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Mitchell: Jack Reed Sr.’s Focus Was What’s Best for Everyone

The late January death of Jack Raymond Reed Sr. in his beloved Tupelo passed with too little notice statewide.

Reed was 91 and had been out of the spotlight for a while, which was fine with him. But he did have an impact and it will long be evident. Among his greatest accomplishments, though, stems from his ability to, well, look down the road.

Let me explain.

During an era when most, if not all, Mississippi cities had a big, downtown family-owned department store — centerpieces of local commerce and conversation — the Reeds operated R.W. Reed Co. in Tupelo. After college and military service, Jack Reed Sr. signed on to represent his generation in the retail enterprise.

That could have been that, but it wasn’t.

Reed knew that if the community prospered, the store prospered — so he stepped out from behind the cash register, worked diligently beyond the racks of shirts and skirts. His politics were conservative. He was a businessman. He was a Republican. He even ran for governor in 1987.

But here’s where it gets interesting: Reed’s closest friend and perhaps his strongest ally in politics was William Winter, who did serve as governor from 1980 to 1984. Winter was a lawyer, a “career politician” (at least until he left office) and not only a Democrat, but a suspiciously progressive Democrat.

Winter believed the road to prosperity started at the schoolhouse door.

So did Jack Reed, and, to the surprise of some, when Winter created a task force to engage in a top-down and bottom-up study of and recommendations for public education, Reed was one of Winter’s appointees. After his fellow members elected him chairman, Reed became the face of education reform in Mississippi.

Andrew Mullins Jr., a special assistant to Winter who served as liaison to the committee, wrote “Building Consensus” to detail the landscape leading to the Education Reform Act of 1982. In his book, Mullins writes, “Several Committee members felt the choice of Jack Reed as chairman was key to producing a strong report. His leadership style was forceful but not confrontational, and his sense of humor helped ameliorate differences between the legislators.”

The topic of public education in Mississippi was no less fractious 35 years ago. “White flight” was a clear and present danger and many legislators weren’t so sure it was a bad thing. There was no kindergarten, no compulsory attendance law, no focused effort to recruit and retain top teachers and almost no standards of any type.

In a story often recalled with satisfaction, enough interest was kindled to beat the odds and enact major changes, including a first-ever state lay board of education. No one, including Gov. Winter, was 100 percent satisfied with the outcome, but there was an outcome. Reed’s leadership and his demeanor were key to the group’s suggestions continually moving forward, as opposed to merely winding up on a dusty shelf as many task force reports do.

Back then and perhaps even more today we, the citizens, are witness to “leaders” who refuse to see beyond the next poll, party label, the next election. Their fingers are forever in the wind to see which way it’s blowing at the moment.

This short-term narrow-mindedness is most prominent at the national level, where attacking and discrediting the opposition is how winning is measured.

Reed’s life has been a reminder that (1) there is a big picture, and (2) some see it. He engaged in give and take with his mind fixated on the common good.

In 2001, before Mississippians voted in a non-binding referendum on whether a new state flag should be designed, Reed wrote a letter to the editor of his hometown paper, the Northeast Mississippi Daily Journal. In it, he said, “To me, a fifth generation Mississippian with four children and eight grandchildren all living in Mississippi, this is not primarily ‘Black vs. White’ or ‘Good Guys vs. Bad Guys,’ as there are some of each on both sides. I view this as the past vs. the future, and what Mississippi becomes in the 21st Century.”

Did Reed Department Store lose some customers? Probably, but to Jack Reed long-term community gain was more important, perhaps even more profitable, than sales figures for a day or a month.
In its editorial after Reed died, the Journal wrote, “Private citizens with exceptional gifts for engaging in public issues walk among us too rarely, but that rarity makes a life of service to the whole community as Jack Reed Sr. lived it even more remarkable.”

Yes, and amen.


Charlie Mitchell is a Mississippi journalist. Write to him at cmitchell43@yahoo.com.

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