Photographs can be read like tea leaves, but often at one’s peril. Not everything is as it appears, especially in an image like this one, which turns up from time to time and carries an undeniable resonance.
Location: The Grove at Ole Miss, that remarkable and unique ten acres that have remained pretty much the same since the University’s founding in 1848 when landscape architects, Frederick Law Olmsted among them according to legend, did not so much lay out the Grove as simply leave it alone.
For those of us who came of age at Ole Miss in the 1960’s, the Grove was our front yard. Under the shade of its oaks, young scholars studied and frolicked, threw frisbees, groped and rushed one another. Touch football games were ubiquitous, as were any number of stray dogs. The random footpaths worn by the ritual of changing classes were left like so many Indian trails from an older time when the Chickasaw roamed these hills.
On football weekends people gathered there, like today but in a far more casual manner. This was long before so much in our society became organized and monetized. Look closely; there are no tents in this Grove. Lawn chairs, folding card tables and the occasional transistor radio broadcasting play by play accounts where the extent of technology’s reach into the Grove of the late 20th century. (I recall Susan and Barry Hannah’s daughter riding a horse bareback through the Grove one game day.)
From time to time a candelabra on white tablecloth with liveried service could be seen. This was generally credited to some Delta alumni or the other. And yes, those are cars, late-model automobiles parked willy-nilly in the Grove, as they would be until the early 1980s when several rainy weekends created a mud bath worthy of a Neshoba County tractor pull.
The people in the photograph on this day were typical Mississippians, but exceptional as well. It was October 6, 1979, Ole Miss versus Georgia. Georgia would win 24 to 21. This was the first time Willie Morris had visited the Ole Miss campus as an adult, or so I’ve been told.
Willie had come down from New York with the writer Adam Shaw as guests of Dean and Larry Wells. Adam, (son of Irwin Shaw whose stories The Girls in their Summer Dresses, The 80 Yard Run and The Young Lions I’m sure you’ll remember) is standing fourth from the left next to Larry and Dean Faulkner Wells, who first conjured up the idea of a Writer-in-Residence at Ole Miss and angled for Willie Morris to fill the position.
Oxford and Ole Miss had no greater booster than Ed “Shine Jr.” Morgan whose appliance store on the Square was a destination on away game Saturdays. All his Zenith and Philco televisions would be tuned to SEC football and there was inevitably a bottle or two in the back. (This sacred space is now the location Southside Gallery which shows first rate art, including mine.) Ed is second from the left standing by Senator Thad Cochran, who is resplendent in a blue blazer and gray slacks. The Senator sports a shock of white hair as full and long as any of ours. Thad was in the first year of his remarkable six terms in the United States Senate and his service to Mississippi continues to be invaluable. Tradition matters in Mississippi, as does seniority in the Senate.
Dean and Larry Wells: these were writers of exceptional vision, range, gifts and lineage. Larry’s Yoknapatawpha Press thrives, and his novel, Rommel and the Rebel imagines meetings of historical figures that are highly unlikely yet made real and riveting by his elevated prose. Dean was an inspired writer and memoirist. She was named for her father, William Faulkner’s younger brother, who died in an airplane crash before she was born. Dean is dressed all in black, as dark as were her eyes, a drink and cigarette in hand.
To the left of Dean is the late Carl Downing, an Ole Miss law graduate who practiced in New Orleans. He was a great friend, raconteur and a fine steward of Lorna Doone, one of the immense live oaks in private hands on the Mississippi Gulf Coast that has survived hurricanes and chainsaws for lo these many years.
Standing beside Carl is the always elegant Will Lewis, long time proprietor of Neilson’s Department Store situated on Oxford’s Square since 1839. He and wife Patty Povall would host Willie Morris’s 50th birthday party, some years in the future after Willie had come to Ole Miss and played a crucial role in the literary renaissance taking place around the University and Square Books, Lisa and Richard Howorth’s brilliant independent bookstore.
Seated in the lawn chairs from left to right are Willie Morris in a CBS Sports windbreaker he wore everywhere. (Willie has that beatific look of a man who can clearly see the next twenty years of his life unfold.) Next to him E. Grady Jolly, soon to be appointed to fill J. P. Coleman’s seat on the Fifth Circuit Court, and his gorgeous wife Bettye Jolly, who is smiling and laughing and appears to be living up to her married name.
There you have it; the cast of characters on this cool, crisp October day on the cusp of a significant period in Ole Miss’s storied history. If every picture tells a story, as this one does, and a picture is worth a thousand words, as this one surely is, then one can only thank the late Walt Mixon for coming by, knowing where to stand and releasing his shutter at just the right time.
By the way, I am there too, on the far left, wearing my artist uniform of the period: Levi’s, running shoes and a camera bag over my left shoulder. (Larry Wells had arranged a sideline pass for me and I shot a dozen rolls of E6.)
My vague memory is that at this moment I am attempting to consume a piece of fried chicken without use of my hands, a futile effort that caused much delight and amusement amongst those gathered in the Grove at Ole Miss before a football game on a timeless Saturday in the fall.
Hotty Toddy everybody.
With thanks to Larry Wells and David Rae Morris
William Dunlap is an internationally-recognized artist and an alum of the University of Mississippi. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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