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Bonnie Brown: Q&A with Former Provost Emeritus, Gerald Walton

*The latest installment in the Ole Miss Retirees features is former Provost Emeritus, Gerald Walton. The organization’s mission is to enable all of the university’s faculty and staff retirees to maintain and promote a close association with the university. It is the goal of the Ole Miss Faculty/Staff Retirees Association to maintain communication by providing opportunities to attend and participate in events and presentations.

I worked for Dr. Walton when he was Associate Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs. I did classroom scheduling and it was far from the more automated process it is today.  The first week of classes began with a huge conflict. I had mistakenly assigned Turner Auditorium to two large classes at the same time. The professors teaching those classes were unhappy, to say the least.  Dr. Walton was called to go over to Turner to referee the ordeal. When he returned, I fully expected to be sacked. But he was kind and understanding and told me “not to let it happen again.” I was so relieved and grateful.  

Photo courtesy of Dr. Gerald Walton – Julie and Gerald Walton

Brown:  You are a native Mississippian, having been born in Neshoba.  You graduated from Dixon High School, attended East Central Community College for two years, then graduated from the University of Southern Mississippi.  You enrolled at the University of Mississippi, where you received your Master’s and PhD degrees Please tell us about your Ole Miss story and career.

Walton:  When I graduated from high school, I had absolutely no idea what I wanted to do in life. I had a romantic view of what it would be like to be a rural mail carrier: I would be able to sit in the vehicle and drive around places I was familiar with. In those days, there were many occasions when farmers rarely saw anybody besides their family members on a given day; seeing a mail carrier, at least to wave at, was something of an event.

I knew for sure that I was not ready to go to a big college or university, and I knew also that I wanted to stay as close to home as possible. Out of my class of 16, six of us went to East Central Junior College. As I was registering I was asked what I was interested in, and I really did not know and said maybe agriculture. When I was told that I would need to sign up for chemistry, I gave up agriculture very quickly! At the time I would never have believed I would be a teacher, but somewhere along the line I began to realize that I actually liked freshman English and decided to major in English.

During my freshman year at East Central, one day we students were in the cafeteria line, and one teacher walked by and asked one sophomore where he was planning to go to senior college. When he said Ole Miss, her response was “Oh, no, you would never fit in there.” Since I regarded him as being about 10 times more sophisticated than I was, I pretty much ruled Ole Miss out. Then when it became time to apply for senior colleges, Ken Wooten talked me into applying to Ole Miss so we could go there together.  I had never at any time thought about attending Mississippi Southern College, but my long-time girlfriend wanted to go there and convinced me to go also. I wound up agreeing and graduated there in 1956.

Photo courtesy of Dr. Gerald Walton – Dr. Walton at USM, 1955

When I came to Ole Miss in the fall of 1956 the department offered only a baccalaureate degree and a master’s degree. I assumed, therefore, that I would get a job (perhaps at a community college; that is what one of my classmates at Ole Miss did) after taking a master’s or go to graduate school somewhere else for a doctorate. That same professor at Mississippi Southern had taken his Ph.D. at Vanderbilt. My roommate at Ole Miss and I both decided we would go to Vanderbilt after completing our master’s degrees.

Because I had been elected to Omicron Delta Kappa at Southern, I was invited to attend ODK meetings at Ole Miss. In those days they had a dinner meeting once a month and also sponsored a speaker program. I therefore got to know the campus leaders. In many ways, then, I was repeating things from my undergraduate days. It is a wonder I was able to keep my grades up during those times.

Then the department started offering a doctorate. I was urged to enroll and offered the best graduate assistantship available. I was in a serious relationship with Julie Hart. She was still an undergraduate. I felt at home at Ole Miss and had no great desire to leave.

