AUTHOR: MINOR

HED:Bill Minor, Jan. 16, 1997

The Lord works in strange ways, many of us believe, so it may be in the case of Daniel Kirkwood Fordice, the Governor of Mississippi.

His life was barely spared on Nov. 5, when his vehicle zoomed off Interstate 55 just above Grenada then went flying down an embankment careening off a couple of trees and landing in flames.

Without Good Samaritan truck drivers who came along and extricated his battered and bloody body from the burning wreckage, then got him to the Grenada Hospital, certainly Fordice would have been dead. Even then, we learned later, he nearly died after being rushed to University Medical Center in Jackson.

No human being can survive such a close call with death without realizing his own fragile mortality. And hardly could that human being not be moved to reaccess his whole perspective on life.

Only in the past few days has Fordice made a public appearance, first, before the legislative joint session on Tuesday, and yesterday in a news conference with the press. The legislative appearance was only brief and closely guarded by his associates and security.

The meeting with the news people turned out wholly unsatisfactory as far as a public explanation of what happened on that fateful Nov. 5, why he was there, along in his Jeep Cherokee, and where he had been beforehand.

In effect, Fordice told the press he doesn't want to talk about it, adopting the stonewall tactic to wit: "I don't remember anything that happened that day." The "don't remember" technique was one conveniently used by a Fordice hero. Ronald Reagan, we all remember.

For the moment, forget the whys and wherefores of his coming within a gnat's eyebrow of death. Those questions, hopefully, will be answered fully and truthfully sometime soon, regardless of the possible embarrassment.

Of lasting importance to this state, and how Fordice governs in his remaining time in office, is the kind of man, psychologically and philosophically, he has become after surviving such a physically traumatic experience, with its certain lasting effect on the body of a 62-year-old man. Being 12 years his senior, I know something of how much the body can stand.

Fordice's ability to resume his normal activities after the automobile crash, no doubt will have to be altered and curtailed, just how much is yet to be seen.

What matters most, not only to Fordice himself but also to his fellow Mississippians, is what if anything, has changed in the inner man as far as how he will now relate to society. After all, this is a primitive state in many respects, with the nation's highest poverty and largest minority population.

The people have come to perceive Kirk Fordice in five years in the governor's office as a swaggering, crusty ex-construction company boss, often arrogant, and unapologetic for it. He has shown little compassion for the poor, the underdog, and the welfare of blacks, of whom Mississippi has many.

A "new" Kirk Fordice may have emerged from this ordeal. A few significant signs have come to the attention of this writer which give some reason to believe this is the case.

On the night of Dec. 18, a Christmas party at the Governor's Mansion was attended by a number of top Fordice Administration appointees, with the objective of bringing him some Christmas cheer and a gift. Fordice did not venture downstairs to mix with the guests, but he did come out of his room and appeared at the top of the staircase with his wife, Pat, and said a few words.

From two who were there, I have gathered the impression that here was a different Fordice from the one they had known. Speaking emotionally, with tears welling in his eyes. Fordice urged his listeners to treasure the meaning of family and friends.

"I believe he is a changed man," said one guest the next day in reviewing the experience.

Another of the Fordice appointees there that night, shared that feeling. He paraphrased some of what Fordice had to say thusly: "I don't know if the Lord spared me for any particular purpose, but I'm going to assume that the rest of my life." He said virtually the same thing when he went before the legislature on Tuesday.

Already two official acts by Fordice seem to support the view of a "changed" Kirk Fordice. To fill a vacancy in the 10th Chancery Court District, Fordice appointed his first black judge, after a succession of 14 white appointees.

The naming of Johnny Williams, a black attorney in Hattiesburg, to the five-county district seat in Southeast Mississippi gave that white majority area its first black jurist. Among those quite familiar with what the Fordice appointment means, it was regarded as monumental.

Then later, Fordice made another uncharacteristic appointment, that of Rep. Barney Schoby (D-Natchez) to the Mississippi Workers Compensation Commission. Not only is Schoby an African-American, but also a Democratic activist and a good friend of U.S. Rep. Bennie Thompson, the second district black congressman loathed by Republicans.

Who knows what God has wrought?

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