HED:Walton retires after 40 years at Ole Miss
By Errol Castens
OXFORD - When he came to the University of Mississippi in 1956, Gerald Walton intended to stay just long enough to earn a master's degree before going on to North Carolina for a doctorate.
Even now, when he's leaving, he's not leaving. The Neshoba County native officially retires today after working his way from part-time English instructor to Ole Miss' chief operating and academic officer.
With emeritus status, though, Walton has just changed locations - to an office in the new library.
"I'm in the building I'd be coming to every day regardless of where my office was," he said.
Up close and personal
Although he jested that he'd been there when the first bricks were laid in 1846, Walton has in fact seen some of Ole Miss' momentous changes.
As a nontenured assistant professor in the fall of 1962, he was one of perhaps three dozen faculty members who openly supported James Meredith's integration of what had been an all-white institution.
"It was a frightening time," Walton said. The campus chapter of the American Association of University Professors drafted a letter supporting the federal government's intervention, and several mentors cautioned him against signing it.
"Dr. James Savage intended to sign it, but he told me, 'I'm an old man; it doesn't matter for me. You're young; you've got a wife and a new baby. You can't afford to do this,'" Walton remembered. "But I felt it was the right thing for me to do."
Such views hadn't been popular in rural Mississippi when he was growing up in the 1940s and '50s, either, but Walton credits his parents' example for his own outlook.
"They felt that people being mistreated was a bad thing," he said, with characteristic understatement.
Walton's love of his adopted home has spurred him to begin a pictorial history of Ole Miss and Oxford - one of many projects he has planned for his retirement.
Culture and agriculture
Walton's famous easygoing nature comes easily to the farm boy he was.
Early evidence of his rural heritage showed up when he and his wife, Julie - now an associate professor and research scientist in the university's Center for Speech and Hearing Research - lived in married-student housing. He raised a garden nearby, hiring a local Teamster to plow the spot for him, and admitted that he was once seen in his overalls driving the mules for nostalgia's sake.
Agriculture and culture found root in the same man, and Walton is equally comfortable in the red clay hills of Neshoba County and the finest museums and opera houses of America and Europe - all of them among places he and his wife plan to visit more once she joins him in retirement.
"She said she's going to wait and see how (retirement) goes for me first," he said with a grin.
Almost from his first full-time post at Ole Miss, Walton has been an administrator.
After a year as assistant professor of English, he became director of freshman English. As department chair, associate dean and then dean of liberal arts, and later as associate vice chancellor and then vice chancellor for academic affairs and provost, he had a hand in many academic advances at the university - from the Center for the Study of Southern Culture to the National Center for Physical Acoustics, the McDonnell-Barksdale Honors College and the current effort to secure a Phi Beta Kappa chapter.
"Jerry is one of the best-organized people I have ever known, and an excellent judge of people," said Bruce Huneycutt, who as dean of liberal arts hired Walton as his associate dean. "I couldn't have done the job without him."
Although he gave up teaching in the early 1990s, Walton never has left his love of literature. He was instrumental in cementing the university's literary reputation by helping develop both the Oxford Conference for the Book and the Faulkner and Yoknapatawpha Conference.
"Gerald Walton can move into the next phase of his life knowing that the words, 'Well done, my faithful servant,' apply to him," Chancellor Robert Khayat said.
The University News Service at Ole Miss contributed to this story.