I became an instructor in 1959 and planned to continue in that position until I completed my dissertation. In the summer of 1962, however, Dr. James Webb offered me an assistant professorship at Ole Miss. I had actually already begun thinking about perhaps taking a position somewhere and completing my dissertation there. My major professor at Ole Miss, Dr. Harry Campbell, had left to become department chair at Oklahoma State. He offered me an instructorship there, but we (we married in 1960) did not think we wanted to go there. A former professor at Southern had become department chair at Delta State, and he offered me a position. I also had a kind of standing offer to return to Mississippi Southern if I wanted to.  Anyhow, I decided to accept Dr. Webb’s offer. The department needed a director of freshman English, and I actually enjoyed English composition more than I did literature. I thus became director of freshman English and assistant professor and held that position until I took a leave of absence and served as a visiting professor at the University of Nebraska in 1969-70.

Obviously the integration of Ole Miss was a really big event in my career, and I have written and spoken about it elsewhere.

In the summer of 1966 I was able to work on my dissertation without having to teach and was able to complete my dissertation at that time, though the degree was not actually conferred until January 1967 (at that time the fall semester did not end until after Christmas).

I was being appointed to all kinds of committees and I got to know other people. In the late 1960s I actually knew every single faculty member at Ole Miss. I served as secretary of the Faculty Senate from 1965 until 1967. I was a little surprised to be elected to the senate since I was a relatively new faculty member. (Jim Silver saw me in the hall and said, “Walton, I voted for you for the senate because I looked at the list and you are one of the few who are worth a damn”!) I certainly did not expect to become chair of the senate in 1967. Allen Cabaniss and I were nominated.  He was a long-time full professor known to be quite conservative. I was a “young Turk” liberal.

I had gotten to know Bruce Huneycutt well, for he was chair of the Senate during the two years I was secretary. While Julie and I were at the University of Nebraska, he called and asked if I would be willing to become associate dean of the College of Liberal Arts in the summer of 1970. (Dr. Webb never told me this, but many years ago Dean A. B. Lewis told me that he had asked Dr. Webb if he would object to my leaving the department and becoming his associate. He said that Dr. Webb begged him not to make an offer to me since I was so badly needed as the freshman English director.) Anyhow, I accepted Dean Huneycutt’s offer (he did not consult Dr. Webb!) and greatly enjoyed serving as his associate for six years.  When Dean Huneycutt resigned in 1976 I think Jean Crawford was the first person who nominated me for the deanship.

In 1974 I was appointed to a “blue ribbon” search committee to locate a Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs. I remember that Frank Anderson, Doug Shields, Joe McCaskill, Soggy Sweat, and Don Vaughn were on the committee. The student member was Roger Wicker. We did the usual evaluation of applications and that sort of thing. Somewhere along the line during the search, however, I was asked whether I would be interested in the position. I said no, that I did not have enough experience as an administrator to take on such a job. They insisted, however, that I at least be interviewed by the group, and I consented. Then I asked whether I should resign from the committee but was told I should just stay on the committee and see how things went. I had a good interview, and we continued the search. When we got to the point of making a recommendation I think we had five people on the list. I put myself last, but, strangely enough, everybody else listed me number one. The committee took the recommendation to Chancellor Fortune, though I was still objecting that I was not ready for such a position. Karl Brenkert told me later that Chancellor Fortune called a meeting of the deans and asked whether they would be comfortable having me serve as vice chancellor. Of course Bruce Huneycutt spoke favorably, but I believe all of the others agreed with me that I had not had enough experience. The position was then offered to a man named Kenneth Beasley, who accepted. He came to the campus and stayed one day and immediately resigned, saying that his asthma problem would not allow him to live in Oxford. At that point Chancellor Fortune pretty much took over the search committee duties himself and hired Arthur DeRosier from East Tennessee State University.

The employment of Arthur DeRosier was a good move. He was one of the first people in his position to really stress research, and he made some major changes in the culture there.  DeRosier had what he called a “kitchen cabinet.” It consisted of DeRosier, Chuck Noyes, Joseph Sam, and me. DeRosier would get us together regarding just about every major decision and had us help him with numerous projects. We completely rewrote the tenure and promotion policy and did a lot of other things that affected academics. We worked on a procedure whereby the University appointed two faculty members (Chalmers Butler and John Pilkington) as distinguished professors.

