Bonnie Brown: Q&A with Associate Dean Emeritus of Liberal Arts, Michael Dean

*Editor’s Note: The latest installment in the Ole Miss Retirees features is Dr. Michael Dean, Associate Dean Emeritus of Liberal Arts and Associate Professor Emeritus of English. The organization’s mission is to enable all of the university’s faculty and staff retirees to maintain and promote a close association with the university. It is the goal of the Ole Miss Faculty/Staff Retirees Association to maintain communication by providing opportunities to attend and participate in events and presentations.

Dr. Dean was always available to help, whether you were staff, faculty, administrator, or student. He seemed to always have the answers and the willingness to assist. He has a great Ole Miss story.

Dr. Dean at the grave of British polar explorer, Sir Ernest Shackleton who led three British expeditions to the Antarctic; the grave is located on South Georgia Island in the South Atlantic Ocean, 800 miles east-southeast of the Falkland Islands. Photo provided. 

Brown: Where did you grow up? What is special about the place you grew up? Please talk about your childhood.

Dean: I grew up in Dade County (Miami) and Williston, Florida. I lived in Miami until I was 13; then my family moved to Williston, a small town near Gainesville. When I lived in Dade County, we lived in the country. We were a long way from Miami; where we lived the houses were few. There were still open fields, some pastures, and some woods. Williston was a small town of about 1,500 people. So, even though I was born in Miami, I did not live a “big city” life until I went to college. My high school was small, but the teachers were excellent.

Brown: Please tell us about your parents, siblings, and any crazy aunts and uncles.

Dean: Both my parents, James and Elizabeth Donaldson Dean, were born in Florida, and so was my maternal grandmother. Both sides of my family had roots in Florida. My father’s family came down from South Carolina to Levy County after the Civil War. When we moved to Williston in 1959 the move was prompted in part by a desire to return to the area of Florida where my father had lived as a child and where many family members still lived. My mother’s family came to Key West via the Bahamas in the 19th century. My great-aunt moved from Key West to Miami in 1913, when she married. She left a city of nearly 20,000 people, and she arrived in a village of only a few hundred people. My grandmother, more than a decade younger than my great-aunt, later moved to Miami. My only sibling, my sister Cindy Tribby (10 years younger), lives in Gainesville. She is an ardent University of Florida Gator fan.

Brown: Where did you go to school?

Dean: After graduating from Williston High School, I went to Emory University in Atlanta and took my bachelor’s degree there. Living in Atlanta was my first time to live in a big city. I earned my master’s degree at Mississippi State University (MSU), and my Ph.D. at the University of South Carolina. All three of my degrees were in English.

Brown: What were you really into when you were a kid?

Dean: I enjoyed sports and reading. My grandfather grew up in extreme southwest Georgia, but he moved to Miami in the 1920s. When Pan American Airlines started up in the 1930s, he went to work for them. My grandfather was a football fan. Living as he did in Miami, he was a University of Miami fan. I can remember going to college football games at the old Orange Bowl in Miami when I was young; at one time, my grandfather lived only a block away from the stadium. I recall seeing Miami Hurricanes games as well as games featuring Florida A&M. I also remember attending the 1957 Orange Bowl game between Colorado and Clemson. I learned to read before I went to school, and I read as many books as I could get my hands on.

Brown: Tell us how/when your Ole Miss “story” began? Who hired you? How long did you work at Ole Miss?

Dean: In 1975 I accepted a teaching position at Northwest Mississippi Junior (now Community) College. Not long after I started work there, I was asked to participate in programs sponsored by the Mississippi Humanities Council. Dr. Evans Harrington and I were paired up several times to conduct community forums at public libraries in Mississippi. Eventually, in 1978, the English Department at Ole Miss had openings, and Dr. Harrington suggested that I should apply for one of them. By that time Dr. Harrington had become Chair of the department. I started teaching at Ole Miss in the fall of 1978. I retired from the University at the end of June, 2002.

Brown: What did you know about Ole Miss before you accepted a position here?

