By Patsy R. Brumfield
STARKVILLE – Marty Wiseman recalls standing with his father for long periods of time, when he was 4 or 6 years old, waiting to shake the hand of venerated U.S. Sen. John C. Stennis.
“I wanted to go play,” he remembered of the strained anticipation in the old Mississippi State University Alumni House every homecoming. “My father made me do it.”
Years later, he says he felt the coincidence of their yearly connections as he became full-time director of the John C. Stennis Institute of Government and Community Development at MSU.
Wiseman, 62, officially retires Dec. 31 from the post he’s shaped across 22 years.
Through those years, he’s been a media go-to for political analysis and a reliable source of information and research for the Mississippi Legislature, other governmental agencies and communities across the Magnolia State.
“My wife is making these lists,” he admits as he considers his time away from the book-lined office with documents and years of collectibles scattered across desk tops.
Wiseman insists he has no skills around the house, other than mastery of Thanksgiving and Christmas family feasts.
Born in Greenwood, Wiseman grew up in Kosciusko, the son of an Extension Service county agent.
He graduated from MSU in 1974 with a master’s in political science and married Bonnie Parker a month later.
That’s when he briefly tied his star to a Mississippi legend, Jim Buck Ross, the longtime, colorful agriculture commissioner.
Likely with the help of a call from his dad, Wiseman went to work for Ross for $613 a month with his wife, holding an elementary education degree, answering the switchboard at the Country Club of Jackson.
“She got free food – she ate like a queen,” Wiseman noted with a laugh.
He suited up for Ross’ style – cowboy boots and a cowboy hat – and headed around the state for two years trying to encourage the public to eat more grass-fed beef. The campaign rose from struggling farmers’ complaints to Ross that they couldn’t afford to feed their calves anything else.
He also recalled Ross’ propensity to hire farmers who’d called it quits. “It was like a retirement home for old farmers,” he described their Jackson headquarters.
After that experience, Wiseman headed back to MSU for an Extension Service job and work on a master’s degree in sociology to pursue his interest in rural community development.
Not knowing where it would take him, Wiseman focused on studying rural, local government and how policies were influenced by Southern culture, especially religion.
“I had the idea that rural folks didn’t necessarily know the difference between their culture and the laws on the books,” he noted.
He wound up surveying hundreds of county groups to see what people thought.
Culture and the law
Wiseman said he continues to be mindful, and sometimes amazed, at the strong public reactions to “sin issues,” like where to locate restaurants with bars.
“Often the nuances of local government have nothing to do with an issue,” he said. “It’s how much are you going to demonstrate religious practices. It can get kind of confusing.”
One good example, he notes, is a well-known strip club just off Interstate 55 in Carroll County, one of the state’s most conservative locales.
“But, out in rural counties, there are no land-use codes,” he said. “People don’t want government telling them what to do, even if it’s to stop the opening of a strip club.”
In 1991, with the departure of the Stennis Center’s director, Charles Washington, Wiseman got his shot as the lone employee and interim director.
He said the future turned bright when a graduate student named Jim Borsig asked for a Ph.D. project, and they began building program relationships with state agencies and local governments.
Wiseman laughs to remember, as they searched for funding, when he and Borsig convinced Lt. Gov. Eddie Briggs to go into a $50,000 line item in the budget for use by the executive director of the state Institutions of Higher Learning, for whom they worked as MSU staffers.
“Briggs called and told him he had to let us have the money,” Wiseman said. “Frankly, that was a firing offense.”
Borsig, now president of Mississippi University for Women, termed their action “audacious.”
“I couldn’t have made it past the first year without Jim,” Wiseman admits.
Finding their niche
As time passed and experience came their way, he said the Stennis Institute became dexterous at research and training requested by governmental entities.
“We fell into a role that nobody else was taking,” Wiseman adds.
He describes that role as a “translator” to understand public problems, to present them to policy makers and then to translate how new policy can be implemented.
“We contributed by understanding both sides and by our ability to talk to both,” he said.
Through his years, Wiseman also has surveyed and analyzed many a Mississippi political campaign.
He said he “called” a Haley Barbour win as governor long before any of his campus lunch crowd even knew who Barbour was.
“He changed the ball game as far as campaigns are run,” he said of the Republican politician. “You discover your base, you turn it out and don’t waste any time or money on anybody else.”
As for Democrats, Wiseman said its leadership “waited too long” to respond to the GOP surge of the 1990s.
He predicts that Democrats can make some comebacks in state politics, when they field candidates that lots of voters can be comfortable with.
“It will be modern populism that connects with people,” he said.
“We will reach a point where folks tire of the constant anti-government, anti-education, anti-health care” attitudes and look for something new they can benefit from.
“Heck, we’re the poorest state in the union,” Wiseman notes. “We gain from the federal government. Cussing the Washington Beltway isn’t helpful.”
New options now
As for his own immediate future, Wiseman says he will continue to teach at MSU.
But now, without his previous restraints, he looks forward to being as partisan a Democrat as he wants to.
He also looks forward to spending more time with his son, Parker, Starkville’s mayor, and his daughter, Kelly, a special ed teacher in Tennessee, plus his six granddaughters and a grandson on the way.
On the way out of his executive career, Wiseman reflects on those encounters as a small child with a U.S. senator who seemed about 12 feet tall.
“I was looking up, always looking up at him,” said Wiseman of John Stennis.
Easily 6-feet 5-inches these days, Wiseman emotionally continues that posture for the Stennis Center’s namesake.
He said the little-known Stennis, then a circuit judge, had the imagination in 1947 to turn his special-election campaign focus to voters with ties to Mississippi State, where he’d once been a cheerleader.
“It was daddy’s proudest moment, when Stennis won that election,” he said. “Stennis was always a hero.”
As he packs up his cluttered office, a bust of the seven-term senator stares ahead on a corner, awaiting Wiseman’s successor and challenges for the future.