The latest interview in the Ole Miss Retirees features Dr. Keith Womer. 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.
Keith and Rita Womer arrived in Oxford and immediately immersed themselves in the community with both contributing to the future successes of Ole Miss. You could often see Dr. Womer running through campus. He still runs but has now taken up golf. From what I know about the game, I don’t think he will find it as relaxing as a leisurely run.
Brown: Where were you born and where did you grow up? What is special about the place you grew up?
I was born in Meadville, Pennsylvania at the end of WWII. A snowstorm was approaching, and Mom rode the interurban electric from Cambridge Springs to Meadville by herself to be in a hospital. Dad was stationed on the west coast and didn’t meet me until I was 6 months old. Mom and I made the trip by train to Bremerton, Washington. I was named for an uncle of dad’s, Norman. But by the time I met him, I was used to being called Keith (my middle name) by mom and grandma.
We moved to Spring Grove, Pennsylvania when I was 5 and to Hanover, Pennsylvania when I was 10. So, I grew up mainly in Hanover. Spring Grove was a small papermill town, and Mom and Dad spent the first week looking for the dead rat that they were sure was under the back porch. But, of course, that was just the smell from the mill. We moved there so that Dad could start a funeral home but shortly after we arrived, he was called up for Korea and the funeral home never got off the ground there.
We moved to Hanover when Dad and a partner were able to buy a funeral home there. I was excited to move to the big town (population 15,000 instead of 2500); it had not one but two movie theaters. Nearly the first thing that I did was to go to the newspaper office and get a paper route. Afterwards I told my parents. Hanover was best known for Hanover shoes then but now it is known for snack foods—Snyder’s of Hanover and Utz potato chips. In the sixth grade my walk to school took me by a small pretzel bakery and we would go around back and get warm, soft, thumb-sized pretzels right out of the oven on the way to school. It was years later, well after I had left town, that I learned that Hanover was known as a sundown town. It now has a black mayor but a very small Black population.
Brown: Tell us about your parents, siblings, aunts, and uncles.
Womer: My dad, Paul, was a funeral director in Hanover, and we lived in an apartment over the funeral home. Mom (Margret) taught kindergarten in the public schools. She had started teaching after two years of college but while in Hanover she finished her degree by taking courses every summer for several years. I was the oldest of three kids. My brother, Tom, passed away last year but my sister, Jill, still lives in the area. My maternal grandmother and an aunt lived about 20 miles away, but the rest of the family was dispersed, so it was a special event to see most relatives.
Brown: Please talk about your childhood. What’s your earliest memory?
Womer: This story might give you a flavor of my childhood. The summer that my sister was born, 1952 I was 7 and Tom was not quite 6. Dad was out of town in the Navy. Tom and I decided to go fishing in the creek near the papermill about a quarter of a mile away. Mom knew about where we would be, but I can’t imagine this happening today and I am still surprised it happened then. After about an hour a storm was coming up and Mom, nearly nine months pregnant, grabbed umbrellas and raincoats and set out to find us. When she got to the creek it was already raining. She didn’t see us but there was a plank crossing the outlet for the effluent (waste) from the papermill leading to an island that she thought we might take. It was slippery and she fell in. Soaking wet from who knows what, she waddled back home without us. After the rain we returned and when asked (not very calmly) where we had been, we reported that when we saw the rain coming, we retreated to the guard shack at the papermill to wait it out. Tom and I always blamed Jill’s behavior on this incident.
Brown: Where did you go to school?
Womer: Through high school I always attended public schools. They were always close enough to walk to and I almost always came home for lunch. Even though she was teaching, Mom managed to get lunch on the table and get back to school for afternoon classes.
Brown: What were you really into when you were a kid?
Womer: I was not into organized sports. But pick-up games of baseball and football were common. There was a lot of fishing and swimming in the summer and ice skating in the winter. In junior high and high school years there were dances nearly every Saturday night.
Brown: Who influenced you in your early life?
Womer: Mainly my parents. Dad refinished furniture and delivered groceries in addition to being a funeral director and Mom was working on her degree in addition to teaching, so both taught me the importance of hard work and perseverance. They both did a good bit of volunteer work too.
Brown: Did you have a mentor who influenced your career choice? How did you choose your career?
Womer: An Economics faculty member at Miami University, Gene Klise, got me interested in the subject. In my senior year he asked me to grade quizzes for him and I thought then that I might be able to do economics for a career. That didn’t seem too important at the time though since I knew that I had four years of service in the Navy to do first.
Much later I hired Bob Edmister at Ole Miss. He too was a Miami graduate and, though I didn’t know him then, he had graded for Klise too. He may have graded some of my quizzes.
Brown: You attended Miami University for your bachelor’s degree. What led you there?
