So glad she was born

(In honor of Carla’s birthday on Nov. 13, here’s a reflection on our introduction and courtship.)

My deepest and most profound season of happiness came in January of 1996.

One Sunday night after church, I was introduced to a young woman who worked with the children in the nursery. The Sunday night crowd was always small, and after worship I emerged from the chapel to be greeted by a crescent of friends that included the pastor’s wife, the children’s minister and the director of preschool ministries.

At the end of this semi-circle was a woman I didn’t recognize. I suspected it was a set up immediately. They introduced the young woman as Carla Barron, a Mercer student who worked downstairs in the nursery. She seemed nice and was attractive, but I put the encounter out of my mind almost immediately.

Either out of stubbornness or fear, I didn’t feel I was ready to date at that point, having just emerged from a relationship and trying to recalibrate my identity as an individual.

Lance Wallace and Carla Barron stand in a kitchen with an array of cut fruit, crackers, dips and a dozen yellow roses in a vase.
The glow of young love on full display. Can’t hide that much happiness.

I was consumed with work and planning the Southeast regional conference for the Society of Professional Journalists. Scheduled for April in Macon that year, I had meetings after work most days as the planning committee lined up speakers and nailed down details such as the location for the opening night reception and the conference hotel. I took my volunteer responsibilities as the regional director seriously, and I used the extra work as an excuse not to think about dating and especially not the intriguing young woman at church.

My church friends were persistent. Every time I saw them, they found a way to bring up Carla. It wasn’t long before they suggested we all go to Cracker Barrel after church on a Sunday night. That’s how I found myself across the table from her with all of our church friends doing their best to get us together.

In the course of the conversation, we landed on the subject of books and what everyone was reading. I made disparaging remarks about Danielle Steele, even though I had never read anything she had written, and Carla offered that she liked Danielle Steele and had read many of her books. It wasn’t the last time I would put my foot in my mouth with Carla or that Carla would speak her mind forthrightly.

The next Wednesday night after prayer meeting, I felt drawn downstairs to the nursery, though I had no business being there. I found Carla watching the children out on the playground, and we exchanged pleasantries for a few minutes. She didn’t seem to hold my disdain for Danielle Steele against me. The conversation was pleasant and easy, and I told her I would call her sometime. This went on for several months before I finally came to my senses.

The journalism conference went off without a hitch in late April, and I could no longer hide behind planning the conference as an excuse. That’s when Carla’s honesty got my attention. The next Wednesday during my weekly visit with her on the playground, I apologized for not calling. She responded with the expected and typical “It’s OK,” but then she paused and surprised me.

“No, it’s not OK,” she said, without a hint of anger. “If you want to call me, call me. If you don’t want to, don’t. Just quit saying you’re going to call me if you’re not.”

That’s when it hit me how selfish and inconsiderate I had been. I realized I had been jerking her around for months. She was interested in me, and I was creating expectations of getting together and not following through. By that point, I knew she was nice and intelligent, and as our pastor’s wife described her to me on multiple occasions, “quality.” Carla didn’t deserve to be treated that way.

So the next day I called her and asked her to dinner the next Friday night. She agreed, thankfully not returning my bad behavior by playing hard to get.

I picked her up after her shift at Interior Bargains. We went to J.L.’s barbecue restaurant, which I purposefully chose because it wasn’t fancy or extravagant. I didn’t want our surroundings to get in the way of getting to know each other, and I was still tentative about re-entering the dating scene. I felt I could be more honest and more myself if we were having a plate of pulled pork barbecue and slaw rather than filet mignon and arugula salad.

It worked like truth serum. The conversation flowed naturally and honestly all through dinner. Not wanting to end our conversation but careful not to send the wrong message, I invited her back to my apartment to sit on the screened-in porch and continue our conversation. We sat in the porch swing and talked through the night, confessing our personality disorders, character flaws and past relationship missteps. We shared our stories and bonded. Our connection was strong, our feelings were real, and our future together became concrete. I was convinced she was the one I wanted to see more often and get to know better.

For the next eight months we went out nearly every week. I would pick her up at her apartment on Mercer’s campus, which felt weird. I had been out of college for four years at that point, and dating a college girl seemed to be robbing the cradle. I convinced myself it was OK because Carla had finished her classes in December but was still living in an on-campus apartment until graduation in May.

