University Police Chief Calvin Sellers will retire May 31, closing the books on a more-than-30-year career in law enforcement that included leading efforts here to become the safest school in the Southeastern Conference and one of the safest in the country.
Sellers, 62, of Oxford, plans to spend more time reading, golfing and skeet shooting. He wants to ride his Harley Davidson up the Pacific Coast. He’s also engaged to be married to Mary Watts, a local nurse. Though he has many plans for retirement, leaving UM won’t be easy, he said.
“You know, it’s not a place you can just walk away from,” Sellers said. “That’s going to be the hardest part, I think. Coming to work every day is not hard. Not coming to work every day is not going to be the problem, but not being involved in something that you care so much about – the department and the university. That’s going to be difficult.”
He prides himself on building a diverse department of officers, who play a large role in crime prevention through educating students about safety. He also leads efforts to keep campus safe during many high-profile events such as the 2008 presidential debate, concerts and many big-time sporting events. Being at those events also allowed him to meet many famous musicians, writers and athletes during his 25 years as an Ole Miss officer.
Sellers answered some questions for Inside Ole Miss about his time here. Here’s a portion of that interview:
OM: How did you get your start in law enforcement?
Sellers: I started in Water Valley, Mississippi. I knew some of the people there. I knew some of the firemen there, knew a good many of the policemen. They had a job opening, and back in those days – that would have been 1984 – it wasn’t that hard if you knew the chief or you knew the mayor. Now, you just – you almost have to have some sort of experience to ever get in a field of work. Then, I started to work for Water Valley. They sent me to the police academy, and I had some friends who worked here. I hadn’t finished college and I wanted to. And it was just one of those things I didn’t think I could do. I probably couldn’t have done it financially. It was difficult.
So I came here a couple years after, in 1986. I wanted to come here and I wanted to finish school. So it’s 1986, and in 1998, I got that degree. It was very difficult working. I worked nights and we’d work from 11 p.m. until 7 in the morning. Sometimes you just didn’t feel like staying and going to a class. It got to a point that I just (thought), “I can’t do this anymore.” You didn’t get but one class or two classes a semester, so it took a long time. I quit there for a while. I got moved off of nights onto the afternoon shift and it made it a lot easier to go to class, so I got back into it. Mike Stewart was a chief here at that time, and Chief Stewart would push you to get that degree. He pushed me and I kept going. I finally got it and I’m proud of it. If you have to take that many steps to get it, it’s a little more special, right?
OM: Was there a moment in time when you decided that working in public safety on college campus was the job for you? Talk about that.
Sellers: I really can’t say that when I started here, that was a goal. I started here with the ambition to get my degree. But, then after I got here and started working on a college campus, and worked with the students, I realized this was my place. This is where I needed to be. I enjoyed – I still enjoy – interacting with the students. They keep you young. I mean, I don’t look young, but they make your ideas younger. The ideas on a campus are different, you know. I worked at Ole Miss from 1986 till I got my degree in 1998. Then, a couple years after that, I went to Mississippi University for Women. I had worked my way up to captain here and MUW had an opening for a chief. I applied and was fortunate enough to get hired and I went to “the W.” I stayed at “the W” for eight years. Ole Miss had an opening for a chief and I applied and was fortunate to get to come home. I’ve been here since 2008. So altogether, from Water Valley, then Ole Miss, to “the W” and back to Ole Miss, I’ve got 30 years, you know, doing this job, and 28 of those have been on a college campus.
OM: We’ve had some pretty high-profile incidents on campus while you were here. Would you care to mention some of those and talk about your approach as chief during those times when we’ve come into a national media spotlight?
Sellers: The (2008 presidential debate) was big, but racial incidents, the one with the Meredith statue, probably got me interviewed by more people and more different agencies. It’s just something about Ole Miss and a racial issue that makes CNN. You know. It’s just automatic. I was interviewed by folks from The New York Times and the LA Times and I even got a call from someone in London, you know? My approach is I don’t try to hide anything. I try to be, as the word nowadays is, “transparent.” But my word for it is “honest.” I try to be as honest as I can. Now, there may be things that I’m told or things that I know that I can’t tell you. You know, I can’t tell you we’re looking at Joe Blow. We think he did it. You know, I can’t say that, but I can tell you we’ve got somebody we think did it. I just try to be honest. I’ve always been that way about dealing with the media. Whether it’s the school newspaper or The New York Times, I just try to be honest. I hope I have been. I feel like I always have.
