It was the mid 1990s and our sons were looking at colleges. My husband Bodie had been Head Cheerleader at Ole Miss in the Archie days, and to tell you the truth, every single person I ever met who graduated from or even had some small affiliation with Ole Miss was perfectly charming and honestly impossible to forget.
We looked at many schools before hearing our oldest son’s desire to study Journalism and Public relations at Ole Miss, so we then met with his High school college advisor. He was graduating from the highly acclaimed college prep The Bolles School in Jacksonville, Florida and his advisor who loved colleges north of the Mason Dixon Line had one thing to say: “You are NOT sending him to Ole Miss.” “Yes we are,” I replied. “It is his ‘Finishing School’.”
For those readers unfamiliar with the term “Finishing School” you first have to understand that I made my living as an Etiquette Consultant, teaching mostly business etiquette to adults and graduate students. The Professional Polish I taught was new to many, but honestly EVERY person I encountered from Mississippi already practiced those skills of engagement. Bodie and I knew that our sons could make it educationally, but in the real world of business, decorum, life skills and polish were imperative. The students at Ole Miss PRACTICED the manners we had already instilled in our boys, and Ole Miss would “finish” that training perfectly.
When Bodie was there he said the motto was “Everyone Speaks”. Not only did they speak when we visited, they also spoke volumes with “yes ma’am’s ”, handshakes, dressing with decorum, and handwritten thank you notes. So, we then sent two sons all the way from Jacksonville to do their four years at Ole Miss: the “Finishing School” for those who would make a success in the business world.
In my profession consulting in business etiquette, I repeated in all training sessions: “YOU are the billboard for your company, your college and even for your family. How you behave, even what you wear reflects either positively or negatively. Pre-decide to live a life of decorum and civility and you will never regret it. In interviews and in daily life, dress and behave for the part you want to be cast.”
I am not alone in this thought and particularly those of our generation (often called “Old School”) notice when a lack of decorum reflects poorly on those we love.
And this is the point of my letter. We are far removed from Ole Miss, retiring to North Carolina, but the Grove, The Square, and the people of your community, people of decorum and integrity have faded none from our hearts. When we read a few weeks ago in the Washington Times of this debacle over Dr. Ed Meek’s mischaracterization as a racist, I read every single article printed in your Mississippi papers, every response and then called and listened to many of the authors. Few considered the hearts of those involved. Few had gotten into Dr. Meek’s heart for the “billboard” of his beloved Ole Miss. Few felt the young ladies frame of reference and their feeling of disrespect. Few saw or heard the conundrum of the school’s leadership.
I then realized, no one is winning. No one is listening, and yet all parties care deeply for the university.
In today’s America, civility has been hijacked because an individual’s rights and agenda have usurped the common good. The weapon of war within the family of America is social media. We take our agendas, post them and await the popular vote of “likes”. We shout through tweets, because we want strong armed instant gratification. We are opinionated and verbose, sometimes hiding behind a pseudonym instead of our true names. We want the last word and we want to be “right”, in your face, and HEARD.
What we have forgotten is the priceless value for others and the incredible value of listening and understanding. This agenda seems to have also happened in our beloved Oxford, but hear me please: No one is hearing, no one is caring, and therefore NO ONE IS WINNING! And yet I promise you there is a way to win. There is a win for all parties, if we value and hear, and put aside our own need for victory. AND certainly if we take a break from social media, Facebook, and the gossip and slander they have spewed forth.
WE must listen, and in the case of the very talented and generous Ed Meek, the very important, bright but misinterpreted young lady students, the Ole Miss leadership caught in the middle but still trying to support and respond appropriately to all parties involved, AND alumni who adore their school, we MUST commit to understanding and resolution by way of reconciliation.
After listening to so many, this is what I believe happened last year in our beloved Oxford:
- Dr. and Mrs. Meek adored Ole Miss. I know of very few people who have Five Million Dollars in pocket change laying around, but they did and wanted to make a difference for particularly Journalism at Ole Miss. With their contribution, Journalism would not be just a department, it would become a School.
- They also had a sincere love and care for the city of Oxford and Ole Miss’s reputation. Within their circle of friends, some believed there was a drug problem and perhaps even a prostitution issue in downtown Oxford especially on game weekends. Game weekends were when many parents interested in Ole Miss might visit. Dr. Meek did not want the “billboard” sullied, so he alerted individuals who had the journalistic power to notify authorities and make corrections should there have been a problem with prostitution. But those writers chose to turn their heads.
