Jan Robertson, 73, of Oxford, a former news director and adjunct professor of journalism at the University of Mississippi, died Sunday, Nov. 16, 2014, at a hospice house in Collierville, Tennessee.
Waller Funeral Home of Oxford is in charge of arrangements, which include visitation from noon to 2 p.m. today at St. Andrew’s United Methodist Church, followed immediately by a memorial service at the church.
In the few days since her death, Robertson’s Ole Miss and Oxford friends and former colleagues, teachers and classmates have been reflecting on her contributions to their lives, school and community, and sharing their memories with HottyToddy.com and each other via Facebook.
Among them is the dot-com’s chief executive officer and UM’s assistant vice chancellor emeritus for public relations and marketing, Ed Meek (BSJ ’61, MA ’63), who worked with Robertson (BA ’63, MEd ’89) for more than a decade.
“Jan was an extraordinary woman who possessed great journalistic skills, compassion and commitment,” Meek said. “She had no equal. She was remarkable, devoted to Ole Miss, Oxford, her family and the journalism profession.”
Another is UM Chancellor Emeritus Robert C. Khayat (BAED ’61, JD ’66).
“During the years I worked with Jan she was the ultimate professional,” Khayat said. “Always positive and smiling and full of energy, she influenced many areas of campus and community life. I do not recall her ever being unhappy or reluctant to help with virtually any worthy initiative. I did not work with her on a daily basis, but I was fully aware of her courage, intellect and commitment to ethical behavior.”
Yet another is former Mississippi Gov. William Winter (BA ’43, LLB ’49) of Jackson, who said, “Jan Robertson will be remembered as a sensitive and discerning writer and an always honest reporter. She served the University of Mississippi as its public voice with integrity and distinction. I counted her as one of my most admired and loyal friends.”
A Clarksdale native, Robertson (born Lillian Janette Humber) attended Stephens College in Columbia, Missouri, before enrolling at Ole Miss in 1961. While managing editor of The Daily Mississippian, the university’s student newspaper, she helped cover events surrounding James Meredith’s admission in fall 1962.
“Jan was my managing editor the first semester of our senior year,” said Sidna Brower Mitchell (BA’63), the paper’s 1962-63 editor. “What a trooper! Especially the night of the riot.”
Robertson and Mitchell both earned Pulitzer Prize nominations for the paper’s coverage of that tumultuous event and others.
“Jan is preserved in a clip from the famous documentary ‘Eyes on the Prize,’ in which she describes the riotous evening on campus,” said Curtis Wilkie (BA ’63), associate professor and Cook Chair of Journalism in UM’s Meek School of Journalism and New Media and an Overby Fellow in UM’s Overby Center for Southern Journalism and Politics.
Wilkie, who served as a national and foreign correspondent for the Boston Globe and was once chief of its Washington Bureau, said that he got his first job in journalism “because of Jan.”
“After graduating at mid-term without any offer from anyone, I learned from Jan of an opening at the Clarksdale Press Register, her hometown paper,” he said. “I drove over to the Delta and got hired. Later, Jan joined the Press Register staff herself, and was a talented journalist, a good clear writer and a thoughtful reporter.”
Jere R. Hoar (MA ’54), professor emeritus of journalism, had similar thoughts.
“She was such a good writer,” Hoar told Oxford Eagle reporter Alyssa Schnugg Monday, after learning of Robertson’s death. “She was a standout. She just had a good eye for stories and sold several to The Commercial Appeal.”
After graduating from Ole Miss and while living in Greenville, Miss., with her family for several years, Robertson distinguished herself as state editor of the Delta Democrat Times and later, as the hostess of “Romper Room” on the local TV station, becoming known and loved by preschoolers across the Delta as “Miss Jan.”
In 1979, the family moved to Oxford, and Robertson went to work in her alma mater’s media and public relations office. In the early ’80s, she wrote news and feature stories for Ole Miss, edited its weekly faculty/staff newsletter and alumni magazine, and wrote brochure and other copy for UM’s first capital campaigns for academics (The Campaign for Ole Miss) and athletics (The Drive for Athletics).