When we’ve had these incidents, being a police chief is kind of like being a member of the media. You try to stay separate from that and not let your feelings about it get caught up in the situation when something terrible has happened here.
OM: What do you feel might be some of your greatest professional accomplishments as UPD chief – the things you’ll look back on and take great pride in?
Sellers: I take pride in Ole Miss hosting the 2008 presidential debate and that going off (without incident). There was so much planning that went into that and us working with all the different agencies. It was a successful event and I think that our department had a lot to do with that being a success.
We’ve also become an accredited police department, and that’s not easy to get. It’s not something where you fill out an application and they do it, you know? Your department is audited by independent people who come from all over the country. They see you’re filing standard practices and protocols in law enforcement. We’re one of the small percent. I think Mississippi State’s also accredited and since that time, maybe Southern Miss. I’m proud of that. That that was an accomplishment, for not me particularly, but for the department, because everybody here worked on that. You just had to have somebody that just kept pushing. That’s where you get to be the leader of the department. … You have to push folks to their potential, you know, and I think we’ve done that.
I think we’re very diverse. That’s a point of emphasis. I think that’s important. I think that our department probably has more African-Americans in leadership positions than any department around. We have more females in leadership positions on this floor. There’s a chief and assistant chief. The captain in charge of our investigations, and then there’s two more captains. Out of all those folks – we’ve got three captains – two of them are females. And one of those is an African-American female. My other captain is a black male. That’s important to us. We have more women working on patrol out on the street than any other department in our area. It’s so easy to let that just float away, and the next thing you know, you look around and all your African-Americans are gone or you don’t have any females working anymore. We try to keep that balance, you know, but it’s difficult. I’m proud of the fact that we are a diverse department and we are represented by males and females, black, white and Latino.
OM: What about something that still haunts you. Were there situations you were involved in here, things you responded to, that stick with you?
Sellers: Early in my career, I may have been the patrol officer on midnight shift. I got called out by the city. They asked me to come help because a student had committed suicide, shot himself in the head. His dad was a federal judge, or a judge of some type. I won’t ever forget that one.
OM: Was that on campus?
Sellers: No. It happened in apartment complex, but off of campus.
I went to one (crime scene) one time of a girl who had gotten raped and beat up so bad you couldn’t recognize her face as a face. I never have forgot that one because I arrested that guy. I was on foot patrol at that time. I was probably just an officer, not a supervisor. There was a kid that I had stopped here. He was riding around on a dirt bike out there in the middle of the night, a loud, little motorcycle. I went up and stopped him. The back tire was flat and he had run it completely off the rim. He was all dressed up, or had on a white shirt, but it had blood on it. I said, “Have you been in a fight?” He said, “I don’t know what happened.” I said, “You need to go up to your room. You need to go park that motorcycle and go to your room.” And I said, “What room do you live in? I’m going to come by and check on you.” I wasn’t, but you know. I said, “What’s your name?” And he told me his name and he went on up to his room.
Then I got a call to go to the hospital, because that girl was down there that’d been raped and she was all beat up. Man I’m telling you. Really, you could not look at her and say that was a face of a human. And she couldn’t talk, but she could just whisper a little bit. And I talked to her, and talked to her and talked to her. And I finally asked her, did she know who did this to her and she told me. It was the name I had written down just a few minutes ago. The boy was out riding a motorcycle after he had beat the hell out of this girl. I just never forgot that.
OM: When was that?
Sellers: Oh that would have been ’87 or ’88. Not long after I started here.
OM: Other memories?
