Illustration by Scott Allen

by Julian Rankin

William Winter was nine-years-old when he first sat in the governor’s chair. It was 1932. He had accompanied his father, a state senator, to the inauguration of Mississippi Governor Mike Conner, and was visiting Conner’s office.

The chair engulfed him, like the endless fields of his Grenada County youth. It seemed impossible that he could ever fill it. The boy’s legs barely hung over the edge of the seat.

Governor Conner grinned at the boy. “That chair fits him just right,” he told Winter’s father, winking. It was prophetic. William Winter is the first to tell you that his many accomplishments are not his alone. For a man who considered Mississippi part of one extended family, his efforts are inseparable from those of his wife and best friend Elise Winter and the close-knit community of his Fondren home.

“Governor and Mrs. Winter are friends with former presidents and have traveled all over this world, but their favorite place to be is in Fondren,” says Dick Molpus, former Mississippi Secretary of State, fellow Fondrenite, and a dear friend of the Winters. “They’re deeply rooted in this place.”

At the end of the Winter’s lane is an undeveloped verdant lot. On one hot Saturday, a neighbor found the couple there, hoeing the earth and planting flowers in a forgotten corner. William and Elise Winter still walk the neighborhood, as they have almost every day since they moved to Fondren in the early 1970s. They pound the pavement out of habit, echoing past political campaigns where they traveled the state as a family connecting with cotton farmers and pharmacists and school teachers. As they greet passersby, their schnauzer Charlie Brown gives canine-hellos to other pets. “It’s part of what makes Fondren so special,” says their daughter Eleanor. “Not only does everybody know each other, but we know the other neighbors’ dogs’ names.”

William Winter’s peers recognized his leadership when he was a freshman at Ole Miss. His brothers-in-arms saw it in the Army. He began his political career in the state legislature when he was elected in 1947; he put his vision to work. His crowning achievement as Governor, the Mississippi Education Reform Act of 1982, modernized a beleaguered public education system and ensured that generations of young Mississippians would have better opportunities to learn and grow. Elise Winter delivered hundreds of speeches to help rally support.

Their speeches inspired, always backed up by sincere action. Grandson Ty Gillespie, who knows Governor and Mrs. Winter simply as Will and Teasie, learned most by “just watching them as I was growing up. They’re awesome role models.” The Winters were cool before Fondren was.

Andy Mullins, the former assistant to multiple University of Mississippi chancellors and tireless advocate for public education, calls William Winter one of the most – if not the most – influential Mississippians of the 20th century. Mullins was part of a group of dedicated young Mississippians – the “boys of Spring” – who helped Governor Winter architect his new Mississippi of progress and truth. Ask Mullins how Winter has lived so long, and he’ll tell you it’s “because he doesn’t have rancor in his heart. He’s one of the most forgiving people I’ve ever known.”

When faced with Mississippi’s dark flaws, the Winters have appealed to humanity’s better angels. They’ve built things and encouraged people instead of tearing them down. The William Winter Institute for Racial Reconciliation is a testament to this formative ethos. In recent years, the Winters have been devoted supporters of the new Museum of Mississippi History and Mississippi Civil Rights Museum. “It has been his dream forever,” says Eleanor Winter of her father, “to have a history museum that … told it like it was.” William Winter has been telling it like it is for a long time.

At the Neshoba County Fair in 1963, Winter followed a succession of dog-whistling politicians who used their time to disparage diversity and urge on the night-riders. Fourteen-year-old Dick Molpus watched Winter take his place on stage – “a thin man who didn’t look like a typical politician” – and rail against such civil rights betrayals. “As he walked off the stage,” Molpus recalls, “I was standing there and I told him I was going to be his man in Neshoba County.”

Once he was old enough, Molpus worked on every one of Winter’s campaigns, win or lose.

Cliff Finch handed William Winter a tough defeat in the 1975 gubernatorial race. Winter, once leading in the polls, fell desperately behind. Nevertheless, he persisted.

So did Mrs. Winter. She canvassed in the stifling Mississippi heat at the U.S. Motors plant in Philadelphia, Mississippi, handing out campaign card after campaign card even as many of the workers threw them down. “Don’t you want to leave?” Molpus asked her. Not until every person was gone, she replied. Molpus stood beside her, picking up the cards as they fell and handing them back to her to replenish her stack. Four years later, William Winter became Governor at last with more than 60 percent of the vote.

At the National Prayer Breakfast in Washington, D.C. in 1983, William Winter prayed for his ideal world, a place, “where integrity will be placed before advantage and the search for truth will be our ultimate effort; where compassion shall always temper our triumphs and honor shall attend our defeats; where the most privileged of our citizenry shall live without dominating and the most deprived shall live without fear of domination…”

These days, when they aren’t walking the walk, Governor and Mrs. Winter reminisce on the airy screen porch. Willie Morris used to live nearby. His cat, Spit McGee, had a committed correspondence with the Winters’ dog, Fritz. Spit would deliver a letter through the mail slot, and Fritz would write back, signing with a paw print. After sixty-seven years of marriage, Elise and William Winter have many of these stories. They talk often of their adventures, even as they embark on new ones. From their porch, they look out with hopeful eyes. They look out on Fondren and on Mississippi. They look toward the future. They look out for their neighbors – as true leaders always do.

 

Elise and William Winter. Image: Paul Wolf