Monday, November 23, 2020

Bonnie Brown: Q&A with Brenda West, former Associate Director of Alumni Affairs

*Editor’s Note: The latest installment in the Ole Miss Retirees features is Brenda West, former Associate Director of Alumni Affairs. 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.

Brenda West.

Brenda West thought her husband Bill ‘s assignment to Ole Miss in 1973 to teach freshmen Army ROTC and to coach the rifle team would be a single chapter in her life. Little did she know that she and her family would be returning to Oxford to put down their roots in the community and would inject their many collective energies and talents here.

Brown: Where did you grow up? Describe your home town and what was special about it.

West: I grew up in Hopkinsville, Kentucky, a small town in western Kentucky near the Land Between the Lakes where my mother was born. If you’ve read one of my favorite authors, Bobbie Ann Mason, you will have a good description of this part of the state. Christian County is beautiful farm country. When I was young, tobacco was the cash crop. When we visit now, we still see some growing in the fields, and in the fall, you can see it hanging in the barns. The smell is unforgettable. I never lived on a farm like my mother did. We always lived near my father’s people, closer to town.

Brown: Please talk about your parents, siblings, and any crazy aunts and uncles.

West: Mother was one of 11 children raised on a farm in Trigg County, Kentucky. My father, one of five and no farmer, was born in Robertson County, Tennessee, no more than an hour away. They raised my brother and sister during the Great Depression, and then I came along at the end of WWII. They did not have an easy time. One of my fondest memories was visiting Mother’s family home where we would gather on the front porch and the brothers would break out their fiddles, guitars, and harmonicas, and play old-time bluegrass and gospel songs. Being strict Southern Baptists, no one was allowed to dance, but the music begged for tapping your toes. Two of my cousins actually recorded a gospel album in the ’60s. Sadly, I did not inherit any musical talent. Perhaps that is why I’ve been obsessed with collecting records my entire life.

Brown: Tell us about your childhood.

West: I went to a city neighborhood school in 1st grade, but when we moved near my Dad’s family, I walked to a nearby two-room school for 2nd and 3rd grade. We were allowed to play outside when our grade (a row) finished with lessons as long as we didn’t disturb the other classes. Hopscotch and tag were our favorites. We were terrified of the teacher/principal who had the other room with 5th, 6th, 7th, and 8th grades. A new school was finally built when I entered 4th grade. Then my passion was playing ball with the boys at recess. We had fall festivals back then, and I was the lucky girl who was named Queen of the Festival my 4th and 5th year! I think it was because I sold the most seeds in the fundraising program. I still have my paper crowns. I also won a Brownie camera in 5th grade. I can’t remember now if it was for selling seeds or if it was a geography contest. I loved my 5th-grade teacher, Mrs. Price, and dreaded the 6th-grade teacher who had a terrible reputation. We sat in rows determined by our grades. I still feel sorry for the girl who sat in the last seat in the last row. A terrible memory.

Brown: What were your favorite things to do as a kid?

West: I loved playing ball. Reading Nancy Drew books was also a passion. We made clover chains every spring and tied them around the big maple trees that lined our yard. This house was on Highway 41 N, the road from Miami to Chicago, so big 18-wheelers passed the house every day. We would stand out front and get them to blast their big horns for us. We lived next door to my uncle who owned a truck line and every year he would let the traveling gypsies camp on his property. I loved to hide under the shrubs and watch them cook and play music, all the while scared that I would be kidnapped!

Brown: What’s your earliest memory?

West: Waking up in a big chair with high fever when I was 5. It turned out to be parents’ most dreaded and feared diagnosis: polio. Luckily, under the care of my mother’s chiropractor, I recovered with no serious side effects.

Brown: What did you want to be when you were a kid?

West: A teacher.

Brown: If you were a teacher, what subject would you like to teach?

West: Reading.

Brown: What was your favorite subject in school?

West: Probably English. I did love Spanish and often a word will still pop in my head today and I wonder where it had been stored all these years.

Brown: Describe your teenage self.

