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Op-ed: Ole Miss Journalism Students Found a Tough Mentor, Abiding Friend in Dean Will Norton

Submitted by Bob Lewis

It was a balmy and carefree April morning in 1977 as I squeezed my large frame into a cramped classroom desk in Bishop Hall at Ole Miss for my 8 a.m. advanced reporting class.

Professor Will Norton was expressionless and intense as he entered the room. He was pissed. This can’t be good, I thought to myself. I was right.

He identified no one, but I knew from his first sentence that he was referring to a classmate – and me. Though college kids at the time, we had trespassed against acceptable standards of conduct for journalists that Will had taught and advocated with all of his being.

My classmate and I had been to happy hour the previous evening at The Gin, a favored Oxford saloon of the time. On the way back to campus, I began following a fire truck ― its lights flashing and siren wailing ― that pulled into the then-unnamed women’s dorm now known as Crosby Hall.

As the cops and fire beat reporter for The Daily Mississippian, a dorm fire was an irresistible story. Reeking of beer and clad in cutoff shorts, sandals and probably a T-shirt, I stupidly plodded in behind professional firefighters in full turnout gear and breathing apparatus as they descended a flight of stairs into the dorm basement. After looking around for a few minutes, they concluded it was a false alarm. No fire, no story.

My drinking buddy that afternoon returned to the Mississippian office and mistakenly wrote in his sports column that the Oklahoma Sooners were in the Big 10 Conference when they were actually in the Big 8 (now the Big 12).

In a low voice and seemingly through clenched teeth, Will recounted the prior evening’s foolishness for the 30 or so students in attendance.

He concluded with the guarantee that if he ever heard of anything else so reckless by either miscreant, he would make sure that neither ever worked in journalism. He let an agonizing silence linger for long moments before commencing that day’s lecture.

In the 40-plus years since, I have never consumed any amount of alcohol, no matter the circumstances, when there is any question of whether I am done with that day’s work.

As sobering as that experience was then, it is only one of the innumerable times when Will Norton showed me and other students that he cares deeply – about us and about journalism. It’s part of the reason that Will has been, is and forever will be my mentor and my friend.
It’s also why his recent announcement that he’s stepping aside as founding dean of the Ole Miss School of Journalism and New Media left me with mixed emotions.

There is the feeling of loss that I am sure thousands of Ole Miss journalism alumni and students share because of the contributions Will has made to our alma mater and to each of us, personally and professionally. No matter how long since we’d graduated, Will is always just a phone call away, ready to listen and advise his former students.

After a successful tenure as dean of the University of Nebraska’s journalism school, Will returned to Ole Miss in 2009, and transformed what had been the Department of Journalism into the School of Journalism, on par with the Schools of Liberal Arts, Education, Business, Engineering and Pharmacy.

Ole Miss has always had an enviable honor roll of acclaimed journalists and communications professionals: Curtis Wilkie, Rudy Abramson, Jesse Holland, Dan Goodgame, Otis Sanford, Harold Burson, Sidna Brower Mitchell, Ronnie Agnew, Greg Brock, Fred Anklam, Steve Riley, Stephanie Saul, Bill Rose, Shep Smith – the list continues growing to this day.

Under Will’s leadership and seemingly inexhaustible enthusiasm, Ole Miss Journalism gained the resources and the world-class faculty that put our alma mater in a league with such elite undergraduate journalism programs as Northwestern, Missouri, North Carolina, Texas, Arizona State and Maryland. It will be a high bar for Will’s successor as dean to maintain.

I also feel enormous happiness and relief for Will. He has more than earned the time to savor life’s beauty – time with Susan, with their children and soon-to-be grandchildren. To borrow an allegory that might appeal to Will’s seminary backgrounding, even Moses got to rest after 40 years of leading his people to the Promised Land.

I am comforted that although Will is giving up the helm, he will remain a revered and grounding presence on our Journalism faculty – something as important for today’s and tomorrow’s students as for yesterday’s alumni.

When I try to recall life as it was back in the mid-to-late 1970s, there was no way then to fathom how drastically the world – and media – would change. Will started in the time of print: manual typewriters and industrial hot-metal typography were giving way to rudimentary electronic phototypesetting. Not even the most futuristic science fiction fully envisioned a day just a few decades away when phones in our pockets would connect us wirelessly within seconds to more information than could be found in all the newspapers, official records and libraries in the world or allow us to transmit live video instantly through digital worldwide networks.

Will has helped generations of storytellers and truth-seekers navigate all of that and, in so doing, remained the rock – an unwavering standard of care and quality – for the many of us who know and love him.

Bob Lewis is an Ole Miss journalism alumnus who has served as a reporter and editor in Mississippi, Tennessee, Ohio, Indiana, Kentucky and Virginia. He also headed media relations for a major international law firm for six years. He lives in Richmond, Virginia, where he does freelance writing and media consulting.

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