The Will Winter I knew

Bill Miles

There’s no way I can put lipstick on this pig called 2020. It’s been a horrible year. This creature called COVID has even penetrated my family in recent days. Fortunately, the youngest and probably healthiest in the family, my grandson and his wife have been able to match the virus. They live out of state so we’ve kept up with their plight via Facebook and Face Time. I fear for others close to me or myself if we have to stand up to it. Sadly, some close friends and several acquaintances did not win their encounter. Some were well known, and had accomplished quite a bit in various arenas; but all were important. They had family and friends who now miss them greatly. About my friend Will Winter. In 1955 I was a cub reporter working for Delmus Harden on the weekly Itawamba County Times, a teenager too young to vote even if the age limit had been reduced to the present 18. It was 21 then. Delmus had a relationship with J. P. Coleman through his wife, Ruby, whose family knew the Choctaw County ‘Plowboy’ when he attended Ole Miss. Delmus backed the underdog Coleman for Governor. He won. He was a progressive when we didn’t know to hate the term. Coleman knew Mississippi’s Constitution was outdated. He wanted to make change. The ultimate Delta Baron, Walter Sillers, controlled the House of Representatives. Coleman encouraged youthful William Winter of Grenada, a member of the House, to challenge Sillers for Speaker. Then he reneged on backing Winter knowing the apparent futile endeavor would derail any hope of enacting the Coleman Agenda. Back then Mississippi operated under a complex system of being the last state in the U.S. to have border to border prohibition of liquor, in name mostly. It also collected a black market tax on legal liquor available in other areas and brought to Mississippi. While local sheriffs and/or law enforcement at various levels could enforce the state probation laws, a ‘wink and blink’ existed in some areas. Folks who sold liquor were actually considered business people. Like they are today. Not ordinary bootleggers. Collection of the black market tax on outside-of-the-state legal purchases was vested in the State Collector, an office voted on like governor and other positions. Mrs. Tom Bailey, widow of a former governor and Speaker of the House, held the job. Shortly after Coleman ascended to the Governor’s Office, Mrs. Bailey died. He rewarded Will Winter by appointing him to what some said was the highest paid public office in the U.S. (perhaps only behind the President). In 1957 or 58 a group of us struggling to get though Ole Miss would occasionally end up at Sardis Lake on a Sunday afternoon. It was on one of these outings that William and Elise Winter joined a handful of us because Mrs. Winter was from Senatobia. That’s how I met the Winters. My first vote in 1959 was cast for William Winter for State Tax Collector and against Ross Barnett for Governor. Winter urged abolishing his office and was elected state treasurer and lieutenant governor before reaching the top spot in 1979. When Lt. Governor Carroll Gartin, considered the leading candidate for governor, died prior to the 1967 campaign, I wrote my friend and urged (demanded) he announce his intention to run for governor. I don’t know if that influenced his decision but he hedged for a while. He ran. He got beat by John Bell Williams in an atmosphere not much different than I perceive today. Will and Elise Winter stayed in our Fulton home overnight as they campaigned in this area. The last time I saw him at the Lee County Library he wanted to know how his ‘motel’ operator was doing. An episode that I think helps sums up William Winter is an incident I recall when he was campaigning for governor in the summer of 1967. We went to Hunter’s Restaurant in Tupelo kind of late at night to get a sandwich. Sue Hunter stayed open a little later than some of the places. Sitting in a booth with Winter, I introduced Sue to him. Her reaction as I recall was this. “Oh, Mr. Winter. I’ve heard you’re an honest man,” she exclaimed. “How can you be an honest man and a politician, too?” Winter calmly laughed as he retorted. “I guess you might say I’m as honest as the times and circumstance allow.” We all laughed. On my wall of memories in my home where some meaningful events are memorialized I have a picture made in the State Capitol after I went there as Representative. It is of Governor Winter and me on the spring day of 2003 when the widow of Medgar Evers, Myrlie Evers Williams, was being honored. Winter was going to the Senate Pro Tem’s office. I said, “Governor, let me walk with you. I walked with you when it was not nearly as popular as it is now.” “You’re right Bill,” he remarked. “We could have got shot then.” A few years later when I asked him if he’d read my manuscript for “Scribe Among Pharisees” with the idea of writing the foreword, he quickly said, “Of course. You know I will, Bill.” He did. A lot of us imagined William F. Winter in a comparison to David fighting Goliath and the Philistines in a battle for righteousness.

Bill can be reached at bill.t.miles@gmail.com

Bill Miles of Fulton is a former member of the Mississippi House and former chair of the House Transportation Committee. Before running for office, Miles worked as a political consultant for several north Mississippi politicians, including former Transportation Commissioner Zack Stewart. He is also a long time friend of Jim and Linda Clark.

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