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Bonnie Brown: Q&A with Former Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs, Dr. Thomas Wallace

*Editor’s Note: The latest installment in the Ole Miss Retirees features is Dr. Thomas Wallace, Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs and Associate Professor for Education Emeritus. 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.

Dr. Thomas Wallace. Photo submitted.

Thomas Wallace may be living and working in California, but I feel certain that a part of his heart remains here in Oxford and the University of Mississippi.  Through his years of service here, he received numerous awards and recognition for his commitment and contributions to Ole Miss. He has an interesting Ole Miss story.  

Brown:  Where did you grow up?  Tell us what was special about it.  

Wallace:  I was born in Memphis, Tennessee and spent my years growing up in Memphis, Hernando, Mississippi and St. Anne, Illinois. My brother Rickey and I moved back to Hernando from St. Anne to live with my grandparents when I was a junior in high school. As a student at Hernando High School, it was a perfect fit for me. I played basketball, ran track, sang in the choir and was elected Class President my senior year and student Hall of Fame. 

Brown:  Please talk about your childhood, family, and siblings.  

Wallace:  My mom and dad divorced when I was three and we moved to Hernando and lived with my grandparents, Livie Ann Roberson (“Ma Dear”) and George Roberson (“Daddy Son”).  My aunts and uncles became my sisters and brothers. We had very little material wealth, but what we did have was a loving family. Ma Dear and Daddy Son taught us how to work hard, believe in God and ourselves, and treat others with dignity and respect. 

The summer before my eighth-grade year, we moved back to Memphis with my mother, Margaret Ann Herron. We lived in Memphis for two years before moving to St. Anne, Illinois. I attended Hamilton Junior High School for one year until forced school integration happened. We were bused out of our neighborhood, Castalia Heights, to Airways Junior High School. I played basketball there and we won the Division Championships. Sports brought the school together. 

Mom and Rickey moved to St. Anne the summer before I did because I got a summer job working as a custodian at a local elementary school. My friend, Travis Mays, asked his parents, Sylvester and Helene Mays if I could spend the summer with them. Even with having five boys of their own, they graciously agreed. We lived in St. Anne for one year. Our time there was abbreviated when my mother decided she wanted to work and live in Chicago. Rickey and I asked Mom if we could move back to Hernando and live with Ma Dear and Daddy Son. They welcomed us back with open arms. 

Brown:  What’s your earliest memory?

Wallace:  My earliest memory revolves around time spent with the family in Hernando. If we did anything, it was at home, school or church. Unlike children today, we didn’t expect to do something every night, and we were never bored. I remember sitting on the front porch during a hard rain and Ma Dear sharing ancestral stories with us. 

Brown:  Where did you go to school? 

Wallace:  Northwest Mississippi Community College was home for two years. I was selected to join Phi Theta Kappa Honorary where I served as Second Vice-President. Former Governor Ronnie Musgrove was President and Paul Scott, my high school classmate, was First Vice-President. Ironically, all three of us are Ole Miss Alumni. While at Northwest, I was a statistician for the Men’s Basketball team with coaches Noal Akins and Kenneth “Cat” Robbins. I also played on the tennis team. In 1976, as a junior, I began my association as a student at the University of Mississippi. 

I received my Associate’s degree in Elementary Education from Northwest Mississippi Community College in 1976.  I received my BA degree in Elementary Education in 1979 and my MA in Education Administration in 1979 from the University of Mississippi.  I received my Ph.D. in Educational Leadership from the University of Mississippi in 2002.  

Brown:  Tell us how/when your Ole Miss “story” began?   Who hired you? How long did you work at Ole Miss?

Wallace:  Chancellor Gerald Turner and Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs, Gordon Beasley, hired me as Assistant Vice-Chancellor for Student Affairs in March 1990. During my tenure at the University of Mississippi, I held the positions of Associate Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs, Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs, Assistant to the Provost and Associate Professor for Education. My tenure with Ole Miss as an employee ended in May 2010 and now in retirement, I hold the title of Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs and Associate Professor for Education Emeritus.  

Brown:  Describe your most memorable days at work.  

Wallace:  Most of my days at Ole Miss were memorable. It was always rewarding seeing students overcome obstacles and excel in spite of the many challenges they faced.  Having the pleasure of working with professionals committed to helping students develop a better life for themselves gave me immense pleasure. Even now, I communicate frequently with current and former Ole Miss faculty, staff, students and alumni. The greatest gift given to me was meeting my wife of 30 years, Phyllis Hairston Wallace. 

Brown:  You left Oxford and Ole Miss for other career opportunities.  Please talk about what positions you have held and your career path since leaving Ole Miss.  

Wallace:  After retiring from the University of Mississippi, I was employed by the University of Nebraska, Omaha as their Chief Student Affairs Officer and Associate Professor of Education. Since 2012, I have worked as Vice-President for Student Affairs at California State University, Bakersfield. 

Brown:  I know Oxford folks would love an update on your family.  Tell us about Phyllis and the children.  

