Saturday, March 27, 2010


I was proud even before the movie The Blind Side to embrace my alma mater, the University of Mississippi, as one of my most significant, meaningful life experiences and, yes, still probably my spiritual home. Had I attended Brown, Syracuse or Hobart my feelings would not have been the same as they are now about Ole Miss.

I didn’t have that quintessential experience as a university neophyte as there were ups and downs and not everybody embraced this Southern Born though New England raised kid with open arms. I rocked the boat and pressed a few too many buttons my freshman year though the worst of it was infuriating my Father. I soon got over that as it was apparent that I was right and he was wrong. My reality related to an incredible naïveté and a somewhat idealized perception of life that continues to this day. I was a well intended accident looking for a place to happen. Thank God a few good men saw the real person and invited me into their lives via of the Mississippi Alpha chapter of the Sigma Phi Epsilon Fraternity.

This post references a special Lady, a Daughter of the South, who has become the epitome of why Ole Miss is Ole Miss. Some people just can’t fathom that someone (especially a Southerner) can reach out across class and race and sincerely and honestly embrace someone different - as their own. Leigh Anne Tuohy did and that’s why she and husband Sean are the story of The Blind Side, notwithstanding the incredible courage and determination of Michael Oher who reinforced the true spirit of Ole Miss and brought new meaning for the number 74. He will continue to be an inspiration for generations. We need not forget his story and I wish that we had seen more of Michael in the movie.

One of my favorite childhood stories was Ferdinand the Bull. The Tuohys and Michael shared that affection for Ferdinand, the pacifist bull who didn’t want to fight rather just smell the flowers in his pasture. Michael Oher was (and is) Ferdinand but a well intended Leigh Ann Tuohy provided some righteous motivation and he was soon active in the trenches of his own volition. While Ferdinand was eventually returned from the bull ring to the pasture not so Michael who found his center and went on to NFL fame.

At some point in our time line we wonder if our lives have purpose and will be meaningful. We all want to know if we are we going to make a difference. It’s normal to want to leave a positive legacy and somehow validate our time on this planet – to have value and maybe even be remembered. There are myriad books, films and blogs all testifying how we can accomplish that goal. Some are inspirational while many are nothing more than trite commercial pulp. Many more seem to be embarrassingly selfish focused on doing good deeds so as to guarantee one’s salvation – that old Heaven deal

I guess that good works are going to happen whether you are on a salvation gig or one who with openness and malice towards none is motivated to help their fellow Man like the Gentleman at Crossmark who donates 35 to 40 weekends a year to Habitat for Humanity for no other reason than he honestly wants to make a difference without any promise of reward. Leigh Anne and Sean Tuohy have already made a difference in their community and by extension - the world. We suspect they will continue doing so. Leigh Anne has never looked for any reward and per her comments, “doesn’t give a rat’s a--” what anybody else thinks of her. Sean to this day continues to support several needy students at Briarcrest Christian via the sale of his business saving quesadillas - always walking the walk.

Not so the few cynics and critics - those habitually negative folks - some of which have suggested that this whole exercise was “social engineering pap” or just a misplaced altruism. Some African Americans have even suggested that this is just a ploy to down the “Black Woman” who can’t take care of her own or even the ludicrous sexual innuendo about a White Woman lusting after a BIG Black Man. Like any story one can read and interpret as they see fit according to their agenda. Folks who infer that this story is anything other than the unselfish concern for another Human Being just doesn’t get it and will forever condemn themselves as part of the problem.

Recently I’ve had discussions with a good Friend at work about how inspired people of good faith who transcend race, gender and religion can and do make the difference. In the case of Michael Oher it was Leigh Ann Tuohy who saw someone in need and filled that void. As is the case with folks of good faith, she admitted that she and her Family probably got more out of the relationship than Michael, “He had a much greater impact on our lives than we did on his life.”

The circumstances that brought Michael Oher and the Tuohy family together are well documented by book and film and need not be repeated here. What we need to always remember is that Oher’s heroics in reaching his potential are inspirational, phenomenal and proof, yet again, that it’s all about Opportunity. Thank God that Michael didn’t become another negative statistic or just forgotten, fall through the cracks. Michael through his actions has opened the portal that should allow us the opportunity to take a serious look at a system whose flaws are now in plain sight.

