Monday, September 28, 2020

Bonnie Brown: Q&A with Bursar Emeritus, Jack Garner

*Editor’s Note: The latest installment in the Ole Miss Retirees features is Jack Garner, Bursar 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.

Jack Garner.

Jack Garner is the kindest man you’ll ever meet. He’s quiet and would probably be described as an introvert. But don’t let that fool you. He has a great sense of humor lurking behind all that intelligence. He also has a great love of family, especially his lovely wife Rosalie. Here’s his Ole Miss story.

Brown: Where did you grow up? What is special about the place you grew up?

Garner: I was born in Jackson, Mississippi but I grew up in Vicksburg, Mississippi. Vicksburg was a small town but because it was located on the Mississippi River, it was multicultural. We had a diverse population that included Jews, Italians, Lebanese, African Americans, and Asians just to name a few. That is what made it a special place.

Brown: Tell us about your parents and siblings.

Garner: My father was born in 1917 in Brownsville, Mississippi. He had one sister and nine brothers. He grew up on his family’s farm. He joined the Army in 1934 and was honorably discharged in 1936. When Pearl Harbor was attacked, he re-enlisted and was scheduled to deploy to Europe but was prevented from doing so when the bus he was traveling on was involved in an accident where he sustained a broken leg. He remained state side for the duration of the war. He later attended a business school in Vicksburg, learned bookkeeping, and went to work for the U. S. Army Corp of Engineers Waterways Experiment Station where he had a successful career as an accountant. My father passed away in 2005 when he was 88 years old.

My mother was born in 1918 in Belzoni, Mississippi. She had one sister and three brothers. Her family later moved to Vicksburg. After she graduated from high school, she attended the Sisters of Mercy Convent in St. Louis, Missouri, but later decided to return to Vicksburg. A couple of years later she had a blind date with my father, they fell in love, and eventually married. During her childhood she had rheumatic fever which damaged the valves of her heart. Unfortunately, medical science was not as advanced as it is today, so heart valve replacement was not an option for her. My mother passed away in 1965 when she was 46.

Brown: Please talk about your childhood.

Garner: I had a happy childhood. Both of my parents were loving and caring. As their only child I am sure they spoiled me rotten. I loved baseball and I recall during the summer months I would wake up, eat breakfast and go outside to play baseball with my neighborhood friends. At lunch time my mother would call me in to eat and then insist that I take a nap afterwards. The afternoon nap was mandatory back then because it was summer, and it was also polio season. Polio was a dreaded disease in the early 1950s as Jonas Salk had not yet worked his magic, and the afternoon nap was thought by many as a prophylactic for polio. However, instead of taking a nap, I would spend the afternoon listening to the Mutual Baseball Game of the Day on the radio. My favorite team back then was the Cleveland Indians and my favorite player was their third baseman Al Rosen.

Brown: What is your earliest memory?

Garner: My maternal grandfather, who was a Sicilian immigrant, owned a small grocery store on Eagle Lake. Eagle Lake is an oxbow lake located about 26 miles north of Vicksburg. It is a place where people go to fish and hunt, and it was not easy to get there. You had to travel over a dusty gravel road and cross the Yazoo River on a ferry boat. If you didn’t begin the journey early in the day, you had to wait in line for the ferry boat to transport cars back and forth.

Brown: Where did you go to school?

Garner: I attended junior high and high school in Vicksburg at St. Aloysius High School. I graduated from St. Al in 1962, and attended Hinds Junior College in Raymond, Mississippi for two years. I then transferred to Mississippi State University in 1964 where I earned two B.S. degrees—one in transportation and one in accounting.

Brown: What was your favorite subject in school? Least favorite?

Garner: In high school, bookkeeping and business law were my favorite subjects. Least favorite was physics.

Brown: What was your favorite TV program as a child?

Garner: As a teenager, my favorites were American Bandstand with Dick Clark and Soul Train with Don Cornelius. When I was younger my favorite program was the Micky Mouse Club. Annette Funicello was my favorite Mouseketeer. She was one of the prettiest girls I had ever laid eyes on.

Brown: What’s the first career you dreamed of having as a kid?

Garner: My father wanted me to be either a medical doctor or an engineer. Unfortunately, neither of those seeds sprouted. I dreamed of being a pitcher for the Cleveland Indians like Early Wynn, Bob Lemon or Bob Feller, but the Garner gene pool ruled that dream out.

Brown: Did you have a mentor who influenced your career choice? How did you choose your career?

Garner: It would be my father. Since he did not graduate from high school or attend college, he wanted me to be the first Garner to graduate from college. If it hadn’t been for him I would probably not be doing this interview.