Dean: Like many others, I knew about the university from sports. When I was in high school, I would often go to Gainesville to watch the Gators play. I can recall going to basketball games to see outstanding athletes from other SEC schools. On one occasion my friends and I went to the UF gym to watch Donnie Kessinger play against the home team. When I was working on my master’s degree at MSU, I made a trip to Oxford to do some research in the library. Finally, in 1976, I moved to Oxford while I was still working in Senatobia. So I was quite familiar with both Oxford and Ole Miss before joining the faculty.

Brown: What were some of your responsibilities as Associate Dean of the College of Liberal Arts?

Dean: I spent a good deal of time helping students in different ways. Sometimes I worked with students who were trying to meet degree requirements, helping them reach their goals in an efficient and timely way. On other occasions, I would work with students who had various problems, for example with class scheduling or with illness. I enjoyed meeting prospective students and their parents at recruitment events and telling them about the many opportunities available at the University. Many students knew they wanted to attend the University, but they were unaware of how to move through the system to end up with a degree. And many were often unaware of the wide range of departments and programs in the College of Liberal Arts. Each fall, I helped prepare an orientation program for new faculty in the College. I always enjoyed meeting the new faculty members and learning about their areas of expertise. I also enjoyed working with the chairs of the many departments housed in the College, particularly new chairs who were trying to learn about the structure of the College and the University.

Brown: Who influenced you in your early life?

Dean: My grandfather, Grover Cleveland Donaldson. (Isn’t that a good name? He had a younger brother named Woodrow Wilson Donaldson. My great-grandmother clearly liked Democratic presidents.) He had an interesting life, leaving home while he was still a teenager and moving to Miami, a city that was just beginning to change from a small town to a big city. He was interested in many things, particularly politics and history. After joining Pan American Airways (PAA), he traveled to South America and other places for the company. His job with PAA involved establishing and maintaining the system that supplied needed parts for the maintenance and repair of the airplanes. I can remember my mother telling me, when I was still quite young, that he was going to Venezuela. I had no idea what that meant. I think my interest in geography probably started then. After World War II, my grandfather moved to New York for a couple of years to help Pan Am with some projects. He was always kind to me, and I enjoyed listening to his stories.

Brown: Did you have a mentor who influenced your career choice?

Dean: When I first enrolled at Emory, I was undecided about my major. As I began to take classes in the English Department, I encountered a number of outstanding professors. Professors William Dillingham and Calvin Bedient were the two professors who made me realize that I wanted to be an English teacher. At Mississippi State, Professors Joe Stockwell, George Ellison, and Nancy Hargrove influenced me the most. Because of them, I decided to pursue a doctorate. Both Professors Hargrove and Ellison had attended graduate school at South Carolina, and, because of them, I decided that South Carolina was the best place for me to pursue my terminal degree. When I decided on a dissertation topic, I worked with Professor Ashley Brown, the professor who directed Professor Hargrove’s dissertation.

Brown: What skill would you like to master?

Dean: Chess. I played chess when I was young. I wish I had stuck with it.

Brown: What were some of the turning points in your life?

Dean: I spent part of the summer between my junior and senior years in high school at Emory University as part of a science program for rising seniors from Florida, Georgia, Alabama, South Carolina, and Tennessee. Those weeks in Atlanta allowed me to interact with a number of diverse people with different experiences and different opinions. Those weeks there also afforded me a chance to see a new place that interested me. If I had not gone to Emory that summer I would probably have enrolled at the University of Florida (UF) after high school. In retrospect, UF would probably not have been a good fit for me. Not long after I started graduate school at Mississippi State, I was visiting with my next door neighbor, another graduate student, when a friend of his wife dropped by to discuss something with her. The two of them had worked together at one of the Starkville schools. When the friend left, I asked my neighbors if they thought it would be all right for me to call her on the telephone and ask her out. I called, and she accepted. We have now been married for nearly 48 years. Many of the students who were enrolled in the Oxford School District in the 1980s and ‘90s encountered Dr. Wanda Dean as an assistant principal at Bramlett and Oxford Elementary Schools and as the principal of Oxford Elementary School and Oxford Middle School.

Michael and Wanda Dean in the Galapagos Islands.