West: My friends were pretty tame by today’s standards. Girls had slumber parties where we all brought records, marked with fingernail polish, so we would get home with our treasures. When I got my driver’s license at 16, I became obsessed with cars. I would race anyone who took a dare! I met Bill when I was 17, and accepted a date with him when I saw his car, a 1955 red and white Chevrolet!

Brenda and Bill at her senior prom.

A boy I had gone to high school with had joined the Army and he and Bill became friends. Bill would come to town with him to get a home-cooked meal at his mother’s, and one night they stopped by the skating rink where I was with my friends. The rest is history. We started dating, he took me to my senior prom, and we two teenagers married at the Second Baptist Church in Hopkinsville after high school graduation. Telling you this actually reminds me of a couple of songs from that time!

Brown: Where did you go to school?

West: Hopkinsville High and Christian County High before enrolling at Ole Miss.

Brown: Tell us how/when your Ole Miss “story” began. What did you know about Oxford and Ole Miss before you began your career?

West: We first knew about Ole Miss in 1962, the summer we got married. Bill was in the 101st Airborne Division that was sent here during the Meredith crisis. When he was assigned to Ole Miss in 1973 to teach freshmen Army ROTC and to coach the Rifle Team, I was a little apprehensive about moving here. We visited Oxford, checked out the schools, and decided we would be OK for three years and then move on. I was determined to use this assignment to finish my college degree. Michele and Debby were in elementary school, so I registered the day after our furniture arrived from our previous station at Ft. Campbell. As it turned out, we stayed long enough for me to get my degree and accept a fellowship for my graduate degree. I then taught one year in Holly Springs. We had been here five years and none of us wanted to leave when Bill got his final assignment to, of all places, Hawaii! We were there two years when we convinced Bill to retire so we could come “home.” Oxford had set its hooks in us. We’ve been here ever since.

Brown: Please talk about the interview process. With whom did you interview? Who hired you?

West: When we came back from Hawaii, I did not want to commute to Holly Springs again and there were no teaching positions open in Oxford. It was 1980 when I went to the personnel office and told them (either Buddy Chain or Gene Hartley) that I wanted to work at the Center for the Study of Southern Culture. Not looking at my degrees nor my recent position as Director of the Adult Learning Lab in Wahiawa, Hawaii, they asked me, “Can you type?” A little desperate for a job, I agreed to take the typing test and just barely passed. They sent me over to the Center to meet Bill Ferris who was looking for an “assistant,” which translated into a senior secretary position. He knew I had no secretarial skills, but he hired me anyway and today I am still thankful for the year I spent there. Friendships made there in 1980 are still with me today.

Brown: I know you worked at the Alumni Association. Talk about your responsibilities and the function/mission of that entity.

West: One day my friend Leone King called me to say there was a job in the Alumni Association that I should check out, that of a Records Coordinator. I could not imagine being happy stuck in a room with thousands of records to organize. She convinced me to at least go talk to Jim Butler, who was the new Director of Alumni Affairs. This position offered an immediate $2,000 raise to $9,000, and the records began to look more appealing. There was no computerized record-keeping at that time and there were thousands of records waiting to be updated: new addresses, deaths, degrees, marriages, etc. They had just purchased an IBM 36 computer and needed someone to organize, not program, the data going into this new system. It took a year for two staff members to create and code records so we could communicate with our base.

With that accomplished, my duties expanded to other areas such as class reunions, organizing special interest groups, coordinating all campus requests for computer services, Alumni Association membership program, and general administrative duties. We created an alumni recruiting team, a career alumni network, a new band support group, a Black Alumni reunion program, a reunion of Daily Mississippian staffers, a yearbook editors reunion, cheerleaders, on and on. Once we had the records coded, we were able to create groups and expand participation of our alumni in so many ways. It was a very rewarding experience, and at times like football season, very exhausting. I retired as Associate Director of Alumni Affairs.

Brown: Describe your most memorable days at work—good and/or bad.

