Freeman Works "Not all who wander are lost; Not all that glitters is Gold"

May 6, 2013

The Governor and I

Filed under: Mississippi — Gary Freeman @ 10:41 am

Governors MansionIn May of 1973, I graduated with a degree from Mississippi College in Education and a burning in my heart to set the world on fire. I fully expected the “super job” to come along with a new company car and a Gold American Express Card based in Los Angeles or Houston or Atlanta. The most I was able to do was to continue my position as a waiter at Poets Bar and Grill on Lakeland Drive, in Jackson. Six months later I was promoted to bartender and there I sat with my dream job being just that. A dream job.

Actually, POETS wasn’t too bad. I mean it was a “happening” place where the “in crowd” of Central Mississippi came to party.

Practically every night the place was hopping with the family crowd until about 8 and then the hard core drinkers came in.

One night a drop dead gorgeous redhead came into the bar and stood at the end of the bar closest to me.. A persistent young man who may have had a few too many drinks started “hitting” on the young lady. You could tell she had had enough of him and was trying to be nice about it.

Finally, I had had enough of him bothering her and so I went over to him in my nicest voice said “I would appreciate it if you would leave my wife alone.” You would have thought he was pole axed. Back in “The Day” the last person you wanted to upset was a bar tender at POETS. It was “The Place” to party in Jackson. He couldn’t move away fast enough and apologize enough. She smiled at me and the room lit up. She came to POETS for the next two weeks and we sort of clicked.  We sorta ,kinda fell in love.  She knew that I didn’t want to be a bartender forever. Turns out she worked at the State Capital building and knew practically everyone in State Government.  Turns out she also knew about a job in the Governor’s Office for an Ombudsman. Yeah, me neither.

Turns out that an ombudsman is someone who talks to the common man about his problems with state government on behalf of the Governor. The Governor at the time was William Waller.

Governor Waller had been the District Attorney for Hinds County, Mississippi . He was a bear of a man who did not frequently laugh, or be jovial. He was extremely honest, and one of the most just men I have ever known. When I was 12 to 13 years old, my father took me to the District Attorneys office to sell tickets to the Scout Jamboree.  Mr. Waller at that time, bought $20.00 worth and shook my hand and told me that Scouting was a great organization.  I never forgot that. The way that he treated me like a man. Not many men would have done that.

Doing the interviewing for the position of Ombudsman was the Governor’s press secretary, Mr. Charles “Charlie” McKellar.

Charlie McKellar was clearly a man who had a sense of humor. I really don’t know which appealed to him most. The idea of having a bartender answering everyone’s problems in Mississippi  or the idea of having a bartender working for a tee totaling Governor and his wife. In any case, I went to work for the Governor as an ombudsman. Working under the supervision of Ms. Joyce Shurford who looked like Jackie Kennedy and had probably twice as much class.

We handled somewhere between 30 to 40 calls a day from citizens all over the state. Some where serious like the man that wanted to get out of Parchman Penitentiary to go to his mothers funeral in Memphis.  (We were able to clear him and his escort) or the woman’s son who needed help for medical problems. (Who we were not able to help) My all time favorite was a lady named Jenny Lynn Fernandez who lived on a farm in Water Valley, Mississippi. Ms. Fernandez had a problem with the deer around Yalobusha County that persisted in eating her soybeans and wanted the Governor to put condoms on the deer so that they would not have any more baby deer. (Mrs. Fernandez became a great friend and came to my wedding in the Mansion).Needless to say the Game and Fish Commission was “resistant” to chasing down deer to put condoms on them.

Occasionally, we were allowed out. Once we went to a party given for foreign correspondents. I felt at home until the Governor came around the corner and asked how I liked life in this country. I explained that I worked for him and he bustled around the corner without another word to me. Oh well……

On a Friday morning, January 1975, a series of tornados passed through Macomb, Mississippi injuring 100 people and killing 10. We were at the edge of the relief effort, trying to coordinate with the Red Cross. We stayed late on Friday night and slept well not knowing the tumult to come.

On Sunday evening, Colonel Tom Parker called Charlie and said that Elvis Presley felt bad about the tornado and wanted to do his part. He proposed that he do a benefit at the Mississippi Coliseum and that he would pay for it all himself.