I became dean of the College of Liberal Arts in 1976. I already knew, of course, that I would have a good relationship with Art DeRosier. I also knew Harvey Lewis well, and we had a good relationship and a lasting friendship. In my view some changes needed to be made. During my first couple of years I replaced seven or eight department chairs. I took that matter extremely seriously and worked over a period of time with each of the chairs. As far as I know, in every case the persons were able to resign their positions without faculty members ever knowing that they had not deliberately given up their positions. The baccalaureate degree program in Liberal Arts had changed very little since 1936. One of the things I worked very hard on was revising the curriculum; the revision was approved by the Curriculum and Policy Committee and by the Academic Council; I believe most of it remains in effect today. I was able to help recruit some extremely able faculty members who made many good contributions to Ole Miss.  I also started a student advisory committee, and the students were extremely helpful in our discussions about a liberal arts education.

I was still the dean when Peter Wagner became Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs. We got along well, and when Chuck Noyes retired as associate vice chancellor, Dr. Wagner asked me whether I would be interested in replacing Dr. Noyes. I told him that I thought moving from my deanship to an associate vice chancellorship would actually be a step down. He asked, “Well, what if we call it a lateral move with a substantial salary increase?” That did it! (Of course I knew full well that nobody could really replace Chuck Noyes.)

When Dr. Wagner left, Chancellor Turner asked me to become Interim Vice Chancellor. Then at some point I was interim two more times. I served as associate to Pete Wagner, Morris Marx, and Ray Hoops. To tell the truth, going from associate vice chancellor to interim vice chancellor was not a huge move since I had been actively involved in just about everything in the office anyhow.

Chancellor Turner announced that he would be leaving the University at the end of June in 1995, and of course a search committee was appointed. The committee indicated that the new position would begin on July 1, 1995. Then Chancellor Turner was asked to report to SMU on June 1.  Because of affirmative action, the beginning date for the new Chancellor could not be moved back. I was the highest ranking academic person on the campus and was asked by the Board to serve as Interim Chancellor during the month of June in 1995. In many ways that might have been the easiest month I had at the University: people in Academic Affairs thought I was too busy being Interim Chancellor to do anything in Academic Affairs; people in the office of the Chancellor thought I was too busy still being vice chancellor, and thus I did not have to do much in that office either.  I mostly signed a few papers, greeted groups that came to the campus, greeted students and their parents when they would come for pre-college sessions, etc. When Dr. Khayat became Chancellor he asked me to continue to serve as Interim Vice Chancellor during a search for a Provost. He appointed a search committee, and somebody nominated me. I was the only person actually interviewed and served as provost from 1996 until 1999, having told Chancellor Khayat, at the beginning, that I would be retiring in the summer of 1999.

When I retired, Chancellor Khayat and Provost Staton were extremely good to me.  I was given a reserved parking place and told that I could have office space and needed supplies and equipment. When Chancellor Khayat asked me where I would like to have an office, I told him my preference would be to have one in the library.  Luckily, Dean John Meador offered me space in the library. I went to the Lyceum only to visit old friends and did my best to avoid suggesting to anybody what he or she should do. Provost Staton did consult me often on issues, and we remained close friends until her death.

When I came to Ole Miss in the fall of 1956, I could never have predicted that I would be a part of Ole Miss until 1999.  I never dreamed that I would be a professor at a major institution. One of the things that angered me most during my career was putting up with a few faculty members who thought they deserved positions at more prestigious universities, many of whom spent a good deal of time applying for positions elsewhere.  I had employment at a university far better than what I expected and far better positions than I deserved. I always did my best to be loyal and grateful.

Brown:  You have a great love for the Neshoba County Fair.  Why?

