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Finding life-long role models

My 18th birthday was on May 10 and my dad died that July 25, two weeks before starting my freshman year in college. This was already a difficult transitional period in my life and I was lost and almost flunked out! But instead of making friends in college which I desperately needed, I pulled away if anyone got too close to me, especially girls, afraid of being hurt again.

Although I had my hero mom, “Gert” as the best role model ever, I began selectively choosing strong men and women of all races and economic status (living and deceased) whom I respected and admired to emulate (heroes) — something I continue to do to this day. However, to be my hero is a difficult task because I do not trust easily and as a huge introvert it generally takes years for someone to really know me and me them.

My role models must have a strong character, yet be humble, genuine, kind, honest, with no over-inflated self-indulgent ego, have a high regard and respect for family and others, treat everyone the same regardless of who they are or financial status, ability to support and empower, be a good listener, possess a sense of humor and able to laugh at oneself, know their strength and weaknesses, have an air of confidence not cockiness, lead by example, and above all aware that they are who they are only because of God.

Dr. Gerald W. Walton retired from the position of provost at the University of Mississippi in 1999. He served on the faculty in a variety of positions during his forty-year tenure at the university, including professor of English, Dean of the College of Liberal Arts, Assistant Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs, and Interim Chancellor. Arriving on the Ole Miss campus in December 1988 to work and begin my Ph.D. in counselor education, it seems I always knew Dr. Walton but cannot pinpoint exactly when he became one of my heroes and father figure.

Dr. Walton (who has never aged), was and is highly respected by everyone, has a calm demeanor, always a smile on his face, did not complain about some physical difficulties he had, never wore socks (probably even with a suit), is somewhat reserved with a “dry” sense of humor, knowledgeable about many things, loves Ole Miss as do I, and can’t say we have ever had a lengthy conversation about anything — but his warm, genuine caring for me did not require many words.

When Dr. Robert Khayat was chancellor, our historic Ole Miss Lyceum underwent an $11 million renovation from 1998 to 2001. Prior to the renovation, my office as assistant director of the Career Center was located on the third floor (before elevators), back right corner with one window facing the Library and the other the School of Business; I will forever cherish the time spent in this amazing and history-filled building. All our offices in the Lyceum were moved to Martindale during the renovation and when the Lyceum was completely gutted, Dr. Walton (quite an historian), took me on a memorable and mind-boggling tour of it. Wow! There was nothing inside but rubble from the outer walls to the rafters!

At one point, Dr. Walton gestured to the rafters still charred by a fire in December 1930, thought to be caused by defective wiring in the attic. This made me gulp, because on at least two occasions, I nearly panicked arriving early at the Career Center on the third floor and realized I had left the coffee pot on overnight! Swell, my legacy – burning down the Ole Miss Lyceum!

On Nov. 11, 2008, I had my photo taken with Dr. Walton as he signed my copy of his fantastic book, “The University of Mississippi: A Pictorial History,” at Off Square Books. He told me with a smile, that he had submitted a photo of me advising an MBA student for his book when I was Director of MBA Career Services in the Ole Miss School of Business Administration, but it didn’t make it because, “I was too ugly!” Ha!

Dr. Walton and his wife Julie now live in Memphis and we stay in touch by Facebook and messaging. I love and miss you, Dr. Walton. Thank you for caring about me and being my friend, hero, and “dad.” Be well and Happy Easter.

STEVE STRICKER received his Ph.D. in counselor education from the University of Mississippi. He can be reached at sstricke@olemiss.edu.