“Back in those days, all of us wrote copy for Jan’s publications, as well as the university’s news program,” said Barbara Lago (BA ’82), a former UM media and public relations director. “She had a real knack for editing our copy and making it ‘sing.’ She was one of the finest wordsmiths I ever saw during my nearly 30 years in University Communications.”
After becoming director of university news, Robertson was responsible for disseminating UM news releases to the state’s newspaper reporters and editors, as well as its radio and TV reporters and news directors.
“Her relationships with those people were amazing,” Lago said. “She knew all of them on a first-name basis, and she had so much credibility with them that she was able to secure an infinite number of column inches and broadcast minutes for Ole Miss. She helped build the university’s media relations program into one the finest in the state and the region, and she set the bar high for those of us who followed in her footsteps at Ole Miss.”
Tina Hahn, director of communications for University Development, once worked under Robertson in UM’s PR department.
“We were all so blessed to have shared the journey with Jan,” Hahn said. “Several times a week in my work, I draw on knowledge and expertise that Jan shared with me. She knew how to mentor people and how to support her co-workers, particularly working moms.
“Among things I will always remember about Jan are her exuberant laugh and her love of people and life. The Public Relations gang, as she called us, visited her 11 days ago. It is a visit I will always treasure. Jan was upbeat but did reflect some on her legacy. Even though we tried to define that legacy during the visit, Jan will never know how far and how deep her positive influence reached. Thank you, Jan, for being our friend.”
During UM’s Drive for Athletics, Oxford voters passed a 2 percent food and beverage tax and 2 percent hotel/motel tax to pay for a new baseball stadium on Old Taylor Road.
“Chancellor Gerald Turner called me and told me to organize a campaign to get information about the tax to voters,” Meek said. “I didn’t have a clue how to do this, but Jan said she did and she would handle it. She knew how to determine who actually voted and went to door-to-door campaigning to get those voters to support the tax. She had proponents placing signs in their yards and asking others to do the same.
“The tax passed by a great margin. When we look at the wonderful things the tourism tax is now doing for our community, we can thank Jan for her tireless efforts to make this happen.”
Revenue from the tax, which was nearly $2.4 million in 2012-13, has supported numerous events and activities, including the city’s annual Double Decker Arts Festival, said Oxford mayor Pat Patterson.
The tax also funds Visit Oxford, the city’s marketing arm, which promotes Oxford as a tourist destination and provides grants to organizations that bring hundreds of people to Ole Miss and Oxford for their events.
A diehard Democrat, Robertson first served as a local campaign coordinator for Jimmy Carter and a delegate to the 1976 democratic convention during his bid for the presidency. Over the next 40 years, she served on the campaigns of dozens of Democratic candidates at local, state and national levels. She was a campaign manager for Robert Clark, the first African-American nominee for Congress since Reconstruction, and was in Washington, D.C., to see Barack Obama sworn in as president.
“From the time I first knew Jan, as a journalism student at Ole Miss more than 50 years ago, it was easy to recognize that she was smart, friendly and committed to all sorts of good causes that she pursued for the rest of her life,” said Wilkie, who covered seven presidential campaigns for the Boston Globe. “She went on to be involved in progressive politics in Mississippi; as a result, she was usually on the losing side, but proud of her work.”
Robertson was always on the winning side, though, when working to help others through venerable nonprofits in Oxford, Lafayette County and North Mississippi. She was honored with the Woman of Distinction Award by the Girl Scouts of America and named to the “Book of Golden Deeds for Community Service” by the Oxford Exchange Club, which she served as president.
“Jan Robertson’s lifetime achievements have benefitted not only the Oxford-Lafayette County community but all the communities where she has lived,” said her fellow Exchange Club member Margaret King. “‘Community Service’ should be her middle name. Because of her dedication to helping those in need, a facility for developmentally disabled adults is named in Robertson’s honor in the Mississippi Delta.”
