December 9, 2013 8:50:49 AM
Nearly 40 years ago I realized a dream. I went to work for the government.
In this day and time it is a favorite parlor game to "dog cuss" anything having to do with the public sector and the bureaucrats who ply their trade, but that was not always so. I began my public service career with a healthy fascination for a job where one tried to make good things happen for other people.
I didn't go to work for just any nondescript state agency. I went to work for the legendary Jim Buck Ross. The lessons in practical, hands-on public service were too numerous to delineate here. I learned that a Political Science graduate from Mississippi State and a Journalism major from Ole Miss, neither of whom had ever been closer to a cow than the local steak restaurant, could put on cowboy hats and boots and market grass-fed, baby beef in an effort to rid the state of the excesses of the "Mama Cow" program. I also learned that the privilege of being assigned an official Mississippi Department of Agriculture and Commerce pickup truck carried with it the responsibility to haul fire ant bait to cattle farmers in Woodville or Corinth at 4:30 on a Friday afternoon. Needless to say, I found out that junior staffers like me would invariably find themselves cooking chickens and catfish for the adoring public every 4th of July, Labor Day and various other events such as Gubernatorial Inaugurals.
That was the beginning. Now I am about to reach the end.
A return to graduate school put me on a path to a career in academics, but my experiences under Commissioner Ross were just the right treatments to persuade me that there were some things the textbooks did not know to tell you. Six years in the Center for Governmental Technology in the Mississippi State University Extension service only added to that grass-roots understanding. Indeed, I am eternally grateful that by the time the issue of county government reform had grown as "hot as a depot stove" as Jack Cristal used to say, I had departed the Center for Government Technology for the academic side of the Mississippi State University house where freedom of speech was somewhat more tolerated. I say that because it was here on the academic side with my newly minted Ph.D. that I learned the lesson that nothing ever is off the record when one is conversing with a reporter. Waking up to blaring headlines in the state's largest paper that "Wiseman Calls (Blank) County a Banana Republic" will teach that lesson quite nicely.
Perhaps it is fortunate that when I arrived at Mississippi State statewide property reappraisal was set to begin in all 82 counties, followed by the years' long debate over the county unit system. My backside, perhaps owing to my equally as large mouth, will forever bear the scars of my forays into the hinterlands of Mississippi government. The truth is that I would not trade one moment of my experience getting to know the nuances of public service delivery in every nook and cranny in the Magnolia state. I learned of the deep love Mississippians have for their home towns and pastoral counties and of the strength and staying power that a sense of place provides for Mississippians.
It is in this context that working, researching and teaching in behalf of Mississippi's great Land Grant University has from the first day been a dream come true. In an early newspaper article discussing the potential for an Institute bearing the name of the late Sen. John C. Stennis, the Senator himself was quoted as saying, "I don't care what you call it. Just so they get out in the state and help people."
Not only did the Senator hit the nail on the head, but he underscored the role of the university, his alma mater, where the entity that carries his name now and into the future would be housed. For over two decades it has been my distinct pleasure to shoulder this heavy, but honorable burden that Sen. Stennis bestowed upon us.
Along the way I had the opportunity to serve under the mentorship of the esteemed Charles W. Washington, a member of the Academy of Political Science, and to work with noted scholars who offered their talents to the Stennis Institute, often when I was most in need of them. Despite my fatally Southern drawl honed in Attala County, the geographic heart of Mississippi, I was offered the opportunity to comment about Mississippi politics on CNN, MSNBC, Bloomberg News and Mississippi Public Broadcasting. The New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Christian Science Monitor, Reuters, and Associated Press among others when these entities contacted the Stennis Institute seeking clarity on the often murky world of Mississippi politics and public policy.
If the reader has not guessed by now, I am retiring. My official last day is Dec. 31, 2013.
I do plan to continue engaging in my love of teaching. There is little that is more rewarding than enjoying the political give and take with Mississippi's young people. Otherwise, the grandchildren are multiplying, and I can hear the highway calling my wife and me. I hope to continue this column after a brief absence so I'll be back with you soon.