Still Going Strong after 50 Years of Employment

As longest-serving employee ever, Kathy Tidwell rises through ranks during a half-century at Ole Miss

Kathy Tidwell flips through a book in the Ole Miss Bookstore, one of the campus operations that she supervises. Tidwell recently marked 50 years as a UM employee, the longest tenure of any employee in university history. Photo by Megan Wolfe/Ole Miss Digital Imaging Services

OXFORD, Miss. – Kathy Tidwell started working at the University of Mississippi a few months before man first walked on the moon.

This year marks Tidwell’s 50th year at Ole Miss, making her the longest-serving employee in university history. She officially started in January 1969, and while she could have retired many years ago, the 68-year-old said she continues to derive a lot of satisfaction from her work each day, and besides, she said, “I’m not much of a homebody.”

A lifelong resident of Lafayette County and the university’s director of contractual services and university licensing, Tidwell said it’s been a short 50 years at the university. Many people, who are ready to retire in half that time, may wonder why and how she’s done it.

“I think what keeps me working is I enjoy the students, I enjoy the staff, I enjoy the parents,” she said. “I’ve learned a lot, and I feel like working at the university is an education in and of itself because you meet so many diverse people that you would not meet in most places of employment.

“And every day is kind of new, and every year you get a new set of students. So it’s never boring to me.”

Another factor might play into Tidwell’s employment longevity: genes. Tidwell’s mother, Marguerite McCain, worked as a seamstress until age 88, and her sister Delores Barnett, who was Title 1 coordinator in the South Panola School District and an adjunct professor at Ole Miss, worked until age 84. 

Ole Miss Memories

Tidwell’s first job on campus was records clerk in men’s housing.

“At that time, I was young, 18,” she said. “When I came into work, the office was on the ground floor of LaBauve, which was a men’s residence hall.

“When I went up to go in, I thought, ‘Oh no, people are going to see me going into a men’s residence hall.'”

Because January 1969 was especially cold, then-Chancellor Porter L. Fortune permitted women to wear pants to class for the first time.

“Girls had to sign in and out when they went home,” she recalled. “It was really a different time then.”

She recalled the housing department’s first computer; in-person, two-day class registration at the gym; and carbon copies of room damage reports.

Tidwell originally planned to work two years and then quit and go to school after her husband, Larry Tidwell, got his degree in secondary education. But she ended up working for housing some 30 years, working her way up to assistant director, associate director and interim director.

Meanwhile, from the time she started work at the university, she took classes, beginning with algebra, which she said she enjoyed, and earned a Bachelor of Business Administration in accounting in 1981 while working full time.

She also received a Master of Education in higher education in 1993 and a master’s in counseling in 1996.

Kathy Tidwell, who recently marked her 50th anniversary as a university employee, has enjoyed a career that has taken her from the housing department to Contractural Services. Photo by Megan Wolfe/Ole Miss Digital Imaging Services

In 1998, after her career in housing, Tidwell considered retiring from the university. She interviewed for a counseling job at St. Francis Hospital in Memphis, but also for a job in UM Contractual Services.

“Thankfully, I was selected here first,” she said. “Driving to St. Francis would have been an issue.”

In Contractual Services, she started out in the ID Center and reported to the late Johnny Williams, who was vice chancellor for administration and finance, as well as Larry Sparks, who has become UM interim chancellor, and Clay Jones, assistant vice chancellor for administration and human resources.

“I have definitely enjoyed working with Clay Jones and Larry Sparks,” she said. “Had I not worked with great people, I might have retired by now.”

Jones and Sparks said the feeling is mutual.

“Compared to Kathy, I am a newcomer to the university,” Sparks said. “I have worked with her for a mere 22 years, since my arrival in 1997. During that time, I have had the privilege of working with her on contractual services, food services and licensing. We have worked together on all aspects of contractual services – from dealing with day-to-day management issues to the negotiation of contracts.

“I am amazed at her commitment and dedication, as well as her love for this university. A commitment of 50 years to a single employer is almost unheard of and demonstrates her true love for not only the university but for its people. She brings great excitement to work every day.”

Tidwell has been an integral part of many major projects on campus, including opening Rebel Market, the Grill at 1810, food operations in the Pavilion, the Student Union food court and the soon-to-open new Union bookstore, as well as performing as licensing director for the past 20 years or so, Jones said.

“Most of us will never see an individual work for the same organization for 50 years again in our lifetime,” Jones said. “Today’s workforce changes jobs much more rapidly than previous generations did, but even those workers rarely accomplished what Kathy has, working for the same organization for this long. 

“It is an absolute testament to her work ethic, ability to adapt with changing times – to include moving from paper to computers and changing to various levels of software integration – and finally her absolute love and dedication to our university for her to stay here 50 years.” 


These days, Tidwell oversees 10 full-time employees and the operation of several entities on campus: Ole Miss Dining Services; the Ole Miss Bookstore; the ID Center; Ole Miss Express, Flex and meal plans; campus vending; campus residence hall laundry facilities; licensing of university logos; digital/network video recording systems (security cameras); and card access readers.

“We constantly find solutions to issues, and I think I have a great staff,” Tidwell said. “The key to (administration) is relying on your staff, communicating with them, allowing them to make decisions and knowing what’s going on.

“I don’t call myself a micromanager. I ask my staff to make decisions but keep me informed.”

One of Kathy Tidwell’s responsibilities is to oversee licensing of university logos, including those used on shirts, hats and other apparel. Photo by Megan Wolfe/Ole Miss Digital Imaging Services

One employee said Tidwell will always find a way to help.

“Her dedication and compassion for the Ole Miss family shows in everything she does,” said Micah Bowen, ID Center coordinator, who has known Tidwell for 17 years since starting in the department as a student worker. “She’s truly an Ole Miss legend.”

Tidwell said part of her job is keeping up with issues that come up daily, whether it’s a problem with a vending machine or moving the bookstore back to the renovated Student Union. So she’s constantly running around campus.

“I believe in handling problems right up front,” she said.

A friend and former colleague confirms that Tidwell does, indeed, handle problems right away.

“She does not know the meaning of the word ‘quit’ or how to accomplish tasks with anything less than complete excellence,” said Candice McMinn, software developer II in the UM Division of Outreach, who met Tidwell in 2001, when she worked in Contractual Services, then known as Auxiliary Services.

Most recently, Contractual Services staff has developed an online calendar that shows what dining locations are open and which meal plans are covered for each day of the year. And students, as well as faculty and staff, can now use mobile ordering for Freshii, McAlister’s and Which Wich in the Union.

“We try to listen and figure out what would benefit students,” Tidwell said.

One Day at a Time

Tidwell said she’s sure she’ll retire but doesn’t have a date set. She and her husband, who retired in 1999, enjoy spending time on their farm, riding horses and training some of them to compete in area horse shows. She walks in 5Ks and likes gardening and doing anything outdoors.

Looking back at her years at Ole Miss, she acknowledges she has achieved quite a bit.

“Getting three degrees while working full time is a pretty big accomplishment,” she said. “Moving from records clerk to where I am now is an accomplishment. Being here 50 years is an accomplishment. I try to take things one day at a time.”