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COLUMN: In Memory of a Southern Father

By Jeff Roberson

My father, James William Roberson – just “Billy” to all who knew him – could have written an interesting book for 20th century and early 21st century life in northeast Mississippi. But he mostly chose to just live it – for all his 97 years, five months, and three days, until September 13, 2022.

Two of the things we remember about people are how we see them treat others and the stories they tell. I know how my dad treated others, and I’ve tried to learn from that all my life. 

We are all storytellers in some way. Dad had a lot of stories, like this one he loved to tell. Sometime back in the 1960s, Dad’s adopted hometown of Baldwyn was hosting the hometown of his youth, Pontotoc, in a pee-wee football game at Latimer Park. Daddy’s nephew, Shan Weatherly, was one of the captains for Pontotoc. Dad was the official who was introducing players at midfield for the coin toss. He asked two or three players their names and then turned to Shan.

“What’s your name, little boy?” Daddy asked.

“You know my name,” he said Shan said. We all always laughed as Daddy tried to say it like Shan did back in those pee-wee days, in a deeper voice than your average sixth grader might have.

Dad’s Ole Miss quarterback/songwriter nephew Jimmy Weatherly, Shan’s older brother, autographed Dad’s copy of our book, Midnight Train, in 2018 this way: “Thanks for a lifetime of laughter and wisdom.”

Jimmy knew his mother’s brother very well.

That all three of them – Daddy, Jimmy, and Shan – are now gone from us makes me so sad, but such fond memories remain of their good lives.  

I got calls and texts for 15 hours Tuesday, the day Daddy died. A friend of mine since kindergarten in Baldwyn, Jim Gentry, sent me a text that day and assessed things this way, which I loved: “I am so sad to hear about your dad. He was always the coolest guy in the room.” 

Man.

My former boss but always friend at the Ole Miss Spirit, Chuck Rounsaville, when I went by his office Monday just a couple of hours before what would be my last visit with Dad, and trying to keep my composure but not accomplishing it, said to me, “You’re not only losing your dad, you’re losing your best friend.”

I really had never thought of it that way, but Chuck was right.

Back on May 6, 1991, I wrote a column for the Oxford Eagle, where I worked, having thankfully been hired by longtime friend Don Whitten, the sports editor, just a few months earlier. It was the day Chucky Mullins, the Ole Miss football player paralyzed a year and a half earlier in a game, died. It was also 20 years to the day after my mother died.

“It was Thursday morning before Mother’s Day, two years after her struggle began,” I wrote of momma’s death in that column, as I also wrote about Chucky’s passing. “I was still a child in elementary school, but I understood. It’d just be Daddy and me from now on.”

In many ways, that’s been the case for all these years. So many have come and gone in our lives, and so many remain. My goal for my dad, especially the last couple of decades, was as he aged, for his life to truly mean something – to him. I already knew what his life meant to others. That’s certainly been confirmed to me since his death.

We loved his stories from his youth that he loved to tell. Stories about the neighborhood kids and their antics and their fun. I grew up and watched most of those kids – as adults – stay connected into old age, if they lived that long.

The Pontotoc Community House, the same one that’s there today at Oxford Street and Main, was a gathering place inside and a football playground outside. One Sunday afternoon Dad said J.B. McCullough, brother of his close friend Floyd McCullough, drove up and yelled at the guys playing football on the grounds.

“The Japanese have bombed Pearl Harbor!” 

Daddy said none of them really knew where Pearl Harbor was, but what they did know was that their lives were about to change forever. 

Daddy never had a weight problem. “How long do you take to eat?” one of his school teachers asked him after lunch. “About five minutes,” he said. “That’s what I thought,” his teacher said.

Dad left to join the Navy after one semester at Mississippi State. His high school superintendent, Mr. Carter, asked him to go to State for a semester and room with his son. They all knew they were going to war. After that semester, Dad joined the Naval Air Corps in New Orleans. 