Sellers: There’s been a lot of stuff over the years though. We make contact with a lot of famous, very important people. I guess one of the biggest memories for me is B.B. King. He did a concert. They put a fence around a parking lot and they also had Bobby Blue Bland and all these others. Good concert. A lot of people came. At the end of the night, B.B. King sat in a folding chair at the door of his bus and he signed autographs until there was nobody left who wanted an autograph. I stood there just to make sure that nobody acted stupid. He got through and he looked at me and said, “Is there anybody else, officer?” And I said, “No sir, I think you’ve satisfied everybody.” He said, “Well I’m going to get on the bus, won’t you come in?” I said, “Yes sir.” So I went in B.B. King’s bus and sat there and talked to him for probably 30 to 45 minutes. I’m a blues fan. And B.B. King was playing some music in his bus and he could tell I was listening to it and he said, “That’s just an old blues man right there.” I said, “Yes sir, I know who that is. That’s Lightnin’ Hopkins.” He said, “How did you know that?” I mean I got to sit and have a conversation with B.B. King. You know you can’t replace that. That’s definitely one of those perks that you don’t realize that you’re going to have sometimes.
Charlie Daniels came. He was playing out in the Grove, and his manager came and said, “Charlie Daniels won’t admit it, but he can’t see very good. Would some of y’all come over here and have a flashlight and make sure he gets on the stage without falling?” So I did. And he got off his bus and it wasn’t like B.B. King where I went in and sat down. We had a 30-minute conversation. I just told him that when I was a younger man, the Charlie Daniels Band played a concert with the Rolling Stones in the Liberty Bowl in Memphis, and I went to it. And I told him, I said, “Do you remember that?” He said, “I sure do.” He said, “We didn’t play with the Rolling Stones much, so I do remember the day.” I said, “It was a July 4th.” He said, “Yep, they played that afternoon. Got on a plane and flew – and played Willie Nelson’s 4th of July show.”
As far as famous musicians, we’ve had a lot of them here, and athletes. I remember when Shaquille O’Neil came to our gym as a freshman. I thought that was the biggest man I’d ever seen in my life. And then he went on from there to gain about 50 pounds.
We saw a bunch of them. A bunch of famous musicians. We don’t get the big name musicians anymore.
We had the Allman brothers. These are people from my generation. Dickey Betts (the Allman Brothers’ guitarist) and I stood at the side of the stage and watched a crowd before they went on. I got to talk to him. We tried to swap hats, but his cowboy hat was too little for my head.
The one thing I wished I’d have done is taken more pictures with some of these folks. Back in those days you had to have a camera. Now, everybody’s got a cell phone, you know, and, you’ve got a camera with you at all times.
We’ve also had dignitaries here. We’ve had kings and princesses, princes and, of course, governors from all the states. We’ve had the Texas governor here in the last two (football seasons). We get the Louisiana governor.
We have famous writers. John Grisham. Stephen King was here for a writer’s symposium one time. I knew Barry Hannah very well. Barry was a night person, you know, he slept all day, I guess, and was out all night.
There were presidential candidates. I met President Barack Obama (when he was a candidate in 2008). I didn’t meet (2008 presidential candidate) John McCain. I had met Obama when I was at MUW, actually.
As far as big name bands, we used to have – we used to get these bands right on the edge when they were just about to get big.
We had the Smashing Pumpkins. I never heard of those folks, you know. I remember them. We had R.E.M. here and I’d certainly never heard of them. They went on to do wonderful things in music. Widespread Panic, we had them once, and Better than Ezra. If I start naming them all, I’ll miss some.
We also had country acts like Hank Williams Jr. and Randy Travis and Alan Jackson.
We had Lenny Kravitz. That was a good show. If you enjoy music like I do, and I enjoy a lot of different types of music and I enjoyed getting to work that concert and be backstage with some of these folks. Lenny Kravitz had a female drummer. I got to talk to her.
You work with these musicians’ crews that come out, you know, they have somebody in charge of their security. And one of the things you realize real quick is you can’t judge anybody by what they look like. You know, they may have hair down to their waist and got tattoos on every part of the body you could see, but when you sit down with him and start talking about the job, he’s a professional. He knows what he’s doing.
OM: What would you like to say about the staff that you have here?
Sellers: I’ve got some of the best people. If I have had any success at all here, it’s due to them. We’ve had success in the last few years. We were ranked the safest university in Southeastern Conference. We were ranked the safest university in the state of Mississippi. We were ranked two years in the top 10 safest universities in the country. That’s not a personal accomplishment. That’s the department’s accomplishment and that’s because I have a group so dedicated to our purpose, which is to have a safe campus.