I met her parents and went to her graduation where NBC Today Show anchor Katie Couric spoke. Carla attended the singles Sunday School class I taught at church, and we started attending group outings as a couple. The group spent a day on Lake Sinclair skiing and riding a tube. I had to leave early to take a friend from college to dinner for her birthday. It was awkward, but I had committed to the evening before Carla and I started dating. While I enjoyed seeing my friend and wanted to show here a nice time for her birthday, I spent the entire evening thinking about Carla, worried that she would think I was two-timing her.

Over time it became clear she was the one I was interested in, and when I spent three weeks in a hotel by the Atlanta airport while covering the 1996 Summer Olympics, she wrote me nearly every day. We exchanged letters like I was off at war. Absence, although only 90 miles, definitely made my heart grow fonder for Carla.

Later that summer I took her to Lake Wales to meet my parents, and we spent a day at Disney’s Magic Kingdom. My brothers warmed to her, and my parents liked her immediately. The affirmations of our relationship kept adding up, and it didn’t take long before I realized I could marry her… I should marry her.

She made me genuinely happy in a deep and profound way I had never experienced in previous relationships. My fear of marrying the wrong person felt silly and misplaced. She had all the traits I was looking for, and I knew I could commit to a lifetime with her.

I’ve written in great detail about our engagement a few months back. The four months of planning our wedding were stressful, but we were both in a stage of life that made delaying seem foolish. We married on May 3, one week shy of the one-year anniversary of our first date.

Those 358 days were the happiest of my life.

Even better than expected – part 2

Note: This is the second in a series on the unexpected twists and turns of my career. If you didn’t see part 1, go back now and catch up at https://newsouthessays.com/2022/09/17/even-better-than-expected-part-1/.

Learning the ropes of public relations from Ben McDade reinvigorated my career. Getting home before 6 p.m. every day reinvigorated my relationship with Carla. After a year, I was able to start, tuition-free, Mercer’s Master of Business Administration program. I had a new vision for what I could achieve, and my career expectations shifted from running a newsroom to running a university relations office.

Lance sits on a church pew in a small chapel full of people looking forward. His head bowed, Lance types on a smartphone.
From clacking away on a computer keyboard in a newsroom to clicking away on a smartphone on Twitter, my career took off while at the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship with the advent of social media and the introduction of a 24/7 news cycle. Here I am over-tweeting a CBF Coordinating Council meeting at First Baptist Decatur.

Two years into my tenure at Mercer, Ben left to start his own consulting business. A new AVP named Judy Lunsford was brought in to run the office. Judy was a nice person and a capable public relations professional. I had no qualms with working for Judy, and I was well into my MBA. There were elements of the job that frustrated me, but overall, I was happy. Carla and I even began planning to start a family. My dreams, which seemed ambitious at the time, were actually pretty confined: enjoy our new house, start a family, work my way up to AVP at Mercer, stay close to Carla’s parents in Sandersville, and enjoy life. That was disrupted when Ben called me one day in early summer out of the blue. He wanted to meet for breakfast and “check in.”

After “rescuing me from newspapers,” Ben had a new proposition. Among his marketing clients was a faith-based nonprofit headquartered in Atlanta called the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship. Founded in 1993, CBF had its national headquarters in Atlanta, and Ben had a contract with them to do marketing and public relations. CBF’s chief communications officer, David Wilkinson, was leaving, and CBF asked Ben to come aboard and lead the communications and marketing efforts. Ben explained to me that he planned to take the job and would be voted on at the Fellowship’s General Assembly in a few weeks. Among his conditions of accepting their job offer was that he be allowed to hire someone to come in and build a media relations enterprise from scratch.

“There’s only one person in the country for this job,” Ben said over coffee at the North Macon Cracker Barrell. “You have the background in Baptist life and journalism. You’re it.”

Once again Ben had taken me outside of my comfort zone. My immediate response was threefold: I didn’t want to quit on my MBA, I didn’t want to move to Atlanta, and I didn’t want to work for Baptists. The whole thing felt sketchy and unstable. Our first born, Barron, was just an infant, and being close to Carla’s family, our babysitters and support, was a primary concern. I told him I would pass on his offer and thanked him for thinking of me.

After the General Assembly, I started following CBF in the Baptist media. A controversy over a plagiarized sermon plagued the meeting that summer, and I felt even better about passing up working for Baptists. Then Ben called a second time to ask if I would join him at CBF. The answer was still an emphatic “No.”

