Remembering: Voices of reason who made a difference

It is often only from the perspective of years, or even decades, that we come to appreciate the significance of individuals and events in the shaping of a community or state, or even a nation.

In the moment of those years or decades, we tend to be so caught up in the day-to-day minutiae of living that we fail to take notice of all the threads that one day weave together to constitute the fabric of change and progress.

Once upon a time, I was for 10 years editor of the weekly newspaper in the central Mississippi town of Winona, a place that was then about as bucolic and Mayberry as one could wish. People didn’t lock their doors, left keys in their cars, everybody knew everybody. There were a couple of nice industries that provided gainful employment, thriving downtown businesses, and a healthy agriculture. It was a good place to be, a great place for kids to grow up.

But winds of change were swirling. A few years previous, there had been the riots at Ole Miss, and in Mississippi and much of the South there were dissent and unrest as a way of life was being challenged. Things didn’t go well in a lot of places.

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Central to the dissent were schools and the sweeping changes decreed by federal law. In our small town, two young men played roles that were only later fully appreciated — an attorney, Bill Liston, who grew up in the nearby even smaller town of Kilmichael, and a new Ph.D. school superintendent, Tom Dulin, who hailed from adjacent Carroll County.

They and other community leaders, including the late George Harris, Sr., local cattleman and school board president, took the position that, no, we’re not going to subject our school system, which has had a superior reputation for decades, to the divisiveness and infighting that are tearing apart systems and communities elsewhere — we’re going to do our best to find ways to make the transition work and provide the best education possible for all of our students.

And they did just that. I, and my WONA radio station colleague, the late Bob Chisholm, spent a lot of hours sitting in federal courtrooms, taking notes as Liston, Dulin, and school board members worked to convince federal officials that the plans for Winona’s schools were equitable and doable. Theirs were voices of reason and calm in a period beset by stridency and discord.

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I couldn’t begin to estimate all the hours Bill or Tom devoted to keeping things on an even keel during those trying times. It was only many years later I learned that Bill, though he was not that long out of law school and likely could have used the money, charged the school system not one dime for all his legal work, not even for travel to and from court hearings.

Under Dr. Dulin’s leadership, and with the support of most of the community, the city school system blossomed, and was consistently among the tops in the state. Tom is now retired, and can look back with justifiable pride on the thousands of students who had the benefit of a good education in a stable, progressive system during a time when many Mississippi communities were less than stable or progressive.

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With an incisive mind that could quickly cut to the heart of an issue, and an unyielding set of legal ethics, Bill Liston went on to become one of the state’s outstanding lawyers. To those of us who knew him in those early days and saw him in action at the top of his game, it seemed a cruel twist of fate that in recent years health issues dimmed that brilliance and left him increasingly unable to communicate with family and friends. Bill died this past week.

It is four decades-plus since our family said goodbye to Winona and moved on. We’ve returned now and then, mostly for funerals or weddings or an occasional reunion for one of the many classes my wife taught at the high school.

There have been many changes. The rickety-floored building that housed our newspaper was, coincidentally, later transformed into a very spiffy complex of offices for the Liston law firm. The new building into which our newspaper moved is now a pharmacy and offices; the newspaper long ago changed ownership, and I don’t even know where it’s now located. The two industries that anchored the economy of the city and county are long closed, as has been the fate of many of the downtown businesses of my decade there.

One of the few things certain, we are told, is change.

But at Bill’s funeral at Moore Memorial United Methodist Church, which has stood on a downtown corner since 1898, as I sat in the lovely sanctuary, enfolded in dark wood and stunningly beautiful Tiffany stained glass windows, it was as if I had stepped back in time to Sunday mornings on a middle-center pew with our two squirming youngsters and a sanctuary filled with friends and neighbors.

Those youngsters and their contemporaries are now middle-aged lawyers, surgeons, FedEx pilots, teachers, ministers, engineers, city officials, show biz stars, farmers, homemakers — an entire spectrum of professions and successes. Bill Liston’s son, William III, who began his own law career practicing with and learning from his father, is now a very successful attorney in Jackson, Miss., and our lawyer son, Steve, who was fast friends with William in their boyhood days, roaming the town together, has an office in William’s building. Still more disparate threads weaving together in a yet unfinished tapestry…

So many of those decades-ago friends and neighbors are long departed this life, and with their passing there remain fewer of us who know firsthand the role Bill and Tom and George and other dedicated leaders played in helping one small corner of America through turbulent, divisive times. But all who then, and since, have had the benefit of a solid, stable city school system owe them a thank you.   

 

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