Womer: In my junior year in high school a friend of dad’s came through town. He had stayed in the Navy and was assigned to the NROTC unit at Miami. He told us about the Navy ROTC scholarship. I decided to take the test and was eventually selected to go to Miami. When I showed up in September of 1962 it was the first time I had ever been there.
Brown: Then you went on to Penn State for your PhD. Tell us about that choice.
Womer: In my senior year at Miami, I had orders to Submarine School in New London, Connecticut. That spring the Navy announced a new program that could grant a delay in reporting for active duty to work toward a Master’s degree. There was no indication of how selective this program would be, but I decided to apply. I wasn’t very confident that this would be approved but I did need to apply to graduate programs so I applied to stay at Miami and to Penn State. I knew that I would need an assistantship or some kind of financial aid to do this because the Navy program merely granted a delay—there was no funding. I was happy to get offered an assistantship from Penn State, but my fiancé Rita still had a course to finish at Miami after I graduated, so I was hoping to stay there. One spring day I received a message that the chair of the Economics Department at Penn State had called. I assumed that he would want to know if I was going to accept the assistantship but I had not heard from either the Navy or about support from Miami. Before I called back, I went to the Miami Economics Department, explained the situation, and asked if I could get the assistantship. They agreed to offer it and I went to call Penn State. When I did, I found out that instead of an assistantship they wanted to offer a full-ride fellowship, but I had to commit to pursue not a master’s degree, but a PhD that would take much longer. And they wanted to award it soon fearing that if they didn’t, they might lose the opportunity. I explained my Navy obligation and asked if I could get back to them. The chair was reluctant but gave me a day or two. I immediately went to the NROTC unit and asked to speak with the Commander, Captain Derr. I really didn’t have much hope that things would work out but I figured I could ask. After I explained things, the most amazing thing happened. Captain Derr picked up the telephone and called the Pentagon and ten minutes later I had a three-year delay to get the PhD. I had never seen anything happen so fast in the Navy before or since. So, a few months later, after Rita had finished her course, we were off to Penn State. I have been forever grateful to Captain Derr.
Brown: Talk about your path to Ole Miss. What was your very first job?
Womer: On finishing my PhD program, I owed the Navy four years. I was very fortunate to be assigned to the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey California. There I taught students in several master’s programs. I was the junior person in the classroom since all of the students outranked me but it was a good experience. There was a good group of young, recently married faculty and we enjoyed our time there. Stints followed at the Air Force Institute of Technology and at Clemson University. Though my degrees were in economics mostly I was in departments that focused on Operations Research and Statistics, often in Schools of Engineering.
Brown: Tell us about the interview process at Ole Miss–who did you meet with, what position were you hired for, your impression of the Ole Miss campus, etc.
Womer: The winter of 1986 found us at Clemson University. The family, Rita, Jon (14), Peter (10) and Mark (9), had just returned from a six-week teaching assignment in Shanghai. We were looking forward to resuming life in Clemson. Rex Cottle, my department chair at Clemson, had left the year before for Ole Miss and he called and asked if I would interview for the Economics and Finance Department Head position. On the interview trip I met with members of the department, Randy Boxx the Associate Dean, and Morris Marx, the Provost. I also met Gerald Walton who would be my neighbor on Ole Miss Drive. During the trip, I remember that we ate at a steak house off of the Square. It burned down before we moved. The Square at that time had two hardware stores and a coffee shop but nothing that was open in the evening.
Brown: What did you know about Ole Miss before coming here?
Womer: Very little. I had met a few Navy ROTC students from Ole Miss years before and Ole Miss played Clemson in the NIT a year or so before I came so I knew that the students sang Dixie and waved the rebel flag, but that was about it. What I did know was that Rex wanted to build a strong Business School and that there would be an opportunity to hire a number of bright young faculty members and be part of a great building process.
Brown: What were some of your responsibilities?
Womer: I arrived July 1 and the first task was to find three new faculty to staff courses that would start in August. There was no time to make tenure track hires but I called friends and put out ads to get courses covered with adjuncts. That first year the department hired eight faculty. That involved sifting through maybe three hundred application packages, interviewing about sixty, mostly new, PhDs at three different national meetings and hosting twelve or so applicants on campus. Funds were tight that year. I remember taxing the endowed professors in the department for the supplies that the department had provided so that we had enough money to print final exams.
Brown: What was the best time period of your life and why?
Womer: I really think that we enjoyed all of the phases of our life—even the ones that were so busy that they seemed to pass in a blur. We met and became friends with many people in different parts of the country. They were different of course but there were common interests and lots of opportunity for conversation and working together. Toward the end of my time at Clemson I started running which I continued at Ole Miss and to the present time. I am certainly healthier for that and I have met many friends in Oxford and in St Louis through that.