Robertson served as president of the local chapter of Habitat for Humanity, which she helped organize, and the American Red Cross. She also provided leadership on the board of directors of the Boys & Girls Clubs of North Mississippi and helped found its Barksdale Clubhouse in Oxford.
“Jan was the kind of board member that every nonprofit cherishes because she attended board meetings, helped with fundraising efforts and was a strong advocate,” said Zell Long, chief professional officer of the Boys & Girls Clubs of North Mississippi. “We will miss her terribly.”
For her work local club’s board as well as the one overseeing all clubs in North Mississippi, Robertson received Boys & Girl Club of Mississippi’s statewide Board Member of the Year award earlier this year.
“Jan was a bundle of positive energy,” said Will Norton Jr., dean of UM’s Meek School of Journalism and New Media. “No matter what difficulties she faced, she approached the challenges with a positive, energetic ‘can-do’ mindset. I will never know all the good things she did for her neighbors, her community and the media professions, but I do know that she was a significant force in Oxford and Ole Miss.”
Many of Robertson’s admirers have been sharing their memories and thoughts about her on their Facebook pages and those of their Facebook friends. Among them is Merrill King Nordstrom (BA ’97, JD ’02), an Oxford attorney, who said, “If there was a hall of fame for those who worked to make this world a better place she would be in it. She was a champion for the poor and helpless. She has left a mark in this world and especially Lafayette County. Thank you, Jan Robertson, for your love and service.”
Writer Angela Moore Atkins of Oxford said, “When Ace and I moved to Oxford, literally the first person to befriend us, invite us into her home, give us loving advice, and basically help take care of us was the great Jan Robertson. She was one of the smartest, warmest, bravest people I have ever met. The whole state will miss her.”
Pamela Crowder, who sang with Robertson in the choir at St. Andrew’s United Methodist Church and was a fellow Love Circle member, said, “I was saddened to hear of Jan Robertson’s passing. She was so generous with her time and energy in the Oxford community. I will always remember her as a positive person and as having a bubbly, outgoing spirit. Looking forward to seeing her again in heaven!”
One of the most poignant messages appeared on Robertson’s Facebook page after she died and was posted by her daughter-in-law and the mother of one her grandchildren, who call Robertson “Nanny-sippi.”
“The world is a little quieter tonight with the loss of my mother-in-law, Jan Robertson,” wrote Jenny Dodson Robertson (BA ’98). “We were just talking about her fondness for all things loud and musical, which reminded me of this video of all the singing/dancing animals she gave Tate for Christmas when he was 2. This noisy collection has grown exponentially each year, thanks to ‘Nanny-sippi,’ and highlights perfectly the kind of person she was: boisterous, child-like in her wonder, and welcoming to all who wanted to join her ‘choir.’ I would say ‘rest in peace’ Nanny-sippi, but I think she would prefer something less peaceful.”
Robertson’s niece, Elizabeth Bridgforth Parish of Durham, N.C., would probably agree.
“Jan was such a wonderfully warm and loving person, so full of life and love,” Parish wrote of her aunt. “Boisterous, some would say downright kooky, but that was part of her charm, and I loved that about her.”
Robertson’s loud and whooping laugh, colorful personality and infectious enthusiasm for anything and everything the world offers is best captured in the obituary her children prepared about her. It is a must-read for all her loyal friends.
Roberton is survived by her sons: Rob Robertson (Jenny) of Memphis, Lamar Robertson (Lauren) of Silver Spring, Maryland and Chris Robertson (Sarah) of Fairfax, California; five grandchildren: Caroline, Beck, Tate, Cecilia and Lily Jane; her sister Mary Margaret Polles (Sammy) of Ridgeland; brother James Humber of Clarksdale and several nieces and nephews.
In lieu of flowers, the family requests donations be made to the Boys & Girls Club LOU Barksdale Clubhouse, 413 Washington Avenue, Oxford, MS 38655.
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