He often reflected that when he left their home in Pontotoc, his mother, my grandmother who we called Nanny, ran down the steps, kissed him, turned around and ran back into the house without saying a word. Wartime goodbyes have to be among the hardest goodbyes.

When he got to New Orleans, he took a physical. He needed to weigh 120 pounds. He weighed 115 and had played quarterback for Pontotoc – “Little” Billy Roberson, the newspaper reports called him, and we know why. He cut a deal with the Navy that day, or they cut one with him. They said if he would go out and gain three pounds that very day – and who can’t do that in New Orleans in one day – they would admit him.

He came back later, weighed 118 pounds, and he was a sailor. They said, don’t worry, we’ll put weight on you. As Dad liked to tell it with a laugh, “Six months later, I weighed 115 pounds.”

He served “three years, one month, and eight days.” I use quote marks because I have heard him say that often. He was discharged May 16, 1946, in Bainbridge, Maryland. The war was already over. 

He never left the states, and he never knew exactly why. He had jobs in other areas of service, and he spent two years as a student at Tulane in the Navy’s V-12 program. He majored in engineering and lived in the Tulane gym that the Green Wave still uses for its home basketball games. When I say he lived in the gym, he actually did. So did several hundred others. Cots on the court as far and wide as possible. 

When we were in New Orleans from time to time, we’d swing by and check out one of his alma maters, walk in the gym, and he’d say, “I lived under that goal.”

He spent one year at Cornell, also sent there by the Navy; therefore I always referred to him as my Ivy League father.

He spent time at Naval Station Great Lakes in Chicago on Lake Michigan. He spent time at Asbury Park, New Jersey. He lost some hearing in one ear for the remainder of his life on a rifle range at Fort Dix in New Jersey. He was in D.C. at the end of the war, and his commanding officer asked him to stay and have a career in the Navy. He could have retired by the time he was 45 years old.

But he wanted to come home to north Mississippi, to family, to all of you.

His last job in Washington had been sugar rationing. He was in charge of sugar for the Potomac River basin. Restaurants, businesses, grocery stores, whatever the case, he was in charge of their sugar. 

In other words, near the end of the war if you needed sugar in D.C., my dad was the man to see.

I always liked to take him back where he’d been. We made a trip to Great Lakes (that trip served two purposes – we also went to an Ole Miss-Notre Dame football game in South Bend, Indiana.) We made more than one trip to D.C., and he found the actual apartment where he lived; it’s still there on S Street.

On another trip we went to Cornell. I remember driving through central New York toward Ithaca and him saying, “I’ve got a strange feeling,” as we got closer to a town and campus that he’d not been in for almost 60 years. Cornell is a beautiful campus, above Lake Cayuga, and he enjoyed seeing it again. We stayed a couple of days on campus in their hotel.

Baseball was his sport after WWII. He played semi-pro ball for towns in north Mississippi. One of his teammates was Don Blasingame from Corinth, who later starred for the St. Louis Cardinals. Don and another player or two would pick Dad up in Baldwyn, where he lived, and they’d head out to small towns and play a game they loved. 

One of those stories he loved to tell was the day radio announcer Harry Caray of the St. Louis Cardinals came to Corinth. All the Mid-South, if you didn’t cheer for a more distant team like the Yankees or Giants or Dodgers, was Cardinals country. They let then young Harry do the public address commentary. Dad remembered a few of the crazy lines Harry used throughout the game. Another memorable moment in a life of fond memories.

The story of how he got to Baldwyn and stayed was amazing itself. The war was over and he came home to Pontotoc. One of his high school coaches pre-war had been Baldwyn legend Nelson “Doc” Vandiver. Doc’s brother-in-law was a rather audible and boisterous but extremely personable fellow named James Harrison “Babe” McCarthy. For some reason, Babe and Daddy bonded, even as Babe was only visiting his sister and her husband in Pontotoc and Dad was still in high school.

But after the war and Dad had moved home, Babe was coaching in his own hometown of Baldwyn. He called my dad three times to get him to come help him coach.