Unbeknownst to me, Ben had a mole at Mercer. Ben enlisted Mercer Creative Director, Steve Mosley, a close colleague and confidant, to inform him the next time I had a particularly difficult or frustrating day. Inevitably such a day came. It was a Friday, and I had spent the morning rising early, driving to Atlanta, filling a seat at an event that was not the least bit related to my job, and returned to Macon after lunch with a full day’s worth of work ahead of me. Steve and I were working on a redesign of the university’s signature alumni magazine, The Mercerian, and it wasn’t going well. The first new design we submitted was rejected as “too fresh,” and we were sent back to the drawing board. It was a long, hard day. Ben later confessed to me that Steve called him on his way home that night and told him “Now is the time to give Lance a call.” I wasn’t the least bit suspicious when my cell phone rang on Monday morning. Ben reiterated his offer, and I found myself coming around to the idea.

“I’ll think about it,” was my response to Ben’s third offer.

At the time, I was also struggling with a sense of calling to ministry. As I told my pastor at the time, Dr. Jim Dant, I had done every role in a church except serve on a church staff and was wondering if I should be pursuing full-time ministry. At Mercer I was handling the public relations for the relatively young seminary, the McAfee School of Theology, and was intrigued by the possibilities of enrolling. When Ben made repeated appeals for me to join him at CBF, I believed it was the answer to my prayers, combining both my sense of calling and professional skills and experience.

When Ben was able to commit to helping me financially finish the MBA, that sealed it for me. Carla and I believed we wouldn’t have to move, and I could just commute to Atlanta. My three initial objections had been addressed. The last remaining roadblock was resigning my current job. Leaving Mercer meant telling the Vice President for Advancement, Emily Myers, the most feared and effective administrator in Mercer’s history. Other than telling me “Ben’s just hiring you to do all of his work,” she did not try to stop me from leaving. In November 2002, I went to work for the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship.

I flourished at CBF. I immediately hit the road with Ben, traveling across the country, building relationships with reporters who covered religion, introducing them to CBF and helping them understand who we were in the crowded and confusing Baptist landscape. Those first four years, I visited more than 140 newsrooms and averaged 5-10 nights away from home each month. I juggled graduate school, a young child and marriage. It was a difficult period made more difficult by our transition to the metro Atlanta area.

After commuting the nearly two hours from Macon to CBF’s office on the north side of Atlanta four days a week, it was clear that I couldn’t sustain such a grind. We started looking for a house in the areas near CBF and found a great neighborhood in Lilburn with a house that met all of our conditions.

I found the work at CBF challenging and rewarding. After I finished my MBA, I was promoted to director of communications and marketing and for the first time in my career inherited more marketing responsibilities. Working for a faith-based non-profit satisfied my sense of calling to ministry because I was telling stories and facilitating CBF’s annual fundraising campaign for missions. The first year I was in charge of the Offering for Global Missions campaign, I cut the amount we spent producing the promotional materials by $75,000 and increased the amount raised by $75,000. Making a $150,000 difference felt good. I traveled to ministry sites for CBF’s domestic rural poverty initiative, Together for Hope, on Native American reservations in South Dakota, small towns in the Mississippi River Delta in Arkansas, and communities along the Rio Grande River Valley of Texas. I went to Southeast Asia seeing firsthand the work in northwest Thailand, Singapore, and post-tsunami recovery areas of Aceh Province in Indonesia.

The position helped me develop communications abilities beyond writing. I spoke frequently in churches and developed a network of advocates with whom I frequently met to resource them to promote CBF in their congregations. I was given the opportunity to run the media relations operation for more than 100 reporters at the historic New Baptist Covenant first meeting in Atlanta with representatives from Baptist denominations all across the country. I achieved so many career firsts while engaging my faith in my vocation. In many ways, CBF felt like the perfect fit and a place where I could work for the rest of my career.

I did not see how the seeds were being planted for the next big transition of my career.

Even better than expected – part 1

My life is full and has surpassed my highest expectations in profound ways.

Carla is a beautiful person who chooses to share life with me through mundane, jubilant, and challenging times. Barron is a creative, goal-oriented and industrious son who shows gratitude and kindness. Harris is bright, engaging and is committing himself to a life of service to address societal problems. Carlton is finding himself in song and drama, flashing a keen wit and possessing insight and awareness beyond his years.

I wished for such a wonderful family, but they have exceeded my loftiest dreams.

The biggest difference between my expectations for life and reality is my career. The question “What do you want to be when you grow up?” had different answers at various points in my life. I went through a phase in adolescence when I adopted my father’s dreams of becoming a fighter pilot and having a post-military career flying commercial jets for an airline.

Well into adulthood, I wondered if I was called to local church ministry. I sincerely and diligently prayed for a revelation of that calling and have always been involved in church as a layperson performing every possible duty.