I really didn’t know exactly what my career path was going to be when I attended college. Back in the early 1960’s jobs were plentiful and if you graduated from college you could find a job. I knew math and science weren’t my forte, so I pursued the business route since I enjoyed the bookkeeping and business law courses I took during my senior year in high school. My father was an accountant for the federal government. I mentioned he didn’t graduate from high school or attend college, but he was good with numbers and he learned bookkeeping by attending a local business school in Vicksburg. By grit and determination, he was able to work his way through the ranks. So, I guess my father influenced my career choice.

Brown: What made you decide to attend the university you attended?
Garner: I decided to attend Mississippi State because most of my good friends enrolled there.

Brown: Talk about your path to Ole Miss. What was your very first job?

Garner: In August 1967, I went to work for International Paper Company in Vicksburg as an administrative assistant in the Purchasing Department. About a year later I accepted a position as a federal auditor for the Department of Health, Education and Welfare and moved to Jackson, Mississippi. I was married with two small children and one car, and I was constantly on the road, which was very inconvenient for my wife, Rosalie. In July 1969, I was assigned to assist with the audit at Ole Miss. I got to know Bob Dowdy who was the Contracts and Grants Officer in the Accounting Office at that time. Sometime in late September I was pulled off of the Ole Miss job and assigned to another job at the University of Alabama in Birmingham. One Sunday morning in October, as I was getting ready to take our only vehicle and return to Birmingham for the week, Bob called me and said there was a job opening in the Accounting Office at Ole Miss. He asked me if I knew anyone that might be interested in applying for it. I thought about what he said for about one second and replied, “Yeah, I would!” He told me to send him a resume and the rest is history.

Brown: How/when did your Ole Miss “story” began? Tell us about the interview process–who did you meet with, what position were you hired for, your impression of the Ole Miss campus, etc.

Garner: On Friday October 31, 1969, I departed Birmingham and drove to Oxford for an interview on Saturday morning. Since it wasn’t clear to me that Ole Miss was going to pay for a motel room, I checked into the Ole Miss Motel because it was cheaper than the Holiday Inn which was located where the Graduate is today. My interview was with Bob Dowdy, Paul Moore, who was the Chief Accountant, and Doyle Russell who was the Director of Accounting. I was later hired for the position of Contracts Accountant reporting to the Contracts and Grants Officer, Bob Dowdy.
My impression of Oxford and Ole Miss was very favorable. In 1969 Oxford was a sleepy little college town, and I loved that. Unlike Mississippi State’s campus the Ole Miss campus was very intimate and easy to get around.

Brown: What did you know about Ole Miss before accepting employment here?

Garner: The first time I stepped foot on campus was in July 1969 when I came here as a federal auditor. I became acquainted with several people in the Accounting Office, so I had some knowledge about Ole Miss. Ole Miss touted itself as an Equal Opportunity Employer, and as a State grad, once I was offered the job, I knew that was a fact!

Brown: What were some of your responsibilities?

Garner: When I was hired in 1969 the Accounting Office was responsible for reviewing all the contract and grant proposals submitted to outside funding agencies. We had to review the content of the proposal, assist with the preparation of the budget and negotiate the final budget with the funding agency. After the grant or contract was awarded, we had to submit periodic financial reports. Our office was also responsible for preparing the University’s indirect cost proposal and submitting it to the Federal Government.

Brown: Describe your most memorable days at work.

Garner: I have said on several occasions that the work I did beginning in February, 1999 through June 30, 2003 when I had the opportunity to work on the SAP software implementation was the highlight of my career. During the period from February 1999 to November 1999 we were on a fast-track conversion to SAP’s financial software. Then beginning in January 2000, we began work consulting with SAP to design a student accounting system. Initially Arizona State University agreed to be the pilot school for the U.S. market; however, they later decided against taking on that challenge, and SAP asked Ole Miss to be the pilot. Ole Miss accepted the challenge, and with the leadership of people like Buster Hale, Kathy Gates, Rick Thurlow and a consultant I have the highest regard for, Marlies Burkhard, we went live on March 17, 2003. That was the most challenging, exciting, and stressful time of my life. I was able to work and learn from some of the best consultants in the business, travel to places I had only dreamed about, and be a part of something that, in my humble opinion, had a positive impact on the administrative system at the University of Mississippi.

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

Garner: Marrying Rosalie obviously had a very positive impact on my life. I owe everything to her. I would not be the person I am today if not for her. Working at Ole Miss, especially as Bursar, changed my life dramatically. The people I worked with in the Bursar’s Office enriched my life more than they can ever imagine. They were a fine group of people.

Brown: How did you and your wife Rosalie meet? Tell us about your family.