“Coaching everything by myself. I need some help,” Dad said Babe told him. Daddy turned him down twice. On the third call he accepted, begrudgingly. Babe’s Baldwyn High team had just won the overall state boys basketball championship. It was 1948. 

“Babe, I’m going to come over there and give you one year, because I’m going to Ole Miss and finish my degree.” So off Dad went, leaving behind his father’s appliance/TV sales & repair/phonograph records business in Pontotoc to coach in Baldwyn. But one year turned into 70, although he did only coach for one year. Dad met the school music teacher, Jane Gentry, who would later become his wife and then my mother, and stayed. For a long, long time. Love will do that.

Dad did go back to Ole Miss and get his degree, then he and Mother moved back to Baldwyn where he had an insurance agency for decades that my grandfather had started.

Babe, meanwhile, moved on to coach Mississippi State, win four SEC championships, coach in the ABA (which later merged with the NBA) and became a legend in that league as the head coach in New Orleans, Memphis, Dallas, and Louisville. Cancer ended Babe’s life early, when he was still coaching. The last time I saw him was in the driveway of our home in Baldwyn when my great uncle that everybody called “Scram,” Babe’s best friend, drove him by to see Daddy and me.

I always attribute two men for me being on the planet – my dad but also Babe McCarthy, who got my dad to Baldwyn where he met my mother, so I could show up later.

Life moves along and you just never know. I knew Kermit Davis, Sr. was Babe’s first signee to play basketball for Mississippi State, and that their original conversation about that was in the Baldwyn gym during a tournament in the mid-1950s.

When Ole Miss hired Kermit Davis, Jr. to coach the Rebels, I went up to him and said, you and I have something in common, besides being the same age. Your dad was Babe McCarthy’s first State signee. My dad was Babe’s first assistant coach.

Both our dads were in the Pavilion that day. I wanted to introduce my dad to Kermit, the new coach. 

“Hey, Coach!” Kermit said as he stuck out his hand to meet my father. I hadn’t heard my dad called “Coach” except by a handful of those kids, turned adults, he had coached that one school year in Baldwyn in 1948-49. I still smile about Kermit calling him that. A bond indeed.

Dad was one of the best golfers in northeast Mississippi from the 1950s for decades, winning numerous tournaments and was a founding member of the Natchez Trace Golf Club. He won the club championship at the “Trace” three times and was runner up five times. He was still playing good golf into his late 80s. He was a member of the Tupelo Country Club for a number of years. Many of his best friendships were formed on the golf course, at golf clubs, and at tournaments.

He liked to tell how he got started. He was standing on Main Street in Baldwyn when Mayor Bernard Coggins drove by and said let’s go play golf. Daddy said he’d never played and had no clubs. Bernard said, didn’t matter. Come on, we’ll figure all that out. After that, my dad was hooked but hit it straight and made lots of putts for years.

Daddy experienced lots of heartache with his family through the years. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, he lost two young brothers-in-law and his own father within four years. That meant two of his sisters lost their husbands, and collectively among them seven children were without a father. My dad stepped in and helped all he could. He couldn’t replace anyone and didn’t try. But he gave those who remained, including his own mother, someone to lean on and move on through life with.

There were more instances of family pain through the years, for his three sisters and his brother and others close to him. My dad’s dedication and devotion to everything “his” was remarkable. His family. His friends. His church. His communities (plural). His schools (plural). His work. His passions (plural). And thankfully me, his son.

Nobody’s perfect, but my dad led by example and in the best ways that he knew. And those were plenty good for anyone to follow. 

I say this honestly, and not tongue in cheek by any stretch, but with knowledge that this may seem like a cop-out, which it isn’t meant to be. But I realized years ago that his was a standard too high for me to attain, a bar too high for me to reach. However, with that being said, it was always the example I needed to have in life to at least allow me to see what I should strive for and attempt to emulate. 

