Friday, December 3, 2021

Bonnie Brown: Q&A with Nels Strickland

The latest interview in the Ole Miss Retirees features Nels Strickland. The organization’s mission is to enable 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.

Nels Strickland is a modest man who also happens to be very accomplished. He enjoyed playing sports, officiating sports, and now enjoys Ole Miss athletics. Read about his path to Ole Miss here.  

Brown: You are a native of Waycross, Georgia. What was special about your community and growing up there?

Strickland: Waycross was a good small town to grow up in. During those days crime was low, kids played in their yards, and you knew most everyone. Lots of the roads were dirt during my childhood. Railroad and tobacco were the main industries and Waycross was on the route to Highway 1, so lots of tourists passed through.

Brown: Tell us about your parents and any siblings.  

Strickland: My parents were Bill and Olivia Strickland. My dad was a tile setter, and my mom pretty much had her hands full taking care of her three sons. My brothers, Tommy and Jimmy, served our country during the Vietnam War. Both returned to the Waycross area, raised families and still reside there.

Brown: What is your favorite childhood memory?

Strickland: Family trips to Fernandina Beach, Florida. We fished and played in the sand and surf all day long. My mom would fry the day’s catch!

Brown: When you were 5 years old and asked what you wanted to be when you grew up, how did you respond?

Strickland: A football player.  

Brown: What were you really into when you were a kid?

Strickland: Growing up in the fifties was the best. Every day was filled with fun. We played baseball, football and rode our bikes all over. My favorite was probably building the tree huts. We hung out with our friends until dark almost every day.

Brown: Where did you go to school?

Strickland: I attended public schools in Waycross and was awarded a full football scholarship to Livingston University.  

Brown: What was your high school experience like? Were you a good student? What was your favorite subject? Least favorite subject?

Strickland: I enjoyed high school way too much! If we had voted on a Class Clown I might have won. History was my favorite subject.  

Brown: Describe your young adult self.  

Strickland: Susie and I didn’t have Luci until later in life, so we traveled lots while also building our career paths. We were footloose and fancy free, so to speak. I also began officiating high school football. In 1991, I got a huge break and began officiating Division One Football. I went on to officiate over 100 collegiate games. The highlight of my officiating career was officiating the 1996 Army vs Navy game. Many still consider this to be the greatest Army/Navy game of all time. I also officiated in the Arena League for 3 years.

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

Strickland: Absolutely, my father-in-law, William Rouse. Susie’s parents owned a mechanical contracting company. I have over 40 years’ experience in facilities construction and maintenance thanks to learning hands-on from one of the sharpest engineering minds (Purdue, Carnegie Mellon) ever. I had a foundation for hard work from my dad. Mr. Rouse took me to the next level.  

Brown: What appealed to you about engineering/mechanical contracting?

Strickland: I was hooked on the sense of accomplishment when a job was complete.  

Brown: What was your first job, perhaps as a teenager? What was your pay and what were your responsibilities?  

Strickland: I worked for my dad starting at age 12. I mixed the mud and grouted tile. I think I was paid $1.25 per hour! I also worked some in the tobacco unloading trucks from the fields.

Brown: You attended the University of West Alabama (UWA) and distinguished yourself as the first West Alabama athlete to be named First Team All-American. Tell us about your college experience and being an inductee to the Hall of Fame in 1981.  

Strickland: UWA was Livingston University when I attended. I rode a train 17 hours from Waycross to Livingston. I arrived at 2 a.m. and an assistant coach picked me up. I was only 18, didn’t know a soul there but how thankful I was for the opportunity! I made lifelong friends and this year we celebrate the 50th Anniversary of winning the 1971 NAIA National Football Championship. We played the Championship game in Birmingham exactly one week before Susie and I married. I was named First Team All-American my senior year and Most Valuable Defensive player of the Championship game. I was surrounded by good teammates who made me look good. Being named an inaugural member of the Hall of Fame in 1981 is one of my greatest honors. In 2010, I was inducted to the Ware County Georgia Hall of Fame.

1971 National Championship with Coach Mickey Andrews standing to the left of trophy and Dr. John Deloney, Livingston University President, standing on right; Nels is leaning on right side of trophy
With coaches Jim King, Mickey Andrews, Nels, and Buddy Nix

Brown: Talk about your experience playing for the Canadian Football League with the Toronto Argonauts.  

Strickland: I signed a contract to play with Toronto Argonauts for $12,000. There were absolutely no benefits with the contract, even injuries. I decided to hang up my cleats to start my career path. My body thanks me each and every day!  

Brown: Talk about your path to Ole Miss. What other jobs did you have?

Strickland: After working in private industry for more than 10 years, I began work in facilities at the University of Alabama. In 1992, I was employed by the Tuscaloosa City Board of Education as Director of Facilities. During my tenure, I oversaw the engineering design and construction of $65 million in new structures and renovations of existing facilities. In 2004, I returned to the University of Alabama as Director of Facilities where I led a work force of 200+ employees in the comprehensive facility management and stewardship of 243 campus buildings. I retired as the Executive Director of Facilities Maintenance.                                                                  

Brown: Tell us how/when your Ole Miss “story” began. Tell us about the interview process.   Who hired you? How long did you work at Ole Miss? 

