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A Southern Fried Love Story

North Meets South

By Andy Knef

Andy and Wesla in San Francisco

 

The tale of how this Yankee writer arrived in Simpson County and Magee, Mississippi is a straight-forward love story. When I asked my new friend Sue, “The Prez,” for 1,500 words to introduce myself to her dynamic, growing online audience, I figured I could kill two birds and share something romantic with y’all for Valentine’s Day.

OK, killing birds may not strike you as romantic at first blush, but turkey hunters I’ve met down here beg to differ. Also, you may have guessed I didn’t always address my readers as “y’all”. I grew up mostly in the Northeast, the oldest son of a Naval aviator, which any carrier jockey will tell you counts as a much higher calling than being a mere “pilot.” Went to high school in Rhode Island and college in Boston and Vermont. I studied journalism in school, but I didn’t really learn the essentials of effective communication until I joined the Air Force in 1981. Those guys may be only pilots, but they do a great job teaching young men and women how to write, take photos, produce videos and interact with the news media.

Andy Knef and his Dad, retired Naval Avaiator Andy Knef Sr. at Point Pleasant Beach in New Jersey.

This is nice, you think, but where’s the love story? Maybe that part is not so straight forward. I promise I’ll get there. I served as an NCO in Air Force public affairs for eight years on active duty and another 14 in the Air National Guard based in St. Louis. During more than two decades in the Gateway City, I practiced my trade as a PR professional for one of the top healthcare organizations in the nation.

Which brings me to 2013, when my life headed south—literally. I was coming out of a tough divorce (aren’t they all?) and struggling professionally with the corporately correct blues. “Come to Mississippi,” beckoned my eldest son from his comfortable Oxford home. “It’ll be a simpler life, the folks down here are galactically gracious, the women are gorgeous and you can probably find a job at Ole Miss.” Yes, pretty women is what we writers call foreshadowing. Here comes my love story.

But first—all great love stories require a bit of delayed gratification. I moved from St. Louis with everything I owned in the back of my old red Ford Ranger. Found an apartment a few miles away from my son, daughter-in-law and three (have 11 total) precious grandchildren. Taught a writing class in the Ole Miss journalism school for three semesters while editing a news website called Hottytoddy.com and writing magazine articles for the nation’s leading trade publication for the pizzeria industry. Who knew Oxford was the center of the pizza universe!

And then one blindingly bright crisp Saturday afternoon in 2014 I was covering an Ole Miss football game for my website when the earth shifted under my feet. Actually, Ground Zero was the famous green grass and lush trees of The Grove on the Ole Miss campus. I was investigating the colorful histories of families who have operated tents in this party park Mecca for decades. As I snapped photos, I spotted a sleek, black lab with a pretty college-age blonde sporting a vintage Ole Miss number-86 football jersey. We chatted about the significance of Number 86 for a moment, and I was thrilled to learn this very jersey belonged to Wesley Sullivan, left end and kicker on the Rebels storied football teams of 1959-1962. The 1959, 1960 and 1962 squads were the last Ole Miss teams to win national championships. “For the complete story, you’ll have to follow me to my mother’s tent,” the young woman advised me.

As I approached the sea of red tents located on the Walk of Champions at the Mangum Way Corner (Named for All-American Kris Mangum of Magee), my distracted glance fixed on a striking woman of indiscriminate age. She had the same smooth, flawless skin of the girl I instantly recognized as her daughter. As we blandly traded niceties, I drank in everything about her in high-definition, bracing clarity: clear oval-shaped brown eyes, softly meandering blonde hair flowing elegantly about her shoulders. To say that I thought she was beautiful fails to capture the sense of sweet recognition that rose instantly from deep inside my soul. I knew that we had never met, but her familiar, reassuring presence captured, in my heart, the essence of coming home. Her warm, disarming smile caused me to lose my train of thought and mumble my questions incoherently at times. Am I describing love at first sight? Perhaps, but I wouldn’t be so presumptuous as to elevate those first lightning bolt moments to the same level of devotion that has bloomed steadily over our more than five years together. I know, it took a while to get to the good part and now I’m sprinting ahead of myself.

