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Bonnie Brown: Q&A with Joyce Whittington

The latest interview in the Ole Miss Retirees features Joyce Whittington, former Director of Career Services at the Ole Miss Law School. 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.

Anyone who knows Joyce Whittington will tell you she’s like lightning in a bottle—full of energy, vibrant, determined, and ready to help anyone, any time.  Love her smile and “can do” attitude.  She has a great story to share.  

Brown:  I understand that you are a Mississippi Gulf “coastie.”    What was it like growing up in Long Beach?  What was special about your community?

Whittington:  You couldn’t really call me a “Coastie” as my Dad was military, and we moved about every three years.  While I was born on the Coast at Keesler AFB, we moved a number of times but returned to the Coast two times.  I started first grade in Long Beach and graduated from Long Beach High School (LBHS) but was gone a number of years in between.  So, I started school with some of the same people I graduated with, but by the time we returned, the cliques were already established.  As it turned out, most of my friends from high school were the “new” kids like me, and we established our own clique, being mindful to add other new kids that arrived during those high school years.  One of the kids I was in first grade with over sixty years ago as part of that group and a number of us still see each other when we’re on the Coast.  We’ve all been friends for between fifty and sixty years.  I consider that pretty remarkable, and we’ve kept up through high school, college, marriage, divorce, babies, and deaths of some, deaths of spouses and deaths of parents.  And we’ll drop what we are doing to help each other to this day.

Brown:  Tell us about your childhood.

Whittington:  Because I was a military kid, moving was exciting to me, and I looked forward to a new school and new kids.  I was something of a tomboy and loved running, skating, anything outdoors. I remember Texas being so hot the ground would split, and Mama would yell, “Be careful where you walk!”  But we lived on base and there were what seemed like miles of sidewalks for us to skate and run on.  Because we lived in the South as a general rule, the weather was always warm so being outside was great –especially since I don’t have any recollection of air conditioning until we returned from Scotland in the mid-60s!  And I loved school – I still remember wanting to learn cursive writing – in the first grade!  Poor Mrs. Murphy just didn’t know what to do with this kid that would rather learn cursive than play outside.  Even in the first and second grades, my favorite place was already the library.  I also remember thinking, “Why do I have to sit here?  I already know that.”  I was in 7th grade when we arrived at Prestwick AFB in Scotland and had a teacher, Mr. Pinckney from Boston, at our military school who had 7th-grade students (9 students on one side of the room) and 8th-grade students (6 students on the other side of the room).  I’m sure he had lesson plans, but he apparently was before his time.  He introduced us to things that were apparently far removed and way ahead of the same classes in the states.  We had lab animals, learned to play golf, were very involved in science fairs, reading lab, sports days, and lots of day trips.   That was a great thing at the time but made for many of us being miserable upon returning to public schools in the States.   Remember that famous yellow Biology book with, I believe, beehives on the front?  The one that 10th, 11th and 12th grades used for Biology class?  Well, I had that book in the 7th grade and was bored to tears to have to take it as a requirement again in the States.  It was the same in multiple classes.  Guess when you only have 15 kids in class, you can do the “required” things and then move on to unexpected things!  Made for a difficult adjustment though.

Brown:  What is your favorite childhood memory?

Whittington:  Living in Ayr, Scotland.  I look back now and think that living there in the early 60s was comparable to living in the states in the 40s and 50s.  At only 12 and 13, it was a safe place to be, and I had the freedom I never would have had in the States during that time.  Friends and I rode the double-decker bus – or walked – anywhere we wanted to go.  The winters were long with daylight just hitting at 8:00 when we got on the bus for school, and it was dark when we got home at 4:00.  But the summers – and no bedtimes – were glorious.  We could eat dinner, play outside and then take the bus for a 9:00 movie at the local cinema – and walk home afterward at 11:00 because it wasn’t dark yet.  Saturdays were often spent with friends or with Mom and Dad going into the High Street for more looking than spending.  Some Saturdays were spent with a dear friend, Morag, and we would visit the bookstore.  With an allowance of a dollar a week, which was 7 shillings, I could buy a book for 5 shillings, pay the bus fare, and still have enough for a snack at the local candy shop.  Sundays were often spent with Dad filling up the German car we had (there were knobs that he and my Mom never touched as they had no idea what they were for!) with gas on base on Friday as it was rationed, and then us all getting in the car, with Mom and her map of where we could go. Dad didn’t want to buy gas “on the economy” as it was so very expensive.  They’d figured out how many miles we could go before we had to turn around and go back home without having to buy more gas.  And the picture-taking!  Mom has so many pictures often with no idea of where we were.  We have a family-famous picture of a beautiful bridge; ask Mama where it was, and you get the “I’ve no idea”-Mom’s response.

