By Lloyd Gray/NEMS Daily Journal
When Blake Wilson took over as president of the Mississippi Economic Council in 1998, the organization was at a crossroads.
The MEC – which called itself the state Chamber of Commerce – had a long and proud history of progressive business leadership in the state. But it had become more insular, no longer in the vanguard of efforts to improve education and encourage initiatives that did more than simply protect the narrowly defined interests of business.
Statewide participation in the MEC had ebbed, and its membership and activity had become heavily concentrated in the Jackson metropolitan area. Many who had admired the organization and looked to it for leadership in the past were unsure of its future statewide viability.
Then Wilson brought his energetic presence, booming baritone voice and unwavering commitment to statewide grassroots involvement of all kinds of business people in the organization that purported to be the statewide voice of Mississippi business.
Within a relatively short time, he revitalized the MEC, giving it a new vitality, broadened membership and reinvigorated mission. The Delaware native put the skills he honed there and as executive vice president of the Florida Chamber of Commerce to good use in connecting the Mississippi business community as it had never been connected before through a combination of new technology and old-fashioned, face-to-face outreach. In the process, he helped refocus MEC on a broader agenda that again acknowledged the vital connection between educational and social issues and a better business climate for the state.
Among legislators, MEC shed what had developed into a combative role and became more of a partner. To Wilson’s great credit, he has always shunned politically divisive rhetoric and has kept on good terms with folks of multiple political persuasions at the Capitol.
As a former journalist, he understood the role of the media and established relationships that helped him get MEC’s message out while serving as a valuable resource for reporters and editors.
It was appropriate, then, that Wilson was honored Thursday night at the Mississippi Press Association’s annual celebrity roast, a benefit for its Education Foundation, which raises money for journalism scholarships. The audience included not only many of the newspaper people Wilson has befriended over the last dozen years, but legislators and other state officials of both parties as well as wide representation from the business community and MEC.
Wilson took jabs from, among others, Lt. Gov. Phil Bryant, a Republican; Vicksburg state Rep. George Flaggs, a Democrat; and Commissioner of Higher Education Hank Bounds. It was really more of a light toasting than a searing roast – jokes about Wilson’s propensity for overuse of his favorite one-liners, his huge weight loss that has made him “half the man he used to be,” things like that.
The problem for roasters is that Wilson is so thoroughly likable and his public record so squeaky clean and even-handed it’s hard to come up with much of anything to gig him about.
Bounds did do a fine imitation of the voice of the voice of business, which with its long-ago radio training is unique to say the least, and Bryant had fun with Wilson’s fixation with e-mail blasts, while there was much kidding about the bicycling that’s part of his weight-loss and health regimen. When it came Wilson’s time, he did his best to throw back some zingers, but for a man in whom there is no guile, that’s tough, and he, too, was pretty much a softy.
In each case, the roasters, after their barbs, returned to Wilson’s passionate embrace of Mississippi and its challenges and the leadership he’s provided. Bounds, recalling his early days as state superintendent of education, said Wilson was always on the phone to him, asking him what needed to be done in education and how MEC could help.
Outside the MEC membership and state Capitol circles, Blake Wilson may not be among the best known Mississippians, but he’s unquestionably among the most influential. That’s the result of a happy convergence of high energy, progressive vision and personal credibility – and an awful lot of earned good will.
Lloyd Gray is executive editor of the Daily Journal. Contact him at (662) 678-1579 or firstname.lastname@example.org.