Garner: Back in the late 1950s in Vicksburg, MS it was a common practice to attend dance parties (sock hops) at a friend’s house. We would carry our 45’s (that would be records not pistols) in a small cardboard or metal box to the party and play records on a record player and dance. In 1958 that is how Rosalie and I met. I was in the ninth grade and she was in the eighth. We “dated” for about a year. Because I was not old enough to drive, dating consisted of your father driving you and your date to the movie theater and picking you up afterwards. After a year we went our separate ways and didn’t date again until 1965. We were married in 1966. We have three children: Paul, Leigh, and Andy, and four grandchildren: Megan, Ansley, Knox and Mazie.

Rosalie and Jack, 1966.

Brown: What “old person” things do you do?

Garner: I try to avoid “old person” things because I don’t think of myself as old. However, if you ask my children, I am sure they could come up with a long list.

Brown: What makes you lose track of time?

Garner: Genealogical research. I became interested in tracing my roots several years ago, and I can lose track of time when I am engaged in researching relatives.

Brown: What’s your biggest regret?

Garner: Since gaining an interest in genealogy, my biggest regret is not learning more from my grandparents, aunts, and uncles. In her early years, my maternal grandmother was in Vaudeville with her first husband and son. I wish I could have learned about her early days as a performer. When her first husband died, she married my grandfather who was a Sicilian immigrant. I would love to have a conversation with him about his life in Sicily and what it was like crossing the Atlantic.

Brown: What’s your biggest pet peeve?

Garner: Golfers who cheat.

Jack (center) with children Paul, Leigh, and Andy, and grandchildren Mazie, Megan, Ansley and Knox.

Brown: Do you have a favorite quote or saying? Why is it your favorite?

Garner: This is a quote attributed to George Foreman, “If something is worth doing, it is worth doing right. I take that one step further. You shouldn’t do anything unless you do it right.”

It is my favorite because that is the lesson I learned from my parents by their example.

Brown: If there was something in your past you were able to go back and do differently, what would that be?

Garner: I would spend more time with my children. When I was a young parent striving to be successful in my career, I failed to realize how quickly time passes by.

Brown: What do you need help with most often?

Garner: To not take myself too seriously. Fortunately, Rosalie keeps me in line with that.

Brown: What skill would you like to master?

Garner: I would like to be able to play a musical instrument really well such as the guitar or piano.

Brown: What was your best birthday?

Garner: That is a hard one to answer because my daughter, Leigh, always plans something special for us on our birthdays. But I will have to say that in 2018 when I turned seventy-four, my granddaughter, Megan, surprised me with a trip to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania to see the Chicago Cubs vs the Phillies. She and I are big Cubs fans and Rosalie and I have taken her to see the Cubs play in Chicago on several occasions. However, for my birthday she wanted to take me to Philadelphia as her guest. We had a wonderful time.

Jack, granddaughter Megan, and wife Rosalie at Wrigley Field.

Granddaughter Megan and Jack – Birthday trip to Philly.

Brown: What has become your new routine since you retired? Do you have hobbies?

Garner: I retired on June 30, 2003, but I returned to the Bursar’s Office 45 days later to work on matters related SAP’s Student Life Cycle Management system. I continue to work in that capacity, so I am not fully retired. I love to play golf even though I have an extremely high handicap and I enjoy gardening and working in our yard.

Since retirement Rosalie and I have traveled to Italy, Sicily, and Sardinia with friends. Rosalie has family in Moliterno, Italy which is a small town in the southern Italian region of Basilicata. We have visited the family on several occasions, and I have to say they are the most loving and caring people I have ever met.

Visiting Rosalie’s family in Moliterno, Italy
Seated L – R: Vincenzo Zambrino, Giovanni Zambrino, Maria Luisa
Standing L – R: Megan Garner, Jack Garner, Rosalie Garner, Fortunato Petrocelli, Letizia Cotardo,
Maria Petrocelli, Elena Petrocelli, Leigh Garner Christian, Angelo Zambrino.

Brown: What advice would you give to your 20-year-old self?
Garner: Keep a positive attitude and surround yourself with positive people. Always strive to do your best. Be honest with yourself and everyone else. Get to work early and stay late.

Brown: What are some small things that make your day better?

Garner: I usually make my way to the kitchen around 5:30 AM, make coffee, unload the dishwasher and spend some time in prayer.
Brown: Tell us something about yourself that not many people may know.

Garner: I enjoy listening to classical music. However, on Fridays, which happens to be cleaning day at the Garner Household, I have been known to crank up the volume on our stereo while listening to Guns N’ Roses as I vacuum and mop the floors.

Brown: What’s your greatest accomplishment?

Garner: My greatest accomplishment was marrying Rosalie and raising a family, mostly with her help.

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?

Garner: I hope that I will be remembered as a good and faithful servant.


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 contacted at bbrown@olemiss.edu.