Brown:  Please talk about your parents and any siblings.

Whittington:  My Dad is USAF Retired Senior Master Sergeant Billy F. Dorris, and my Mom is Helen, now 89 and 90 years old.  Still living on their own and very much in charge.  I have two younger brothers, David, fourteen months younger than me, and Paul, five years younger.  

Brown:  What qualities do you admire about your parents?

Whittington:  My parents are so very special.  Dad has no recollection of his mother as she died prior to his second birthday.  His Dad, thinking he was going the right thing, left him with his maternal grandmother.  Upon her death prior to his teens, he was pretty much living on his own, going to school in Anniston, AL and going to Ft. McClellan to sell newspapers after school.  That’s where he learned that there were kind people who would see that he was fed.  Before he was legal of age at 17, he joined the USAF at 16.  While in the Air Force, he finished high school and attended college.   He retired with twenty years of service at age 36, working then for the Social Security Administration and the United States Postal Service, retiring again in his sixties.  His memory for numbers – and John Wayne movies – is astounding.  Mama was the fourth of six children born to a share-cropping dad and a former school-teacher mom in North Alabama.  Mama would be the first to tell you that raising kids was easier for my Granddad than raising crops as he wasn’t particularly interested in working the land.  I think my Grandma held it all together.  You know the saying, “we had what we needed, but not perhaps what we wanted”?  That didn’t apply to them.  Biscuits and cornbread for many meals was often the norm.  Meat was seldom on the table.  But as Mama says, “we didn’t know we were poor compared to others, because no one had much of anything.” So, on May 23, 1950, Mama graduated from Blacksher High School in Uriah, AL and on May 24, 1950, she and Dad married.  Grandma and Granddad rode the bus with them to Lucedale, MS, and Mom and Dad got back on the bus and rode to Biloxi, where Dad had rented a room in a home where they shared a bathroom with the entire family.  I arrived 11 months later, David 14 months after me.  By then, they were living in base housing.  People talk about self-made folks – my parents are two of them.  They had little and married on love and faith alone.  My Dad was not an officer – he was enlisted.  Money was always scarce, especially with three kids, while in the military.  But it was a life they chose and lived it well.  They are my heroes.

Joyce’s parents Helen and Billy Dorris

Brown:  What subjects were hardest for you in school?

Whittington:  Nothing was particularly hard – there were just things I had no interest in, which was anything to do with the sciences.  I think a lot of it had to do with several teachers I ended up with who didn’t (a) particularly enjoy teaching or (b) hold our interest.  It happens.  We all know or had someone like that.

Brown:  Who was your favorite teacher in school and why was he/she your favorite?

Whittington:  Mr. Royce Ladner, Advanced English, senior year, LBHS!  Not only did he teach me how to write, but I learned all about “fatal errors” while writing.  His theory was to be a writer, you have to write.  And so we did.  Every day of my senior year.  Imagine having a pop quiz every time you walked into the class.  He was also the gentleman in charge of the school newspaper which I was on staff, so I had him for those hours as well.   I learned upon arriving at college that he had done a great thing, teaching us how to write.  And to make things more fun, he and I got to take two graduate classes together at USM my last two quarters.  My only issue with Mr. Ladner was he LOVED Shakespeare!  Tragedy or comedy, he loved the man’s works.  I detested them, struggled through them as required for one of my majors, English.  So, you can imagine his surprise when he walked into a night class on campus and there I sat.  In “The Tragedies of Shakespeare”.  He reveled in those two classes and I’ll just say if I had to take those two darn classes, he made them as palatable as possible.