Back then, at The Grove in the fall of 2014, Wesla Sullivan told me that she was an attorney from Jackson. A mother of three, she added that she maintained this sacred Grove spot with her best friend attorney Helen Hall Kenwright of Grenada. Their purpose was to honor a family tradition that was inspired, originally, by the women’s daddies, now both passed. Wesley Sullivan, who died in 2007, was revered by his community and family, not just as an Ole Miss football star, but as a uniquely charismatic and respected father and businessman. He and his wife, Aleita, a trail-blazing attorney in her own right and former Mississippi State lead drum major, worked and raised their two daughters in Magee and Mendenhall. The Sullivan’s legacy of service made them larger-than-life Simpson County leaders.

I had the facts for my story, but I wasn’t ready to leave The Grove that fateful afternoon without the one piece of crucial information I wanted more than anything else. “Listen,” I said. “I can’t finish this story without a bit more information. Can I get your phone number to follow up on some of these facts?” Wesla’s endearing innocence led her to respond kindly, as always, without the slightest realization that this strange reporter was actually asking her for a date.

I called her on my iPhone less than one minute after leaving the Sullivan Grove site. “Helen, I think that reporter is asking me out,” she said, to her friend, turning momentarily from her conversation with me as they walked to Vaught-Hemingway Stadium for the game. My ulterior motive had broken like a wave on Gulf Shores Beach. Instead of advising her best friend, “tell him to get lost,” wonderful Helen smiled knowingly at Wesla, “It’s just a date. What can it hurt?”

We had our first date that night. I picked her up in my ridiculous old Ford Ranger and we went for steaks and the slightly awkward conversation that seasons most first dates. We tested our long-distance relationship for more than a year. The pressures of separation and of our widely incongruent backgrounds threatened to tear us apart. But I was determined. The Yankee, Roman Catholic, deli sandwich eating, former hippie, multiple married father of five never stopped fighting for his Simpson County Angus Queen, Ole Miss sorority sister, Presbyterian, butter bean loving, legal eagle soul mate.

Yes I said it! This is the culmination of our love story. Wesla is my soul mate, even if it took a lot longer and a lot more heartbreak than I expected for the Lord to bring her into my life. That’s why the Rascal Flatts song “Bless the Broken Road” is “Our (unofficial) Song.”

“This much I know is true

That God blessed the broken road

That led me straight to you”

I called myself a Yankee, but that’s only half true. Wesla and I were raised in different places, but we have a vital piece of family history working in our favor. My Dad, the Naval Aviator, Catholic and lunch-meat enthusiast, learned how to fly in Pensacola, Florida. Sixty six years ago he met my Prichard, Alabama-born Mom, the Baptist beauty queen, on Gulf Shores Beach, just three hours from the town we live in as I write this. We often talk about the God-driven similarities in the two love stories that always make us smile. My parents continue to smile together and cherish each other in their Lakewood, New Jersey home.

Today, any place Wesla lives seems like the beach, or Paris, to me. I moved to Jackson in 2017. We got married in the living room of our Jackson home surrounded by a wonderful preacher, four close friends and our only currently home-residing children—four dogs and two cats. With her Mama retired and living in Holly Springs, Wesla advances Aleita’s and Wesley’s legacy through her work as the practicing attorney of Sullivan Law in Mendenhall and School Board Attorney for Simpson County Schools. She also serves proudly as a Municipal Judge in Mendenhall and as a Youth Court Referee for Jefferson Davis County, where she routinely makes a difference in the lives of children and families in dire need of justice and compassion.

As for me, at age 60 I earned my teaching license in 2017. The last two years I taught at Murrah High School in Jackson and Magee Middle School. In November, 2019, we moved to the Paris of Mississippi: Magee. I’m having a ball writing for The MageeNews.com and substitute teaching at Simpson Academy. I wish all you love birds (Turkeys too) the most romantic Valentine’s Day possible, and I look forward to talking to you again through these online pages.

Hotty Toddy in the Grove @ Ole Miss

 

 

 

 

 

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