Journalist and author Curtis Wilkie talks past and politics

Posted on Oct 1 2014 - 9:00am by Katelyn Miller
Curtis Wilkie speaks at the Overby Center, Tuesday. (DM Photo | Ariel Cobbert)

Curtis Wilkie speaks at the Overby Center, Tuesday. (DM Photo | Ariel Cobbert)

Author, professor and journalist Curtis Wilkie sat down with fellow journalism veteran Charles Overby Tuesday  evening to discuss Wilkie’s career and newly released book.

During the event Wilkie devoted much of his time to discussing his experience as a journalist, particularly as he followed the campaign trails of some of America’s most well-known leaders. After graduating from Ole Miss – a year late, he noted – he followed and wrote about the exploits of Martin Luther King Jr.

Wilkie specifically recounted an incident in which he, and many other onlookers, thought King was in imminent danger of being shot. However, the suspicious “shooter” was revealed to be a fan, removing his wallet from his back pocket. It was at this time that Wilkie said he knew the climate of violence was decreasing in the South.

In his new book, “Assassins, Eccentrics, Politicians, and Other Persons of Interest: Fifty Pieces from the Road,” published this year, Wilkie tells four stories of King, documenting his last tour through Mississippi. His book also features stories about Bobby Kennedy, Jackie Robinson, Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton.

“Maybe pride is one of the seven deadly sins, but I’m proud of the stories that are in there,” Wilkie said of his new book.

During his years following political campaigns, Wilkie met Timothy Crouse, who would later feature him in his book about the 1972 campaign trail, “Boys on the Bus.” Wilkie admitted that the many, almost exclusively male journalists that year engaged in some real mischief, some of which is recorded in Crouse’s book. It is in this book that Wilkie is also praised for not “following the pack,” or, engaging in a popular practice he referred to as “pack journalism.”

It was noted that Wilkie, who graduated college in 1963, was very open-minded for a man of his time. He credits this to a “good home environment,” citing the influence of his schoolteacher mother and Presbyterian minister stepfather.

Many of his novels and short stories center around the South, specifically Mississippi. Like Faulkner, he finds Mississippi fascinating to write about because, “Good stories need conflict, and Mississippi has plenty of conflict.”

Currently, Wilkie is a professor of journalism at Ole Miss, teaching Journalism 472: Magazine and Feature Writing. Overby noted the irony of Wilkie now teaching a course he failed as a student. As a professor, Wilkie said he encourages his students to use “context and texture,” which includes quotes, anecdotes and specific detail to enhance their writing.

On the subject of modern journalists, Wilkie credited the writers for small, relatively unknown newspapers with great accomplishment.

“They’re the real heroes, the people who are writing with no one reading,” he said.

After his many years of experience with some of the country’s most influential leaders, Wilkie said he noticed some prevalent common factors among them: He describes them all as intelligent, driven and energetic.

“It takes an extraordinary personality to tackle these things and to be successful in them,” Wilkie said.

Later this week, Wilkie will be touring to Jackson, Greenville and Nashville, where he will be featured on C-SPAN. He is also being honored as Alumnus of the Year by his alma mater, Corinth High School.

“They must be hard up for candidates,” Wilkie said.

But Overby subverted Wilkie’s modesty, saying, “(Wilkie) owns this place. He distinguishes this place.”

Citing the Wilkies’ many connections made over the years, Overby said, “Curtis and Nancy could live anywhere, but they choose to live in Oxford. And we’re better for it.”

– Katelyn Miller