Walton:  Neshoba County, Mississippi, of course is known nationally because civil rights workers were killed there in 1964.  I guess, however, everybody likes what he or she thinks of as “home.” I used to think Neshoba County was special in a way, because it had two things that most other counties did not have: a Choctaw Indian reservation and a county fair.

The Neshoba County Fair is not just any county fair. It is an institution and is known as Mississippi’s Giant House Party.  I was born in September 1934. My guess is that my mother attended the fair while she was pregnant with me. Most of the people I knew in my early years were farmers on small farms.  They worked extremely hard and “laid by” their crops around July 4 and did not begin harvesting until the fall. Having a week devoted completely to fun was really something to look forward to each year.  As a small child, the thing I looked forward to most was what was called the Midway – the place where boys spent several dollars trying to win a one-dollar stuffed doll for their girlfriends, a Ferris wheel, and rides of all types.  And of course there were stands where one purchased things like hamburgers and lemonade. Then as I became older I enjoyed things like the harness races, the livestock exhibits, and the entertainment. Somewhat later I really became interested in the speeches made by politicians.  What many people like most about the fair is the hospitality. There are about 650 cabins on the grounds. People from all over the country plan their vacations around the fair. One can wander from one cabin to another and be invited to come up on the porch and share iced tea, fried chicken, watermelon, etc.  It is still the place where a Mississippi politician will have his or her largest live audience today (in 1980 Ronald Reagan announced there that he would be a candidate for president). I suppose I still like it because it once gave me something really important to look forward to every year and still provides an opportunity to visit relatives and old friends.  When I had to do basic training at Lackland Air Force Base in 1959, one of my biggest concerns was the fact that I would miss the fair for the first time in my life. So I suppose I love the fair now mostly for sentimental reasons. I will always have great memories of visiting people in their cabins, observing the livestock exhibits and the exhibits of fruits and vegetables, the horseracing, the music, the political speaking, all of the entertainment, and the food and drink. It is simply an important part of my past.  Julie hates it. She says she has been twice. On one occasion there were 4 inches of red dust; on the other there were 4 inches of red mud!

Brown:  Early in your career at Ole Miss, you were recognized for your leadership skills.  Who were your mentors?

Walton:  I never gave much thought to somebody’s being a mentor. I guess the closest would be Chuck Noyes, whom I followed as Director of Freshman English and Associate Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs.  He was a truly gifted administrator. Mostly I have just admired certain talents possessed by certain people and tried to get pointers on certain traits: speaking ability, writing ability, power of persuasion, organization, efficiency, compassion and respect for others, “people skills,” decision making. In other words, people were mentors for different reasons: Bruce Huneycutt was a master at persuasion and visionary thinking but absolutely lousy at organization and efficiency.  I think the person, besides my parents, who influenced me most was the “leader,” the director, of the Wesley Foundation at the University of Southern Mississippi, Sam Barefield. My maternal grandfather was one of the wisest men I ever knew, and I think I picked up some pointers from him about dealing with other people. Several faculty members who influenced me greatly as teachers were W. A. Walker, James Bobo, Charles Moorman, Harry Campbell, and John Pilkington.

Brown:  You seem to be a born administrator—director, dean, vice chancellor, provost—easily able to address issues, unite colleagues, and set an example of ethical behavior.  You were also a faculty member. Did you enjoy being an administrator more than teaching, or did one complement the other?

Walton:   I would disagree that I was “a born administrator.”  I just happened to be at a place or stage when people thought I might be able to handle some given position.  I suppose I would have to say I enjoyed being an administrator more than being a professor. If I had thought I could be a nationally recognized scholar with numerous books and scholarly articles, I feel certain that I would have turned down offers to be an administrator.  Somehow I got the feeling, though, that I could make a greater contribution to facilitating learning by being an administrator. I would have to say, however, that being in a classroom was a satisfying, even exhilarating, experience on many occasions: I could leave my office and for 50 minutes entirely forget budget problems, tenure decisions, faculty disputes, proposal deadlines, etc.

