ON THE WEB: The University of Mississippi Web site (www

Lloyd Gray 6/17/09
ON THE WEB: The University of Mississippi Web site (www.olemiss.edu) has a host of tribute articles about outgoing Chancellor Robert Khayat.
See Marty Stuart’s tribute song, “The Moss Point Kid,” at www.youtube.com/watch?v=E0v2qDHAgyo
HED: Khayat’s life prepared him for chancellorship READ-IN: From a work ethic forged with childhood jobs to notable talents in athletics, academics and fundraising, Khayat brought a unique background to the post.
By Errol Castens
Daily Journal Oxford Bureau
OXFORD – In the process to identify a successor for Robert Khayat as the University of Mississippi’s chancellor, the sentiment was expressed repeatedly that no one could fill his shoes.
“We are seeking a replacement for an irreplaceable person,” said Amy Whitten, president of the Mississippi Institutions of Higher Learning board and chairman of the search committee.
It was obvious, though, that Ole Miss would have to find a new leader who would not be Robert Khayat. Dr. Aubrey Lucas, interim Commissioner of Higher Education, reminded the Ole Miss family early in the search process that Khayat, too, had had to grow into the job – but that he had come to it equipped to do just that.
“The Robert who came here in 1995, came with certain basic values and understandings that made him the Robert whose leaving we mourn,” Lucas said. “Find a person who has those values and loves this place and who will come and grow with it. We will not find the Robert who is retiring, but we must find the Robert who will grow.”
When Dan Jones was named as the university’s 16th chancellor earlier this month, he acknowledged as much: “I’m no Robert Khayat,” he said, “but with your help this university is going to move forward.”
Moss Point kid
Countless aspects of Khayat’s life seem to have prepared him for the job. To start with, he came from a family that valued education and culture even on a teacher’s salary.
His father, Eddie Khayat, had gone to Millsaps College on scholarship, working as many jobs as he could meanwhile to support himself and his 16-year-old bride, Eva. When Robert Khayat was 5 years old, “Mr. Eddie,” the orphaned son of Lebanese immigrants, took a temporary job at Ole Miss leading physical education classes for newly commissioned Army officers.
“We were only here nine months, but we saw our first snow,” Robert Khayat remembers.
Back in Moss Point, Robert Khayat, sisters Edna and Kathy and brother, “Little Eddie,” learned a work ethic that sprang from their modest circumstances.
“Everybody was expected to be productive, to be members of a team and take care of everything from washing dishes to getting the clothes ironed and mowing the grass and cleaning the house and having summer jobs,” Khayat said. “We had a strong work ethic, and I think the immigrant part made my father, and then us, strive harder than we might have otherwise to try to be successful – to try to do well in school, to do well in extracurriculars, to be accepted in the community.”
Khayat was born during the Depression, but World War II was the focus by the time he had much awareness of the world. His elder sister, Edna Khayat Boone, remembers more of those leaner times. “We were poor in the sense that others were; you made do,” said Boone. “But we always had classical records. We learned to love music.”
Kathy Murray, the youngest of the Khayat children, recalled that when any two of the Khayats were in the same room, they were apt to start singing. “We sang every song you could think of,” she said. “That’s something we just did into the wee hours of the night. Music was always a part of who we were.”
Robert Khayat also stayed glued to the radio on Saturday nights listening to the Grand Ole Opry. He didn’t have to roam far for personal exposure to country music, either. A friend down the street – “almost a Huck Finn kind of character,” Boone said – was the son of a country band leader who’d often invite him over to watch the pickin’ and grinnin’.
Race awareness
In the 1940s and ’50s systemic racism still dominated life in the South, and Robert Khayat’s parents were products of their time in some ways but ahead of the curve in others.
“Probably the value that my family embraced most strongly was respect,” he recalled. “Behavior that would be described as discriminatory was never permitted as a child growing up. We didn’t go to integrated schools, and we didn’t go to the same churches, but white kids and black kids grew up together in Moss Point and spent all our time together. I had never really been confronted with overt prejudice until it really surfaced in the late 50s.”
“Our parents always taught us to seek respect and to give it,” Boone said. “We were all conscious of the fact that there was unfairness. We dealt with each other with respect on an individual basis, but we didn’t understand until later that racism was systemic … that it was going to take more than just kindness to your neighbor to cure.”
