College Towns

Under the Spanish moss of spring in Gainesville, Fl. This was taken on a shoot there in 2009 when I was still a student.

Under the Spanish moss of spring in Gainesville, Fl. This was taken on a shoot there in 2009 when I was still a student.

This has been a busy week. In the world of freelance, it's feast or famine. You're either so busy you can't keep track of what state you're in, or you have so much free time you can't keep track of what day it is.

Lately, for me, it's been feast. Luckily the busy schedule has brought me to two of my favorite college towns - Gainesville, FL, and Oxford, MS.

The trip to Gainesville was a nice change. I hadn't spent significant time in the town of my alma mater in years, and this is a truly lovely time to be in central Florida. The weather is warm, but not hot. The clouds are high and puffy. The smell of citrus blossoms is in the air. And the madness of football season is far away, replaced by the calm of baseball and softball.

It brought me back to warm Sundays as a student, sitting in the sun at the softball grounds as my friends and I burned off the remnants of Saturday night, listening to the tink ofa ball hitting a bat, the scuffle of cleats on clay, and the sweet, unmistakable aroma of orange blossoms wafting in from the grove across the street. A sure sign of spring.

Today, Bill and I will be driving to the second college town on that list - Oxford, MS - for a weekend workshop with some students. Oxford is a place I had always heard about, both as a football fan in the SEC and a student of history. But a place I didn't really start to understand until I first visited in 2008.

The always delicious Ajax Diner in Oxford, MS.

Oxford is the south in a nutshell. It's warm and slow, full of good food and good people. It's what we imagine the south to look like with it's town square and oak groves.

It's a beautiful town with a wonderful literary history. Rowan Oak, the home of William Faulkner, is on the University of Mississippi campus.

On the steps outside Square Books - one of America's great independent book stores - in Oxford, MS.

Also on campus is a Confederate graveyard where soldiers who died while being treated at the campus hospital are buried. As wonderful as modern Oxford is, you can't talk about the place without also talking about it's segregated past and Confederate history.

Nearly the entire student body (135 men) enlisted in the Confederate Army in 1861 after Mississippi seceded from the Union. During the Battle of Gettysburg, the University Grey's (as they were called) penetrated deep into the Union forces, but sustained 100% casualties. Every man in the unit was either killed or badly wounded. It's no wonder that their mascot for years was Colonel Reb and their symbol a Confederate flag.

Then there's the story of James Meredith, the first black man to attend the University of Mississippi. In 1962 it took 500 federal troops to enroll James Meredith at Ole Miss. There is now a statue of Meredith on campus to honor his commitment to the university and his indelible mark on history.

I met James Meredith in the elevator at Vaught-Hemingway Stadium after the Alabama vs. Ole Miss football game in 2010. He was wearing a white suit and was with a friend. He and his friend said hello to Bill and I when they saw our cameras and introduced themselves. Meredith talked to us on the short elevator ride about the beauty of the campus and the friendliness of the people.

I was shocked. James Meredith was last person in the world I expected to speak highly of Oxford and the University of Mississippi. But there he was, smiling broadly as he reminisced.

That's Oxford. The place is full of history - good and bad, depending on your perspective. It's a place of chaotic paradox, but also a place of calm beauty.