I suppose everybody is interested in people who were recognized as well-known leaders for obvious reasons—people like George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, Winston Churchill, John Kennedy, John Stennis, and William Winter, for example. Numerous people, many still there, were influential.  If I were to start listing them I would think of somebody the next day whom I should have listed. I will therefore list just some of the people whom I learned from before I became a dean: Rufus Jones, George Street, J. D. Williams, Aubrey Lucas, Walter Washington, Arthur DeRosier, Chuck Noyes, Jim Savage, Bruce Huneycutt, Jim Webb, Lewis Noble (his personal life later was a great loss to higher education), Porter Fortune (I knew him first while he was a dean at Southern), Dan Young, Chuck Noyes, Arthur DeRosier, Alton Bryant, Frank Anderson, A. B. Lewis, and Malcolm Guess.  Somebody once said that a good leader shows as much respect to the janitor as to the CEO. I tried to be that kind of leader.

Once I was asked to apply (I found out that I was nominated by Dick Keye) for the presidency of Delta State.  I declined a request to apply. And I was once approached by some Board members about applying for the presidency of the University of Southern Mississippi (they knew I was an alumnus).  I, of course, quickly declined. I was best in a number-two position, working with a hands-on, behind-the-scene kind of way. I never liked or was good at public speaking. I was pretty efficient; I was generally well organized.   I sometimes had some success at working well with others. I could put together a pretty good proposal, but leadership at a university usually involves raising lots of money from rich alumni. I could put together a pretty good proposal for somebody else to use, but the most I ever asked for was a hundred dollars for Friends of the Library!

Brown:  What was your greatest challenge in your many roles at Ole Miss?  In which role do you feel you were most accomplished?

Walton:  I suppose my greatest challenges, and often my greatest disappointments, were simply those of meeting the needs of faculty, staff, and students. Most of the time that meant needing more money—for attracting outstanding faculty members, rewarding deserving faculty and staff, not having to cancel journal subscriptions in the library, buying a needed piece of equipment for a faculty member’s research, finding enough money to send a faculty member to Germany to give an important paper, etc.  All of that meant there was a challenge to try to be sure to use wisely the funds we did have. During my years at Ole Miss I had the opportunity to visit scores of other colleges and universities. In my opinion, the University of Mississippi may well be the institution that does the most with the least. Because of wise decisions about the use of limited funds, Ole Miss has attracted some of the best faculty and students in the country. Students can get a really outstanding education here and graduate as well prepared as students from many more prestigious universities.

Interestingly, I feel I was “most accomplished” in my role as director of the freshman English program. The textbook we were using when I came to Ole Miss was titled “Writing and Thinking.” Could there be better words to describe what it is all about?  I tried my best to be sure that every freshman had good two semesters. Most of the instructors were graduate students, many of whom had taken baccalaureate degrees in the spring before they became university teachers in the fall. I wanted every freshman to have essentially the same experience regardless of who his or her instructor was. Coordination required a great deal of time and effort.  It was gratifying to know that professors in other fields could often judge how successful a student would be by determining the grades he or she had earned in freshman composition. It was gratifying to have a professor in, let us say History or Political Science comment that a student could write an excellent research paper because of what the student had learned in English 102. Sometimes it took a fair amount of work to convince a graduate student that teaching freshman composition was as important as, let us say, later teaching a seminar on the works of Milton.

Brown:  You have always been an excellent writer and you have published a pictorial history of the University.  You’ve also been active in the community. What has kept you busy in retirement?  

Walton:  No, I am a fairly good writer, but not “an excellent writer.” Excellent writers are people like Chuck Noyes, John Pilkington, and Evans Harrington. My style is pretty pedestrian.  I suppose I took the position that I could be most efficient by dictating, and I rarely actually took the time to re-write. If I had to do “serious” writing, I was best at home in a rocking chair with a good-writing fountain pen and a legal pad (and a drink of scotch to go with it improved my thinking skill).  The pictorial history you mentioned was much better than it would have been without a good editor coming along and making excellent suggestions.