As early as the 7th grade, I envisioned a life of writing novels. I believed that newspaper journalism could pay the bills while I pursued writing books, which was less financially secure. Writing led me to pursue a high school internship at our local paper, The Daily Highlander, and once I began to understand how that world operated, I held ambitions of one day rising through the ranks of reporter to editor and running a newspaper.

That goal served me well through high school and college. I became editor of the Troy University school paper, The Tropolitan, in college as a sophomore and worked internships at The Destin Log, St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Knight Ridder’s Washington Bureau and the National Journalism Center. A difficult job market in 1991-92 forced me to seriously question my career choice as I unsuccessfully interviewed for reporter jobs at The Birmingham News, The Anniston Star, and The Huntsville Times.

A young Lance Wallace wearing glasses and a polka dot black necktie and white shirt sits at computer terminal on a desk in a low-rise office cubicle in a busy newsroom.
What this 20-something cub reporter didn’t know about life at this stage could fill a Sunday edition of The Macon Telegraph.

I finally landed an interview at The Macon Telegraph in Middle Georgia, and the rest, as they say, was history. During my seven plus years at The Telegraph there were pivot points along the way that forced me to recalibrate my expectations and amend my goals. When I graduated from Troy University with a double major in print journalism and political science, I saw myself returning to Washington to cover politics. I thought I could one day work my way back to Knight Ridder’s Washington Bureau if I went to a Knight Ridder paper, excelled and earned a promotion to fill an opening in the company’s high-profile D.C. office.

I held onto that notion for about four years as I worked as a general assignment features writer. Editorial page editor Ron Woodgeard asked me to contribute to a series he was editing about Georgians on the Titanic, and during our closer work together, he asked me about my career goals. I told him I wanted to cover politics in Washington. He rather bluntly informed me I was in the wrong place to do that. He said if I wanted to cover politics in Washington, I should already be in Washington. I told him my plan, and he explained that political journalism didn’t work that way.

As I puzzled over Ron’s revelation, my fellow church member, Larry Brumley, who ran the University Relations office at Mercer University, asked if I would be interested in applying for a media relations representative vacancy on his staff. I had never seriously considered working in public relations, often deriding the PR majors in college as “paid liars.” With a chance to cover the 1996 Summer Olympic Games in Atlanta, I told Larry the opportunities on my immediate horizon were too good to pass up. I remained committed to journalism.

As difficult as it was to hear, Ron Woodgeard had been right. Career panic set in, and I felt an urgency to move on from Macon. But by that point, my social life began to factor into my life’s plan. Carla and I had started dating, and our relationship was growing serious. Just a few months into our relationship, covering the Olympics combined with a newsroom shakeup by incoming Editor-in-Chief Cecil Bentley proved to be my opportunity to shift from general assignment features to the City Hall beat. It was my first shot at writing about politics at any level since college.

I thoroughly enjoyed covering Macon and Bibb County government and quickly acclimated to working nights attending council and committee meetings. I dedicated myself to increasing my profile at the paper and winning reporting recognitions. The awards never came, and though I covered the beat diligently, I exposed no major scoops or scandals. Ron’s words were becoming clear to me. The way to make it to the Capitol did not go through Macon City Hall.

Carla and I were not married long when the statehouse reporting job opened at the Knight Ridder-owned newspaper in Columbia, S.C., oddly titled The State. I interviewed, and it looked promising enough that Carla and I spent the day driving through neighborhoods there getting a vision for what life could look like for us if we started over somewhere else. The job evaporated, however, when the editor I was interviewing with gave up his desk job, returned to reporting, and took the position.

My goal then shifted from leaving Macon and covering D.C. politics to moving up the ranks and becoming an editor. A new, more aggressive managing editor had been hired, and he began pushing me to “leverage the facts” of the stories I was covering at City Hall to make them seem more scandalous. I wanted no part of that. Fortunately, I was able to transfer to our Warner Robins Bureau where I was assigned the Robins Air Force Base beat.

I didn’t mind the half-hour commute from Macon, and I found the base infinitely fascinating. When units at Robins started deploying on missions over Kosovo and to Kuwait, I was able to write stories with impact and emotion. I built solid relationships with the public affairs officers on base and really took to the assignments.

