By Patsy R. Brumfield
OXFORD – Robert Khayat admits he’s obsessive, always been.
Obsessive as a child about household chores, later about kicking perfect field goals. As an adult, he obsessed about the law and a manicured lawn.
Perhaps it takes an obsessive man to lead the University of Mississippi as its 15th chancellor from a 19th century attitude of class and race to the new, excellence-driven state international reporters found when his alma mater hosted the first 2008 presidential debate.
In his soon-released autobiograpy, “The Education of a Lifetime,” the former Ole Miss chancellor reflects on his obsessive nature, his love of family and his team-play style that saw him through predictable challenges and even death threats toward his semi-retirement in Oxford, a place he maintains always had his heart.
Khayat’s book, published by Oxford-based Nautilus Publishing Co., will be available Tuesday. He plans a book-signing tour through the South, ending Oct. 19 at the Birmingham, Ala., headquarters of the Southeastern Conference.
“This book really has given both of us a new life,” Khayat said Friday about his and his wife, Margaret’s, efforts to hone the details for their lives across so many years.
“She’s my best and first editor,” he said.
Battling old ways
The Moss Point native’s obsession with gaining a Phi Beta Kappa chapter at Ole Miss drove almost everything he did, says Atlanta-based reporter Kevin Sack, who’s written about Khayat’s efforts to bring significant change during his chancellorship.
PBK is the nation’s highest honorary organization for liberal arts students. Its symbol, a key, has been worn by Nobel laureates, ex-presidents, scientists and Supreme Court justices.
As Sack recalls, Khayat was told PBK wasn’t likely to come to Oxford with entrenched racial symbols like the Confederate battle flag, Colonel Reb mascot and the Southern anthem “Dixie.”
The New York Times’ Southern Bureau chief first came to campus in March 1997 to write about Khayat’s plans for a national study of perceptions about Ole Miss and discussions of its symbols. In November 1998, Sack returned after the university banned sticks to remove the Confederate flag from the campus and athletic events.
Sack remembers that Khayat felt like “the school wasn’t getting a fair shake because it couldn’t move past this racial divide.”<note>Patsy Brumfield 9/6/13 PICK UP</note>
He concluded that Khayat saw attainment of a Phi Beta Kappa chapter as the “ultimate validation” for the school.
Aside from academics, Rebel head football coach Tommy Tuberville told Khayat in 1995, “We can’t recruit against the Confederate flag.”
Khayat writes that his views on race were shaped as he grew up the grandson of Lebanese immigrants.
His father, Eddie, and five siblings – with their “strong Middle Eastern features” – felt racial prejudices in their own lives.
Eddie Khayat, who ultimately became a significant political force as president of the Mississippi Association of Supervisors, told his own children, “Treat every person with respect.”
Robert Khayat, though, admits that during his growing-up, he and many of his white friends thought little about race.
Years later, when Eddie Khayat’s political mistakes led to his downfall, his son reflects that the man he so admired failed to change with the times.
That meant fighting the shadow of racism’s legacy, starting with the flag, one of Ole Miss’ most visible and cherished fan symbols.
“My life would never be the same,” he says of that decision.
When he thought hard about what needed to be done, he said, to weigh the loss of “waving thousands of flags seven times a year with the perception implications versus our students, the decision was easy.”
It was getting there that was tough, he admits.
To the outside observer, Khayat should have been uniquely prepared for the race issue – he watched live TV reports of the tragic 1962 riots when James Meredith sought admission as the university’s first black student, he was part of the 1959 and 1960 SEC championship baseball teams thwarted from competing nationally by a state ban from playing integrated teams, and he witnessed national struggles with race throughout his adulthood.
“My generation should have addressed (segregation) earlier. But we didn’t,” admits the man who first wanted to be a doctor. “The delay left many scars on many people – and on Ole Miss.”
An avowed fan of great music, Khayat reveals his emotional attachment to “Dixie,” even as the first song performed on the new campus chapel’s massive bell-tower carillon, played by its musical donor.
“I have always loved the song and the excitement it evokes at sporting events,” he says.
Key friends, key times
While Khayat’s book, written in short, pithy chapters, reflects his ultimate joy at what he, his administrative team and circumstances wrought for immense change at Ole Miss, he takes care to remember the many key people who helped him get there.
For the achievements of his chancellorship, he credits significant staff teammates like Gerald Walton, Rex Deloach, Gloria Kellum, Carolyn Ellis Statum and Jeff McManus.
But he also takes care to acknowledge the luck of booming financial times and the generosity of key friends, who stepped up with huge gifts to fund changes critical to realizing Khayat’s vision for the Oxford university and its sister-ship, the University of Mississippi Medical Center.
Significant among them are public relations guru Harold Burson, industrialist Jerry Abdalla, Jim and Sally Barksdale, senators Trent Lott and Thad Cochran, Larry and Susan Martindale, Archie Manning and his family, Dick and Dianne Scruggs, David Nutt, Jerry Hollingsworth, Lee and Henry Paris, Bill Yates and Pat Patterson.
Well known to many are his proudest accomplishments in establishing – with his friends’ generosity – the Croft Institute for International Studies, Sally McDonnell Barksdale Honors College, Paris-Yates chapel, William Winter Institute for Racial Reconciliation, Patterson School of Accountancy, Overby Center for Southern Journalism and Politics, and the Ford Center for the Performing Arts.
Khayat also recalls many “characters” he’s encountered along the way – coaches, philanthropist Gertrude Castellow Ford, Professor “Cyanide” Jones, football great Big Daddy Lipscomb, even Elvis, whom he and two Ole Miss football teammates visited in 1961, a tale he claims they agreed not to tell because “they wouldn’t believe it anyway.”
Almost didn’t take job
Yet, back in 1994, when rumblings swept campus that current chancellor, Gerald Turner, was looking for another job, Khayat very nearly walked away.
The former NFL placekicker’s feelings were hurt. The Law School faculty had resoundingly rejected his candidacy to be its new dean the year before.
He wasn’t used to losing or suffering public humiliation.
He told longtime friend Oxford attorney Jack Dunbar he wouldn’t apply for the chancellor’s job.
“The last thing I wanted to do was put myself out there to be rejected again,” he recalls.
But Dunbar told him he’d regret the decision the rest of his life.
He also told him he wouldn’t be proud of him if he passed up the chance. “And your Daddy would not be proud of you either,” Dunbar told him.
On his first day as the new chancellor, Khayat writes that as he sat behind his desk, he thought to himself, “I wished my father could have seen me.”
Through his 14 years at the helm, his obsession for Ole Miss kept him going.
He calls it devotion – it “had a grip on me that I could not escape.”
Khayat said he believes in “messages from above” about life decisions and that the success of the 2008 presidential debate and its accompanying praisatory media reactions were “my signal – it wasn’t going to get better than that.”
He knew, he said, “We could have done a lot more, but I had done all I could.”
EPILOGUE: Robert Conrad Khayat retired as University of Mississippi chancellor in 2009. At age 75, he works part time as a consultant for the UM Foundation. In 2011, the University of Mississippi named its new Law Center for him. Today, he’s signing thousands of books for a 10-stop tour and thinking of another book about leadership.
Khayat’s New Book
“THE EDUCATION OF A LIFETIME,” 320 pages, Nautilus Publishing Co.
RELEASE: Sept. 10
FIRST SIGNING, 5 p.m. Tuesday Oxford’s Off Square Books
• Sept. 24, 3-5 p.m. Jackson’s Lemuria Books
• Oct. 13, 2 p.m. Tupelo Library