Brown: If someone narrated your life, who would you want to be the narrator and why?

Dean: Garrison Keillor because I have always enjoyed listening to Keillor when he was on the radio; I think he has a soothing and recognizable voice. I also admire the way he can tell a story.

Brown: If your life were a book, what would be the title?

Dean: I would borrow a line from a train song written by Steve Goodman: “Halfway home, we’ll be there by morning.”

Brown: What’s the best vacation you’ve ever taken, and why was it the best?

Dean: I have always been interested in railroads and trains. So riding the Eastern and Oriental Express from Chiang Mai, Thailand, to Singapore was an experience that produced a vacation that is probably the most memorable one for me. The train was luxurious. Our butler served us breakfast each morning and tea in the afternoon. The dining car provided excellent meals. The train had its own schedule, and we would stop along the route to visit historic places. One such place was Kanchanaburi, Thailand. The “Bridge Over the River Kwai” was located there, and the museum there tells the story of the many individuals who were imprisoned and forced to work on the Burma-Siam Railway. There is also an impressive and thought-provoking memorial to the many people who lost their lives there. We were able to spend two nights in Bangkok and a night in Singapore. After we left the train in Singapore, we flew on to Cambodia to visit Angkor Wat. Then we flew to Yunnan Province in China to visit Diqing, Tiger Leaping Gorge, and Lijiang before ending our trip with a visit to Shanghai, one of my favorite cities.

Wanda and Michael Dean in front of the Taj Mahal.

Brown: What’s your favorite way to waste time?

Dean: I watch too many sporting events on television. And, for the most part, that does seem a waste of time. But it’s something that I keep on doing.

Brown: What was the last book you read?

Dean: “Educated” by Tara Westover

Brown: Now that you read for pleasure, do you read mostly fiction or non-fiction?

Dean: I still read fiction, including both contemporary and classic works. Right now, I am reading a novel by Balzac. Over the last several years, I have increasingly read a good many biographies, autobiographies, and memoirs. The book I just finished, “Educated”, is a remarkable account of a young woman’s coming of age in some of the most difficult circumstances one can imagine. The book I finished before starting “Educated” was Gerald Clarke’s biography of Truman Capote, called simply “Capote.” Last summer I finally saw the film “Capote.” Watching that movie sent me back to “In Cold Blood”, a book I read some 50 years ago. And re-reading “In Cold Blood” made want me to know more about Capote. On a trip to Kansas last fall, I even went out of my way to visit Garden City and Holcomb, the two towns that figured so prominently in Capote’s most famous work.

Brown: What makes you roll your eyes every time you see/hear it?

Dean: Hearing someone say “between you and I.”

Brown: What has been your routine since retirement? Do you have any hobbies?

Dean: Reading and traveling. As an English teacher, I read a great deal, of course, but now I have more time to read. Since I retired, I have been able to travel, and I have been fortunate to see some places that are a bit out of the way. I have enjoyed traveling to Latvia, Croatia, Chile, Bolivia, the Falkland Islands, South Georgia Island, French Polynesia, China, Viet Nam, India, Myanmar (Burma), Ethiopia, Botswana, and Zanzibar, among others. I had always wanted to go to Easter Island. I made my first trip there in 2006, and I was lucky enough to make a return trip in 2014.

Brown: Why did you want to go to Easter Island and what lured you back for a second time?

Dean: The mystery of the moai, the huge statues that populate so many different areas of the island. Why were they erected? How did the inhabitants create and then move them to their final locations? The remoteness of the place also intrigued me; Easter Island is often called the most remote inhabited place on earth. I made a second trip because of a cruise I took from Valparaiso, Chile, to Tahiti. Easter Island was one of the points of call, and I went on the cruise, in part, because I decided that the island was worth a return visit.

Brown: What remains on your bucket list?

Dean: Traveling by train from Toronto to Vancouver.


Bonnie Brown is a retired staff member of the University of Mississippi. She most recently served as Mentoring Coordinator for the Ole Miss Women’s Council for Philanthropy.

For questions or comments, email hottytoddynews@gmail.com.

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