West: Meeting outstanding Ole Miss Alumni from across the state and nation was my most memorable and enjoyable experience. I still consider many of them friends to this day. The most challenging part were the long days and weekends we spent with so many programs bringing more and more alums back to campus. The most memorable event was the WWII reunion, an idea to bring people back for a reunion since many had different graduation years because of the war. Gov. Winter and Maralyn Bullion were co-chairs and the ROTC departments were our partners. We had a vintage car parade, vintage airplanes flying over the Lyceum where it took a crane to hoist our huge American flag, and a modern aircraft display at the airport. The American flag, housed in the USS Constitution, had been unfurled on the Square along with the British and Canadian flags on Friday. Hundreds of students walked under the flags to hold them off the street. School teachers brought children to the Square to watch and to hear the patriotic speeches. What a weekend that was to see alumni return and connect with old classmates who had started out together but had graduated in different years because of the war.

If there were bad times, it was only because we had so many events that took place in the evenings and on weekends, and there was no such thing as comp time for a Monday morning rest.

Brown: How long did you work at Ole Miss? Talk about your decision to retire.

West: I worked at Ole Miss for 23 years, and since I already had two years in the system, I decided at age 59 to take my 25-year retirement and rest up a bit. Bill had retired a year earlier and we wanted to travel. Our children were grown and doing great, so we were free to chart a new course for ourselves.

After a trip to Alaska and a year of no commitments, I worked for a short while with Dr. Gloria Kellum to get the Mississippi Hills designated as a National Heritage Area. Then I worked as a tour guide for Elderhostel (now called Road Scholars) for a couple of years and led music-themed tours from Nashville to New Orleans by land and on the Mississippi River. When Debby announced that twins were on the way, we spent a lot of time in Boston before, during, and after they were born.

Brown: If you could start your career over, what would you do differently?

West: I have had so many wonderful career moves from my little classroom in Holly Springs, to directing the first adult learning center in Wahiawa, Hawaii back to my first home at the Center for the Study of Southern Culture, and finally the amazing time with our Ole Miss Alumni. I don’t know if I would do anything differently. I did wonder at times what would have happened had I stayed with my first love of teaching reading.

Brown: What are the most useful skills you have?

West: I suppose my organizational skills are my strongest suit. They got me through all of the positions I just mentioned. There are tons I wish I had. Like playing a musical instrument, singing, growing deer resistant flowers!

Brown: What’s the best gadget/thing you own?

West: Actually there are two I would hate to give up: my iPhone which lets me Facetime my family and my iPod Classic with over 10,000 songs!

Brown: What’s something you keep telling yourself you’ll do when you “have the time?”

West: Finish the stack of books in my “To Read” corner and do more genealogy research.

Brown: What are your favorite family traditions?

West: Having my family gather around the dining room table and not getting up until we have exhausted ourselves with food, storytelling, and perhaps a game or two. We know when the guys start squirming in their seats that it’s time to get up!

Brown: What would your family and friends say is your best trait?

West: I hope they would say loyalty. With that, they are comfortable in knowing that you love them unconditionally and will always stand by them.

Brown: What is the best advice you ever received?

West: “Never say never, Mrs. West,” said Jim Butler. He was an exceptional boss who offered me many opportunities to advance as a professional. I was extremely lucky to have had two excellent bosses at Ole Miss: Bill Ferris and Jim Butler, men who could not have been more different, but each in his own way gave me confidence to grow in my professional life.

Brenda and Bill West with daughters Debby and Michele.

Brown: I know you have two daughters. Please talk about them.

West: Michele is a national board-certified teacher and recently retired after 25 years. She has three degrees from Ole Miss and now supervises student teachers from Ole Miss. She’s an artist, an interior decorator, showroom manager for an art glass company, and any other thing she sets her mind to. She and her husband, John Stuber, live in Holly Springs. She is heavily involved in the community and clearly loves her life there.

Brenda West with daughters Debby West and Michele West Stuber.

Debby and her husband, Doug Harper, met at Millsaps, but both have graduate degrees from Ole Miss. Debby put her career on hold to raise her family and has been honored many times for her role as a school volunteer over the past 10 years. They have three children. William will be a junior at Ole Miss next fall, and his twin sisters, Eleanor and Adeline, just turned 13. They live in Highland Village, Texas.

