OXFORD – A charmed life. That’s what the evidence says about Robert Khayat.
High school athlete recruited to Ole Miss from Moss Point. “Big man on campus” drafted into the pros. Happy home and family. Two degrees in law, the second from Yale. A 14-year tenure as the 15th chancellor of the University of Mississippi capped by welcoming Barack Obama and John McCain for their first debate. Seven bowl games with six wins. His name in granite across the front of the majestic Robert C. Khayat Law Center.
Speaking of that new $50 million law school, U.S. Sen. Roger Wicker, R-Miss., beefed up the rather somber dedication by invoking “Khayatman” as a better name for the honoree. “His mind is faster than a speeding bullet; his pride is more powerful than a locomotive, able to leap over stubborn search committees in a single bound,” Wicker said. “Look, up in the skybox, he’s a jock, he’s a judge, he’s a brain; yes, he’s Khayatman.” And then, more slowly, “He fights a never-ending battle for truth, justice and the Ole Miss way.”
Now contrast that life with another:
• Missed a big “no excuse” field goal that would have won a big game.
• Struggled with recurring and painful pancreatitis, so severe at its onset that it almost killed him.
• Rejected by coworkers of almost two decades for a role as their new leader.
• Admired father arrested, charged with corruption and facing prison.
• Depicted as a black-hooded executioner when a state senator decided to stage a protest over loss of “tradition.”
Actually, most will know, the lives are one and the same.
Mississippians have long been familiar, for good or ill, with the Khayat name. Now, with release of his autobiography, “The Education of a Lifetime,” we obtain insights to Khayat as a person.
Turns out he’s one of us.
He doesn’t grumble, complain, boast or brag in the book. He just puts his story out there.
There’s a wonderful vignette of his attempt to woo 90-pound spinster Gertude Ford, who came to the door of her Jackson home in an inside-out dressing gown, drink in one hand and cigarette in the other, chihuahuas yipping around. She made him sit on an ottoman, explained that Shakespeare was a fraud and made it clear that if she wrote a $100 million check, it wouldn’t bounce.
Their chat ended, the chancellor headed for the door with an invitation to return if he wanted to, but also with a parting shot: “I’m not giving one red cent to Ole (the common term for urine).”
The rest of the story? The Gertrude Castello Ford Center on University, where Obama and McCain met back in 2008, is a world-class performing arts center.
The missed field goal was at Tennessee, part of a stint in athletics that included college baseball and a couple of years with the Washington Redskins as a lineman and placekicker.
The pancreatitis started in Vicksburg, where Khayat was practice teaching high school in case the pro career didn’t work out. He spent months in the hospital, received Last Rites.
The vote was by the law school faculty, most of whom had encouraged him to seek the deanship yet changed their minds when a strong minority candidate applied.
His father was Jackson County Supervisor Eddie Khayat, a practitioner of graveling country church parking lots and using county equipment to dig rural graves – deeds that were practical in political terms but against the law.
And the execution scene, with Col. Reb as the condemned person, was a highlight of what many saw – and many still see – as the defining theme of the Khayat tenure: The struggle over whether the Ole Miss “brand” would be “last bastion of the Confederacy” or as “center of research and learning.”
That tug-of-war continues, of course, and will for a long, long time.
And we learn that achievement is not the product of luck or magic or any other charm.
Just the courage to make decisions and the stubbornness to persevere.
Charlie Mitchell is a Mississippi journalist. Write to him at Box 1, University, MS 38677, or email firstname.lastname@example.org.