After about 18 months, more newsroom transitions opened an assistant metro editor position back in the main office. I applied and earned the spot, working side-by-side with my former features editor, James Palmer. We supervised the entire news reporting staff, and I began to see the writing on the wall. When I first arrived in Macon, there had been six such editors – a metro editor, two assistant metro editors, night editor, business editor, and region editor. There was just James and me at that point, and I knew more cuts were on the way. I began to seriously question if newspapers were a sustainable way to earn a living. I had always wanted to get my master’s degree, which seemed impossible with my schedule. I knew I would have to leave journalism if I wanted to further my education and set myself up for career advancement. I had put so many eggs in the journalism basket it was hard to figure out what was next.

One of my duties was editing the weekly business tabloid that published on Mondays. A feature of that publication was a weekly column written by Mercer University business faculty members. The column was supposed to be submitted by 5 p.m. on Thursday, so it could be edited on Friday and laid out before the end of the day. We printed the business tab on Saturday when the presses were available. The Mercer professors consistently missed their deadline and submitted work that required a lot of editing. Even though we didn’t pay for the content, the columns were more trouble than they were worth. I called Mercer’s public relations contact for the business school and told her we were canceling the arrangement. She begged for mercy and asked for me to come by for a meeting. It got me out of the office, so I was amenable.

The meeting went fine. The PR rep, Jennie Treby, let the assistant vice president, Ben McDade, do all the talking. In exchange for one more chance to continue the columns, Ben promised each submission would be on time, the right length, and free from errors. I had no reason to deny the request, so I agreed to continue the columns. When the cordial meeting ended, Jennie left, and Ben asked if I could stay a minute or two longer. He closed the door and told me that when his predecessor, Larry Brumley, left Mercer to work as the head of university relations at Baylor University, Larry told Ben he should hire me. I was flattered but shocked. I still was not ready to leave journalism. Ben said he had an opening and would like for me to think about applying. I told him I would.

Over the next several weeks, I did much soul searching. Leaving journalism was more than a job change, it was an identity crisis. I viewed journalism as a calling and had even served on the national board of the Society of Professional Journalists. I was an advocate for free speech and the First Amendment. I believed public relations practitioners were less than credible, and they mostly just sat around and waited on reporters to call. While I considered the opportunity, conditions at The Telegraph took an even greater toll. The problematic managing editor left, and James and I felt the crush of even more responsibility. I worked past 10 p.m. five days a week and was even coming in on Sundays after church to get the Monday paper out. Carla was in graduate school, driving two nights a week from Macon to Lawrenceville, about a two-hour journey one way, to take classes in the University of Georgia’s part-time Master of Social Work program. We were newlyweds in duration of marriage only. We barely saw each other during the week, and the stress of so much work, school and time apart had us seeing a therapist in our first year of marriage.

One difficult week of working at least 12 hours a day plus Sunday gave me the clarity I needed to make the career move and shift my ambitions. I took Ben up on his offer and left newspaper journalism behind. When I submitted my resignation, Cecil asked if there was anything they could do to keep me or if this was “a lifestyle decision.” I told him it was definitely the latter and didn’t look back.

The next phase of my life and career was uncharted territory.

College visits produce anxiety, nostalgia

The joke about campus tours is that they’re all the same.

This short video from College Humor captures it nicely.

After taking two such tours this week with my middle son, Harris, I’ve concluded that, yes, touring campuses starts to feel like deja vu after a while, but if you’re paying attention, there’s a lot you can learn about your children… and yourself.

I never took a campus tour at what was then Troy State University before deciding to matriculate there in May of 1988. I took them up on their scholarship offer late in my senior year of high school. It was a practical decision made for purely financial reasons. The first time I set foot on the Troy campus was for pre-college orientation that summer.

Lance and Harris pose with the bronze statue of the Mercer Bear in front of the University Center building.
Harris and I pose for a selfie with the ferocious Mercer Bear outside of the University Center.

I have taken a few campus tours since, and now that I work in higher education, I’ve given a few. Carla and I did a round of college visits with our oldest when he was making his college selection. Visits to University of Georgia, Clemson, and Kennesaw State along with an informal, football-centric trip to Auburn (thanks to our friends, the Hursts!), rounded out his explorations. He ultimately landed at KSU for a year and a half before transferring to Georgia where he is now happily ensconced.

Barron was all about the college experience, particularly the marching band experience. He was coming off two years as drum major of his high school marching band, and he wanted to march in a big-time college band that played big-time games on big-time television and gave him big-time memories. At the time of those tours, he didn’t really know what he wanted to major in, vacillating between communications and music education.

Fast forward three years and he’s now a furnishings and interiors major with a concentration in historic preservation and played his trumpet on the field at the national championship game in Indianapolis back in January. So things worked out just fine. The campus tour did not make or break his future.