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

West: Getting married so young. Raising two beautiful daughters. Being an Army wife for 20 years. Vietnam. Going back for a degree. Choosing Oxford as our permanent home. My association with Ole Miss and the early support I received from a group of university women. Being involved in numerous committees and programs in the community. Being a grandmother to three beautiful grandchildren. Being supported by a loving husband for soon to be 58 years!

Brown: Which of your personality traits has been the most useful?

West: I like people, being around people, connecting people.

Brown: What are some of the biggest challenges you have faced?

Brenda with daughters Michele and Debby.
Husband Bill carried this photo with him
while in Vietnam.

West: Being a young Army wife with two children while Bill served two tours in Vietnam was the biggest challenge. In the middle of those tours, a short one year tour in Germany with a 2-year old and a new kindergartener with no family or support group nearby presented another round of difficult challenges. I think I became a stronger person after this turbulent time. Actually, I know I did!

Brown: What do you do to improve your mood when you are in a bad mood?

West: Play music! Or walk out back to my little cabin near the woods that I call My Old Kentucky Home and sit on the porch swing. I can easily lose track of time down there. It’s filled with Kentucky memories of a simpler time and helps me realize how good my life has been.

Brown: Describe a perfect day.

West: It may have been this past Thanksgiving when we rented a house in Pass Christian for the family. We flew kites over the Gulf, ate wonderful seafood, played games, read books, and shopped with the granddaughters.

Brown: How do you want to make others feel?

West: Comfortable, safe, important, and loved.

Brown: What’s the best and worst part of getting older?

West: Freedom! Freedom to do the things you want to do. Freedom from sweating the small stuff and enjoying friends. Freedom to spoil your grandchildren. Freedom to enjoy a pajama day if you want! This is the best part of getting older.

Worst part is accepting the fact that the body parts get a little creaky now and then.

Brown: What has become your routine since you retired?

West: I don’t have a set routine. I might be more productive if I did, but each day is different and I do what feels good about each day. My earlier involvement with the Arts Council and now the Friends of the Museum and Memory Makers, however, have prompted me to keep an updated calendar.

Brown: Do you have hobbies?

West: Bill and I enjoy traveling since we both retired. We’ve taken several European River trips, a couple of visits to Belize for Jerry Jeff Walker’s annual birthday party, and lots of road trips across our great country. I sometimes think I enjoy planning trips almost as much as actually taking them! We’re old school with our backroad adventures, still using the fold-out state maps instead of the navigation system in our vehicles. We avoid the interstates as much as possible. I wrote several travel articles for the Oxford Eagle early on and enjoyed reliving our time on the road. And, with our grands near Dallas, that is a favorite destination.

I belong to a wonderful book club that meets once a month, so reading our selections is a favorite hobby of sorts. And then there’s my music. I collect everything from Victrola records, albums, 45’s, and CD’s, and luckily have the means to play them all. I even have a cassette player and tons of cassettes that I just can’t part with! I’m attempting to catalog my collection, just for fun, to see if some of the older records have any value other than sentimental. Funny, but I never bought into the 8-track fad.

Brenda with something from her Elvis collection.

I have been collecting Elvis art for a long time and the collection has filled our stairwell walls! It’s been such a fun hobby and I do get teased about it some. I have items like the Elvis/Nixon snow globe, hand-painted Elvis on an ostrich egg, a set of Elvis Russian stacking dolls, an original painting I found in Belize, several pieces of Elvis folk art, many framed images of the king, and of course, a large Velvet Elvis that catches the evening sunlight

My other hobby is genealogical research. I can get lost in time once I start researching family history. Imagine trying to search for my father’s Jones line!

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?

West: This is a tough question with which to leave this interview! I like to read obituaries in the Clarion-Ledger. I am drawn to the stories of people’s lives, their achievements, the glowing tributes from family and friends, and I wonder what will my obituary read like? What have I done that is worthy of such note? I guess my legacy will be determined by those I have loved and crossed paths with along the way.


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 her at bbrown@olemiss.edu.