Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Tupelo Man: the Life and Times of George McLean, by Robert Blade

We have been traveling through Mississippi, beginning to understand what it might mean to live in a state whose reputation is Last of the Last -- low high school graduation rate, high unemployment, generally not much choice in where to live or what to do. In the capital city, Jackson, we toured the State Capitol building and learned that the state legislature meets only sixty days each year; last time, according to the Representative from Booneville, they finished their work early, thus saving the state money because they adjourned sooner than expected.  Leaving the State Capitol, we saw a derelict factory and several partially burned and empty houses within just a few blocks. On street after street in the capital city, stores stood empty with dirty windows and trash collecting in doorways.  (Just north of Jackson is the prosperous town of Ridgeland, to which the middle class folks have fled.)
But then we stopped in Tupelo. The contrast was striking.  Stores of all kinds were open and busy, houses were painted with trim lots. A park downtown was preparing for an event, with lots of large white tents beginning to be assembled  for the second annual "Don't Be Cruel Barbecue Duel". The town was bustling.
By accident we had parked in front of the Gum Tree Bookstore (Gum Tree is another name for the Tupelo tree). Of course we had to go in and browse. The book that found its way to us is named Tupelo Man: the Life and Times of George McLean, a Most Peculiar Newspaper Publisher, written by his son-in-law, Robert Blade, and published by the University Press of Mississippi/Jackson in 2012.
Now that we have both read it, we are convinced that McLean -- one determined, difficult, opinionated, passionate man -- caused all the difference between Jackson and Tupelo. As a youth and young man,  McLean (1904 - 1983) couldn't make anything work.  He was fired from his first jobs, couldn't get along with people, couldn't figure out what he wanted to do with his life. But he became involved with Christian Social Gospel teachings, which emphasized the importance of working for good in one's local surroundings, and he married a smart and savvy woman who was completely loyal to him throughout their lives.
McLean purchased a small struggling weekly newspaper and gradually built it into a successful daily paper serving northeastern Mississippi. Over and over, he used the editorial voice of the paper to urge local residents to improve their community.  The most lasting improvement was due to an idea he had late in life: realizing that Tupelo's rural children began to fall behind in school from the very beginning, McLean asked experts for advice and was told that a small student-teacher ratio could make a big difference.  Since the schools could barely afford the teachers they already had, he sponsored a pilot program using teacher aides, and then challenged and persuaded others to help support the effort as it grew, as reading scores rose and school performance in general improved.
This book is much more than a well-written biography of an interesting man; it is a fascinating study of the history of Mississippi in the latter half of the twentieth century and goes much farther than the newspaper headlines to illustrate the progress and the setbacks of people of good will living in difficult situations.


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