Jimmy Buffett, pictured at the bronze plaque honoring Buffett and Fingers Taylor in front the The Hub at Southern Miss. Credit: USM Communications

HATTIESBURG — Former Southern Miss president Martha Dunagin Saunders was a USM undergrad in the late 1960s at the same time as Pascagoula native Jimmy Buffett, the future billionaire singer-songwriter. The two were friends.

“My most vivid memory of Jimmy from those days is of coming out of night class, and seeing him racing across campus with a guitar over his shoulder, obviously running late to play a gig,” Saunders said Saturday, hours after learning of Buffett’s death. “All Jimmy wanted to do back then was play his music. He really had a passion for it.”

Rick Cleveland

Saunders, now the president of the University of West Florida in Pensacola, described a young Buffett as, “Crazy witty. Always smiling. Always funny. Always with a story.”

That wit and passion, along with a keen business acumen developed later in life, catapulted Buffett to remarkable fame and fortune. At the time of his death early Saturday, at age 76, he was ranked No. 18 on the Forbes’ list of the Richest Celebrities of All Time with a net worth of $1 billion.

Saturday, in Hattiesburg, news of Buffett’s death superseded even the anticipation of the Golden Eagles football opener with in-state rival Alcorn State. An announced crowd of just over 30,000 watched Southern Miss defeat Alcorn 40-14 and was serenaded with Buffett’s familiar ballads during timeouts throughout the night. A video tribute and moment of silence to honor Buffett preceded the opening kickoff. Thousands stood, swayed and sang his hit anthem “Margaritaville” during a timeout midway through the second quarter. Flowers were left at the base of a bronze marker in the center of campus where Buffett met fellow student and harmonica player Greg “Fingers” Taylor in front of The Hub where the two first played music together. Taylor was a long-time member of Buffett’s famed Coral Reefer Band.

Buffett was inducted into the USM Alumni Hall of Fame in 2018. Credit: USM Communications

“The Southern Miss family mourns the loss of our 1969 graduate, Jimmy Buffett, whose work ethic and global success exemplified Southern Miss grit,” current USM President Joe Paul said. “Our prayers go out to his family, friends and all who knew and loved him.”

Paul, as many, attended the game in a Hawaiian shirt, a paean to the island/beach lifestyle Buffett’s music celebrated and to his millions of followers often referred to as “parrot heads.”

Paul and Saunders weren’t the only presidents mourning Buffett’s death Saturday. President Joe Biden issued a statement: “Jill and I send our love to his wife of 46 years, Jane; to their children, Savannah, Sarah, and Cameron; to their grandchildren; and to the millions of fans who will continue to love him even as his ship now sails for new shores. We had the honor to meet and get to know Jimmy over the years and he was in life as he was performing on stage – full of goodwill and joy, using his gift to bring people together.”

Buffett once told a California reporter, “I’m not a great singer, and I’m not a great guitar player. But I’m a good entertainer.”

He was also a terrific story teller, stories he told not only in his songs but in books. Indeed, he is one of six authors to have topped both the New York Times fiction and non-fiction best seller lists. Three of the others: John Steinbeck, Ernest Hemingway and William Styron.

Buffett’s music often received harsh critical reviews because of its simplistic style and limited musical range. Buffett never made apologies and, in fact, received praise from the likes of Bob Dylan. Dylan once listed his six favorite songwriters: Buffett, Gordon Lightfoot, Warren Zevon, John Prine, Guy Clark and Randy Newman.

Dylan reportedly was particularly smitten by the lyrics to Buffet’s “He Went to Paris,” a ballad Buffett penned in the early 1970s after meeting musician Eddie Balchowsky, a one-armed veteran of the Spanish Civil War. Here’s the closing stanza:

Now he lives in the islands, fishes the pilin’s

And drinks his green label each day

He’s writing his memoirs and losing his hearing

But he don’t care what most people say

Through 86 years of perpetual motion

If he likes you he’ll smile then he’ll say

Jimmy, some of it’s magic, some of it’s tragic

But I had a good life all the way

Buffett’s family moved from Pascagoula to Mobile when he was young and he grew up in Alabama’s port city. He first attended Auburn University but flunked out, and then found his way to Pearl River Junior College in Poplarville – and from there to USM.

He was very much a non-traditional student, majoring in journalism, joining the Kappa Sigma fraternity but spending much of every week playing music in the New Orleans French Quarter 100 miles away. 

Petal photographer/author Vaughn Wilson was a student at Southern Miss two years behind Buffett and, like Buffett, a musician at the time. “Jimmy lived off campus in a house with about four or five other guys, and I was over there pretty much every night,” Wilson said. “When I walked into the house, Jimmy would point to his acoustic guitar standing in the corner and tell me, ‘Go have at it.’ I loved that guitar and he’d let me play it. He was just a good guy, a funny, fun-loving guy. He was just Jimmy then, before he was Jimmy Buffett. But he had that big ol’ smile that became so famous.

“He left Hattiesburg and I guess it was about four or five years later, I turned on the radio and heard him singing ‘Come Monday.’ The rest is history.”

Wilson says he never saw Buffett in person again. Saunders did.

“Jimmy and I graduated on the same day,” Saunders said Saturday, chuckling. “I went into academia and he became a legend.”

Jimmy Buffett, left, with Martha Saunders in 2010. Credit: USM Communications

Saunders served as USM president from 2007 to 2012 and brought Buffett back to campus several times. 

“I remember once he dropped in and it turned out we were both going to attend a New Orleans Saints game the next day,” Saunders said. “So he said, ‘Why don’t you just fly down with me?’ So my husband and I got on his fancy jet and flew to New Orleans. Jimmy was the pilot.”

Saunders said Buffett made it clear to her that although he originally attended Southern Miss because of its proximity to New Orleans, he very much enjoyed his college days in Hattiesburg. He was inducted into the USM Alumni Hall of Fame in 2018. 

“I have always thought that Jimmy is proof that heart will get you further than talent,” Saunders said. “If you want it and if you are passionate about it, that passion will take you a long, long way.

“Look at Jimmy. He brought so much joy to so many people. I was talking to a mutual friend this morning who said, ‘You can’t think of Jimmy Buffett and not smile, can you?’ It’s so true. I thought that was a perfect description. And how’s that for a legacy?”

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Rick Cleveland, a native of Hattiesburg and resident of Jackson, has been Mississippi Today’s sports columnist since 2016. A graduate of the University of Southern Mississippi with a bachelor’s in journalism, Rick has worked for the Monroe (La.) News Star World, Jackson Daily News and Clarion Ledger. He was sports editor of Hattiesburg American, executive director of the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame. His work as a syndicated columnist and celebrated sports writer has appeared in numerous magazines, periodicals and newspapers.
Rick has been recognized 13 times as Mississippi Sports Writer of the Year, and is recipient of multiple awards and honors for his reporting and writing.