Harris Wallace listens to a tour guide outside of the R. Kirby Godsey Administration Building on the historic quad of Mercer University's campus.
When we think of Mercer, we think of the historic quad, including the R. Kirby Godsey Administration Building.

Our second son, Harris, is different in just about every way possible. While he has loved his marching band experience in high school, he is not seeking that from college. He is already working his 30-year plan, which includes a run for public office concluding with the White House. The two visits he took this week were to Mercer and UGA where one of the chief features the two have in common is a law school. (Emory is on the list to visit as well.)

The rah-rah portions of the tour didn’t appeal to him as much. He did soak up the vibe, which was a hot one this week, but his interests were more about academics, application processes, scholarships, honors programs and dual degrees that allow a student to complete a bachelor’s and master’s in an abbreviated time. His goals are more academic and profession-based than his brother’s. 

As the parents on these tours, Carla and I try to be present and offer advice without taking over. That was easier at UGA than at Mercer from which both of us have a degree. Carla particularly wanted to go into every building to see how it was different from when she went there back in the ‘90s. Spoiler alert: the campus has changed quite a bit.

Harris Wallace poses in front of the University of Georgia School of Law.
Harris can envision himself attending classes here at the University of Georgia School of Law one day.

I think our nostalgia annoyed Harris more than it helped, but our personal connections to the institution made that inevitable. Those connections did lead to Harris getting to meet Mercer President Bill Underwood, something no one else on our tour with Kelli was able to do. I don’t think Harris minded our Mercerian status then.

Here’s what I have learned from the college visit process from two cycles:

Separate emotion from data. Start with your child’s career interests and work backward. It’s not criminal if they don’t know what they want to do, but if they have an idea, it’s a good starting point. Then look at the academic degrees offered. Faculty matter in those fields, too, but don’t get hung up on rankings and reputational stuff. Good students succeed no matter where they are planted. And if you, like us, have some alma maters in the running, try not to let your glory days have too much influence. Our children need to blaze their own trails. If they do choose your school, know that their experience will be different from yours.

Your child’s future is not at stake. Try to relax and help your child enjoy the tour. It may feel like getting into the right school and making the right college choice is a life-or-death decision, but it’s not. Transferring is a reality. There are many paths to success. If you feel your anxiety level rising during the campus tour, take a time out and try not to let your issues infect your child. They will make better decisions without all the extra emotional baggage.

Don’t bring that helicopter. A colleague at another university recently told me that at their college orientation, the student life staff purposely have multiple options for free T-shirts just so they can force students to make a decision. It’s part of their preparation for college. She said all too often parents will step in, or, even worse, the student will turn to the parent and ask them which shirt they should pick. Staff are trained to then redirect the question to the student: “Which shirt do YOU want?” If you haven’t already built the habit of letting your child make some decisions for themselves, the campus tour is a good place to start.

As we wait for test scores and applications to open, I’m working on being present with Harris as he contemplates his future. It’s both a help and a hindrance that I work in higher education. You don’t have to be an expert to help your child navigate this decision, and your child’s choice will not determine the course of their entire life. Their future is still very much in their hands.

We’re on our second of three times through this journey of campus tours and college selection. Harris’ experience is different from Barron’s, and I’m sure Carlton’s will be unique from his older brothers’. 

Harris Wallace talks with a female UGA tour guide on the Million Dollar Staircase on the campus of the University of Georgia in Athens.
Harris gets to know “Lou” our UGA tour guide from Greensboro, NC, as they walk down the “Million Dollar Staircase.”

Carla likes to talk about seasons of life. This is one of those seasons that I’m learning to enjoy. It’s fun to reminisce, but I’m trying to let Harris make his own memories.

Hey, let me tell you about that time my roommate Scott skulled a possum in the parking lot of our dorm…

What was your campus tour like? How has it been different with your children? Did you find it stressful? Let’s process this together. Leave a comment and contribute to the conversation.

Mercer pride

Suddenly, at about 2 p.m. Friday, this started popping up on people's Facebook profile across my network.
Suddenly, at about 2 p.m. Friday, this started popping up on people’s Facebook profile across my network.

I had just wrapped up a conference call and had about 15 minutes until I needed to leave my office for my next meeting on the other side of the Georgia Tech campus.

A quick check of the Mercer-Duke score revealed Duke had pulled ahead. No need to get excited. The Number 3 seed was doing what Number 3 seeds do in the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament.

I spent some time working on a PowerPoint presentation and managed a few more productive edits before I clicked back over to see the score. With just a couple of minutes left, Mercer, the overwhelming underdog, had pulled ahead.