We write goals every year. My number one goal every year, which we don’t need to write anymore, is we will be the safest campus we can be. I don’t need another goal. And that doesn’t need to change. If I accomplish that this year, than I need to accomplish it next year. You don’t reach a pinnacle and say, “You know, we’re a safe campus. We can quit.”
We interviewed two job candidates this morning. It’s not a requirement to be an officer here that you have a college degree, but we have more officers here with college degrees than any department we know of. I think that speaks a lot about our folks. A lot of them get that degree while they’re working here, just like I did. And that speaks a lot to a person that they’re just willing to keep going. You know, it’s easy to quit. It’s easy to quit. When you’ve got a job and a family and full-time responsibilities, going to school can get to be something that you just think you’re going to let go. But we have people that keep at it, while they’re working, getting that one class a semester or two classes a semester, until they get that degree. And that just speaks volumes for me about their dedication. I mean I’m not taking anything away from somebody who gets to come to school and has scholarships and financing. They can go to school for four straight years and get their degree. But that guy, or that lady, that had to work all night and then go to class that morning, that’s kind of a special person. I’ve got a lot of those working here.
OM: This may be hard to narrow down, but I want to know your favorite experience at Ole Miss. Is there something that stands out to you?
Sellers: As far as accomplishments, I was proud that we got the presidential debate, but I don’t think I can narrow it down to one. I mean I’ve been so proud of the accomplishments of the university. I am proud of that (debate), but I don’t think that stands out as much to me as some of the accomplishments of the university that maybe the public doesn’t pay much attention to. You know, our university does some great things. From the medical down to we put such an emphasis here on acceptance, and I think we’re all learning. That never stops. You know, we continue to learn how to get along with people who are not like you, and we have to make an effort. Our university makes an effort. … And this is my opinion, and I could be wrong, but I think we do more for race relations at Ole Miss than any other university in the United States. We don’t get credit for it, but we do.
OM: Moving on from the professional side of your time here, what does Calvin Sellers do when he’s not working? What are your hobbies, your interests?
Sellers: I shoot shotguns. I shoot trap and skeet. I ride a Harley Davidson motorcycle. I play a little golf, not a lot. I’m not very good, but I play. This job consumes so much of my time. From the time we start in the fall, when we start in August, I don’t get a weekend until Christmas. Every weekend we have something going on with football and when football’s not here, there’s always something else going on. I used to deer hunt, but you don’t have time.
OM: What’s your timeline for stepping down?
Sellers: May 31.
OM: Do you know anything about who will be your replacement? Has that been determined yet?
Sellers: No. I’m not sure they’ve even posted that job yet.
OM: Do you have any parting words or parting wisdom – anything else you’d like to say about your time here at Ole Miss?
Sellers: I loved it. It’s kind of crazy, I guess. I think I’ve got the best job in the state of Mississippi in my field. I do. There’s not another chief of police job anywhere in the state that I’d want, but I’m going to walk away from it.
OM: It’s probably not easy to leave, right?
Sellers: No it’s not. I think it’s time. I’ve got 32 years in, and I’m 62 years old. And I’m still basically healthy. I don’t look like it, but I want to have a few years where I can, you know, enjoy doing some things while I’ve still got the health to do it. I want to ride my motorcycle to California. I want to ride up that Pacific Coast Highway. You know, those are things that are going to take three or four weeks to do. And I want to do that while I’ve still got the health to do it. There’s also a few places I want to go.
I like to read and I like to listen to music. I’ve got a lot of books that I bought over the years that I never have read. So I could spend a long time just reading books that I bought. I’m the world’s worst. Don’t take me to a book store. I buy them and I never read them.
… There’s been a lot of changes over the years. The people you come in contact with come and go – the different chancellors and vice chancellors and university attorneys that have come through. You build these working relationships with these folks. You don’t ever forget them. And it’s been good. I hope the next guy that comes has as much fun and has as much success as I’ve had. If I’ve had success though, it’s not a credit to me, it’s to the people who work here. They’re good people.
Courtesy UM Communications