‘Distinguished Statesman’ William Winter Recalled as Tireless Advocate

Former governor, Ole Miss alumnus amassed remarkable 75 years of public service

Gov. William Winter, a pillar of racial reconciliation and champion for Mississippi, died Friday (Dec. 18). Winter’s career in public service started while a University of Mississippi student. Photo by Nathan Latil/Ole Miss Digital Imaging Services

OXFORD, Miss. – A former governor and champion of education and racial reconciliation initiatives whose public service career started while a University of Mississippi student, William Winter died this weekend, leaving behind a lasting legacy throughout the Magnolia State and beyond.

Winter, who was known broadly as “Mississippi’s education governor” and accounted for nearly 75 years of public service, died Friday (Dec. 18) at 97.

Winter (BA 43, LLB 49) served as governor of Mississippi from 1980 to 1984, during which he played pivotal roles in securing the passage of landmark educational initiatives in 1982 bringing kindergartens, compulsory school attendance and a number of other critical reform measures to the state.

“We are saddened to learn that the much respected and beloved Gov. William Winter passed away,” UM Chancellor Glenn Boyce said. “As a distinguished statesman and prominent University of Mississippi alumnus, his outstanding leadership and advocacy has shaped our state and university in countless ways. His enduring legacy lives on in the lasting impact of his accomplishments in advancing education, racial reconciliation, equality and numerous other areas.

“We extend our deepest condolences and prayers to his family and the entire state for this great loss.”

Before serving as governor, Winter was elected to the offices of state representative, state tax collector, state treasurer and lieutenant governor. He served as chairman of the Southern Regional Education Board, the Commission on the Future of the South, the National Civic League, the Kettering Foundation, the Foundation for the Mid-South and the Mississippi Department of Archives and History. In 1978, he served as president of the Ole Miss Alumni Association.

In 2017, Winter was inducted into the Ole Miss Alumni Association‘s Hall of Fame, receiving the Alumni Service Award, given to those with a record of service to the university and the Alumni Association over an extended period.

Winter was a member of President Bill Clinton’s National Advisory Board on Race in 1997, which led to the founding of the William Winter Institute for Racial Reconciliation at UM in 1999.

Former Gov. William Winter (left) participates in a panel discussion titled ‘How Events in Mississippi Changed American Politics’ in 2008 at the university. Photo by Ole Miss Digital Imaging Services

“With the passing of Governor William F. Winter, Mississippi has lost one of its greatest champions of equality, reconciliation and progress; and I have lost a friend, an inspiration and one of the finest people I’ve ever known,” Clinton said in a statement. “Bill had the gift to see his state as it was, to envision what it could be and to take the difficult but necessary steps to get there.

“His bold efforts to reform education, fight poverty and bring people together across racial lines showed the promise of a new Mississippi.”

In 1998, Winter was the recipient of the Mississippi Bar’s Lifetime Achievement Award. His credentials within the academic community are longstanding: Jamie Whitten Professor of Law and Government at the UM School of Law (1989); Eudora Welty Professor of Southern Studies at Millsaps College (1989); and fellow of the Institute of Politics at Harvard University (1985).

In remarks made in 2003, the historian David Halberstam called Winter “Mississippi’s best and strongest governor of modern times.” Halberstam went on to say, “Winter, more than any other politician, is the architect of the new Mississippi and the new America.”

He was awarded the Profile in Courage Award by the John F. Kennedy Library Foundation for demonstrating the qualities of politically courageous leadership. At the time of the announcement in 2008, Caroline Kennedy, president of the John F. Kennedy Library Foundation, said, “Gov. William Winter gives testimony to President Kennedy’s belief that politics can truly be a noble profession.

“His lifetime of public service, both to his country and his beloved state of Mississippi, has been distinguished by its devotion to equality and justice. His lifelong dedication to ensuring equal opportunities in our nation’s educational system embodies what it means to be a profile in courage.” 

Born in Grenada, Winter served overseas as an infantry officer in the Pacific in World War II. After service in the U.S. Army, Winter was elected to the Mississippi Legislature in 1947 while still a student at the School of Law.

Andy Mullins, who served for nearly two decades at Ole Miss, was a member of Gov. Winter’s staff, one of the “Boys of Spring” who helped engineer the landmark Education Reform Act of 1982. Mullins said Winter was an avid Ole Miss sports fan and even served as sports editor of The Daily Mississippian when he was a student.

“In his early life, he wanted to be a sportswriter and his memory of Ole Miss sports was incredible,” Mullins said of Winter. “You could ask him who Ole Miss beat in a bowl game on this year and he could not only tell you who they played, but what the score of the game was.”

Former Gov. William Winter talks with a UM staff member at the third annual Racial Reconciliation Week awards presentation and reception in 2015. Photo by Kevin Bain/Ole Miss Digital Imaging Services

Besides his love of Ole Miss sports, Winter was an overwhelming supporter of the university and the role UM played in helping advance the state, Mullins said.

“He was a big proponent of research at Ole Miss – and all the universities in the state, really – being a major driver of recruiting industry to Mississippi,” Mullins said. “He loved Ole Miss from the time he was a student until the day he died. His death is a big loss for the University of Mississippi, as well as the entire state of Mississippi.”

Reflecting on Winter’s legacy, businessman and former Secretary of State Dick Molpus (BBA ’71), another member of the “Boys of Spring,” said, “Winter confronted racial, economic and educational inequities throughout his life and fought those inequities with courage, hope and tenacity.”

Winter is survived by his wife of 70 years, Elise Varner Winter (BA 48). He is also survived by three devoted daughters, Anne Winter, Lele Gillespie and Eleanor Winter, along with five grandchildren, Dr. Winter Williams, Dr. Zach Williams, Ty Gillespie, Caroline Gillespie and Grace Gillespie, and five great grandchildren.

A memorial service will be held later. Condolences to the Winter family can be mailed to P.O. Box 427, Jackson, MS 39205.