I never found out who spread the story that Elvis was coming home to do a show in Mississippi but by six in the morning on Monday, the phones rang continuously for tickets to see the king. Our orders were specific. Write down everyone’s name and number until we figured out how the tickets would be allocated. One thing was sure. By six in the morning all the tickets to the coliseum were gone. Elvis eventually did another three shows (all of which sold out) paying for all expenses by him.

I got to see the “King” briefly but this was not the young Elvis of Love me Tinder and Jail House Rock. He had gained a lot of weight and the drugs had made him puffy but he was still Elvis.

 

As far as I know, he never got the credit for putting on those shows and paying probably close to a million dollars to benefit those victims of the tornados.

In April of 1975, my father passed away after a yearlong battle with a brain tumor and a 12 hour operation to attempt to remove it. When I came back after my week off, the Governors staff was called into a meeting on the third floor in the Governors office. The Governors staff has about 30 to 40 people in it and we were all shoved into the room. I took my seat in the back of the room. The meeting was very short. “I am thinking about moving some of you to another building or down on the bottom floor.” “What do you think,” the Governor said. And stared directly at me.

“Governor Waller , you are hard enough to find on two floors, much less on three floors. “ For some reason, he thought that was funny and that was the end of the meeting.

At the first of May, I received a phone call from the Governors Secretary. She said that the Governor wanted to see me at the Mansion.

A word about the Mississippi Governor’s Mansion. It had been in very poor condition, when the Governor was elected. Mrs. Waller took the point in restoring the mansion and in bringing it back to the condition it was at the turn of the century. It became a show case with antiques of the period and golden guild on the ceiling.  The eight rooms in the historic part of the mansion were totally rebuilt and refurnished and the family portion of the rear was rebuilt and the porticos were rebuilt. The gardens were redone with a beautiful rose garden in the rear.  When I got to the mansion, the highway patrol said that the Governor was in the Rose Garden. I walked to the back and found him looking over toward the Capital Building.  He turned to me and said “Gary, we have finished the construction now and now is the time to show it off.” As it stands now, When Carol (Mrs. Waller) calls me thirty times a day I have to answer each and every one. As of now, you will be the Executive Director of the Governor’s Mansion. Instead of her calling Bill, I want her to call Gary”. “Buy some new suits and lets get this show on the road. “ He turned back to the rear portico and started to walk.  He stopped turned around and said “I’m sorry about your father. He was a good man.” Up until then I didn’t know that he knew who I was.

The next day, I got to meet the lady who would share my waking life for the next 8 months.  Mrs. Carol Waller. Mrs. Waller was a tireless worker who never slowed down and was bound and determined to show off the Governor’s mansion to everyone in the state who could get there.  Mrs. Waller had a secretary, a staff photographer and me. We worked and prepared to “Take the State to Lunch.” (My phrase; not theirs.) Prior to Governor Waller and after him, convicts from Parchman Penitentiary who were serving life sentences would provide labor at the mansion.  Governor Waller as District Attorney of the largest county of the state of Mississippi sent a number of these “lifers” up to Parchman. He was not interested in having them under the same roof as his family and himself. So I was given enough money in the budget to hire two maids and a janitor. We had also enough money to pay the Waller’s cook. Lorraine who had been with them for years.

I was able to hire two maids and Amos.

Amos was a army veteran who was a pleasure to be around and had more stories than any other man than I have ever met. He wasn’t much of a janitor though .
Mrs. Waller had worked extremely hard to rebuild the mansion and grounds. Now that it was through, she worked extremely hard to make sure that everyone who could come to the mansion; did come to the mansion.  Five days a week, we had a luncheon for as many people that could come to the mansion.  We served “Chicken Lorraine” which had chicken breasts covered by a cream sauce, with vegetables and ice tea. Lorraine did all the ordering of food for the family but I also had the authority to do so. One day, I ran into the Wallers youngest son , Eddie asked me to order him some ice cream sandwiches. I did so and never thought about it again. Ok, I did eat one when they came in.

After  a particularly hard day, I drove to my apartment in Clinton and took the phone off the hook. Two hours later, I was awakened by a knock on my door. When I opened the door, a highway patrolman stood there, hat in hand. “The Governor wants you to put your phone back on the hook. “ I thanked the patrolman and went to put my phone back on the hook 30 seconds later the phone rang and I answered it. “Hold for the Governor” the operator said and I waited for the Governor to come on. The Governor came on the line. “Gary, don’t buy my kids anymore ice cream sandwiches. OK.?” I said ok and that was the end of the discussion. He told me later that he had to do what came up at the time or he would forget.

