/A finale to Curtis Wilkie’s final act –– esteemed Mississippi journalist retires from teaching

A finale to Curtis Wilkie’s final act –– esteemed Mississippi journalist retires from teaching

Nonprofit Mississippi News OXFORD — Curtis Wilkie, a prominent political writer, had intended to “ride away quietly into the sunset” when he retired this month as Fellow at Overby Center for Southern Journalism and Politics. However, his students and coworkers couldn’t leave him behind without a bit of fanfare. Although Wilkie might have given up his Southern roots in his youth, he quickly became a leading voice in storytelling in the South. His students and coworkers knew that his resignation as professor was the end of an era. Wilkie was surprised by his students on the last day of class with cookies, milk and silver party hats. They also made a cake with red and blue frosting that said “Congratulations Curtis!” Wilkie joked about whether the party hat was a dunce hat and then he tried to get it over his face shield. He laughed when he saw the Zoom call. Today Curtis Wilkie was the last Ole Miss professor to teach and was surprised by his students at a retirement party. He spent 19 years sharing his wisdom and expertise with our students after a distinguished reporting career. pic.twitter.com/BMQNFmRkiZ As Wilkie passed out final papers, he asked the students for the final thoughts about the 2020 Presidential Election season, the topic of this class. Students offered their opinions on the recount in Georgia, as well as President Trump’s legal challenges. Wilkie also asked students for their final thoughts about 2020 Presidential Election season. Wilkie told a story about meeting Joe Biden at 2000 RNC convention. Biden then requested to visit the Grove on a gameday. Students listened to him recount stories about the civil rights movement in Mississippi. He also talked about interviewing Martin Luther King Jr. weeks before his death. Wilkie, a 1963 UM graduate, worked as a journalist almost forty years. He started as a reporter at the Clarksdale Press Register, before becoming a White House correspondent at the Boston Globe. Later, he founded the Globe’s Middle Eastern Bureau. In the late 1990s, Wilkie decided to stop working as a journalist. This was due to a number of factors including his eligibility for his retirement, The Boston Globe’s purchase by The New York Times and the desire to not travel as often. Although he jokes that he tried teaching because he couldn’t golf and needed something to do, he said that it was a rewarding second career. Wilkie stated that he doesn’t consider himself an academic. He is a retired journalist who was recruited to teach and loves it. Wilkie laughs when he describes his teaching style of “ad-hoc”. His courses often rely on current events and he has never been able reuse lectures. Wilkie stated that many of his courses, especially those with the Honors College are “a bit oddballs” because they were created from scratch. These “invented” courses include the Presidency, the Press, Political Pundits, the Presidential Election, Presidential Debates and Journalism’s Trump Problem. Devna Bose is a Charlotte Observer reporter and a 2019 UM graduate. She has not forgotten Wilkie’s introduction on the first day she took the Presidential Debates class with him. “You all can call me Curtis. I have barely earned my bachelor’s degree so please don’t call it doctor. And you” — Bose was looking at Davis McCool who was also in the class, “you can name me PopPop.” Bose remembered how Wilkie gained respect in the classroom. Bose stated, “He’s such an energetic person…such a unassuming character.” “He’s this soft spoken, sweet, gentle man and it’s shocking for a student to see how much he has accomplished in the industry. That shift was largely due to professors like Wilkie. Bose stated that he loved Mississippi and taught her to love the state more. Adam Ganucheau is the editor-in chief of Mississippi Today. He graduated from UM in 2014. At times, he struggled to decide if it was worth his time. It was Wilkie’s encouragement that kept him going. I had written a story for which a lot of Republicans were calling me names, and he said that Republicans rule the state. You have to hold power people accountable. In Mississippi, that’s what your job as a journalist means. Ganucheau told a story about Wilkie taking Ganucheau with a source to Delta to ensure Ganucheau had the necessary access. Wilkie stated that “if I’ve been good at teaching, it’s partly because I never forgot what being a student was like.” He also said that he knew how difficult college can be for students. Wilkie had himself dropped out of college at one time and failed a class in another. Wilkie stated that credibility is the most important thing he had taught young journalists. Wilkie