Murray said of her brother Robert, “His commitment to making change in perceptions of racial equality started early on.” She recalled when her teaching colleague Eugene Moseley, who is black, noted the friendship their two families had shared since their childhoods. “He told me, ‘Our families loved each other long before integration, didn’t we?'” Murray said.
While Robert Khayat had graduated and left Ole Miss two years before riots erupted over James Meredith’s becoming its first black student, he would be the chancellor who commemorated the 40th anniversary of that event with an “Open Doors” celebration that immortalized Meredith in bronze near the Lyceum. It was also during his tenure that the William Winter Institute for Racial Reconciliation was established on campus.
“He has always wanted the university to be a very inclusive environment,” said Rose Jackson Flenorl, the first black president of the Ole Miss Alumni Association.
“People loved Robert Khayat enough to accept his direction,” she said. “He was a southern son who loved being from Mississippi. I don’t know if anybody else could have done it without the kind of trust and faith from the university family that he has.”
Campus favorite
The University of Mississippi was an idyllic place during Robert Khayat’s undergraduate years. Ole Miss coeds Mary Ann Mobley and Lynda Lee Mead would become back-to-back Miss Americas. The Rebels were a perennial powerhouse in several sports, most notably football. A student body of some 3,000 souls and a faculty in which longevity was the rule made it easy for students to feel connected.
“I think Camelot would be a good description,” Khayat said. “The Korean War was over, and the Vietnam War had not started. The Civil Rights movement had not become contentious.” According to “Ole Miss,” the school’s yearbook, from that era, student life centered around The Grill, studying in the library – where smoking had recently been limited to the browsing room – going to dances and following Ole Miss athletics.
Warner Alford, who would later serve Ole Miss as assistant football coach, athletic director and Alumni Association executive director, was Khayat’s college roommate and football teammate from 1956 to 1960.
“The pace was real easy; life was simple,” Alford recalled. “I don’t think anybody even knew how to spell marijuana, much less cocaine. There was no legal alcohol in Lafayette County. We had great faculty, an outstanding chancellor,” he said.
“Naturally, it makes it more fun when you win – and we won a lot.” The football team, on which Khayat was a lineman and place kicker, was named 1959 National Champions and SEC Team of the Decade in football. Khayat himself – often called “Bob” or “Bobby” then – would hit a grand slam homerun against Georgia Tech to win the SEC baseball championship.
Khayat was a member of the ODK honorary society, an Academic All-American and one of six people in his class named to the Ole Miss Hall of Fame. He won the highest honor open to a male student when he was elected Colonel Rebel.
Even as a college student, he exhibited measures of characteristics that would serve him as chancellor. One was the ability to put defeat behind him.
“We played Tennessee in 1958. The score was 16-18, and we had the chance to win it, 19-18, but Robert missed the field goal,” Alford said. “He made a lot more than he missed, but he’ll tell you that really troubled him. Being tough enough mentally to regroup said a lot about who he was: The next year I believe he led the nation in points for kickers.”
Since childhood, Khayat has always had an unassuming charm. It made Moss Point girls eager to be his little sister’s friends, earned him dates with the two Miss Americas among others and got him elected as Colonel Rebel – “probably the highest honor a male student at Ole Miss could have,” Alford said.
That same charm – a personal warmth, really – would someday help make him an almost magically effective fundraiser, “selling” the “product” of Ole Miss and its betterment.
Football and the law
Khayat had gone through college assuming he would be, like his father, a teacher and coach. He and Margaret Denton married when he graduated and joined the National Football League’s Washington Redskins. In that era pro football paid well enough only to be a part-time job, but the experience afforded him “exposure to a larger world,” he said.
His wife gave root to his growing sophistication and focus for his ambition. “Margaret is a peaceful, quiet, reserved, warm, loving person, and I am a Type AAAAA, so I think that together we have some balance,” Khayat said. “She’s smart, and she’s funny. She’s a wonderful wife and mother. She brought some balance to my life.
“She had been raised in Memphis, so she learned some things about how life works in a city that I didn’t have any exposure to,” he added. “I came from a little-bitty town – 1,200 people.”