Brown:  What were your favorite pastimes when you were young?

Whittington:  Reading.  Loved spending time in any bookstore or library I could find.  Still own the books I bought weekly for several years in Ayr, Scotland at 5 shillings each.  Discovered how miserable I could be if stuck somewhere, anywhere, with no book even at an early age.  So, I usually had one with me.

Brown:  What was your first job?  What were your responsibilities?  How much were you paid?

Whittington:  I started babysitting at age 12.  But my first real job was as a waitress and short-order cook at the Bearcat Drive Inn in Long Beach at age fourteen and a half – I was supposed to be 15 but started there in October prior to turning 15 the next April.  I think the owner, Coach Jerry Rouse, just hoped and prayed a food inspector would show up during the work week when I was in school as I worked after school and on weekends.  I made 50 cents an hour to start and worked up to $1.25 by the time I was a senior in high school.  My parents were incensed with that salary, but I loved working there.  The bigger the order, the more people there, the faster I worked—which was fast.  I learned at that job that I could juggle a number of things at one time and do it well which was great for my self-esteem.  Besides, it was the place many of the kids hung out so as the new kid, I was able to meet more of them.  I also learned that while Coach Rouse could be a curmudgeon and I never saw much of a sense of humor, he liked me because I showed up, on time, never late, and could work rings around many of the other girls working there.  Being bombarded with Wednesday “specials” was fun to me and I rarely panicked.  Excellent first job.

Brown:  Tell us about your college experience at Southern Miss.  

Whittington:  Pretty much hated college.  Got in and out as fast as possible.  One thing I got out of it was great friends!  I was the only LBHS girl graduate from my class that was there that didn’t pledge a sorority, a cost that I didn’t want my parents to have to pay.  So, my “guy” friends from high school took care of me – John Loftus, Prentiss Rutland, and Mike McGehee.   They always met me for meals so I wouldn’t be alone.  Two of them are gone now and I miss them.  One of my best friends from high school introduced me to one of her friends from Catholic school in Bay St. Louis – we became roommates the next quarter. Things got better with that.   I started college in Fall of 1969, mere weeks after Hurricane Camille, and finished coursework in Summer of 1972.  Back then, you could take 20 quarter hours as long as you maintained top grades.  I made darn sure I kept those grades up because I wanted to be done with it. Walked across stage with class in May of 1973, with double majors in English and History and triple minors of Business, Spanish and Sociology.  But the best thing about USM?  That’s where Darryail and I ran into each other again for the first time in three years!

Brown:  Did you have a mentor who influenced your career path?

Whittington:  I don’t think very many people can just pick one mentor. I’ve always had a job, starting with being a babysitter; a waitress/short order cook, worked retail counter, then as secretary for a law firm, an insurance company, a paper company, a federal agency and two hospitals, all by age 22.  I always had a summer job or several jobs at a time.  No mentor had entered the picture until I arrived at Ole Miss!  I think by then I had learned the kind of person I DIDN’T want to work for rather than the kind of person I DID want to work for.  Gloria Kellum was one of the ones I worked with that I admire so much.  I’ve known her since my first job on campus, before she was Dr. Kellum.  Always with a smile on her face and her “Ain’t life grand?” comments that made me smile.  Then there was Professor Carolyn Ellis Staton, and I knew her first as Carolyn Ellis.  Again – a glass half-full kind of person.  Both brilliant, both kind, both wanting to do what was best for others.  My kind of people.  

Brown:  Tell us how/when your Ole Miss “story” began?   Who hired you? What was the interview like?

