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Tupelo Man

The Life and Times of George McLean, a Most Peculiar Newspaper Publisher

Robert Blade

Publication Year: 2012

In 1924, George McLean, an Ole Miss sophomore and the spoiled son of a judge, attended a YMCA student mission conference whose free-thinking organizers aimed to change the world. They changed George McLean's.

But not instantly. As vividly recounted in the first biography of this significant figure in Southern history, Tupelo Man: The Life and Times of a Most Peculiar Newspaper Publisher, McLean drifted through schools and jobs, always questioning authority, always searching for a way to put his restless vision into practical use. In the Depression's depths, he was fired from a teaching job at what is now Rhodes College in Memphis, Tennessee, over his socialist ideas and labor organizing work.

By 1934 he decided he had enough of working for others and that he would go into business for himself. In dirt-poor Northeast Mississippi, the Tupelo Journal was for sale, and McLean used his wife's money to buy what he called "a bankrupt newspaper from a bankrupt bank." As he struggled to keep the paper going, his Christian socialism evolved into a Christian capitalism that transformed the region. He didn't want a bigger slice of the pie for himself, he said; he wanted a bigger pie for all.

But McLean (1904-1983) was far from a saint. He prayed about his temper, with little result. He was distant and aloof toward his two children--adopted through a notorious Memphis baby selling operation. His wife, whom he deeply loved in his prickly way, left him once and threatened to leave again. "I don't know why I was born with this chip on my shoulder," he told her. Tupelo Man looks at this far-from-ordinary publisher in an intimate way that offers a fascinating story and insight into our own lives and times.

Published by: University Press of Mississippi

Title Page, Copyright Page

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Preface: The McLeans and Me

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pp. ix-xiv

And while most small-town newspaper proprietors were known as community boosters, they generally limited their boostering to news coverage slanted toward businesses, toward the people at the top, and to proclaiming on their editorial pages the virtues of unfettered capitalism along with the need for...

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1. The Train to Winona

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pp. 3-24

Winona is about 125 miles south of Memphis, and it was a long, frightening ride for any four-year-old, but especially for Anna Keirsey, who was a timid child. The Illinois Central Railroad day coach where she sat so quietly was hot, smoky, and filled with chattering strangers. The train first stopped in...

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2. Looking for Work

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pp. 25-50

Life in Oxford settled into a comfortable routine of classes, studying, and a little socializing. It was a short walk to their classrooms, the library, and the Old Chapel building that housed the YMCA and YWCA. The university was still small and intimate. The year before, when overall enrollment reached...

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3. I Find I Cannot Work for the Other Fellow

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pp. 51-70

He was not satisfied. He was not a farmer or a plantation overseer; he needed something real to do. His experiences with teaching high school in Byhalia and college classes at Adrian and Southwestern were a decidedly mixed bag; these jobs, too, were a step removed from the involvement he sought. He was...

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4. A Strike at the Mill

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pp. 71-94

In late 1935 or early 1936, he decided on a radical change that would either ensure the Journal’s survival or guarantee its death. Instead of trying to establish a niche that the twice-weekly Journal could occupy, McLean decided to compete head-on with the Daily News. He would make the Journal a daily...

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5. The Memphis Baby Market

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pp. 95-103

McLean lived up to his slogans. He had long been convinced that Tupelo would never prosper unless the subsistence farmers who lived in the dozens of small rural towns around Tupelo prospered—unless their incomes grew to a more middle-class standard. The dairy program helped. But more than that, the...

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6. The War in Florida

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pp. 104-115

President Roosevelt, who had been reelected to his third term in November 1940, switched his emphasis to the growing war. During his fireside chats—the nationwide radio broadcasts he had started during the Depression—he now spoke of the need for a strong national defense and the role the United...

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7. Two Successes and a Flop

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pp. 116-135

Interim publisher Bill Stroud had focused on keeping circulation and advertising stable. Stroud’s forte was business, not community involvement. On Monday, August 13, 1945, for example, the left “ear”—a house advertisement at the top of the front page, next to the paper’s nameplate—proclaimed, “Journal...

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8. Satisfaction Guaranteed

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pp. 136-149

This little girl was born on November 1, 1945, in John Gaston Hospital, Memphis’s charity hospital, to a woman who fit the classic Tann profile: white, young, unwed, uneducated, and poor. The woman signed her baby over to Tann, who most probably (she routinely falsified all adoption records) first placed...

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9. Eight or Nine, Please

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pp. 150-172

In the fall of 1946, when George was serving as the Chamber of Commerce president, Keirsey hired a new cook, an angular, twenty-six-year-old, Viceroy-smoking woman named Essie Howard, who lived in the black slum Shakerag with her husband, Seaphus, a janitor at the North Mississippi Community...

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10. Subversiveness in Most All of Its Forms

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pp. 173-194

On Sunday, July 22, 1962, however, the ritual was upended by a troop of Boy Scouts who arrived in two buses. They were on their way home to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and their leader had called the minister, Rev. George Long, a day earlier to ask about attending First Presbyterian’s service; he wanted to...

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11. Things to Be Done

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pp. 195-214

Cars, waiting for a chance to pass, backed up behind slow-moving trucks laboring over hills. Although bypasses skirted a few of the larger towns, much of the travel was stop-and-go along store-lined main streets with angle-in parking for the locals. The two highways were woefully inadequate to serve the shipping...

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12. A Ripe Area at the Time

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pp. 215-235

On Thursday, March 18, 1976, Pasto and his girlfriend drove to Tupelo from Memphis to cash a few bad checks at Tupelo stores. He had done it before, but this time things didn’t work out so well: on their way back to Memphis, Pasto and his girlfriend were stopped by the Tupelo police and arrested for...

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13. Listening to Mr. McLean

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pp. 236-254

Grisham knew an unusual newspaper publisher in Tupelo, about fifty miles east of Oxford, who wanted to hire someone to do community work for a year. Crews was curious. His background (he had been active in campus politics and was president of the Ole Miss student government association) and his general...

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14. Good Measure, Pressed Down

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pp. 255-268

The other side of this benevolence was a close-to-cynical notion that he could use his money to get his own way, that if the price was right, people could be made to do things they initially did not want to do. His money got the two police officers accused of brutality off the force in 1978 and was the carrot...

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15. Once More around Highland Circle

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pp. 269-274

She showed up for work every day, joking that, except for teaching school back in the 1920s, it had taken her until age seventy-six to get her first full-time job. Part of her identity was always as George McLean’s widow—her phone was listed as “Mrs. George McLean”—but her calm, steady style was far different...

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Afterword: An Idea Evolves

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pp. 275-276

The accolades reached a peak in early 2007 when the Toyota Motor Corporation announced plans to build a $1.3 billion assembly plant ten miles northwest of Tupelo that would eventually employ about two thousand workers. Amid the general celebration, a few people wondered if McLean would have been...

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pp. 277-278

The Lee County librarians, especially Betty Cagle, were invaluable in their aid. One of the few collections of the Daily Journal’s back issues is kept on dozens of rolls of microfilm at the library, and she was extraordinary in patiently teaching me how to use the reader, find what I needed, and make copies...


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pp. 279-291


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pp. 293-299

Index [Contains Image Plates]

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pp. 301-308

E-ISBN-13: 9781621030607
E-ISBN-10: 1617036285
Print-ISBN-13: 9781617036286

Page Count: 368
Illustrations: 10 b&w
Publication Year: 2012