believes that being accurate, honest, and fair in reporting is essential. He has brought many well-respected and respected industry leaders to his classes throughout the years. Janet H. Brown and Richard Ford were some of his guests. He said, “Practical experience is the best — I believe that’s what [the journalism department] was able to offer me.” He said, “But I’m not the only one.” Wilkie also had the chance to write and he intends to keep doing so. His books include Arkansas Mischief and Dixie, Road to Camelot and The Fall of the House of Zeus. He also has a collection of essays, Assassins and Eccentrics, Politicians and Other Persons of interest. The FBI informant, When Evil Lived In Laurel, is his latest book. It details the efforts to take down the KKK chapter in Mississippi that was responsible for a horrific civil rights-era murder. Wilkie stated that he didn’t believe he would ever write a book. “I was in Memphis on assignment when a lovely lady, who was a literary agent, called me at my hotel to ask if I was interested in cowriting a book with Jim McDougal (a friend of the Clintons and cofounder of Whitewater Development Corporation).” I replied, “Not really, I have a job and, besides, Jim McDougal is a bit of an ogre.” Wilkie found McDougal to be funny, a great raconteur and open about his guilt in Whitewater’s scandal. Wilkie and McDougal created Arkansas Mischief, and Deborah Grosvenor (the “nice lady”, who called the first time, became Wilkie’s literary agent. Wilkie’s frustration and curiosity led to The Fall of the House of Zeus about Dickie Scruggs’s downfall as a trial lawyer. Wilkie stated that Dickie was a close friend and that he knew many of the people involved in the case. “What’s going on?” he asked. I couldn’t find the answers in the newspaper stories so I decided to put on my reporter hat and learn more about myself and start writing books. Wilkie stated that it was much easier than he expected to do this. Wilkie, who had previously written 5,000-word features for the Boston Globe Magazine, approached a book like 20 magazine stories. Although the process of compiling endnotes instead of in-text attribution proved more difficult than expected, Wilkie enjoyed the transition to third-person narrative writing. Wilkie’s experience in writing magazine stories has made him a great candidate to teach feature-writing, which has forged a strong relationship with many of his students. Laura Santhanam is a PBS NewsHour reporter who graduated from UM in 2005. She says that Wilkie still speaks to her in her head, telling her to “keep your eyes open for compelling details.” Santhanam also said that Wilkie approaches teaching writing and teaching with a humility that allows him to be accessible despite the awe inspiring experiences he has had. Santhanam stated that Wilkie has been a reliable, resourceful, and dedicated pair eyes on some of the most powerful people this nation has produced over several presidencies. Steven Godfrey is a Banner Society writer and 2005 UM grad. He said that although he may not be as well-known as TV personalities, “He’s your favorite journalist’s favorite journalist. And he would die if he hear me say this right now.” Godfrey said, “He had such credibility and gravitas and so much acumen that he commanded respect from the room. But he also showed total benevolence.” Godfrey stated that Wilkie and his peers sought Wilkie’s approval more than Wilkie knew. Godfrey believes Wilkie is a person who can face authority without fear. “If you go through his work, you see a human being who is able to balance his love of place (Mississippi) with his absolutely uncompromising assessment of its negativities…Mississippi is a hard place to be fearless. Wilkie said that it was a great feeling to be celebrated at retirement. However, he also admitted that it has been embarrassing to receive so much attention to himself because he doesn’t think he merits any special recognition. Wilkie stated that the interviews and celebrations make it seem like he is begging for publicity. Wilkie realized he was 80 years old this year and knew that it was time for him to retire. He said that once you reach 80, it’s time for you to get out of your own way before you make a big mistake.” He joked that he didn’t want students getting spittle in their faces when he lectures. Ganucheau stated that he had mixed feelings about Wilkie’s retirement. He said that Wilkie’s care for students, and his willingness to help them solve problems and get them interested in journalism, was a testament to the quality of his teaching. “I’m so happy to him and it’s an amazing end to this long, complicated, and storied career. But I also know that there will be many students who don’t get that (mentorship experience).” Wilkie said that he was a part “of all that I have met.”