For the 1960, ’62 and ’63 seasons, Khayat kicked and played tackle for the ‘Skins. (He missed the 1961 season after a life-threatening case of pancreatitis; the disease would afflict him twice more in later decades.)
Even as Khayat’s alma mater was in turmoil over integration, he showed himself ahead of the curve when he became friends with Bobby Mitchell, the Redskins’ first black player, as “Little Eddie” Khayat when he joined the team.
“They’re just fantastic people. They’ve always been that way from day one,” Mitchell said. “I was always comfortable with Bob, unlike with some guys. As soon as I met his brother, I liked him, too. You could tell they were raised right.”
Although Robert Khayat was good enough to play in the Pro Bowl his first year in the pros, he knew he wanted to pursue other interests.
“I saw that if you really wanted to have some opportunities, you really needed more than an undergraduate degree,” he said. Ole Miss administrator George Street steered Khayat toward attending law school during the off season.
“I told him I thought I might want to end up teaching for the university,” Khayat said. “He said, ‘You’ll either have to have a Ph.D. or a law degree,’ so I went and entered law school. I fell in love with it. I always like the humanities, but I found the law to be particularly interesting. I probably could have played longer if I’d really wanted to, but I was really ready to go to law school.”
After his second Ole Miss graduation, Khayat moved his family to his native Jackson County, where he practiced law and served as a city judge. In 1969, Ole Miss called him to teach at the law school, and both he and Margaret jumped at the chance.
“We’d loved being at Ole Miss: I loved Oxford; I loved the university; I liked the academic culture,” he said.
That leadership he’d shown as an undergraduate quickly propelled him into higher positions, including associate dean of the Law School and then, under Chancellor Gerald Turner, vice chancellor for university relations. One of Khayat’s focuses as vice chancellor was raising funds in the Campaign for Ole Miss, which netted more than $60 million – a figure long since eclipsed but astounding at the time.
Going national
Khayat’s leadership was noted on the national scene. With a master’s degree in law from Yale University under his belt, he answered a call from the National Collegiate Athletic Association to head its fledgling foundation.
“All they really knew was they wanted to have a foundation that focused on the non-athletics part of a college athlete’s life,” he said. “I had an opportunity to kind of create something that would have a national impact, and it would be designed for the parts of an athlete’s life outside of athletics.”
One innovation was a scholarship program for athletes who had left school without graduating and who wanted to return for their degrees. Another was an alcohol-education program called “Choices,” which used athletes to deliver the message that alcohol abuse was serious. Yet another was a program of living skills that most Americans take for granted but that might never have been taught in some athletes’ families or neighborhoods.
“One of the real nice features of the job was that I traveled the country and recruited board members,” Khayat said. “I interviewed Sally Ride, the first female astronaut, and Ken Chenault, who is now the CEO of American Express. There was [New York Yankees owner] George Steinbrenner; a fellow named Bill Esrey, the CEO of U.S. Sprint; a guy named Jerry Richardson, whom I played football against; and Donna Shalala [Secretary of Health and Human Services under President Bill Clinton and current president of the University of Miami]. It was pretty star-studded.
“When I became chancellor, those relationships helped,” he added. “I knew some people on a national level that I wouldn’t have otherwise gotten to know. The Yale contacts helped me in a different way. Yale introduced me to the intellectuals in the country, really.”
Coming home
After three years with the NCAA, in 1992 Khayat resumed teaching law at Ole Miss, and Gerald Turner appointed him to direct the university’s Sesquicentennial. The observance was to be a four-year celebration, officially starting 150 years after the university’s 1844 charter and extending through the anniversary of its opening in 1848. Included, of course, was to be another push to raise major funding to enhance campus programs and facilities.
During this time Ole Miss Law Dean David Shipley left for the University of Kentucky. Khayat, who had been an associate dean, hoped to succeed him, but faculty members voted against his candidacy, arguing that he lacked academic credentials for the post, and supported Louis Westerfield, who won the job, instead.
“It hurt,” Khayat said. “It was a little bit embarrassing to be rejected by your fellows.”
Law Professor Emeritus Guthrie “Guff” Abbott, a friend and colleague since their time as law students, said Khayat didn’t stay down long.
“Robert Khayat is the most forgiving person I’ve ever known in my life,” he said. “No matter what happens, in interpersonal relationships, Robert is willing to forgive and go with the positive parts. He is also incredibly resilient.”