“This might get interesting,” I thought.

So like a lot of other Mercer fans – an almost nonexistent term until yesterday – I indulged and gave up a few minutes of my day to see an improbable upset, leaving my office only when the outcome was no longer in doubt.

I wasn’t much good in my meeting. I kept checking Twitter and Facebook to see my myriad social media connections to Mercer light up with jubilation. The unbelievable had happened.

That’s when I felt it, a moment I had never felt as a holder of a master’s degree from Mercer: school pride. Did I mention I used to work there, too? No? Well, I did, and now that Mercer has defeated Duke in the NCAA tournament, you can bet I’ll be mentioning it a lot more in the future.

“Yeah, I used to work there… you know, Mercer? Yeah, that’s right, the school that beat Duke.”

The Mercer Entourage in Raleigh to witness the biggest win in school history. Photo courtesy of Cindy Drury of Mercer Campus Life.
The Mercer Entourage in Raleigh to witness the biggest win in school history. Photo courtesy of Cindy Drury of Mercer Campus Life.

In the South, you must have your teams. I know this is more of a football phenomenon in the Deep South, but when you look to the Appalachian or coastal regions, basketball is king.

Having pride in your school’s athletic accomplishments is not just a Southern thing, but in the New South, it definitely gives you markers with which you can identify yourself on social media. You are either a Dawg or a Jacket, an exclaimer of “Roll Tide” or “War Eagle,” a fan of Florida or Florida State and so on. This is a socially acceptable and even socially expected way to identify yourself.

And up until yesterday, the shorthand “Mercer fan” had not existed. Yes, I have plenty of friends who work at Mercer and some whose children go there, and a lot of people in my personal network, including my wife, went there, but even those with close connections to the school weren’t really rabid with Mercer basketball pride.

Even my wife, who has not one once of athletic interest, managed to come up with a Facebook post that entered the realm of euphoric fanaticism… for her:

“Be the Bear, Mercer Proud, and all that jazz!”

Lame, I know, but that’s the point: Mercer has a bunch of graduates and “fans” like this who are ill-prepared to celebrate a success of this magnitude. Even I didn’t know what to do with these feelings of Mercer pride at first, but now that I know what this is, it’s growing on me.

For all the academic purists out there, this is where you have to admit that athletics plays an important role in higher education. For every alumnus who goes on to invent something great or achieve a lofty position or have a national nightly cable show, not even Nancy Grace can give a school the kind of profile that a bracket-busting victory in the NCAA tournament can.

This is why schools have athletic programs. This is ultimately why Mercer reinstated its football program this year after a 72 year hiatus. Sports get people excited. High-profile victories against national powerhouse programs put you on their level, at least for a day. Alumni feel pride. The general public talks about your school. High school kids suddenly think they may want to go there. Donors are inspired to write big checks.

We’ll see what happens Sunday when Mercer takes on Tennessee, but for now, there’s plenty to celebrate for “Mercer Nation” … another term that has never before been used in the English language until yesterday.

I, for one, will break out my “Be the Bear” T-shirt and wear it with pride.

OK, Mercer fans, it’s your shining moment. Share what you were doing when Mercer beat Duke. Were you at the game in Raleigh? Were you at work sneaking a peak at the ESPN gamecast? What was it like? Leave a comment below and let the celebration continue.

An encounter with the irascible Dr. Sams

Dr. Ferrol Sams with his characteristic grin.
Dr. Ferrol Sams with his characteristic grin.

Dr. Ferrol Sams died this week at the age of 90. If you don’t know who he is, then shame on you.

He might have said something to the effect of “You ain’t got a lick-a-sense if you’ve never read my books.”

The author of “Run With the Horsemen,” “The Whisper of the River” and “When All the World Was Young,” is one of Georgia’s best-known and best-loved writers. His passing this week reminded me of my discovery of his work and my dealings with the mischievous and sometimes profane Southern literary luminary.

It was January of 1993, six months into my stint as a features writer for The Macon Telegraph. I was given the assignment of researching and revealing Macon’s “secret places” – those rumored and legendary haunts around town that many had heard of but few had ever seen. It was a great story that took several weeks of interviewing and reading to pull together. It was in the reporting for this story that I first learned of Ferrol Sams and his work.

One of the secret places I was including in the piece was a room at the base of the spire of Mercer University’s administration building where Porter Osborne Jr., Sams’ main character from the “The Whisper of the River,” lost his virginity. Incoming Mercer freshmen are required to read “The Whisper of the River,” but since I had not matriculated at that fine institution at the time of my story assignment, I hadn’t even heard of Ferrol Sams.