Questions about whether Oher had really academically qualified for admission to Ole Miss was a fleeting thought for many who wondered if this was just another “wink and nod” gesture to acknowledge the Tuohys and to gain Oher’s prowess on the football field? Nothing could have been further from the truth. Michael took advantage of the academic opportunities offered by Briarcrest Christian in Memphis, his tutors and the now famous “Mormon Grade Grab.” This is one smart guy who was able to reach his potential though there was no doubt that questions remained even as he entered The University. Michael dismissed any doubts by earning Dean’s List and Honor Roll recognition several times during his tenure at Ole Miss.

The secret to all this and one of the reasons why Ole Miss is such a great university and good fit for the Tuohys, Michael Oher, this writer and the thousands of students and alumni is the special attention paid to each and every student. One student at Ole Miss said it for me when he related that he chose Ole Miss over Harvard and the University of California because of its nurturing environment. ''Looking at pure academics,'' he said, ''I don't think I could justifiably compare Ole Miss to the other two. But when I compared the personal atmosphere as well as the intellectual rigor, there was no comparison. I was determined to go to a university where I wasn't a number. There's a genuine interest in the administration and the professors to see a student excel.''

I honestly wonder if Michael would have had the same degree of personal attention and success at some of the other NCAA schools (they are legion) that exploitively expressed interest (“I want that kid.”) for no other reason than his prowess on the football field. We certainly acknowledge Sue Mitchell, Michael’s tutor who guided Michael academically.

While I give Ole Miss a lot of the credit for this success story there is no denying that many opportunities remain to forge stronger and more robust learning experiences – a mission always at the forefront of any great learning institution. The yahoos that criticize The University academically frankly don’t know what the Hell they’re talking about including the idiot that suggested that Ole Miss should be teaching English... My liberal Arts core curriculum included a year of basic English and a year of English Literature. So did Michael’s degree in Criminal Justice.

The University of Mississippi has been a lightning rod for positive and much needed change, not only regionally but nationally. They saw themselves in the mirror, confronted their past and did what they had to do. Former University of Mississippi Chancellor, Dr. Robert C. Khayat bravely facilitated much of that transformation. A new empowered and enlightened generation of students are now validating and improving on those changes and looking to the future. As much as I respect them, Colonel Rebel and the Confederate Battle Flag have no place at Ole Miss.

The University of Mississippi is a fine academic institution that has a whole lot more going for it. There is a mystique, a subliminal spirit, that pervades all that is the University of Mississippi and you have to be one of us to understand. It is not a selfish identity driven by elitism, rather a congenial exercise that can profoundly move and inspire those who choose to sincerely immerse themselves in our culture. You can create and expand on that opportunity and make it yours for the rest of your life.

Ole Miss graduate, the late Frank E. Everett, Jr., B.A.’32, LLB ’34, put it best when he wrote:

“There is a valid distinction between The University and Ole Miss even though the separate threads are closely interwoven. The University is buildings, trees and people. Ole Miss is mood, emotion and personality. One is physical, and the other is spiritual. One is tangible, and the other intangible. The University is respected, but Ole Miss Is loved. The University gives a diploma and regretfully terminates tenure, but one never graduates from Ole Miss.”

The University will continue to work through their issues (Ackbar?) and successfully so. Great institutions are subject to introspection, change and an ultimate evolution if they are to remain relevant. The Ole Miss spirit is alive and well and continues to set us apart from other academic institutions. Hopefully, the examples set by The Tuohys and Michael Oher will inspire us all to be better Human Beings. We need to instinctively reach out to those in need whatever their race, creed, color or sex.

One Step Further: If we listen to what Skip Gates has been telling us with his impressive body of work including Faces of America, we soon realize that aside from cultural differences, underneath it all, the big picture is that we really are all the same. And, we have choices.

And what about that University of Mississippi student who so eloquently offered why he chose Ole Miss over other seemingly more prestigious schools? Though it should ultimately not matter, he happens to be African American. The spirit is spreading

Hotty Toddy Y’all, Aye

Ned Buxton
Ole Miss ‘66

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