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Alumni Update: Karen Crenshaw Swenson (’78)

Karen Crenshaw Swenson Courtesy Meek School of Journalism & New Media
Karen Crenshaw Swenson Courtesy Meek School of Journalism & New Media

After being away from Ole Miss for almost 40 years, I returned last month to visit my alma mater and the journalism program that was so dear to me from 1974 through 1978. As I was walking around campus, I was continually reminded of a poem written about an Atlanta suburb that says, “Some of the past is gone. Some of the past remains.”

My returning to the university and embracing what the school stands for had been a gradual process. In 2002 I tuned in to a weeklong broadcast on NPR detailing changes that had taken place since James Meredith was admitted.

For my visit to Ole Miss, I intentionally parked across the street from what was previously the tiny, white, one-story Brady Hall that housed the journalism department; this is where I had a part-time $2.80-an-hour reporter job a few hours each week at The Daily Mississippian. My mentor and former adviser, Dr. Will Norton, now the first dean of the Meek School of Journalism and New Media, took me on a brief tour of the campus.

More than the many beautiful new buildings and landscaping, I was surprised by the diversity and larger crowds of students who passed by me as we walked from the Journalism School to the spacious, modern S. Gale Denley Student Media Center, named for one of my professors. We stopped at the James Meredith statue, walked through the Paris-Yates Chapel and Johnson Commons, visited the Student Union Starbucks and went back to the Journalism School. I later learned that the Center for Inclusion and Cross Cultural Engagement would move into the renovated Student Union.

I had wondered for years, deep within me, how much had really changed at Ole Miss. I have looked at the university website weekly for the last eight years. I was thrilled a few years ago to see that an African-American woman had been elected ASB president, the same year that two black women had been chosen Homecoming Queen and Miss University. “Could it really be that different?” I had asked myself.

I was told by those with first-hand experiences with minority students at Ole Miss that there are still some cruelties communicated to them through social media, more so than verbal insults of yesteryear. Two persons I visited said that what had happened at Missouri could have happened at Ole Miss. I knew that in the last 10 years there had been several forums at the university with open and ongoing communication among persons of all backgrounds and cultures. These were led by forward-thinking students, professors and administrators — definitely a step in the right direction.

I also visited the Burns-Belfry Museum and Multicultural Center in Oxford. The two tour guides told me that, for them, Oxford was “worth coming home to.” They had returned from New York and Washington, DC, to a place they now call “a gem of a city in the state of Mississippi.”

In the last three months I have read Robert Khayat’s book The Education of a Lifetime and Ronald Farrar’s Powerhouse: The Story of the Meek School at Ole Miss. In 1974 and 1975, I had ridden to the Society of Professional Journalists meetings in Jackson with Dr. Farrar, my former news reporting professor, and Dr. Ed Meek. This is how I knew them best — through humorous and interesting stories I overheard as I dozed alone in the back seat of the car.

Many Ole Miss professors and former students have published books and written for noteworthy newspapers. I have read the book The Hit by Dr. Jere Hoar. During our visit to Oxford, my sister and I looked at Ed Meek’s book Riot: Witness to Anger and Change with Larry Wells, the book’s co-editor, and publisher of Yoknapatawpha Press. I have read the writings of former Daily Mississippian staff writers Fred Anklam and Dennis Moore, previously at USA Today; Stephanie Saul and Greg Brock, formerly at the New York Times; Mac DeMere, formerly automobile reviewer at Car and Driver; as well as Susan Puckett, formerly food editor at The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. My pride in the then-journalism department and today’s journalism school students and professors abounds.

While driving from Atlanta to Oxford, I was listening to John Grisham’s Gray Mountain, a book about strip mining in Virginia, Kentucky and West Virginia. This book reminded me of the story in the annually student-published Ole Miss Magazine in 1978 about strip mining in Mississippi. And I remembered the article that I wrote about the then-newly built Lamar Law Center in that same publication; now the Robert Khayat Law School is open. I experienced another change with my ADPi sorority sisters — with several minority members — during our visit to their new house.

I had attended public and independent high schools in the early 1970s when desegregation took place throughout the South. Through Dr. Andy Mullins (my former history teacher at St. Andrew’s Episcopal School in Jackson and former Chief of Staff to Chancellors Robert Khayat and Dan Jones), I learned about the William Winter Institute for Racial Reconciliation.

As a child in Jackson, Mississippi, during the 1960s, I would watch television each night and read The Clarion Ledger each day, establishing the roots of my love of journalism and writing. Occasionally, having viewed (on television) the police and dogs attacking the black people who were being forcefully hosed away from restaurants and shops, I would wake up in the middle of the night terrified that “those mean white people” might come get me because I, a white girl, empathized with what the black people were experiencing. Deep down, I truly admired them.

Fortunately, my childhood bad dreams of race riots stopped, about 37 years ago, near the time when the first African-American man, “Gentle Ben” Williams, was elected then-Colonel Rebel. This was the same time period I attended journalism school with Rose Jackson Flenorl.

As a former journalist, then hospital public relations manager and, now, librarian for the last 25 years, I have used the skills I learned at the Department of Journalism every day and in every avenue of my life. I am pleased with the changes and growth at Ole Miss. I also am proud of the minority students’ continued courage and perseverance, and I am deeply grateful for the opportunities and knowledge I’ve gained through it all.

Courtesy Meek School of Journalism & New Media

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