Strickland: Susie and I have loved the town of Oxford since our days of following Alabama basketball. Sometime during the late 1980s we traveled over for a Saturday night game and stayed at the Holiday Inn, current location of the Graduate. When we woke up the next morning the hotel had no water. We soon learned the entire City of Oxford had no water! We found Smitty’s and they graciously agreed to cook us breakfast if we could wait for them to go get some water. Might be the best breakfast we ever had!

In the summer of 2010, we brought our daughter over for freshman orientation. Lorinda Krhut, then the Director of Housing, was most impressive in her presentation. Since I was nearing retirement at Alabama, I introduced myself at the end of the session and told her I would very much like to work for her one day if she ever needed a facilities guy. We also heard an impressive welcoming speech from Whitman Smith, then the Director of Admissions. Enjoyed a long talk with Whitman that day as well.  

In late 2010, I learned Ole Miss was looking for an Associate Director of Housing Facilities, so I submitted my application and resume. I went through the telephone interview and was then asked to come to campus for an in-person interview. After speaking with everyone in Housing I could tell it was blessed with a great work environment. Fortunately, I was offered the job and started March 1, 2011.

Lorinda already had things rolling for the construction of Minor, Burns, and Pittman Residential Halls. My role became keeping costs under control and getting the buildings open for our students on schedule. Lorinda retired shortly after these residential halls were completed. Dr. Lionel Maten was hired as the new Director of Student Housing. I also enjoyed an excellent working relationship with Lionel.

Brown: What were your job responsibilities?

Strickland: In addition to the construction of Minor, Burns, and Pittman, I also oversaw the construction of Residential Halls 1, 2, and 3. During my tenure we renovated Campus Walk, Northgate and replaced the facade of Stockard and Martin Halls. My staff worked extremely hard maintaining all the residential facilities.  

Brown: Everyone has that most memorable day at work whether it was really good or really bad. What day was that for you?

Strickland: The day we received our Certificate of Occupancy for Minor, Burns, and Pittman Halls. We opened those dorms on time, which is huge.

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

Strickland: Susie and I met when we were students at Livingston University, now University of West Alabama. This December will mark our 50th Anniversary. After being married 20 years our first and only child, Luci, was born. Luci works on campus for the Ole Miss Football Program as Coordinator of Football Operations. My wife Susie also worked on campus for almost 5 years with Ole Miss Financial Aid Office, after retiring from the State of Alabama where she was an accountant with the Tuscaloosa County Department of Human Resources.

Nels with wife Susie Rouse Strickland

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

Strickland: Hit the books!

Brown: What makes you angry?

Strickland:  People say “I” did this and “I” did that. Maybe it’s from my football days but I’m a huge believer in the word “we.”  Any accomplishments in this life take teamwork, be it education, sports teams, marriage, job performance or parenting. It’s about us. I detest a ME attitude.

Brown: What makes you happy?

Strickland: Being a US citizen and living the dream. We all need to think about just how fortunate we are, count our blessings and unite.

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

Strickland: What you see is what you get!

Brown: What accomplishments are you most proud of?

Strickland: Being married for almost 50 years, being Luci’s father, and the first person in my family to graduate from college.

Nels and Luci with pets Hattie and Harper

Brown: If you could choose one age to be forever, what age would it be and why? 

Strickland: My forties! In many ways, my life began then. I became a father, started officiating Division 1 football and my career in educational facilities began. 

Nels officiating (far left) at the Army/Navy Game in 1996

Brown: It is said that we learn something every day.  What is something new that you’ve learned recently.

Strickland: Sunsets on Mars are blue!

Brown: What are the most useful skills you have?  

Strickland: I think my people skills served me well. I respect people and I listen.

Brown: What’s the title of the current chapter of your life?

Strickland: “Living the Dream!”

Brown: What’s your creative outlet?

Strickland: Cooking ribs! While we no longer host large parties on the 4th of July, I still enjoy cooking ribs and beer butt chickens for friends.

Brown: What causes you to lose track of time?

Strickland: Not working. We have to ask each other almost daily… What day is this?

Nels relaxing at home with Harry

Brown: What’s the best part of your day?

Strickland: Waking up on this side of the grass each morning and not to an alarm clock!  

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

Strickland: Definitely would be to take advantage of my educational opportunities.  Unfortunately, for many of us while we are young and carefree, we don’t realize the value of an education. During my playing years at Livingston my focus was fun and football.  I was fortunate to have the opportunity to return ten years later and complete my degree.  

Brown: Fill in this blank: If I could snap my fingers and acquire an experience or talent, it would be . . .  

Strickland: Play the piano.

Brown: Do you have any hobbies?

Strickland: I enjoy raising a garden each summer, golf, fishing, and attending Ole Miss sporting events. Susie and I plan to travel once COVID is history.

Brown: What song would you sing at Karaoke night?

Strickland: I wouldn’t, hahaha!

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

Strickland: Became a father after 20 years of marriage.

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?

Strickland: A good guy who treated people with respect and loved his family and friends.


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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