I tried to be active in the community because of certain things I was really interested in—my church, the library and the museum, historical preservation, the arts, history and genealogy.

I had about twenty projects I wanted to complete during my retirement.  First, I spent a great deal of time reading or re-reading things I had never read or had forgotten—“The Iliad” and “The Odyssey,” “Crime and Punishment,” “The Divine Comedy,” “David Copperfield,” etc.  After Julie retired we were able to travel a great deal. Previous staff members and church historians at my church had simply put archival information in boxes, with no organization. I spent several months going through all of the information – creating file folders, organizing things, etc.  I managed to round up four file cabinets and a few bookshelves and got things in order. I suppose I have always enjoyed “organizing” things. I got a number of the small projects out of the way and then took on the biggest – the preparation of a pictorial history. I worked at it at my own rate, sometimes working on it a little every day and sometimes doing nothing on it for several days at a time.  Somebody once asked me when I started working on it, and I responded “In about 1970.” To some degree, that is the truth. I had no such project in mind, but as I once told somebody, my vocation and my avocation were the same: the University of Mississippi. I was fascinated with the University and its past and started collecting bits of information many, many years ago. For years and years Julie and I had not taken the time to organize our photographs, and I spent several months, off and on, putting photographs into albums.  I am still working on some of that and also have about 100 hours of “movie” film that I would like to edit it. I have tried to keep just about every paper document of any importance, and I have started going through several file drawers of such things as correspondence. I am digitizing items and destroying the originals. (Of course I chose to stop and reread such things as letters from my mother to me between 1952 and 2000.) I am also interested in family history and have done some genealogical work. I also took on a project of editing biographies of all of my Walton relatives (my father was one of twelve children), going from my great-grandparents to children born in 2018. I have also done a little “scholarly” research.  One Faulkner note has been accepted for publication, and I am in the middle of another Faulkner article. I had no idea I would be involved in projects at the retirement complex where we live, but I was soon asked to serve on committees and I am vice president/president elect of our Residents’ Association, something that I guess would be somewhat comparable to the Faculty Senate or the Staff Council. I have agreed to interview residents here and write short biographies of them for distribution to all of the residents. I also do a good bit of miscellaneous volunteer work, such things as ushering at our chapel and introducing speakers and performers. We have a Happy Hour here two days per week, and I serve as a bartender about once a month.  The best thing about retirement is that I can pretty much get up when I want to and control my own schedule. I am also interested in the history of this retirement facility, which began in 1976.

Brown:  What can you tell us about Gerald W. Walton that not many people might know?  

Walton:   I don’t know that there is much about me “that not many people might know.” As Dale Abadie said at my retirement party (created by Carolyn Staton without my knowing it until she had set up things and invited people) I am one of those “What you see is what you get” kind of people.  I used to like fast cars. I like good books, old movies, the past, computers and scanners, classical music and early country music, rocking chairs, front porches, mostly plain food, good drinks, a fair amount of solitude, and lakes, rivers, and oceans. I used to collect fountain pens and have about 500, but I have of pretty much stopped buying them because “vintage” ones have become too expensive.

If I could have the other things I would now require—like health care for an old person–my favorite place to be would be the front porch of the home where I grew up in the country in Neshoba County.  If I could change the University, I would tear down Bishop Hall and enlarge the Graduate Building so that it could include offices for all of the faculty in English, History, Modern Languages, Classics, Philosophy, and Sociology and Anthropology, as God intended.  And I would change the Lyceum so that there were open doors along the hallways and so that there were reasons why students and more faculty members needed to be in the building. (Did I mention that I like the past?)

Bonnie Brown is a retired staff member of the University of Mississippi. She most recently served as Mentoring Coordinator for the Ole Miss Women’s Council for Philanthropy.

For questions or comments, email hottytoddynews@gmail.com.

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