- A friend sent Dr. Meek a photo showing perhaps such activity downtown at 2 AM. (On this I offer a side note: I became an Etiquette Consultant because I “owned” one very serious mother. She would often point in a sideways suggestive pose saying “Diann : THAT is not done.” She would then kind of walk away leaving me to figure out what SHOULD have been done. This same mother said to me often when I came out in the wrong outfit, “You dress like a turnip, they will think you a turnip. You dress like a tart, they will think you a tart! Go change!”) That night Dr. Meek saw a photograph of some ladies dressed more tart than turnip, and concluded likewise. He loved his Ole Miss, his Oxford so much, he simply chose the wrong form of communication, FACEBOOK, to seek help in stopping what he concluded was questionable activity.
- Young women in today’s body building society have missed the lecture on the benefit of modesty. They dress the way they want (as did we when “hot pants” and bell bottoms were the rage). The young lady dressed not like a turnip and interestingly a very talented student at Ole Miss, aroused a call from her mother. She had to give an explanation, so she accused Dr. Meek of racism. I believe she sincerely believed it was her skin color and not her costume that had attracted attention.
- But then came public opinion. Few would support the proven history of this fine man’s record. He had no record of racism, but did have a strong reputation of support for ALL minorities. He was known to speak with civility on both sides of the political divide. He worked, he loved, and he accomplished so much as an incredible entrepreneur. THEN he gave Five MILLION PLUS to his alma mater to educate all folks. Public opinion began to take sides booming louder and louder and listening therefore less and less. Was it a racism issue, or was it one very huge misunderstanding?
- Also found in the middle of what became a total mess was the very tight place University leadership found itself. Leadership had to care about minorities, every student and sincerely listen to those who felt disrespected. All sides were throwing around the Racist word, and no one was benefitting. Facebook and other forms of social media exploded. The Ole Miss leadership had a responsibility to every actor, every participant. It had to hurt them deeply to relinquish the Meek’s incredible monetary gift, and their longstanding friendship with the Meek family. They weighed their options and perhaps acted too soon, once again using social media to communicate.
- Meek apologized but perhaps the sincerity of his regret was not received. He knew he was not a racist, but clearly that word seems to be the easiest accusation to hurl, and invariably the most hurtful to those of the South whose past history often speaks louder than the truth of today. The young ladies on the other hand were feeling disrespected, offering no olive branch of reconciliation. The leadership was caught in the middle. Imagine how hard their position was both with their friendship with Dr. Meek, their value for minority students, and even knowing that much needed monies would evaporate.
- Alumni started taking sides. BUT NONE of this would help, because everyone involved was so dug in feeling and seeing only their own perspective.
Etiquette is all about one thing: respecting others. Successful community requires yielding, listening, valuing, and reconciling. You will almost never see this happen with toddlers. You will never see it happen with individuals who let their pride anywhere near the negotiating table. Etiquette listens twice as much as it speaks and must often be thick skinned and tender hearted. Etiquette puts such a high value on others that our own perceived value dims. It does not shout and it certainly doesn’t wield the noisy Facebook descant. Etiquette looks for reconciliation, edification and the common good. But that should be easy for all the participants at Ole Miss, because Ole Miss is and will always be one very fine “finishing school”.
Cheerleading is contagious, and after benefitting from my husband’s, our sons and the many marvelous students and leaders Ole Miss has produced, I needed to write this column. No, I HAD to write this column because although Dr. Meek was misunderstood, I think all parties involved were as well.
How do we find resolution? We come to the table with our love for the treasure that is Ole Miss at the center. We listen, we value and we have as our goal to work for the good of one great University,
There is a way for reconciliation, but that would require that all parties leave any pride and their need to be “right” behind. It will require shutting down social media and the shouting via an all too imperfect public platform. It will require listening twice as much as we speak and yielding a point or two. It will require giving grace, humility and real value for the common good.
But isn’t that what charming, polished, Ole Miss educated and “finished” individuals do? Yes Gosh A’mighty it is!!!!
Diann Catlin is a former Magazine Editor, and Etiquette Consultant. She is an Ole Miss zealot by way of her 47-year marriage to Head Cheerleader Bodie Catlin, and their two engaging and Ole Miss polished sons Billy and Keith Catlin.