Sid Salter stands with his wife, Leilani and grandchildren last year during his battle with cancer. His family’s unwavering support helped him battle cancer into remission.
Sid Salter stands with his wife, Leilani and grandchildren last year during his battle with cancer. His family’s unwavering support helped him battle cancer into remission.

Sid Salter hit a low point in a battle that nearly claimed his life when he missed the Neshoba County Fair last year, but that made the high point of returning to a place dear to his heart that much sweeter.

How it all started

He woke up to give the commencement speeches at Jones County Community College one morning in May but felt a little under the weather.

After the speeches, Salter, 59, knew something was wrong — and that something would turn into the toughest battle of his life.

“I said you know it is probably just a cold or something,” Salter said. “I did the two speeches and felt worse. I was supposed to work at Mississippi State’s graduation, but I knew something was wrong, that this was not a cold.”

He went to see a doctor in Tupelo after his doctor at Mississippi State, where he works as the Chief Communications Director, was alarmed at Salter’s blood work.

Before academia, Salter had a distinguished career in journalism, including stints at The Clarion-Ledger most recently and early on at The Neshoba Democrat. He co-owned the Scott County Times where he served as editor and publisher. He still writes a statewide syndicated column.

His personal doctor at State had called Tupelo and wanted Salter to go immediately to see a hematologist, so “we were a little alarmed, but we took off,” Salter said. “But I still did not make the connection between hematology and oncology, but when they rolled me onto the fifth floor, and it said oncology, I looked up at Leilani (his wife) and said this is not good.”

Salter had stage four Burkitt’s lymphoma. The treatment started immediately. His doctor, Dr. Jiahuai Tan, went to work.

“He said we need to start chemotherapy immediately,” Salter said. “I thought immediately meant maybe Monday, but he stayed up there until 2 in the morning and they started chemo that night.”

Salter said 56 to 58 percent of his blood was cancerous, but the first chemo treatment was able to stabilize him.

“I was too dumb to be scared, and I wasn’t expecting it, and it had about killed me before I knew I had it,” Salter said. “The weirdest thing is to realize you have been walking around with this inside me and not know it. (Dr. Tan) told me that if I had gone three more weeks without treatment, I would have died.”

What came next was a cycle of eight days of chemo, eight days of being sick and then a week of feeling well enough to work.

“Once I got discharged I would go home and experienced everything you have ever seen in the movies about chemo,” Salter said. “Then it would all start over. That was my life for that period.”

Missing the Fair

Salter, a Philadelphia native, spends the last week of July in Cabin 27 on Founders Square right where he can see the political speaking that is a highlight of his Fair every year.

However, in 2017, the Fair he loves so dearly was one of the many things taken away.

Mississippi State University President Mark Keenum was scheduled to speak, and Salter had played a huge hand in making the arrangements.

Every year Salter’s cabin hosts lunches on Wednesday and Thursday for the press and politicos, and Salter was determined to make it.

However, when he tried to get up that morning, reality set in.  “I took it as such a defeat, not being able to go. It was one of the worst days of my cancer experience,” Salter said.

“When you can’t do something that you love, and you can’t do something you really look forward to all year long, and plus I felt like I was letting my wife and daughter down because putting on these lunches out here was a lot of work. But I finally chewed it up and swallowed it that I would not be able to go and went on with my treatments.”

It was only the third time he had missed the Fair. The others being in 2000 to cover the Democratic National Convention in Boston, and when he was 13 for a Boy Scout trip.  “That was the first of a lot of things I was not able to do,” Salter said.

Returning home

Then things started looking on the up. He finished chemo in October, and the cancer went into remission. By New Year’s Day, he returned to work on a regular schedule and started back his political column. Over Christmas break, he traveled for the first time to MSU’s bowl game in Jacksonville, Fla.

He still had to go through three phases of testing regularly to be cleared, a PET scan, a blood test and a physical examination of his lymph nodes.

His last round of tests was three weeks ago, and he passed all three. This meant one thing, Sid Salter would be able to come home to the Neshoba County Fair.

“Getting back out here was a big deal, and I don’t think people that don’t understand the Fair and don’t know what it means to people in Neshoba County,” Salter said. “It is hard to explain to them when they say, ‘you missed the Fair, so what?’ This is kind of like Christmas to me. It bothered me a lot to miss it, and I am so grateful to be back.”

Returning to the Fair was not just another step in beating cancer, it was another step to returning to normalcy.

“I just need to come out here like I need to go to Williamsville and Jerome Tank, it is just part of the gig,” Salter said. “I take my grandsons and granddaughters out there (Williamsville) now, and they love it as much I did when I was young and went out there with my grandparents. There are very few constants in life, but the cheese and the bacon taste the same now as it did when I was five years old.”

Honoring his mother

This Fair is especially meaningful because it is doubling as a baby shower for his granddaughter expected in September.

“The biggest thing is this year coming back, my daughter, Kate Gregory, is pregnant with her first child,” Salter said. “A little girl we had a baby shower for (Saturday night) and they are going to name the girl Alline which is my mother’s name.”

Alline Salter was a school teacher at Neshoba Central High School and retired in 1986 and was known for her Sunday school teaching at First Baptist Church of Philadelphia.

“Everybody thinks their mother was wonderful, I am no exception, but mother was a good person and very active in the First Baptist Church of Philadelphia and taught Sunday school a long time,” he said.

He talked about how much family means to him and his mother helping them set up for the Fair and being here reminds him of the excitement he has to know she will be remembered.

“Knowing that somebody is going to be coming in September that is going to have her name, I wanted to be here for all of that,” Salter said.

Last Friday he went to his parents' graves in Philadelphia’s Cedar Lawn Cemetery to leave flowers.

His final resting place will be next to his parents, so he left those plots with a determined thought.

“I have thought a lot about the worst of things and is this when it happens,” Salter said. “I went there this year and walked across my empty plot, and I had thought that this is where I will be but not today.”

Lessons learned

Salter sat on his porch and looked out over a Saturday night crowd milling around Founders Square, and he talked about the people here and how dear they are to him. He spoke of his love for the political speaking and growing up in the rafters of his cabin listening to them speak. He talked of neighbors and family, of all the things that make the Fair so great.

He talked about being able to finally work on his cabin again and break a sweat after two years of not being able to do any work.

But two things stuck out the most.

The first was the humbling lesson he learned from the experience.

“I learned I was arrogant enough up into my 59th year to think I was in control of most everything in my life and everything around me,” Salter said. “I am really fortunate enough that God gave me the lesson that I am not in control of anything and I am just along for the ride. If I did not accomplish anything else by going through cancer than that, it was probably worth it.”

The second was the absolute outpour of love and prayer he received from those around the state, but particularly those from one city and one county.  

“I felt their prayers, but I did not feel them out of any place anywhere stronger than I did out of Philadelphia,” Salter said. “They were pulling for me, and they were praying for me, and that part of it was really overwhelming.”