By Stephen Singer

Daily Journal

OXFORD – When Robert C. Khayat played for the Washington Redskins in the early 1960s, he and his fellow southern teammates, anxious to return home, arrived at the final game of the season with their cars packed, loaded and backed into the stadium for a quick exit after the game ended.

“The southern boys went home,” Khayat recalled.

Khayat is coming home again. But this time, the homecoming for the former place kicker and offensive lineman will be cheered by University of Mississippi and Oxford residents as Khayat becomes only the fifth alumnus of Ole Miss to be sworn in as chancellor.

“I see this as a vicarious experience for Ole Miss people,” said Khayat, who will today be inaugurated as the 25th chancellor. “As a resident of Mississippi who came up through the public schools, this gives people at the school and in the state a sense of personal involvement.”

The university community and Oxford residents couldn’t be happier. Since last June, when the Mississippi Board of Trustees of the state Institutions of Higher Learning announced the appointment of Khayat to the $113,300-a-year position, the university and Oxford have had 10 months to plan festivities celebrating the elevation of one of their own.

Events began Monday for a weeklong celebration, including exhibits on the life of Khayat and a chronology of his predecessors displayed in the Union lobby; scholarly forums, lectures and readings; baseball games between the university and the University of Southern Mississippi and Louisiana State University; two performances of the opera “Orpheus in the Underworld;” receptions; a staff picnic; and an open house and tours.

‘The Ole Miss mystique’

By appointing Khayat to lead the 148-year-old university, the trustees reached out to “someone from the Ole Miss family,” said alumnus Aubrey Patterson, chairman and chief executive officer of the Bank of Mississippi.

Although alumni, like Khayat and Patterson, left Mississippi to pursue graduate studies or serve in the armed forces, many “have come back here and stayed here,” Patterson said.

Not only is Mississippi home, but the university -the oldest public institution in the state, with a 1994-95 budget of $177.5 million -has served as a “political springboard” for many Mississippi politicians and business leaders, Patterson said. “There’s something special about Ole Miss.”

Khayat is “touched by the Ole Miss mystique,” said Oxford resident Louise Avent. “It’s difficult to describe it. It’s sort of a family feeling … a deep and abiding love of Ole Miss. A feeling as if we are a family,” said Avent, who has known Khayat since the early 1960s and was his appointee to various university committees.

Nice guys finish first

Khayat, 57, completed his undergraduate studies at Ole Miss in 1961 and has been at Oxford since, with only brief interruptions.

But the chancellor, who served as a municipal judge, law professor, vice chancellor for university affairs and chancellor, was not just the beneficiary of an effective network. The kudos Khayat has received since moving into the university’s top post demonstrate that, sometimes, nice guys finish first.

When Chancellor Gerald Turner resigned last year to become president of Southern Methodist University in Dallas, a groundswell of support rose for Khayat, “not just because of his personal attributes but because he understands Mississippi,” Patterson said.

“He’s just a wonderful human being,” said Harry Sneed, a co-owner of Sneed’s Ace Hardware in Oxford.

“I’m very proud of him and impressed with his challenge to look at the university in a new light,” said Jack Dunbar, a former law partner of Khayat. “I’m interested in what he is doing and what is happening at the university. Sometimes, he is even interested in what I’m doing,” said Dunbar, a partner at Holcomb Dunbar, a law firm in Oxford, Clarksdale, Jackson and South Haven.

“He is really open to student concerns,” said Hart Rogers, president of the Associated Student Body at Ole Miss. “The faculty, staff and students are all behind him.”

Because Khayat has been a part of Oxford since his student days 35 years ago, “you sort of feel like you’ve known him a long time,” said Richard Howorth, owner of Square Books in Oxford and a 1972 graduate of Ole Miss.

‘Very human’

Khayat appreciates the good will as he tries to explain it. “I know I am very human,” he said. “I have all the imperfections of a human being. I’m overwhelmed by the kindness and generosity of people.”

He credited the praise to his “sound values,” including an ability to listen. “People in my position talk a lot,” he said.

Khayat hopes that during his tenure, Ole Miss will draw a Phi Beta Kappa chapter. To bring the honor society to campus, a university must demonstrate its superior abilities in its library and faculty and the quality of the student body. It also must demonstrate a commitment to an honors program or college, he said.

Khayat believes that one of his accomplishments in the 10 months he has been chancellor has been to create a sense of community, to establish a “sense of unity” between the campus and Oxford. To some residents, he has already succeeded.

“Around town, feelings about the university are as positive as they have been in a long, long time,” Howorth said. Khayat has “brought fresh energy to the university and good ideas.”

The other accomplishment Khayat cites is preserving and improving the grounds and buildings on the Ole Miss campus.

In this task, Khayat is not too humble to stoop to conquer. During early morning walks in Oxford with Dunbar, the chancellor picks up empty bottles, cans and other litter, Dunbar said.

At an Oxford Rotary club luncheon Tuesday, Khayat was presented a pair of work gloves and a spiked pole to retrieve trash to help him with his extracurricular activity.

“It’s a class act when a chancellor picks up trash,” Khayat jokingly told the lunchtime crowd. “I think I may want to hold onto this,” he said, clutching the pole. “Someone may want to use it on me.”

More likely, the pole will be working overtime cleaning up after this week’s celebrations for the success of one Ole Miss alumnus and what it says for the university and Mississippi.

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