Joining countless others, including Khayat himself, Abbott called the law dean circumstance “providential.”
“The Lord works in mysterious ways,” he said. “Robert was able to do more for the university – and, ironically, for the law school, than he ever would have as dean.” Adding to the irony is the likelihood that the IHL board will likely name the new law school facility now under construction for Khayat.
Within a few months of the disappointment, Gerald Turner had been named president of Southern Methodist University, leaving the Ole Miss chancellorship vacant. Assured by many supporters that he was the man for the job, Khayat almost didn’t act on the opportunity.
“I wasn’t going to put my name in the hat, because I’d already been rejected once by the law faculty,” he said. “I thought, ‘Fool me twice, shame on me.'”
Friends were insistent.
“Jack Dunbar called me up on Sunday morning,” Khayat recalled. “He called me over to his house and said, ‘If you don’t put your name on that list, you’re going to be disappointed in yourself, and your friends are going to be disappointed.’
“I said, ‘Jack, I just don’t want to be voted on again.’ He said, ‘You have to.'”
Warner Alford likened Khayat’s submitting to the search to his going out on the field against Mississippi State after that humbling loss at Tennessee in 1958.
Khayat, braced by his friends’ confidence, quickly built his own. When he interviewed with IHL board members for the post, he told them, “My entire life seems to have prepared me for this job, at this time, in this place.”
The IHL board apparently agreed, and the result has been another kind of “Golden Age” for Ole Miss.
“I’m certainly glad I did it,” Khayat said. “It’s been a wonderful experience.”
‘A million dreams to dream’
After more than 14 years in a job that is about as close to 24/7 duty as is humanly possible, Robert and Margaret Khayat are planning a long vacation out of state to disconnect. They’re not going away for good, though: Several months ago they moved into a home they built a five-minute walk from Oxford’s square.
Robert Khayat won’t lack for something to do. He serves on two corporate boards and will be involved in national policy discussions as a senior fellow for a foundation. He’ll be available anytime Jones asks for help but plans to keep a low profile.
“I’ll participate in conversations that draw on the experiences I’ve had as chancellor,” Khayat said. “I’m going to travel some, read some good books and listen to some good music and be a good Ole Miss alumnus.”
On April 30, country singer and Khayat friend Marty Stuart gave a tribute concert at the Ford Center for the Performing Arts on the Ole Miss campus, with Khayat often strumming along on his Gibson guitar.
Stuart summed up the way countless Ole Miss family members feel about “The Chancellor” with a song he wrote for the occasion.
Because of you, the world is not the same;
It’s a better place, my friend, and I’m so glad you came.
The magnolias whisper among themselves when they see you passing by.
Heard a southbound train call your name,
And it almost made me cry.
Like a William Faulkner novel,
You’re a fascinating read.
While Dixie is slowly turning,
You’re still gaining speed.
There’s a hundred roads left to travel
And a million dreams to dream.
Just like the old Tombigbee,
You’re a royal Southern king.
As tomorrow holds a treasure,
Adieu to yesterday we’ll bid.
While today’s another diamond
That serves to light the pathway,
As life keeps moving that way,
For the Moss Point Kid.
Hotty Toddy, Gosh A’mighty,
Who in the world are you?
They’ll build a statue of you
Before your days are through.
A symbol of your greatness
Where pigeons will stop to rest (keep you humble)
Some kid’ll ask, ‘Who was he?’
And they’ll say, ‘He was the best.’
There’s a hundred roads left to travel
And a million dreams to dream.
Just like the old Tombigbee,
You’re a royal Southern king.
As tomorrow holds a treasure,
Adieu to yesterday we’ll bid.
While life keeps moving that way,
For the Moss Point Kid.
You’ve touched more people’s lives
Than you’ll ever know.
I know you’ll always reap
The seeds of kindness that you sow.
You sowed them all in goodness
With a touch of love.
May they grow beneath the showers,
A sweet blessing from above.
‘Cause there’s a hundred roads left to travel
And a million dreams to dream.
Just like the old Tombigbee,
You’re a royal Southern king.
As tomorrow holds the treasure,
Adieu to yesterday we’ll bid
As life keeps turning that way
For the Moss Point Kid.

Errol Castens

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