David Sansing, esteemed historian, who lived a most wonderful life and knew it

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David Rae Morris

Dr. David Sansing (left) with Willie Morris in the old south end zone bleachers at Vaught-Hemingway Stadium at an Ole Miss football game in the early 1990s. Dean and Larry Wells are sitting in the row behind them.

Professor David G. Sansing, who died July 6 at age 86, surely will be remembered as one of the state’s most respected and prolific historians. He dearly loved Mississippi and its history, and he wrote eloquently and often on the subject.

But that’s not how the late Willie Morris, the splendid Mississippi author, introduced Sansing to me back in the early 1980s.

“Rickey, this is Professor David Sansing, the eminent historian who teaches here at Ole Miss,” Willie said, his eyes already twinkling at his next line. “But more importantly, Dr. Sansing is the Emperor of the South End Zone.”

This was back when the south end zone at Vaught-Hemingway Stadium was nothing more than bleachers. This was before all the concrete, glass and the luxury suites, back when a eclectic cluster of writers, professors, bookstore owners, bartenders, bohemians and occasional famous visitors would gather to cheer the Ole Miss Rebels. They called themselves the South End Zone Rowdies. Sansing, a highly respected faculty member, could have sat on the 50-yard line. He and his wife, Lib, preferred the end zone.

Rick Cleveland

One Friday night, all end zoners gathered at the now-gone-but-never-forgotten Hoka theatre and restaurant for a pep rally for the next day’s game. They decided to elect officers. Sansing, beloved by all, was elected president, unanimously. Sansing’s first (and perhaps only) official act was to declare himself emperor. And he was. For life.

But Sansing was so much more. He was a kind, courtly gentleman. He was a scholar, a teacher, an author (of text books and history books), an orator, an encourager, and an avid listener. He was a family man, so proud of his children and grandchildren, all graduates of Ole Miss. He was an inveterate sports fan who approached games with a child-like glee. His Rebels might be 21-point underdogs to mighty Alabama, but, for Sansing, the possibilities were endless.

Yes, he had an optimistic view of sports. But then, he also had an optimistic view of life. He even had an optimistic view of Mississippi.

His last book – “The Other Mississippi” – was about our state’s better nature, the one the rest of the world rarely hears or reads about.

“Many may remember the anxiety and the fear of disorder that preceded the massive public school integration in Mississippi in the spring of 1970,” Sansing wrote. “Public school teachers, the foot soldiers in the army of The Other Mississippi, made that transition successful. But few are aware that black football players like Walter Payton helped make that transition safe and acceptable.”

Later, he writes, “To recognize The Other Mississippi is to declare that in Mississippi’s darkest hours all were not racists; all were not bigots; all did not condone injustice. It is to recognize that some whites and many blacks stood up and called out injustice and prejudice. And many of them, like Medgar Evers and Vernon Dahmer, and Clyde Kennard and Fannie Lou Hamer, gave their last full measure to the cause of justice and freedom and human dignity.”

The late David G. Sansing, Mississippi historian, speaking at Ole Miss.

Sansing was not so optimistic to believe The Other Mississippi has prevailed. But, he wrote, “The struggle against injustice and ignorance and poverty may never be over. So, the true goal then may not be to win the battle, but to never quit the struggle.”

Malcolm White, executive director of the Mississippi Arts Commission, knew Sansing when White was a young boy growing up in Perkinston, where his father was the football coach and the administrator of what has become Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College. White’s daddy, Harold White, hired Sansing to teach history.

Rogelio V. Solis, AP

Malcolm White

“I grew up with his family,” White said. “He and my dad were good friends. I knew him as a kind and thoughtful guy. And I will never forget this: We, both our families, would drive out to Highway 49 in two cars to a hill just south of Perkinston on Saturdays, and, there, only right there on that hill, we could pick up the signal for the Ole Miss football games. We’d just sit there and listen. Back then, Ole Miss nearly always won.”

And that is the way Sansing always preferred it. Although he held degrees from Mississippi College and Southern Miss, Sansing, a Greenville native, dearly loved Ole Miss. While teaching at Perkinston, he earned his Ph.D at Southern Miss. In 1970, Sansing sought a teaching job at Ole Miss and was hired. There, in Oxford, he found his home. Among the several books he has authored is “The University of Mississippi: A Sesquicentennial History” – the definitive history of Ole Miss.

Square Books

Richard Howorth

One of Sansing’s early students at Ole Miss was Richard Howorth, owner of Square Books, and formerly mayor of Oxford and former chairman of Tennessee Valley Authority. Howorth, an English major, took Sansing’s Mississippi history class as an elective when he was a senior on the advice of a friend who told him, “You can’t leave Ole Miss without taking this class.”

Howorth found out why.

“I learned so much,” Howorth said. “David was so engaging, so enthusiastic about what he taught. And I remember that he invited students to come visit him in his office for a one-on-one conversation. I took him up on it and I remember him looking me in the eyes and saying, ‘You are a person who could make a difference in Mississippi.’”

Howorth thought he was special, and then he learned Sansing did that with most – if not all – his students.

Sansing officially retired from Ole Miss in 1994. He began writing its history immediately afterward. He never quit working or writing. He wrote three books in his last five years of life between the ages of 81 and 85.

Oxford publisher Neil White (The Nautilus Publishing Company), author of the acclaimed “Sanctuary of Outcasts,” published Sansing’s last three books. Naturally, Neil White and Sansing became close friends.

Neil White

Said Neil White: “It’s a cliché, now, to say a death is like ‘a library burning down,’ but in the case of David Sansing, it’s true. No one knew more about Mississippi history, its characters, and the stories that comprised the complex narrative of this strange state.”

Neil White continued, “David gave us all an example of how to live. His enthusiasm was unabashed, childlike in the very best way, until the very end. … He was a rare combination of a great writer who understood the importance of candor and drama, but also understood the human heart. He told the truth about our controversial historic figures, while at the same time considering the feelings of their children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren.”

Nautilus Publishing

David Sansing, shown here signing his book “Mississippi Governors: Soldiers Statesmen Scholars Scoundrels” in 2016.

To have known Sansing is to imagine him struggling with writing Mississippi history about Theodore Bilbo or Ross Barnett, while worrying about how it would make their descendants feel.

Sansing, a former divinity student, took the Golden Rule to heart. He treated others how he would want others to treat him. And he certainly would not have wanted his grandchildren and great-grandchildren to read about him in a negative light.

Sansing doted on his grandchildren – all five of them. Lizzie Sansing Eaves, son Perry’s daughter and the youngest of the grandchildren, was married on June 29, a week before her grandfather’s death.

So it was that David Sansing was with all his family and so many close friends – all together for a happy occasion – just days before he died. “Mom and Dad danced with all the rest of us, we were all so blessed,” Perry Sansing, Ole Miss special assistant to the Chancellor for governmental affairs, said.

David Sansing knew he was blessed.

In an interview last August, Sansing told former Ole Miss staffer Bonnie Brown, “I am of all men most fortunate. Good Lord, how lucky I am. I am probably the happiest, most content human being in the world. And I am fortunate to know that.”

A memorial service will be held Wednesday, July 10, 2019, at 4:00 p.m. at Paris Yates Chapel, University of Mississippi, with Rev. Don Gann officiating. Visitation will be Tuesday, July 9, 2019, from 4-6:00 p.m. in West Hall at Waller Funeral Home. A private graveside service will be held in Oxford Memorial Cemetery.