Whittington:   We married in early November of 1973 and were in Oxford a week later.  I worked two or three temp jobs on campus that first month and could not believe how low the salaries were.  I was warned by locals where NOT to look for a job on campus and left one scheduled interview as the person who was to interview me kept me waiting two hours.  I decided I did not want to work for someone so rude.  I interviewed with Dr. Thomas A. Wentland, Department Chair of Communicative Disorders (CD), in early December.  First, he pointed out there were errors on my resume as it appeared I had worked two jobs at the same time.  I pointed out that the dates were correct as I had indeed worked those two jobs at the same time – and I also told him I was taking classes at the same time.  He checked typing skills, saw that I could spell from the spelling test, and offered me the job that day.  He was also kind enough to tell me that if I could start almost immediately, I would be able to be off the two weeks the University took at Christmas and get paid for it.  So, I started work two days later as secretary in that department making $280 a month.  Still have that pay stub.  

Brown:  What position(s) did you hold?  What were your job responsibilities?  

Whittington:  I stayed in CD from 1973 until 1978 and did all the scheduling for the speech and hearing evaluations, hearing aid evaluations, and speech therapy sessions.  Typed all of the reports and was the receptionist for the department.  I had to learn to prioritize which reports got typed first and learned to tell some faculty that they’d get their report when they got their report.  Always someone coming and going, and I learned quickly that I may start typing a report and not finish it until hours later.  Juggling became a part of my life as they kept enlarging the faculty but never the staff. Throw in all the drama with certain faculty and I’m amazed I stayed five years!  Many of those faculty are friends who we see every year now.  Three of us couples recently met in Serenbe, GA; one now living in Iowa, one in New Jersey and us!

Brown:  It seems that everyone has days at work that are memorable.  Tell us about your best and worst days at work.  

Whittington:  I genuinely loved most days at the Law School after I became the Director of Career Services and Scholarships in the Fall of 1986.  I loved working with my students.  I loved hearing their stories of what they had done and what they wanted to do.  I loved the workshops I did, from “What Can You Do with a Law Degree?” to that very first workshop with my 1Ls.  I loved the fast pace of on-campus interviewing, the alums coming back to campus, the greetings and hugs I received from them.  I loved the phone calls from the kids telling me they had a job or had passed the Bar.  I loved graduation and Awards Day where I was introduced to parents and grandparents and kids.  I loved hearing from the kid who graduated last in the class and that now had a job.  I loved being told thank you for my help and that I had indeed made a difference. I loved calling kids to tell them they had been named recipient of a scholarship.   

The bad days were when I had a student in my office who was struggling with school and not being in top ten percent after first set of exams. All kids in law school have always been in top of everything in their lives.  Now, for whatever reason, they are not.  It is crippling for so many.   I still remember the kids who had absolutely no resources if they needed two new tires or had an unexpected medical bill.  I always had students who would run out of money near the end of the semester.  I worried about the kids who still had to take the Bar and wondered where the money would come from.  I remember the days where we lost a student or a faculty member to death and how it affected my kids.  One of my worst days was seeing an exit form that I prepared for all graduates, asking for any ideas of how we could improve the office. And remember – before I retired, I had three classes in a row of 200, so my assistant and I were servicing close to 600 kids.   One of my little darlings actually wrote that someone should have told her that she could have looked for a job somewhere other than through on-campus interviews.  Keep in mind that this young lady was very bright!  I was stunned that she made it my fault that she didn’t have sense enough to look elsewhere for a job!  It broke my heart!   Some bad days had to do with obstreperous faculty and often a difficult dean.  I had nine deans in eleven years – some should worry I will write a book – same goes for faculty!

Brown:  How long did you work at Ole Miss?

Whittington:  35 years!  And 30 years were at the Law School.  I started at age 22 and retired at 57. Since the average career span of a Career Services professional was 2.6 years at one time, I was very much considered “old guard” in that world. Few were in this profession in the southeast as long as I was.

Brown:  What advice would you give to your 20-year-old self?

Whittington:  Relax more.  It’s not a race.

Brown:   How did you and your husband Darryail meet?