A few years after my mother died and I was in college, Dad began a companionship with a wonderful lady in our town named Linda. She had two daughters, Amy and Laura, who are several years younger than me. When I left home, they provided for Dad another family to join. When you find that special person and/or family to not be alone anymore, then that is good for everyone. I am thankful he had those times with them. Then unfortunately, like my own mother had to cancer, Linda succumbed to the dreaded disease in 1997. Once again Dad was alone, but then and through subsequent years, we would continue to see the level-headed, not-all-that-emotional countenance of the patriarch of the Robersons.

Into the 21st century, Father Time began to creep in like it does as the years pass. In 2019 I felt it was time for him to make a move from the town he’d been in for 70 years and the house he’d been in for 60 and move closer to me. So he came to Oxford. He loves Oxford but hated to leave home. I know that.

He never really said it but I knew it. He also understood. I knew that, too.

Visiting family and staying in touch with friends, along with a few more Ole Miss games and also visiting my house, became the most important things to him. Those, and attending church as often as he could.

Covid, which would ultimately take its toll on him this month, affected us all, and he lived through that era in Oxford. I’ll never forget what I would call his last truly best day for a number of reasons.

It was Thursday, March 5, 2020, and who knew what awaited in just a matter of days? But on that particular day, I took Dad to the Pavilion at Ole Miss where he watched the very teams he had coached 70 years earlier. Baldwyn’s boys and girls were in the finals of the state championships of basketball, which for the first time in years were being played somewhere other than Jackson.

Unfortunately for us, Baldwyn lost both games. And while the final scores were significant, the most important thing for Billy Roberson was the fact that he’d had an entire afternoon seeing familiar friendly folks from home and talking to them, reminiscing, catching up. I know that was still somewhat difficult, because he wasn’t going back “home” with them, but euphoric for him at the same time, because he’d missed them all so much. Honestly, he was like a celebrity that day, but for me, of course, still just my daddy. 

But that wasn’t all that day. I thought he’d be tired, perhaps, and ready to go back to his place at assisted living. Nope. Not yet.

I told him I was going to Off Square Books to Thacker Mountain Radio Hour. A new friend of ours, one we’d met through people in Nashville when we were up there a few months prior, was playing and singing. His name is Kaleb Garrett. Dad and I had been in our friend and Ole Miss alum Larry Rogers’ recording studio in Music City, along with another Ole Miss friend Greg Miller, when we met Kaleb in late 2019. My cousin, the Ole Miss singing quarterback Jimmy Weatherly, was with us.

Jimmy was amazed at Kaleb’s songs, and he asked Kaleb to co-write some with him. Then came the months of Covid and they never got together. They planned again, and then we sadly lost Jimmy. But he loved Kaleb’s songs and music.

Back to March 5, 2020. So I told Dad that was where I was headed, to Thacker, and he said he wanted to go, too. I am glad I said basically what I always said to my dad – Sure. Go with me. Because after that, he mostly sat for months, mainly indoors, lost much of his mobility at then age 95, and just never really was the same physically. Like a lot of folks after March, 2020.

Of course, he was exactly the same level-headed dad to me, uncle to his family, brother to his only remaining sibling, and friend to so many that looked to him as an example.

We made a trip to Pontotoc cousin Tommy Wood’s lake house in Alabama July 4th weekend 2022. Just for the day. Dad loved it, saw 40-something kin, listened to cousin Randy Wood play guitar and sing to him, saw a bunch of little extended Robersons downline from him, and all in all had a great time.

Dad was at my house on Saturday, August 27. We were gonna watch some football and hang out. But an hour in, he had some sort of episode, I called the ambulance, and a couple of weeks later, sparing you any more details, he died – on Tuesday, September 13, at 7:17 a.m., the doctor said when he called me.

I’ll miss him. A whole lot of people will. But, as the old saying goes, it was a life well lived. A member of the greatest generation, as they were coined, is one less now, and this one was the most special to me.

Thanks Daddy, for everything, and rest well now because you ran the good course, kept the faith, and finished it. And thanks for what you meant to, and did for, so many, many more than just me.