By John Thomas
“Welcome home, John.” These three simple words, said in that soothing southern accent, set the tone for my next four days at Ole Miss – capturing the mystique of a storied university and small southern town that’s unlike any place on earth.
For those of us returning as alumni, Ole Miss is one big, warm southern greeting. It’s more a feeling than a place. It’s about respect and charm; good manners and graciousness; life-long relationships and newly formed friendships; and, an always-optimistic future. It’s a general sense of belonging that can’t be told, only experienced. This was the trip where my family would share that experience with me for the first time, having heard my stories about Ole Miss and the South for years, as well as those of my mother, a native Mississippian transplanted 50 years ago to Chicago.
It was Ed Meek who greeted me with those three words in September. I had just arrived in town, ahead of the much-anticipated Ole Miss vs. Texas game. Ed made me feel like the whole school was shaking my hand at once – taking me back with a gentlemanly handshake and that trademark southern hospitality.
I have to admit that I hadn’t returned since Eli Manning left. But my reason for visiting wasn’t football. On this occasion, I came as a guest of the Meek School of Journalism and New Media, to speak to students about communications careers and share a few tales from the professional trenches.
It was also a long-overdue opportunity to introduce my wife, Mary, and our three children, ages 15, 13 and 9, to Ole Miss and Oxford. In short, they loved it. The culture, the beauty, and the people. The Grove, the Square, and Square Books. The marching band, the football stadium, and the students who gave my kids their first official college admissions tour – demonstrating classic Ole Miss good cheer and perfect manners.
We met Chancellor Jones, Jack Ford of CBS News, and James Meredith on the 50th anniversary of his enrollment. I re-connected with my Mississippi relatives as well as old friends and professors in Farley Hall. My 15-year-old daughter wanted to attend one of my lectures—and grade my performance. (She said I passed.) Then she joined me as I tried to career counsel a new Asian student who simply needed a shot of confidence. I reassured the young woman that her English was fine, and her career prospects were good. I didn’t say anything magical, but my daughter found it the most poignant moment of the weekend.
For the first time, my family experienced tail-gating in The Grove, which on this weekend was packed with crushed-orange-colored Texas fans swimming upstream against an army of Rebel red. The biggest and best tail-gating in the country. Thankfully, that hadn’t changed one bit.
Football wasn’t the main reason for my homecoming – or my family’s inaugural visit. Last year Mary and I established the first-ever scholarship for students enrolled in the Integrated Marketing Communications (IMC) program at the Meek School. Dr. Will Norton, Dean of the School, was an important mentor of mine during my days at Ole Miss in print journalism. And he’s still one today. So were others, such as Dr. Samir Husni (“Mr. Magazine” to the world.) They played a key role in our decision to support the school and the IMC program.
For the last 17 years I’ve worked at Abbott, the Fortune 100 healthcare giant that’s headquartered north of Chicago. Today I’m the head of Investor Relations and Public Affairs. I never imagined how Ole Miss would prepare me for my career. Each day my work requires the skills that I learned in Farley Hall, and encompasses everything that’s being taught at the Meek School. For that, I’m forever grateful.
Communications has changed dramatically since I was journalism student. Information is disseminated with lightning speed, in an informal and highly fractured way. It’s a strange new blend of citizen journalism with too-often sensationalized traditional media. It’s noisy – and hard to compete for attention – whether you work in newspapers, magazines, social media or for a multinational such as Abbott seeking to enhance its corporate reputation, brand identity and market valuation. It’s all happening so fast – and that makes it both exhilarating and, at times, challenging.
Our Ole Miss students need every advantage. IMC provides that competitive advantage – and Ole Miss is leading the way. Don’t get me wrong: There’s still tremendous value in the core principles of print journalism. Never forget the Inverted Pyramid! Always have three sources. And so on. It’s a disciplined approach to writing and critical thinking that becomes a life-long skill. Ole Miss teaches both – and that’s great news for our students.
On my family’s final day in Oxford, we made one final stop before heading back to Chicago. Just as I did with my father 30 years earlier, we visited Rowan Oak, and walked the hallowed grounds where Faulkner penned his masterpieces. The house was closed, but I hoisted each of my kids, one at a time, up to the side window. Inside they could see the scratch notes that Faulkner wrote on the wall, some decades earlier. In my head, I could hear his southern accent.
“That’s really cool,” said my 13-year-old daughter. The trip was now complete. My family was suitably impressed. It was good to be home again.
B.A. Journalism ‘85
South Toward Home
By John Thomas