Whittington:  At a wedding in 1970 where he was Best Man and I was Maid of Honor.   He was recently home from Vietnam.   Then we ran into each other on USM’s campus in the Spring of 1972.  He remembered me and introduced himself.

Joyce and Darryail in Toledo, Spain

Brown:  Your son Ryan practically grew up on the campus.  What is he doing these days?    

Whittington:  He is the Director of Strategy and Brand Marketing on campus.  He seems to go from meeting to meeting and job seems as fast-paced as mine was.  His wife, Beth, is Assistant to the Dean of the Business School.  Both hold master’s degrees from UM, even though she went to State for her undergrad degree!

We are thrilled to share the joyous news that we will be welcoming Baby Girl Whittington to our family sometime around Thanksgiving.  We are so looking forward to spoiling our new granddaughter!  Hope Ryan and Beth are ready for this exciting adventure.  

Joyce with husband Darryail, daughter-in-law Beth, and son Ryan

Brown:  If you had a warning label, what would yours say?

Whittington: “Long fuse.  But don’t make her mad.”

Brown:  Who is that one person you can talk to just about anything?

Whittington:  My husband.  As a friend, Conny Parham, retired Registrar at the Law School.  We still have coffee together!

Brown:  If you could make one rule that everyone had to follow, what rule would that be?

Whittington:  Everyone is the same.  Treat them as such.

Brown:  What was your best birthday?

Whittington:  The next one!

Brown:  Do you have hobbies?

Whittington:  Reading, reading, reading!  Eclectic taste that includes the Holocaust, WWII History in Europe, novels by Hilderbrand, Thayer, Monroe, Frank, any type of biography and current best sellers by certain authors.  I also turn out a crocheted baby blanket about once a month.

Brown:  What would be your ideal way to spend the weekend?

Whittington:  Cook a great meal, read a great book, and watch old comedy movies with stars like Doris Day, Deanna Durbin, Cary Grant, Franchot Tone, Claudette Colbert. 

Brown:  What song/artist makes you unconditionally happy?

Whittington:  I used to love playing fun music in my office during law exams – Ricky Martin’s “Livin’ La Vida Loca” brought the kids into my office in droves! Love Pharrell Williams’ “Happy”.  

Brown:  What’s the most memorable compliment you’ve ever received?

Whittington:  From one of my favorite deans, Professor Samuel M. Davis.  “You do good work, Joyce.  Good work.”  He has no idea how great that made me feel!

Brown:  Tell us something about yourself that people might not know.

Whittington:  I don’t like being in large groups of people. I’d rather stay home.  

Brown:  What three words do you think your friends would use to describe you?

Whittington:  Kind, generous, thoughtful.  Some days – driven and a little OCD.

Brown:  What is your favorite way to relax?

Whittington:  In bed with a book and several pieces of chocolate

Brown:  What makes you happy?

Whittington:  Traveling, meeting friends; my husband and kids make me smile.

Joyce in Bratislava, Slovakia at Christmas 2019

Brown:  What makes you angry?

Whittington:  Bigotry, prejudices, mistreating others for no reason other than someone is different from you; ineptness, people getting paid to do a job and not doing it; anyone hurting kids, old people or animals; kids going hungry; a lot of politicians!

Brown:  What are some things that you’ve checked off your bucket list?  

Whittington:  More European travel since retiring.   Have hit a number of countries on my list.

Brown:  What remains on your bucket list?

Whittington:  Going with my husband to several other places, including Alaska (his list) and Amsterdam for a week (my list).  And I have a long list of places to travel in this country, including Santa Fe, NM, low country of SC and Martha’s Vineyard.

Brown:  What was the title of the first movie you watched in a movie theater?

Whittington:  I don’t remember but am guessing that since my Dad probably took me, it had John Wayne in it.

Brown:  Frank Sinatra said, “I would like to be remembered as a man who had a wonderful time living life, a man who had good friends, fine family—and I don’t think I could ask for anything more than that, actually.   How do you want to be remembered?

Whittington:  As someone who cared deeply for her family, her friends, her students, and her community.

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.

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