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Meek School Magazine Highlights Curtis Wilkie

Photo by Ji Hoon Heo

This story was republished with permission of the Meek School of Journalism and New Media.

Curtis Wilkie (’63) wouldn’t trade his career in journalism for anything. The past 50 years are more valuable to him than any amount of money in the bank.

He always knew it was what he wanted to do. When he was in the third grade in the late 1940s, Wilkie lived on the campus of Southwest Mississippi Community College with his mother, who was an instructor there. With her constant encouragement to pursue his interest in writing, Wilkie created his own newspaper, which he named The Southwest Times.
“I enjoyed writing,” Wilkie said. “But it was also reporting, finding out information. And as I later learned in journalism, it enables you to become a ringside spectator in very interesting events, whether they’re in your hometown and you’re writing for a small paper, or, if you get on a bigger scale, you are able to see history develop before your very eyes.”
There was no doubt, then, what Wilkie would do in college nearly a decade later. He came to Ole Miss in 1958, where he stayed for four-and-a-half years getting his journalism degree. Ironically, he failed a feature writing class — one he now teaches 50 years later. His extra semester meant that Wilkie was on campus for the 1962 Ole Miss riot, the first of many groundbreaking moments in history that he would witness.
Soon after graduation, Wilkie got a job with the Clarksdale Press Register. Coincidentally, the civil rights movement was picking up steam in the Mississippi Delta at the time, and fresh out of college, Wilkie found himself plunged into major drama and nationally newsworthy stories.
“That became, and still is, a frame of reference for my life and my work,” Wilkie said. “I think, in many ways, it was the most important period in the 20th century in America. It completely changed the landscape, certainly in the South. I consider myself very, very fortunate that I was there, albeit I was working for a very small, insignificant paper, but I was covering very significant events.”
Wilkie worked in Clarksdale for six years before moving to Washington, D.C., for a congressional fellowship given to him by the American Political Science Association. Then, after two years in the capital city, Wilkie got a job with The News Journal in Wilmington, Delaware, where he served as both a reporter and an editor.
“It was an independent paper with a lot of money,” Wilkie said. “And in ’72 they turned me loose to cover the presidential campaign. I think we were the smallest paper covering it.”
But only three years later, after Wilkie and several other staff quit the Journal, he was hired by one of the largest papers in the United States: The Boston Globe. Within a year, they had assigned the Southern journalist to cover the presidential campaign of a certain Southern candidate: Jimmy Carter. For Wilkie, the timing couldn’t have been better.
“I was in the process of getting a divorce, and I literally did not have a home,” Wilkie said. “So it was very fortuitous that I lived in hotels for about a year, compliments of the ‘Globe.’”
At one point, a hotel room in Americus, Georgia, (about 10 miles from Carter’s hometown of Plains), became Wilkie’s mailing address.
Living with and around Carter and his family throughout the campaign, Wilkie got to know them well. A photograph hangs in Wilkie’s office of him and the soon-to-be president playing softball together.
“That’s one of the great things about journalism,” Wilkie said. “You get to meet — and in some instances, know — some very interesting people. When Carter was elected, I said, ‘Jesus, I can’t believe that not only am I going to know the president of the United States, but he’s going to know me.’ It’s kind of a crazy thing to think about, but as a result, I got to know and had a good, professional relationship with every president from that time, with the exception of [Ronald] Reagan.”
After Carter’s election, Wilkie became a member of the Globe’s Washington bureau. He served as White House correspondent from 1977-1982, covering all four years of Carter’s presidency and two of Reagan’s. Then, a growing unrest in the Middle East made the Globe rethink their plans for Wilkie.
“They basically had decided, without telling me, that they were going to turn me into a foreign correspondent,” he said. “I was going overseas a lot on presidential trips, but the idea of becoming someone who lived overseas had never really occurred to me.”
An unexpected and abrupt assignment in Jerusalem marked the beginning of Wilkie’s time in the Middle East. After war broke out in Lebanon and he was sent on many more weeks-long assignments overseas, it became clearer to Wilkie that the Globe intended for him to be there, and he had no reservations.
“I’d always wanted to cover a war,” he said. “I didn’t cover Vietnam, and I felt that I had missed something.”
In 1984, the Globe had Wilkie establish a Middle East bureau in Jerusalem, and the native Mississippian wound up living in Jerusalem for four years. While there, Wilkie enjoyed submersion into a new culture and invited his three children to spend their summers with him in Jerusalem, an experience he thinks benefited them all.
“You have to make adjustments, which is a challenge as a journalist, but one that I enjoyed.”
That time in the Middle East, as well as covering eight presidential campaigns, are highlights, according to Wilkie. “I treasure my years in the Middle East.”
But in 1993, Wilkie was ready to settle down a bit.
“That’s when I convinced them to let me go to New Orleans,” he said.
That year, he established the Globe’s Southern bureau and worked until 2000, when he retired. He began spending time in Oxford, reconnecting with old friends and attending football games. It wasn’t long before he was offered a teaching position on the Ole Miss journalism faculty.
“I thought, ‘Why not?’” Wilkie said. “I don’t play golf, so what else would I do in retirement?”
Wilkie was still teaching five years later, when Charles Overby was developing what is now the Overby Center for Southern Journalism and Politics and invited Wilkie to be a fellow.
“It was clear that the main focus would be journalism and politics with a Southern slant,” Overby said. “And Curtis is the embodiment of that. It’s like, you look up ‘Southern politics and journalism’ in the dictionary, and there’s a picture of Curtis. And he was right here on campus; we didn’t even have to go find him.”
According to Overby, Wilkie is one of the best ambassadors Mississippi has ever had because of his vast network of friends all over the world. In addition, Overby believes that Wilkie contributes a special expertise because of his illustrious career.
“There are two people in my life who have had extraordinary insight into politics and journalism,” Overby said. “One of them was John Seigenthaler, who worked for the Kennedys and was the longtime editor and publisher of The Tennessean, and the other is Curtis. He is extraordinary in every way.”
Former Chancellor Robert Khayat, a longtime friend of Wilkie’s, is also proud to have him working for the university.
“I think that he learned a lot and developed a lot of sophistication in his work,” Khayat said. “And he’s real smart — real smart — and lots of fun, and fun to be with. Ole Miss is very fortunate to have Curtis Wilkie working on our campus.”
When he’s not teaching, Wilkie is working on adding yet another book to a list that includes Dixie and his bestseller, The Fall of the House of Zeus. He and one of his best friends, Tom Oliphant, a fellow journalist, are in the process of writing a book about the years leading up to John Kennedy’s presidential election.
“To this day — and I’m 75 — I still enjoy writing very much,” Wilkie said.
And although he’s still at work, he reflects on his career thus far with a love for journalism he’s had as long as he can remember.
“You get to go to important events, you get to know important people, and if you keep going, you get to travel the world and go places that you never would as a normal citizen,” Wilkie said. “It’s a great, great job that I would not have traded for running a Wall Street hedge fund and being a multimillionaire. I’d much rather have done what I did.”

By Anna McCollum, a journalism graduate (’16) of the Meek School from Corinth, Mississippi

The Meek School Magazine is a collaborative effort of journalism and Integrated Marketing Communications students with the faculty of Meek School of Journalism and New Media. Every week, for the next few weeks, HottyToddy.com will feature an article from Meek Magazine, Issue 4 (2016-2017).

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