I devoured the book – a thinly veiled autobiographical novel of Sams’ time at Mercer. In the book, Osborne, a country boy, goes off to Willingham College in the fictional version of Macon, and mad-cap and bawdy adventures ensued, including, of course, the chapter when Osborne has his fledgling sexual encounters in the secret room in the bell tower.

It was just such chapters that led my friend and fellow church member, the late Dr. William Shirley, to tell me one day after church “Lance, that’s a dirty book.” Dr. Shirley was a classmate of Dr. Sams at Mercer, and although I went back and re-read “The Whisper of the River” looking for him, I couldn’t figure out which character represented Dr. Shirley.

At Mercer University's 175th Anniversary in 2008, Ferrol Sams signs the Mercer tower.
At Mercer University’s 175th Anniversary in 2008, Ferrol Sams signs the Mercer tower.

It was somewhat awkward the day I went with Telegraph photographer Maryann Bates to Mercer to do interviews about the room. A young, rather attractive woman from the University Relations Office escorted us up to the room where she told us all about the space and how it achieved notoriety.

I remember blushing and stuttering the question “So, is this the room where… you know… IT happened?”

Maryann couldn’t suppress a laugh at my poor attempt at euphemism.

When the story appeared, I received a letter from retired – and now deceased – Macon attorney Hendley Napier. Mr. Napier insisted my story had incorrectly identified the location of the secret room as the Kappa Alpha fraternity’s chapter room, and he was most offended.

My editor, James Palmer, and I went back and forth over how best to respond to Mr. Napier. It was this experience that taught me there is no one more tenacious than a retired attorney with time on his hands. James determined that Mr. Napier reached his conclusion about my story erroneously. I had not said the KA chapter room was the secret room, but some imprecise language, specifically the antecedent of the impersonal pronoun “it,” was the source of the confusion. We did not run a correction or even a clarification.

This didn’t sit well with Mr. Napier who proceeded to carry out a one-man campaign against me and The Telegraph until justice was done and the KA chapter room exonerated. In one of the letters, Mr. Napier threatened to contact Dr. Sams himself to set the record straight.

About a month later, as I struggled with writing original prose about the 1993 Macon Cherry Blossom Festival, the phone at my desk rang. (The following is a loose transcript based on my memory, not the actual notes.)

“Macon Telegraph, this is Lance Wallace,” I recited.

“Is this Lance Wallace?” came the agitated response.

“Uh, yes… yes, it is. How may I help you?”

“You the one who did that story about the secret room at Mercer?”

“Yes… yes sir, I’m the one.”

“Well, I don’t know what you did, but you sure got Hendley Napier all stirred up.”

“Oh, I see. I’m sorry.”

“This is Dr. Sams up in Fayette County. It seems you have written something about my book and have Hendley Napier all out of sorts. He asked me to give you a call to clear this up. You got a pen?”

“Uh… yes, yes sir, right here.”

The cover of the copy of "Whisper of the River" I read back in 1993.
The cover of the copy of “Whisper of the River” I read back in 1993.

“Good. You take this down: The Kappa Alpha Chapter Room at Mercer University is a hallowed and sacred place. Many significant rites and solemn vows were made in that room where the bonds of brotherhood were firmly established with the utmost fervor and conviction. No male human could possibly attain an erection much less consummate the act of sexual intercourse in so grave and somber an environment. Furthermore, any rumor contradicting the widely-known and indisputable fact that Hendley Napier graduated Mercer University anything other than a virgin is an egregious and bald-faced lie.”

“Uh… Dr. Sams… uh… I can’t…”

“Son, you ain’t got no hair on your ass if you don’t put that in the newspaper.”

“Well… I don’t  think…”

“If that Hendley Napier calls you again, please tell him I called. Have a good day.”

Stunned, I slowly returned the handset to the base and stared down at the scribbling in my reporter’s notebook. When I relayed the conversation to my editor, James laughed so hard he nearly had tears. Shaking his head he said to me, “Yep, that sounds like Ferrol Sams. You be sure to keep those notes.”

Well, I’m sure I have those notes somewhere in my basement, but the memory is so vivid they are unnecessary.

I’m sorry to learn of his passing, but at 90, it can be said that Ferrol Sams lived a full life. I’m glad he shared it with us through his books.

Have you read any of Ferrol Sams’ work? If so, which is your favorite? Leave a comment with your assessment of his writing. You don’t have any hair… well, you get the idea… if you don’t leave a comment!