A public thank-you note to Rusty Hampton
Rusty Hampton announced today he is leaving The Clarion-Ledger sports department to work for the engineering firm of Neel-Schaffer. This is really good news for Neel-Schaffer. It is awful news for the state’s largest newspaper, and even worse news for readers who get their sports news from the Ledger and its website.
I’ll get right to it: In 43 years of working full-time at newspapers, always in sports, I never worked with a more dedicated journalist. Rusty cared. He cared so deeply he continued to work all the harder when faced with budget cuts and staff cuts over these often painful last 20 years.
The staff and news hole got smaller; Rusty’s days got longer. As an editor, he was demanding and he was extremely detail-oriented. We didn’t always agree — and we sometimes argued — on what was best for The Clarion-Ledger and its readers, but we did have a mutual respect for one another’s opinions.
Rusty is an Oregon native who married a lovely Mississippi lady and has learned to love and understand this place better than many natives. He even says y’all now. He could have stayed in newspapers and gone to work other places, bigger places. He chose to stay here. It always amused me how fans — short for fanatics — always accused Rusty of being biased toward one of the Mississippi schools. The truth is, he had no horse in the race; he just wanted to make sure all the horses got covered fairly. As his staff continued to shrink, this became increasingly difficult.
Back in the old days, we made so many road trips together, he as the State or Ole Miss beat writer and I as the columnist. We worked hard and sometimes we played hard. Don’t know which was more fun.
One of the best times of my career was covering Mississippi State in the College World Series one year when the Bulldogs lasted eight days, which meant eight rounds of golf for Rusty and me. We called it the Omaha Open. We played golf in the morning, covered great baseball in the afternoon and evening and then ate thick, juicy steaks at some point each night. Then we got up the next morning and did it again. One year, a storm blew in from the north bringing gusts of up to 70 mph. The games were called off, but we played golf right through it. Rusty, who could hit a golf ball a mile, needed a 3 iron to reach a 125-yard par-3. On the next hole, a 400-yard par-4 with the wind, he drove the green. We lost that scorecard and I am glad we did.
When I joined the Jackson newspapers in 1979, we had 26 sports writers. When I quit being sports editor and went to writing columns full-time we were down to 18. Rusty was down to just six. Such a shame. I should stress that this is not just a Jackson thing, not just a Gannett thing, not just a sports thing. It’s happening to newspapers all over and I hate it.
This past year Associated Press Sports Editors judged Rusty’s Clarion-Ledger sports sections to be in the Top 10 in the nation in its circulation category in daily sections, Sunday sections and special sections. In the newspaper business, this is known as a grand slam. The entire staff, what was left of it, contributed, but Rusty made it happen.
Rusty, a valued friend, is a fine writer and a better editor. As an editor, he saved my rear end so many times I long ago lost count. Consider this a public thank-you. And a lament. The newspaper business just lost a great one.