By Errol Castens
OXFORD – Friends of Larry Speakes shared memories spanning his college days through his latter years Wednesday at the University of Mississippi’s Overby Center for Southern Journalism and Politics.
“Remembering Larry Speakes” honored the memory of the Ole Miss graduate whose career in journalism and public relations included being the spokesman for two U.S. presidents. Speakes died at age 74 earlier this month at his home in Cleveland.
“If Larry can do it, any one of you can do it,” said Charles Overby, the center’s chairman and namesake, to an audience that included dozens of students. “He came from nothing and went to the top.”
Speakes, a 1961 Ole Miss graduate, was a Mississippi newspaperman before becoming press secretary to Sen. James O. Eastland. He became a staff assistant in the Nixon White House and press secretary for President Gerald Ford. After the assassination attempt on President Ronald Reagan that left James Brady disabled, Speakes was for nearly eight years Reagan’s de facto press secretary. Oxford businessman and publisher Ed Meek remembered Speakes as both shrewd and humble.
“Larry was clearly the best friend I’d ever had,” he said, recalling their years of cooperation and competition as working journalists while students at Ole Miss. “Larry Speakes could write a story about a rock in the middle of the road. I learned some of those facilities from him and Professor (Jere) Hoar.”
Curtis Wilkie, whose time at Ole Miss coincided with Meek’s and Speakes’, was a Boston Globe reporter at the Reagan White House.
Speakes was hard to rattle. The only time he was visibly upset, Wilkie said, was when Speakes assigned seats at a White House press briefing to help Reagan call reporters by name, and reporters played musical chairs just before the president appeared, assuring Reagan repeated embarrassment.
“(Speakes) hissed, ‘You (plural expletive deleted),’ see if I ever do you a favor ever again,” Wilkie said, laughing.
Scott Coopwood, a Cleveland publisher, said Speakes always took pleasure in his Delta roots.
“Our main conversations were not about President Reagan – it was about the Delta,” Coopwood said. He recalled that Speakes once arranged for Leland bluesman Son Thomas to perform for President Reagan.
“He said most people in the White House didn’t realize what he was doing – they thought it was a Civil Rights thing,” Coopwood recalled. “He said after they got there, everybody really enjoyed it: Son Thomas from Leland, Mississippi, was playing blues in the White House.”
Overby closed the event with a surprise announcement.
“Joel Woods, who is a good friend of the university and Ole Miss journalism, has agreed to make a major contribution to fund a lecture series in the name of Larry Speakes,” he said. “That’s a great tribute to Larry.”