USM Needs City to Care as Much as a Stranger
by Rick Cleveland
November 6, 2004
You probably saw the news from Hattiesburg
earlier this week. The citizenry there voted down a 1-percent
restaurant/hotel tax that would have helped fund improvements
to Southern Miss athletic facilities.
Upon hearing the news, I wondered what John
Austin Dickey would think were he still alive. We'll get to Mr.
Dickey in a moment.
First this: Rejection of the bond issue was
in keeping with a long tradition of non-support from a city that
thrives off the university. USM, far and away the largest economic
provider for Hattiesburg and the Pine Belt Region, long has been
taken for granted, almost as if it were an unwanted stepchild
out there on the western end of Hardy Street.
USM plays another home game today. Thousands
of visitors will pour into Hattiesburg, eat at Hub City restaurants,
stay at motels, buy gas and spend money.
Yes, and in pre-game ceremonies, a presentation
will be made to the family of John Austin Dickey. His story is
one worth re-telling, especially given what happened earlier
One day back in '58...
Let's go back to Thanksgiving, 1958. USM,
then Mississippi Southern College, played the University of Chattanooga
Moccasins at Chattanooga.
It was a huge game. Southern was undefeated
and ranked No. 1 in the national small college poll, having slammed
major college teams North Carolina State (26-14) and Virginia
Tech (41-0) on consecutive weekends. Chattanooga, which had defeated
Tennessee (14-6), was ranked No. 6 in the same poll.
It was Southern's final game. A victory would
mean a perfect season, the first in school history. John Austin
Dickey, a 16-year-old who lived in Chattanooga, was there, presumably
to cheer for the hometown Moccasins. He wound up in awe of the
Late in the game, the Southerners desperately
clung to a 20-13 lead. When Chattanooga recovered a fumble at
the Southern 1-yard line, the perfect season was much in jeopardy.
On four straight downs, Chattanooga pounded
the ball into the Southern line. Four straight downs, Southern's
line held, preserving the victory, a perfect season and a first-ever
small college national championship.
Young John Austin Dickey was blown away by
the visitors' grit. "He loved that team from the time he
saw them," said his sister, Helene Dickey Champlin of Athens,
Ga. "He thought they were so gutsy."
Dickey's love for USM football would last
his lifetime. He kept up mostly in newspapers. When the Golden
Eagles began to play TV games, he always watched. Dickey was
not a wealthy man. He worked in the shipping division of a pharmaceutical
company. He lived in an apartment. He did not own a car.
Family members say he saved every spare nickel
and dime and put it away into savings or bonds. Dickey died last
year, willing his life's savings of approximately $180,000 to
USM to fund football scholarships.
John Perkins, now 70 and living in Milledgeville,
Ga., was one of the anchors of that USM line that preserved the
victory over Chattanooga and the undefeated season. He says he
and his teammates were stunned when they learned of Dickey's
"I'm gonna tell you, words can't explain
how much it means to those of us still living," Perkins
said. "To think we had that kind of impact on somebody and
to think that someone would save for a lifetime because of it.
You could understand it better if he had been from Hattiesburg,
but this was a guy in Chattanooga who saw us one time. It's just,
well, it's just unbelievable."
It surely is.
Such a contrast
Now then, contrast John Austin Dickey's generosity
with this: The Hattiesburg bond issue that failed last Tuesday
would have added an extra nickel to the cost of a Big Mac value
Dickey never benefited, not even a copper
penny, from USM.
How many in Hattiesburg can say the same?
Major donors were honored before the
Southern Miss vs. Cincinnati game, November 6, 2004. John Austin
Dickey's relatives (left) were given a 1958 team photo and John
was named an honorary member of the 1958 team.