OXFORD – Beginning a story about John Winkle’s career at the University of Mississippi is difficult.
It can focus on the number of students the political science professor taught during his 39-year career or the hundreds of practicing Mississippi attorneys who took his courses as undergraduates. It could highlight his role in starting the Sally McDonnell Barksdale Honors College, the Lott Leadership Institute and the Mock Trial program.
Or the introduction could note the teaching style and personality that allowed him to win the most significant awards the university confers.
“I think what Professor Winkle has done at the university makes him singularly unique in terms of his relationships with students, with the university and with the academic world,” said John Bruce, chair and associate professor of political science at the university. “…He is unlike anyone else I am aware of. You get someone once a generation who has this kind of impact on students.”
Winkle, 66, retired last month. He taught undergraduate and graduate courses on American government and politics, constitutional powers and civil rights and civil liberties, among others in the political science department, and also taught several Honors College courses, including the Honors freshman sequence.
Since joining the UM faculty in 1974, Winkle received the Elsie M. Hood Outstanding Teacher Award, the Faculty Achievement Award, the Random Acts of Kindness Award and the Frist Student Service Award.
The state’s college board presented him in 1998 with the Harrison Governing Boards Award, given to one faculty member in the state system.
Plans are under way at Ole Miss for the creation of the John W. Winkle III Fund for Faculty Excellence.
“I had three gifted teachers at Ole Miss, and Dr. Winkle was one of those great teachers,” said Billy Crews, who took a political science course from Winkle in 1976. “He lived and breathed the material he shared with his students.”
A native of Rome, Ga., Winkle had no plans on being an educator when he graduated from Mercer University in 1969 with a history degree. He went to Washington, D.C., to work for then-U.S. Sen. Herman Talmadge.
“It was life changing,” Winkle said. “I fell in love with politics and law and Congress and the Supreme Court. I thought I really would like to study this more.”
So he went to Duke University, where he would receive a master’s degree and a Ph.D. in political science. During his first semester, he enrolled in a course on constitutional law.
“It was as exciting a subject matter as I have ever studied,” he said.
Peter Fish, who taught the course, encouraged Winkle to focus his studies on the subject. He became a mentor to Winkle, grooming him for his future career.
Fish also inspired Winkle’s teaching style. His constitutional law classes extensively used case law, requiring students to analyze and integrate information gleaned from past judicial decisions. Such was rare for undergraduate courses at the time, but closely resembled what many of his students would later encounter in law school.
Winkle said his goal was to teach the students how to think.
“He was a fantastic teacher,” said Ashland attorney Tony Farese. “His classes were the two most beneficial classes I had to prepare me for law school.”
During the summer of 1996, the provost asked Winkle to prepare an academic vision for an honors college that would be part of a package then-Chancellor Robert Khayat could take to a prospective donor.
Winkle does not know why he was asked, but he was a strong believer in the need for one.
“I thought it was a way to enhance the intellectual climate of the campus,” he said.
It began a close association between Winkle and the resulting honors college.
“John knew how to set the terms of debate in a very diplomatic and forceful way that created much of the intellectual environment of the Honors College,” said Honors College Dean Douglass Sullivan-Gonzalez. “He was a mind and a heart to be reckoned with.”
Former students spoke about being touched by the professor’s personable and caring nature. He’d regularly invite his classes to breakfast at the beginning of a new term.
“He cared so much about the books we read, and he wanted you to know why he cared about them and what they meant to his life,” said Chase Wynn, a 2005 graduate of Tupelo High School who took Winkle’s honors classes in 2005 and 2006.
“He didn’t want to be an inspiring teacher, he wanted to be a good teacher, and that is what made him inspiring.”
Winkle will spend the next year finishing research projects on court reform in Mississippi and on lobbying by federal judges before Congress. Beyond that, he doesn’t know what he will do.
“I’d like to think in some way I made a meaningful difference in the lives of the students I taught, and that can be measured in so many different ways,” he said.
On The Web
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Chris Kieffer/NEMS Daily Journal