Heroes, Past and Present

These remarks by Elizabeth Shiver (54) were prepared for the Silver Em dinner in 2006. The intention was to recognize performance and achievement of both individuals and institutions and to discuss journalism education at Ole Miss in the early years.


We began congratulating the Sun Herald and the Times Picayune on their well-deserved Pulitzers that year. The Sun Herald was described as the lifeline for the coast. We heard incredible stories of how staff members managed to operate in what I call the devastated area. Their devotion to their role surpassed their own personal losses and tragedies: An incredible performance that continues today. The Silver Em in 2006 was awarded posthumously to Dan Phillips, assistant publisher of the Oxford Eagle. The first Bullion lecture was given the next morning, celebrating the legacy of Stuart Bullion.

The earlier days of journalism education here at Ole Miss are entwined with the history of the student newspaper, for years called The Mississippian and now The Daily Mississippian, which first published in 1911. We will mark this century some time in 2011. This publication was the only journalism for years, except for magazines that would appear and then disappear.

Students had been clamoring for journalism instruction as reported in The Mississippian since the 1930s, and there had been many responsible and thoughtful editors over the years, but opportunities did not come along until after World War II. I am not suggesting student editors’ leadership equated the Silver Em awardees’ lifetime of achievement. They were at the core of what was available here for years.

Three of these student leaders I mention because they were in office when the Department of Journalism was being created. They were World War II veterans who had started college before the war began. They came back and picked up where they had been before going off, and they succeeded one another beginning with Tom Bourdeaux, then Paul Newton and then Dean DuBois. William Winter was a part of this generation and had been editor before military service as well as Albert Wilson and Joe Waggoner, who did not survive.

Sam Talbert, the second journalism chairman, also was a veteran as is his wife, Fran, but more about them later.

It must have been difficult for veterans to come back as students and take an interest in student life, and there was a level of maturity to the student body at that time beyond what is usually the case.

Completing a college education was a driving force, and Uncle Sam helped in a major way with the GI Bill, a huge incentive and an entirely earned reward. The GI Bill and the much earlier Morrill Act of 1862, creating the land-grant college system, were the major pieces of legislation affecting higher education and indeed the development of our national strength up to this point in our history.

Neither the spread of education nor the growth of the national economy in the booming 1950s would have happened in the same way without these supports. Skilled manpower fueled industrial growth and demand, and lifted all boats. We set aside other problems for a time, and we still grapple with these today.

The new chancellor, J.D. Williams, was moving Ole Miss forward as well with expanded new offerings to meet more needs. One of the new departments he created was journalism. Dr. Gerald Forbes, a history professor from Oklahoma with a newspaper background, was hired to create the department that began functioning during the 1946-47 academic year. It was part of the School of Business because the dean of the College of Liberal Arts did not want it. We had a sort of stepchild status in the beginning for many years.

The department began with limited resources and no center of strength, except what Dr. Forbes could create. That is why I dwell on the role of the student newspaper. It was a well-established entity at this point with a history of performance. The department needed a connection to the newspaper more than the newspaper needed the department.

The department had no formal connection with the newspaper or control over it. The oversight was the responsibility of a Publications Board that included the chancellor and the deans. The department needed to create a role for itself that would be supportive to the newspaper. It did so with its first two basic courses, reporting and editing. Every story written in the reporting class was passed along to the editing class and then to the newspaper to use or note in any way the editors wished. A simple and easy bridge was established.

Physically the department first occupied part of one of four temporary buildings, an Army surplus, one-story, wooden, long, narrow building situated where the tennis courts are now. We had a few desks, chairs and tables, nothing new, an editing table most likely built right there. Forbes did what he could to create a community for his students by hosting wiener roasts in the woods behind Fraternity Row and social gatherings at his home on Leighton Road and by sponsoring a local honorary journalism society—pretty much accessible to all, so there would be a base for affiliating with Theta Sigma Phi and Sigma Delta Chi, the national honorary societies for men and women at this time.

He was a wonderful and irascible character who taught us only two things that I really remember. First, never use cliches (such as fraught with difficulties) and never be intimidated to interview and question anyone. He dictated to us pages of trite phrases to be avoided. Most of us remember them.

Most of us also look back in amazement at the sense of confidence he instilled in us, especially given how little we actually knew. Dr. Forbes’ interest in photography finally overtook his interest in the department and he moved out to San Jose, Calif.

He was a profane man, as Jere Hoar reminds me. The DDT truck would come to spray under the building in warm weather, enraging Dr Forbes, who would yell several expletives ordering us all to get out as they were surely trying to kill us with their poison. We fled gladly from the summer heat, and he was right. Summer classes in Temp A were stifling, and developing film was difficult as the temperature of the developing liquid was way more than it should have been.

To move on, Sam and Fran Talbert moved to Oxford for the 1948-49 academic year. Forbes had operated on his own during the first two years with a little help from public relations staff members. Sam arrived with a doctorate in mass communications from the University of Iowa. Originally from south Georgia near the Florida line, he had served on the USS Cabot for the entire Pacific campaign as the communications and the intelligence officer. He bunked with the ship’s doctor, and the ship stayed afloat throughout, but their space was shot through more than once. His Iowa-born wife was a dietitian in the Air Force, and they met on a blind date on the Boardwalk in Atlantic City.

Given the number of major sea battles he endured, it was no wonder his hearing was impaired. He probably heard those guns the rest of his life. His lectures were whispered monotones until someone would shout, “We can’t hear you, Dr. Sam.” Then he would shout back for a while until his voice returned to its usual level. His students adored him anyway. He was so funny in his own spastic way. He had the same gift as Forbes of convincing his students they could do anything. Ed Meek shared with me the behavior of some in class who mocked Sam’s mumbling by mumbling back.