During the last seven months of the Governor’s term, we had several celebrities through the Mansion.

Corrie Ten Boon
Pat Boone
Van Cliburne

Sargent Shriver,

Jerry Clower
Mary Ann Mobley
George Wallace

Jimmy Carter.

Presidential hopeful Jimmy Carter came through Mississippi and spoke to a handful of people at Millsap’s College. During this time, I got to act as his chauffer throughout the city. He was greatly impressed with the mansion and hinted that there might be a place for me at the White House when he was elected President. I knew that Mr. Carter had no chance to be elected president but Seven months later he was on “Meet The Press” as the new President.

Governor Wallace was an interesting man. He allowed the photographers to film his entrance into the mansion in a limo but would not allow them to film him being put into a wheelchair.

This was also my introduction to the US Secret Service who spent several days around checking, rechecking and watching for uninvited guests.  Note: Do not ever break the Secret Services Tape over a door before the VIP’s day. Also a lapel button means that you have a firearm and changes every day  in color and design. The design and color is chosen by a computer and as such is not open to hacking.

Probably the greatest thrill of my life was getting to guide through the mansion, Jessie Owens.
Mr. Owens had won four Gold Medals in the 1936 Olympics in Berlin. This was to be Adolf Hitler’s Olympics and a chance to show the world the “German Superman.”  Owens , an African American from Cleveland showed up the myth. He had been a hero of mine since I read about him as a boy. He was warm, personable and a real pleasure to be around.  He died less that three years later.

During this time, The Governor invited dignitaries of the Kuwaiti Government to come to Mississippi with an eye toward investing in Mississippi products.

It was decided that the Mansion would be ground zero of the effort and that the Kuwaitis would stay at the Mansion.  The first thing that occurred was that the Kuwaitis put their shoes out to be shined that evening.  Mr. Paul Fugate, director of the Mississippi Economic Council and I having no one else to do it shined their shoes since the staff had already gone home.  For a couple of a billion dollars, we figured it was a small enough price to pay.

The next day after negotiations, each of the banks in the Jackson Metro Area was given a Billion dollars in investments during a closed door meeting between the bankers and the Kuwaitis. The only non-banker, non-Kuwaitis in the room was The Governor and I.

At around this time, one of the Kuwaitis decided that his suit needed pressing. Since the dry cleaners had closed, I asked the staff if anyone knew anything about pressing a suit. Of course, Amos said that he could press it. I thanked him and gave the suit to him. Amos got a steam iron and heated it up past the white iron stage. He then proceeded to put starch on a suit that had to have cost $4,000 in London and pressed it within an inch of its life. Needless to say the Kuwaitis decided that they would no longer need us to press any more suits.

The last night of the Kuwaitis visit, I was able to meet the two US Senators from Mississippi. Senator James Eastland and Senator John Stennis both living legends in Mississippi politics.

The next morning the Kuwaitis were to leave to go to South Carolina on a jet provided by that state. First, they were to have breakfast at a local industrialists house. At 11:15, that night, the Governors Aide told me that that plan had been canceled and that we (meaning me) would have to feed them.

The problem was that I don’t know how to cook.  So I fed them scrambled eggs, bacon, OJ and Pillsbury sweet rolls.

What? They didn’t complain and I waved goodbye to them.

In November , I started dating Barbara Williams who had a four year old daughter.  I made the mistake of mentioning it to Mrs. Waller and the next thing I knew we were getting married in the Mansion with the Governor being the best man. It was a beautiful ceremony with a reception of around 3,000 people.

wedding

 

 

 
I could not have asked for anything more from the Wallers. They were class acts. The kind we will probably not see  in our lifetime.

 

 

 

 

4 Comments »

  1. Amazing what you can find out about a person from reading something they have written….as usual,I enjoyed it!

    Comment by carol ann — May 7, 2013 @ 12:30 pm

  2. Wow – I know Forrest Gump!

    Comment by Kim — June 7, 2013 @ 8:56 pm

  3. Very cool !! A man of many faces.

    Comment by Lee — March 5, 2014 @ 2:39 pm

  4. This is a fascinating read! So glad to stumble onto your blog and read your story. Thanks for sharing.

    Comment by LS — April 9, 2015 @ 11:16 pm

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