A Tribute to Rube
This was 1974, a Sunday night. Then-WLBT television station manager Bill Dilday, a jazz aficionado, was driving back into Jackson from a business trip. As he often did, Dilday turned his radio dial to WJSU-FM, the Jackson State University campus radio station.
“I heard this new deejay, with this rich, baritone voice, who called himself just Michael,” Dilday remembered Thursday afternoon. “He was playing really nice jazz, but it was his voice and his suave delivery that got me. The next day, when I went to the station, I told them to find that guy and then hire him.”
A day later, Dilday, the nation’s first African-American manager of a television station, met Michael Rubenstein at WLBT and found out his new sports anchor was white.
Dilday hired Rubenstein, or “Rube” as he became famously known, and TV sports journalism in Mississippi changed forever and much for the better. When his TV days were over, Rubenstein became a driving force behind the creation of the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame and Museum, where he has spent the last 15 years as executive director.
“Rube had such a sharp mind and such a quick wit,” said Marino Casem, the former football coach and athletic director at Alcorn State. “You always knew where he stood and that he had no prejudices whatsoever. I cherish his friendship mightily. There’s going to be a huge void in Mississippi sports.”
John Michael Rubenstein, born and raised in Booneville, was a Vanderbilt University honors graduate. The college major of this future TV sports anchor and sports museum director? Why Asian studies, of course. Rubenstein had no TV experience — and no sports coat, much less suit — when he took the WLBT job, yet he became the most accomplished sports anchor in Mississippi TV. He was a dogged reporter, never afraid to ask the tough questions. As an anchor he was eloquent, as much because of his crisp writing as his rich voice or delivery. The Cowboys didn’t just rout the Saints. No, the Cowboys left the Saints “reamed, steamed and dry-cleaned.”
Ole Miss and New Orleans Saints legend Archie Manning was “shocked and saddened” by Thursday’s news.
“As a sports reporter, Rube was always fair and engaging,” Manning said. “That’s all you can really ask as a player. I always enjoyed my time with him, especially later on when we were getting the Hall of Fame Museum going.”
Rubenstein had no business or museum experience when he became the museum’s executive director. Yet, at a time when many museums around the nation have closed or reduced operating hours, the Mississippi sports shrine remains open despite, as Rube always would remind you, “having never received a dime of government money for operating funds.”
Said Jackson attorney Cal Wells, past president of the museum’s board of directors: “Rube was the face of the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame. He was the perfect guy at the perfect time because of all his sports connections and because he was such a great speaker and ambassador for the museum.”
Besides his contributions to the Mississippi sports scene, Rube leaves behind many grieving friends, including this writer. We shared a passion for Mississippi, Mississippians and for sports.
As a TV anchor, Rube had opportunities to leave for bigger markets. He didn’t because, as he once told me, “Where else, but Mississippi, are there stories like the ones we have to tell?”
One of Rubenstein’s closest friends was Malcolm White, director of the Mississippi Arts Commission and perhaps more famously the founder of Mal’s St. Paddy’s Day Parade.
White was 14 when his family moved from Perkinston to Booneville, where his daddy took the job of president of Northeast Mississippi Community College. Hazel Rubenstein, Michael’s mother, taught algebra and geometry at Northeast, and she introduced Rube and Malcolm, both about to enter high school.
“I’ll never forget the moment,” White said. “Michael was lying in his bed, eyes closed, headphones on, listening to the Rolling Stones. Reluctantly, and at his mother’s prodding, he got up and came out and talked to me. “Pretty quickly, we found out we had three things in common: We loved rock and roll, basketball and girls, not necessarily in that order. We spent the rest of the afternoon, playing basketball and listening to music and by the end of the day I knew about every pretty girl in Booneville.” White and Rubenstein became inseparable.
“I had never known anybody like Rube,” White said. “He was so literate, so smart, so worldly. You’d eat dinner at his mother’s table and the conversation was on a whole different level than anything I had ever been around.”
Thursday evening, White and I talked of Rubenstein’s remarkable life, which ended with a lengthy but brave battle against a series of agonizing illnesses. We talked about his wit, his intellect, his willfulness and a lot more. Yes, White said, Rube was content with what he had achieved professionally “but he was extraordinarily proud of the Hall of Fame.” Rube was with his lovely soulmate, Catherine Dollarhide, a longtime Jackson public schools teacher, when he died. The two already had discussed a weekend filled with TV football. About all that, Rube was passionate to the end.