Writer’s note: Robert Gene Wiggins, 69, professor emeritus of journalism at USM, passed away February 21, 2013, at his home. Gene was a former sports writer at the Jackson Daily News under Hall of Famer Lee Baker and then at the Hattiesburg American. In 1969, while the sports editor of The American, he was voted Mississippi Sports Writer of the Year. At his funeral, I was honored to do a eulogy. It follows.)
This was really late on a Friday night or really early on a Saturday morning. We were in the smoky, grimy third floor newsroom of the old Hattiesburg American building on Front Street. Had to be 45 years ago. This was when we typed our stories on cheap copy paper with manual typewriters. We really were, in every sense of the term, ink-stained wretches.
I was a teen-aged sports writer and Gene Wiggins — Wiggie, we called him then — was my boss.
This was a high school football Friday night, so we had both been to cover a game, then returned to the newspaper to take the results of other games on the phone. Gene had finished his story and 90 percent of all the other stories and was smoking a cigarette and waiting on me. He was patient for a while and then much less patient. After all, the lovely Linda was at home waiting.
“Rickey, what the heck is taking you so long?” Wiggie asked.
“I’m trying to make this thing sing,” I answered like the 15-year-old fool I was.
Gene never hesitated. “Listen,” he said, dryly. “It’s after midnight and we gotta be back in here at 6 a.m.. We aren’t trying to be Hemingway or Faulkner here.”
As usual, Geno made his point. I finished my story quickly. And my story surely wasn’t like Faulkner or Hemingway.
Here’s another example that Wiggins wit. Another Friday night I finished my story and handed it to Gene to edit. I anxiously watched him read it and mark it and then I saw that classic and impish Gene Wiggins grin cross his face.
“Rickey, that was some fine writing,” he said. “Your subjects and verbs mostly agreed. You spelled almost everything right. It flows really well. Very few typos. Now then, next time, would you mind including the dad-blamed score.”
There was so much to admire and love about Dr. Gene Wiggins. Right at the top, in my mind, was that dry sense of humor and that grin, which he always used so well to get his points across. Geno dispensed wit and wisdom in just about equal doses. And he always used that exquisite wit to dispense his wisdom.
I can tell you this much: The Cleveland family never had a better friend. That includes my dad Ace, my mom Carrie, my brother Bobby and me. When USM expanded The Rock back in the mid 1970s, my daddy Ace Cleveland borrowed Gene from the School of Communications to work in the press box. Gene typed the play-by-play for the next nearly 40 years. To my knowledge, he and Ace have typed every play-by-play at USM since 1953. That’s 60 years. I know this much: The next guy had better be good at it. Believe me, Gene was good at it. He was fast and he was accurate. He was so good at football. Ace got him to do the basketball play by play as well. All the while, he and Ace traded barbs the way kids used to trade marbles. They made the press box a fun and often irreverent place to be.
My brother Bobby worked two jobs while he went to school at USM. He worked at the newspaper in the morning. He tended bar until late at night. He went to class, on rare occasions, in between. When Bobby made it to class, it was what we sports writers would call an upset. Once, Bobby fell asleep in one of Gene’s classes and started snoring. Gene walked over to his desk, tapped him on the shoulder and asked: “Mr. Cleveland, am I disturbing your sleep?”
No, Bobby said, on the contrary, he wished Gene would just keep talking. It wasn’t bothering his sleep at all. In fact, it was helping. Bobby says Gene never woke him up again. But I’ll tell you this: Gene did ensure that Bobby got a diploma. It took him nine years and Gene probably had to cook the books a little, but he did it.
Now then, raise your hand out there if you had Law of the Press, later called Media Law, under Gene Wiggins? Me, too. We are all survivors. We’re kind of like a Band of Brothers in that regard. We may not have gotten Purple Hearts, but we deserved something similar. That class could leave your brain frazzled and your GPA battered and bruised. I guess we all survived.
Besides being my favorite professor, Gene was also my adviser. When it came time to take Law of the Press, he insisted I take a light schedule otherwise. Law of the Press is not for sissies, he said, or something like that. You are going to really have to show up, work and study in this class, he said. And he was right.
I took that as a personal challenge. I showed up. I worked and I really studied. And I’ve got to tell you, no column I ever wrote and no award I ever won was more satisfying than the A I got in the most difficult class I ever took. That A in Gene Wiggins’ Law of the Press class was like my Southern Miss Medal of Honor.
You know it is one thing to like your professor. I know I had several professors I liked, who didn’t really teach me all that much. It is another thing to respect your professor. Believe me I had several professors whom I respected but did not like a bit. But it is entirely another thing to both like and respect your professor. I would challenge you to try and find a USM journalism student who didn’t both like and respect Gene Wiggins. You just can’t do it. Such a person does not exist. He had that rarest of abilities to make everyone he met feel better about themselves — and to also make them better people.
Linda and Matthew, I can’t tell you how much of an honor it is for you to have asked me to speak here today. And I want you to know that I know that I speak for hundreds upon hundreds who studied under Gene Wiggins, learned from Gene Wiggins, deeply respected Gene Wiggins and loved him deeply.