Brown: How have your goals changed over your life?
Womer: It seems like there were different goals at each stage of my life. After college I was focused on finishing my PhD in three years before reporting for active duty. Next, we were absorbed in family and getting our children off to a good start. At another stage, I was into recruiting graduate students to help with research on what I saw as really important problems. Then on building a department and finally on raising funds for a new business building.
Brown: How did you and your wife Rita meet?
Womer: We met on a blind date in the spring of 1963 at Miami. It was just an afternoon coke date. We have been a couple ever since. Part of my Navy obligation was that I could not be married while I was a student so we were married three days after my graduation and lived in married student housing while Rita finished up over the next few months. Rita has been my partner from the beginning. When I served as president of my fraternity she helped make sure things went smoothly and she was our biggest cheerleader. Later she entertained faculty and their spouses and, most importantly, in Clemson and in Oxford, she taught their children.
Brown: We’d love an update on your children.
Womer: Jon, our oldest is Director of the Office of Management and the Budget for the State of Rhode Island. He and his wife Valerie have two kids Audrey and Quinn. Peter is in Dallas working for Core Logic after they bought FNC. He and Susan have just started taking care of a very young foster child. Mark and his wife Fay live in St Louis near us. Mark is the CFO of the Department of Medicine at Washington University. They have three children Kailyn, Bren, and Sam and we get to spend a good bit of time with them.
Brown: What do you consider your greatest accomplishment?
Womer: I think that I have been a good example for others. My sons are successful and have stable marriages and my former PhD students have had successful careers. I think that my accomplishments are the successes of those that I have influenced.
Brown: Please tell me what 5 words describe you.
Womer: Persistent, listener, habitual, helpful, interested
Brown: In your opinion, what attributes/traits predict success in life?
Womer: First, careful thought about what you want to accomplish but then persistence, in particular, striving on after failure.
Brown: What one question can you ask someone to find out the most about them?
Womer: When I was interviewing potential faculty members I would have them describe their research and, as they were explaining their complex problem, I would ask a relatively naive question—maybe something like “Why did you do it that way?” My goal was to see if they would slow down and simplify the explanation like I would hope they would do for a student. If they answered something like, “That’s the way my dissertation advisor thought it should be done” then I knew that they were not right for our department.
Brown: What’s your favorite time waster?
Womer: I like to read, and I get to do that more lately. And I have just taken up golf.
Brown: How do you deal with stress?
Womer: Running is my stress reliever. There have been a number of times after a stressful department meeting or session with the Provost over budget issues that a therapeutic run allowed me to put things into perspective.
Brown: If you could master one skill you don’t have right now, what would it be?
Womer: Consistency at golf.
Brown: What’s your all-time favorite movie?
Womer: Probably one of the Lord of the Rings movies.
Brown: What is your biggest pet peeve?
Womer: People who are not interested in other’s ideas and opinions.
Brown: Do you have any hobbies?
Womer: Reading, running, and now golf. I was just getting started on retirement last summer when I was called back to serve as Interim Dean. Now that it is over I may need another hobby.
Brown: Do you have a favorite quote?
Womer: “Never attribute to malice that which can be explained by ignorance.”
Brown: Tell us about your favorite vacation destination and what makes it a favorite.
Womer: We have so many places that we would like to see that we don’t go back to many. One place that we did go back to many times was Chautauqua, New York. There we felt like we were in the early 20th century with no cars and plenty of time to read, to listen to lectures, and to enjoy the arts. Another though was the Mosel Valley in Germany. We stayed in a small town, took day trips on the train, and ate dinner at least twice in the churchyard of the local church talking with the parishioners, often about their trips to the U.S.
Brown: You have had a very successful career, mostly in higher education—18 years at Ole Miss and 16 years at University of Missouri–St. Louis. What are you plans now that you have retired?
Womer: We want to spend more time with the grandchildren both those who live nearby and those who don’t live near. We also hope to do some leisure travel too. Finally, I plan to work with one or two more Doctoral students.
Brown: What is on your “bucket list?”
Womer: Egypt, Morocco, New Zealand, Iceland, Yellowstone, Israel
Brown: Amidst some of the reflection and introspection that comes with this unique time in history, many find themselves thinking about the legacy that they will leave. A legacy means different things for different people. What do you want your legacy to be?
Womer: I am certainly proud of the research that I have accomplished and the papers that record it. But if those results have not already been improved on by others they will be shortly. What is lasting is my impact, hopefully positive, on others—my students, my colleagues, my children, and my grandchildren and through them on others. So, my hope is that I have been a positive force for good among those with whom I have worked. And none of those impacts have been accomplished alone but with a team of others headed up by my wife Rita.
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 email@example.com.