November 6, 2010 9:14:00 PM
Birney Imes - [email protected]
Running a political campaign is a lot like organizing a class reunion, says Rex Gillis. He should know. Gillis, who has put together half a dozen reunions for his high school graduating class, managed Alan Nunnelee''s successful Congressional campaign in Lowndes County.
Nunnelee was a high school classmate of Gillis: Caldwell, Class of ''76.
The connection began years before that, at Fairview Baptist Church where the two boys became friends in Youth Group and on camping and mission trips.
"Alan was the good guy," Gillis remembers. "I was the one always pushing the envelope."
Just before his high school senior year, Nunnelee, the son of an insurance man, moved to Clinton. He went to Mississippi State; Gillis to Alabama.
In the intervening years, at five-year intervals, Gillis and classmate Marsha Page Ward teamed up to organize their class reunions. Unfailingly Nunnelee would show up.
The two men stayed in touch, talking by phone three or four times a year. When Nunnelee was elected to the state senate, Gillis'' oldest daughter, Amy, was his first page.
About 10 years ago Gillis was teaching a Sunday school class of 11th-grade boys at Fairview; Nunnelee''s wife, Tori, taught a Sunday school class of 12th-grade girls in Tupelo.
The two proposed a social where Gillis would bring his boys to Tupelo to have dinner with Tori Nunnelee''s girls. The Gillises and Nunnelees visited while the kids enjoyed themselves on the other side of the restaurant.
"We had perfect attendance that night," Gillis recalls.
In July 2009 Nunnelee called Gillis'' from the beach to say that he was thinking about running for the District One House seat and was going to go on a listening tour.
"I encouraged him to take his tour and if he had a peace about it, I would support him," said Gillis.
In January of this year Nunnelee called again. This time he asked Gillis to manage his Lowndes County campaign. Gillis gulped and said yes.
"I really didn''t have the time or the political experience," said Gillis.
It''s not like Gillis needed another project. He''s president of Dutch Oil, an oil distributor serving 22 counties. His wife, Terri, heads the drama program at the Y.M.C.A. Their three children are college age or older.
"I chose to make this my hobby for 2010," Gillis said.
Instinctively, Gillis called his old reunion organizing buddy, Marsha Ward, who said yes.
In the beginning, it was slow going. Carole Eubanks helped, so did Virgil Kimbrell, but the local Republican power structure, namely the Lowndes County Republican Women, were noncommittal. That soon changed.
"After the primaries Nan Lott and the Republican Women were a huge help," said Gillis.
By the time it was over the forces had swelled to 100 volunteers. Out of an empty building near the intersection of Bluecutt and Highway 45, they used their personal cell phones to make 10,189 phone calls, mailed 4,902 postcards and dispatched volunteers to knock on 9,789 doors.
We ran it like a business," said Gillis. "It amazes me, the volunteer spirit of people," he said. "We were a true grassroots effort."
Gillis and company were guided by Nunnelee''s campaign manager, Mable McClanahan Murphee, a well-known Columbus girl, who lives in Tupelo.
"Mable kept the fires burning," says Gillis.
Gillis said he expected the negative campaigning, pointing out that most of it came from outside the campaign from third-party sources.
"We vowed on the front end not to go there," he said of the local effort.
Gillis, who''s served on enough boards of local organizations to know that politics is not his game, says he''s happy to return to his quiet life of business and family.
And he thinks his friend will be able to withstand the corrupting forces of Washington. As evidence he cites his Nunnelee''s resolve as a state senator and his character in high school.
"You don''t change as you age," he says. "The kids who were wild at 17 and 18 are usually that way in their 40s."
And about the Class of ''76''s reunion next year?
"Alan''s called me to ask about it. He says he wants to get it on his calendar now," Gillis said.
Tommy Hunt set me straight about Moon''s, the popular drive-in I wrote about last week. Moon Mullen''s first location was at the intersection of Highway 182 and Gardner Boulevard. Moon''s daughter, Marjorie Swedenburg said her father moved to Sand Road in an unsuccessful attempt to reduce his business. That new location, said Hunt, a carhop there in the early 60s, was called New Moon''s.
"In those days you could take a date there and both eat for less than a dollar," Hunt remembers. "They only had hamburgers (25 cents), cheeseburgers (35 cents), barbecue (30 cents) and french fries."
One of Moon''s secrets according to Hunt: "He never used a bun that was more than a day old."
Birney Imes is the publisher of The Commercial Dispatch. E-mail him at [email protected]
Birney Imes III is the immediate past publisher of The Dispatch.