When Talbert came to Washington, he wanted all of us there to come to his hotel room to visit and share a beverage or two. It was a command performance from our point of view. Many of us who rarely saw each other at any other time would never fail to show up. I always went to visit Sam when I was back in Oxford visiting family.

After Forbes left in 1955, Sam became chairman. Jere Hoar arrived with a mass communications degree, also from Iowa, and joined the faculty. Finally we moved out of the Temp A hotbox and into what had been the Music Department all my childhood and college years, Brady Hall. It was luxury compared to the Temp. I suggested to Sam that maybe it was time to seek accreditation, but he said, “Oh hell, Liz, it don’t matter.” He had endured three heart attacks as well as all those battles and was too tired to wage another campaign. Eventually the accreditation came, and the move to Farley Hall, the creation of the Student Media Center and the possession of our very own printing press.

We had arrived, nearly to depart a while later. The Board of Higher Education, always facing financial problems, looked at eliminating duplicate programs with Ole Miss’ handing over journalism to Southern and home economics going elsewhere as well. We hear the same refrain yet again today.

Reaction was immediate among alums and others. This is the oldest, largest, only accredited program, and you do not abandon this resource, the capital built with years of struggle. We prevailed but were not clever enough to become self-sustaining, which is what Jeanette Phillips accomplished when she converted Home Ec into the National Food Service Management Institute. Journalism has been a very strong component of the liberal arts college, with 406 journalism students making them 9 percent of the 4,594 in liberal arts students. Given more than 20 fields in the school, we represent a large share of the student body found in one department. We continue to strengthen programs and devote attention to each individual, a record to share with pride. This attention to individuals is a hallmark.

Now we have become the Meek School of Journalism and New Media as of July 1, 2009.

There are so many who been a part of both the student publications and this department. Those that graduated long before the department existed deserve recognition for their many achievements, which I would like to go on about, but it is more than can be done here. So I will move along to Bill Raspberry’s and the late Rudy Abramson’s projects. These were two earlier Silver Em awardees who moved beyond their career accomplishments in daily journalism to take on projects close to their hearts.

The projects are Bill Raspberry’s new Baby Steps program, beginning in Okolona, and Rudy Abramson’s Encyclopedia of Appalachia, published in March 2006 by the University of Tennessee Press.

Bill Raspberry, the 1976 recipient, has been an op-ed columnist at the Washington Post for decades and retired in 2006 to devote his time entirely to his Baby Steps program centered for now in his hometown of Okolona. The program intends to strengthen the parenting skills of young parents in order to enhance their children’s chances of success. “I asked not only the parents of the town’s preschoolers but also the townspeople black and white to sign on. I have been pleasantly surprised—no, amazed—at the degree to which both have done so. My pledge was that if they would do what I asked, I would pay for it out of my not-so-deep pocket,” Bill wrote me.

“We are teaching parents how valuable their role is in preparing their children for success in school and in life—even if they never experienced much success in school themselves. We will provide the resources, training and instruction that can help through workshops, talk sessions, home visits and training seminars run by some of the experts I have met through my newspaper columns. It is my hope that these children will test better, and we can use our mutual concern to transform our struggling (and still radically divided) town into a community. Baby Steps is currently operating as a special project of the CREATE foundation.”

Now to Rudy Abramson, the 1989 recipient, who was a reporter with the Los Angeles Times for many years and is a graduate of the program here and died in 2006. He wrote a variety of books and this Appalachian Encyclopedia has been a major project for him for years. To share with you what he wrote me: “The Encyclopedia… is a shade less than 2,000 pages and weighs 8 pounds and includes contributions from nearly 1,00 writers and scholars. We’re now raising money to put it into every high school in the 410 Appalachian counties in the 13 states.


“Interesting that the project has a lot of Mississippi roots. It was inspired by the Encyclopedia of Southern Culture; Bill Ferris introduced me to Jean Haskell, who became my co-editor; and Jesse White, who was then federal co-chair of the Appalachian Regional Council, provided initial and then more funding; Bill Ferris became chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities, our chief funder after the project got under way; and finally, Charles Overby and the Freedom Forum are hosting an event to introduce the book in 2006.

“What might be more relevant to Silver Em is that I was founder of the Institute for Rural Journalism of the University of Kentucky, a multi-institutional and multidisciplinary enterprise with growing connections beyond central Appalachia. I am now chairman of its advisory board.”

We should take pride in the energy and dedication these two have put into their projects. As an aside, Rudy and I worked closely together for a brief period in 1994 in an effort to dissuade Disney from building a history theme park next to Manassas Battlefield. We won! It was the sweetest victory I have ever known when we scared the Mouse off!

I conclude with part of a poem my friend Jim Autry sent me to use if I wished. Called Corporations and Communion, it was part of a book published in 1993 entitled Life and Work: It speaks of community in a way that we can relate lives and interests together. I recite it for the many who have been a part of our community who we may wish to remember.


In a way,

the good people are still with us,

all those you can name

plus many you never knew.

They are part of this celebration

which as we know

is not about careers and accomplishments

but about life itself,

life and the two things that keep us living,

relationships and work,

the people we love and the things we love to do.

So many of those who have gone before are here

and in a way so are the ones who are still to come,

even those not yet born.

How can this be? You ask

Consider this:

Life and work and love in any setting

can be acts of communion

transcending all of us who pass through,

with our only hope being

that when we retired or take our leave

we have left something of ourselves,

enough that part of us will be there always.