BISHOP/A phone call, a coach, and a two-fingered typist changed everything
Over the past 45 years I have worked at a place or two, and have never failed to learn a little something at each of those stops.
The majority of my professional career has consisted of working in the newspaper industry, although I have also dabbled in broadcasting along the way.
But despite the 18 other newspapers (that I can actually remember) where I have served as sports editor — Laurel Leader-Call, Natchez Democrat, Winston County Journal, Webster Progress Times, Choctaw Plaindealer, Sumter County (Ala.) Record, Choctaw (Ala.) Advocate; Winona Times, The (Carroll) Conservative, Yazoo Herald, Kosciusko Star-Herald, Union Appeal, Newton Record, Wayne County News, Clarke County Tribune, Neshoba Democrat, Kemper County Messenger, and the Lamar County Times (Hattiesburg) — none has been more intertwined in my career than The Meridian Star.
The best I can recall, I have been sports editor of The Meridian Star at least five times.
Twice I was hired to run the sports department, and three other times I was shifted back into sports after working in other capacities at the paper.
And just as a crazy aside, I held the sports editor title at 16 of those papers while living in the same house in the Lauderdale County community of Lizelia.
Here is another interesting tidbit: On more than one occasion I have served as sports editor for as many as six of those papers at the same time.
While my first full-time job at a daily newspaper was at the Vicksburg Evening Post — where I worked twice for a combined four years but never served as sports editor — my first byline for a daily newspaper was in The Meridian Star.
It may seem inconceivable to think the direction of a person’s professional career can hinge on one five-minute interview, but mine certainly did.
This is where the second chapter of my tale of three coaches begins. Chapter one belonged to former Louisville High School football coach Art Nester, who like myself was born and raised in the Deep South, but chapter two centers around a full-fledged Yankee, a term which is certainly meant here as one of endearment.
Jim Redgate, who is now 82, hasn’t lived in Rhode Island since he was 22 years old, but no matter how long he has had a Mississippi address, you just can’t squeeze the North out of him. You can hear his accent even before he opens his mouth.
My first encounter with Coach Redgate was in the fall of 1977. After a year of enjoying Hattiesburg so much that my grades at the University of Southern Mississippi dictated that I find a location where I could perhaps focus more on academics, I enrolled at what was then known as Meridian Junior College. And yes, before you even ask, the front of Ivy Hall — perhaps one of the most identifiable buildings in Mississippi academia — looks now just like it did then.
I had landed a spot on the MJC school newspaper, which was sponsored by Anne Dowdle.
Since I had experience covering sports as a high school student, as well as for the USM school newspaper, she handed me the title of sports editor.
There were no fall sports at MJC at the time, not even soccer or cross-country. In need of sports copy I decided to interview the basketball coaches, even though it was just the first week of September. So, I made my way to the end of the first floor of Ivy Hall and into the gym, where I first interviewed MJC women’s head coach Frankie Walsh, before finally getting a couple minutes with Coach Redgate.
I really can’t remember the questions I tossed Coach Redgate’s way, but most assuredly they were pedestrian ones designed to gain the basic information needed to put together a story on his team’s upcoming season.
It was what happened at the end of the interview that set off a wave of events that I’m still riding. He told me that The Meridian Star had called and was wondering if he knew anybody who could write sports. Then he gave me the number, which I still remember to this day — 693-1551.
I made the call, which led to an interview with then sports editor Mac Gordon, which led to me covering my first sporting event for the paper a week later — a football game between Union and Newton.
During the year-plus that I worked as a stringer for the Meridian Star I had the opportunity to work with such true journalism legends as Gordon, Billy Watkins, Billy Turner, Bill Zimmerman, David Rainer, and Ray Narro.
Mac could type as fast as anybody you’ve ever seen, and he used just two fingers. Watkins, who went on to become one of this state’s premier journalists, sports or otherwise, aptly referred to Gordon as “The fastest two fingers in the South,” noting that his typing “sounded like fireworks.”
I made $10 a story for the articles I submitted to the Star and after one semester at MJC turned out to be my last as a full-time student anywhere, I became sports editor for the Sumter County Record in neighboring York, Ala.
The next year Watkins was running the sports department and asked me if I would like to come to work for them as a “full-time” stringer, writing nine stories a week at 10 bucks a pop. Who could turn that down?!
Eight months later, in March of 1979, at the age of 20, I packed my bags and moved to Vicksburg, having landed my first true “full-time” sports gig.
But the key to this story is Coach Redgate.
The first time we met, he pointed me in the direction of my future. He took the time to pass along some information to a person he didn’t know. That simple gesture was more powerful than either he or I could have possibly known at the time.
We were as different as different could be.
After living in Rhode Island for 22 years he was looking to get as far South as he could. He had attended a junior college near where he was raised for a couple years, then went to work. When he looked to move South he found an academic scholarship at the University of Southern Mississippi, so he and a couple of his buddies headed to Hattiesburg.
After graduation he was seeking employment and landed a job with the Meridian Public Schools at Northwest Junior High. He later became head boys basketball coach at Meridian High School.
He moved from there to MJC, where he performed his duties as basketball and golf coach so well and so faithfully that in November of 2013 the floor of the school’s gymnasium was officially named Jim Redgate Court. He has also been inducted into the Mississippi Association of Community College’s Sports Hall of Fame.
One of the barrier-breaking moves he made at what later became MCC was to allow a young lady to play on the men’s golf team. That person was none other than the legendary Lou Weddington Hart — who went on to win multiple Mississippi Women’s State Amateur championships.
After retiring from MCC he remained in coaching, taking over duties as girls basketball coach at Lamar School, where he also coached cross-country. This past year was the first he hadn’t worked with a school in some capacity in nearly 60 years, when he stepped aside due to COVID concerns.
But when the door to opportunity opens back up, don’t be surprised if Coach Redgate steps right back through.
While our relationship began as a goofy 19-year-old Deep South-bred reporter wannabe interviewing a straight-forward, sometimes brash Yankee to the bone, it has developed into a friendship that I will always cherish.
The great teachers provide you your best lessons when you don’t even know you are learning.
I’ve learned plenty from Jim Redgate and hope to learn much more. And it all began with the simple kind act of passing along a phone number.
That’s something to think about.
Austin Bishop, AKA The Old Sports Dude, has been covering high school, college, amateur and professional sports since 1975. He will be retiring from the journalism business at the conclusion of 2021. He is currently pastor of Great Commission Assembly of God in Philadelphia, Miss. He may be contacted by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.