online world brings society together,” he said during a press conference to introduce the event. “And the real beneficiaries are the students. This will help them to develop and refine soft skills of leadership, teamwork and communication in task environments.”

Wilkin said the esports program is still in its early stages and his goal is to see it grow.

“We plan to establish sites where Ole Miss gamers can gather, practice and connect with expert gamers recreationally and in preparation for tournaments,” he said. “We will work toward establishing a competitive program that will enable our Rebel gamers to compete against the best collegiate gamers in the country.”

Plans are already in the works for a 2019 Esports Egg Bowl hosted by MSU.

“Mississippi State has expressed their (desire) for it to become an annual event,” DeShong said. “We want this to be a yearly thing that heightens our rivalry and brings more attention to esports.”

The Esports Egg Bowl is a way to showcase the excitement and social significance of the gaming community and bring these students “out of the dark,” Pennison said.

“Hopefully, this one-of-a-kind event will get new people to start participating,” he said. “We really hope players and audience members can see this is a real thing. It’s not just a bunch of people sitting in dark rooms; this is an event on this campus.”

Both Pennison and Long see the Esports Egg Bowl as the catalyst for growing esports programs at UM and across the region.

“Big picture, we would like to create a university-sponsored esports program, much like the athletics programs,” Long said.

But before the days when stadiums fill to watch Ole Miss battle other SEC foes with scholarship esports athletes, Pennison said his team will focus on the now. And that means putting the finishing touches on preparation for the Esports Egg Bowl and spending time together practicing to defeat their first major adversary from the other side of the state.

Units across the university have come together to make this event a reality, including the Office of the Provost, the departments of Computer and Information Science,  Intercollegiate Athletics and Student Housing, the Ole Miss Student Union and Division of Outreach and Continuing Education.