October 2, 2014  

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Retired Communication Studies professor was department’s ‘youngest thinker’

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Dr. Don George

For many, retirement is viewed as the time to enjoy the fruits of one’s labor; to cash in the stock portfolio and pursue a more sedentary life filled with leisurely pursuits.

    Dr. Don George, a professor in the Department of Communication Studies at Southern Miss from 1957-78, didn’t view it that way. Instead, he chose to seek and share information; explore new places around the globe and just prior to his death, write a book.

    Unlike most of his ideas, the dream of a book entitled “How Long is Eternity?” didn’t come to fruition. Dr. George passed away Nov. 3, 2011 at the age of 98. His death came a few short weeks after a visit to Southern Miss’ campus.

    George was an influential figure in the department known simply as Speech Department when he joined the University in 1956. The son of a Baptist minister with pastorates in rural Louisiana, George completed the doctoral degree at Louisiana State University in 1955 in speech with an emphasis on oral language production and perception and a minor in English language and general linguistics.

     At Southern Miss, George taught public speaking, coached the debate team and served as department chair. During his career, he published in scholarly journals, presented at professional conferences and continually practiced his profession.

     George’s career took fortuitous turns that impacted students from Hattiesburg to Indonesia to Beirut to Beijing.

    From 1959 to 1961, he was on loan from Southern Miss to the State University of New York to participate in the Ford Foundation’s English Language Project in Indonesia. From 1966 to 1968, he was chair of the English department at the Lebanese National University in Beirut, Lebanon on a Fulbright Grant. After retiring from Southern Miss in 1978, he was invited to teach from 1980-1982 in a program for Chinese English teachers in the People’s Republic of China.

    His selection as the first American professor to enter China after the implementation of domestic relations by President Richard Nixon was the culmination of a life-long dream. In a 2007 oral history recorded by Communication Studies doctoral student Yan Guan, George’s excitement about breaking international boundaries was evident.

     “Since I was a little boy, I had dreamed about going to China,” George said. “To get to go over and teach, to explore China and even more interesting, to experience being the first American my students had ever seen…I felt like a monkey in a zoo. It was the experience of a lifetime.”

    George’s retirement did not signal the end of teaching and learning. He simply adjusted his classroom methods for new students. They included fellow Southern Miss professors, friends in need of advice or encouragement and in recent years, residents of the Hattiesburg area who enjoyed reading his frequent letters to the editor of The Hattiesburg American.

     After retiring from Southern Miss, he endowed a fund to benefit graduate students in the Southern Miss Department of Communication Studies.  And, he was a frequent visitor to the university. Even outside the classroom, his voice, mind and wit remained strong through engagement in social, yet thought-provoking faculty groups; lively conversations with former peers and interactions with former students.

     The university and the department had changed around him by the time he retired in 1978. However, in the oral history, he offered opinions of the progression of his field backed by the disclaimer that “change is inevitable and often necessary.”

     “I taught a course called voice and diction, primarily for radio and theatre majors, but also for students going into fields where talking to people in a standard version of English was required,” George recalled. “They wanted to get rid of that ‘Southern drawl’ or accent and needed to be able to articulate words clearly.”

     In the recorded history, George states, “I wish they would re-introduce that program. I often feel students need to be taught proper articulation of words. When you listen to a radio interview and can’t tell who the interviewer is and who is being interviewed, that is a problem. But, I guess there would not be anyone to teach it but me,” he added with a chuckle.

   George's vision of the discipline of speech communication and its importance remained unwaveringly strong until his death. The extent to which his legacy remains intact, indeed deeply knitted into the fabric of the discipline he taught for 22 years, is tangible through the words of those for whom he served as a source of inspiration.

    George’s knowledge and intelligence influenced his peers and countless speech communication students, said Danny Mitchell, senior partner and chairman of Godwin Group, one of Mississippi’s largest advertising agencies.

    “When I think of Dr. George, I think of his smile, his joy and his pipe,” said Mitchell, a speech communication graduate (B.S.,’70, M.S.,’71).  “He was unlike any other professor in that he seemed almost joyful as he shared the information he possessed about the field. Besides teaching the curriculum, he intertwined real-life situations and stories that brought the subject to life in a way I had never experienced.”

    One piece of advice from George has been influential in setting the course for future business decisions, Mitchell said.

    “He always said that when reviewing any situation, I should ‘think bigger than what you’re thinking right now,’” Mitchell recalls. “Every time I’ve been faced with a major decision, those words have come to mind. When I’ve heeded that advice, I’ve achieved success. I owe a great deal to Dr. George.”

     Dr. Gene Wiggins, professor emeritus of Mass Communication and Journalism, was a graduate student in the late 1960’s when he met Don George. Later, they briefly taught courses in the Speech Department before the two disciples were separated and George retired. However, looking back on his career, Wiggins said it seems as if he’s “always been at Southern Miss.”

     '' Don was an intelligent, generous, charismatic person,” said Wiggins. “He could argue with you, but he was such a bright man, such an all-around educated man, you couldn’t help but agree with his argument. I’m not sure if this was due to his persuasive powers or the respect I had for his intellect.”

     During his retirement years, George never lost his interest in Southern Miss and the university’s growth. Additionally, he engaged in more social pursuits with an academic edge. He and a group of professors met regularly to discuss and argue enduring and philosophical issues.

     ''Dr. George may have been the department’s senior member, but he was also its youngest thinker,'' said Dr. Charles Tardy, chairman of the Department of Communication Studies. “He was curious and adventurous, but also practical and disciplined. He continued to think, talk and write about our field, as well as about politics, religion, philosophy and science, long after he retired.”

     Until the end of his life, George was an ardent defender of the view that education came with a caveat. Those fortunate enough to obtain knowledge should use it to make a difference in the world.

    “Up until the end, he never stopped learning, teaching, talking to people and helping others,” Wiggins recalls. “He simply kept everyone around him on their toes, even until the end of his life. That’s the best way to describe Don George’s life.”