Wallace:  While at the University of Nebraska, Omaha, Phyllis worked as an academic counselor, and continued as an Academic Counselor for Athletics at California State University, Bakersfield for a couple of years. She now spends her time traveling, reading, volunteering for community projects and working with her sorority, Alpha Kappa Alpha. 

Dee, 27, now coaches basketball at Adams State University in Alamosa, Colorado. When his collegiate career as a basketball player ended, he spent two years as a graduate assistant at California State University, Monterey Bay. Before going to Adams State, he spent one year on the staff of former Ole Miss great, Rod Barnes, as Coordinator of Player Development. 

Gigi, 25, started her college and dance career on a dance scholarship at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln. When we moved to Bakersfield, she transferred to California State University, Long Beach, again on a dance scholarship, for a couple of years. She now resides in Bakersfield while taking a break from school. She works part-time, enjoys hiking and staying associated with dance. 

Ty, 21, graduated from Liberty High School in Bakersfield, California. After a stellar academic and athletic stint at Liberty, she accepted a track and field scholarship to California State University, Northridge. She is experiencing success in the classroom and in track. Elementary Education is her chosen major of study. 

Derrick Williams, 27, is the son we moved with us to Omaha. He had a collegiate career in football at the University of Nebraska, Omaha and the University of Mary in Bismarck, North Dakota. After graduating from the University of Nebraska, Omaha, he returned to Oxford to live and work.

Thomas, Gigi, Dee, Ty, and Phyllis Wallace. Photo provided.

Brown:  What do you consider to be the highlight of your career?  

Wallace:  I consider working collaboratively with campus advocates to create a pluralistic campus environment as a highlight of my career at Ole Miss.  This involved many aspects of campus life which included Phi Beta Sigma Fraternity integrating Fraternity Row and National Pan-Hellenic Council (NPHC) sororities integrating Sorority Row.  During my tenure, I was involved with increasing and diversifying student enrollment. I worked with Jennifer Jones in creating the Rebel Run which since its 2007 debut, has been a highlight for many incoming students at Ole Miss.  I worked closely with former Alumni President Carole Lynn Meadows to involve alumni in recruiting. I was involved with former Athletics Director Pete Boone, former Director of the Student Health Center Barbara Collier, and Shannon Singletary, Senior Associate Athletics Director for Health and Sports, in creating the on-campus physical therapy unit for faculty, staff, and students.   I was a part of creating the Chucky Mullins Courage Award and Banquet, along with former Head Football Coach, Billy Brewer, and Senior Associate Athletics Director for Media Relations Langston Rogers, and the Phi Beta Sigma Fraternity. Michael Johansson, former Director of the Office of International Programs, and I launched World Fest 2012, a multi-cultural, international festival that put the spotlight on the growing, diverse international community at Ole Miss.  Certainly, the highlight of being selected for the Alumni Hall of Fame in 2015 was important to me. I also consider serving as Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs at Ole Miss among the highlights of my career in higher education.    

Brown:  What are some skills that you think everyone should learn?

Wallace:  It is important for individuals to learn how to work and live in a diverse environment. We all have different roles and titles in the workplace; one is no more important than the other, just different. It doesn’t matter if you are the chancellor or the custodian, whatever contributions we are making should be appreciated. 

Brown:  What’s the best part of your day?

Wallace:  The best part of my day is waking up, prayer and meditation, feeding the dog (Lola) and reading the newspaper while eating breakfast. This is how I usually begin each day. 

Brown:  What is the best advice you ever received?

Wallace:   Ma Dear always said, “It doesn’t cost you anything to be nice to people.” She also said, “The same people you meet on the way up, you meet on the way down.”

Brown:  Talk about something that always cheers you up when you think about it?

Wallace:  It brings a smile to my face when thinking about how blessed I am to have Phyllis as my wife, and to be associated with family, friends, and co-workers. I talk to my 84-year-old dad, Thomas D. Wallace, Sr. and aunt, Georgia B. Sims, at least once a week. They are thankful for the simple pleasures in life, and it helps me to slow things down and appreciate my blessings. 

Brown:  To what do you attribute the biggest successes in your life?

Wallace:  Whatever I have accomplished in life is due to God’s mercy and grace and the many individuals who have assisted me and continue to support me. 

Brown:  What are some of the events in your life that made you who you are?

Wallace:  The strength and perseverance exhibited by my mother, wife and children, dad and grandad, grandmother, uncles and aunts, brothers and sisters, and many friends and loved ones contribute to who I am. Ma Dear shaped my value system more than any single individual.

Thomas with his wife Phyllis. Photo provided.

Brown:  To quote Katherine Meadowcroft, Cultural activist and writer, “What one leaves behind is the quality of one’s life, the summation of the choices and actions one makes in this life, our spiritual and moral values.”  What is your legacy?

Wallace:  He cared about individuals from every walk of life with no regard for race, color, creed or socio-economic status. He devoted his life to making the world a better place for others.

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. 

She can be reached at bbrown@olemiss.edu.

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Adam Brown
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