When in Starkville, avoid anything to do with flowers or trees

Published 12:00 am Sunday, October 26, 2008

Johnny Cash, so far, is the only famous person to have done jail time related to vegetation and Oktibbeha County.

That isn’t likely to change, but it could.

By design or coincidence, plants seem to be at the center of a lot of stuff that happens at the home of Mississippi State University. Perhaps that’s appropriate, given that what is now MSU was founded as the state’s agricultural and mechanical school.

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It was on May 11, 1965, that Cash — who went on to become a country music superstar — found himself in the drunk tank of what he later described in song as the Starkville City Jail. It was actually the Oktibbeha County Jail. Cash used his poetic license to change the name, perhaps because Oktibbeha, a Native American word meaning “bloody water,” wasn’t as easy to work into a lyric:

“Well, I left my motel room, down at the Starkville Motel, the town had gone to sleep and I was feelin’ fairly well.

“I strolled along the sidewalk ’neath the sweet magnolia trees; I was whistlin’, pickin’ flowers, swayin’ in the southern breeze.

“I found myself surrounded; one policeman said: ‘That’s him. Come along, wild flower child. Don’t you know that it’s 2 a.m.?’”

Cash, who later conceded being stoned, ends the song by saying he demanded his personal property when released the next day.  Police gave him one guitar pick — and one yellow dandelion.

In more recent times it was yellow daffodils that figured into the departure of a university president, Robert “Doc” Foglesong, with two years remaining on his initial four-year contract.

Whether the flowers were symptomatic or causative remains in debate, but Foglesong, whose epaulets bore four stars when he departed the Air Force for academia, was hailed as a four-star recruit when hired by the state College Board in 2006. After a hearty reception for the way he blossomed in the job — jogging with students, playing in a rock band and personally doing flyovers at home football games — the enchantment seemed to wear thin. The general was being generally generalistic — especially when questioned in February about the removal of the bulbs from campus beds.

The initial story was that the flowers would be replanted. Well, that didn’t wash with flora folk. Anyone who knows anything knows that narcissi are best moved when dormant — not while, as they were, in their spring bloom.

Challenged, Foglesong fired off imperious e-mails explaining he had tougher rows to hoe — such as faculty recruitment and salaries and trying to keep tuition in check and making sure students’ degrees were earned and respected. He dismissed a reporter’s question about the flowers with, “What’s a daffodil?”

And, by early March, the fighter pilot had his wings. He resigned, but offered to stay through June. The College Board said, “That’s OK.”

Foglesong’s flight from the daffodils landed veteran MSU administrator Vance Watson, well-liked and much respected, in the president’s office to serve an interim term while the College Board paid consultants to conduct yet another secret search.

A few weeks back, it became not-so-secret that state Auditor Stacey Pickering was questioning how it came to be that MSU funds paid for the purchase and planting of magnolias and other landscaping work — worth about $12,000 — at the private Rankin County residence of the commissioner of higher education.

Pickering’s report said the commissioner, Tom Meredith, asked Watson in 2007 — before Foglesong left this year — for referrals about soil testing and other yard work at his home. The report also said Meredith is in the clear because he asked for a bill and expected to pay when the work was done, even though no bill was sent or paid.

Last week, Pickering said $12,333 had been repaid to MSU by Watson, that the auditor’s role was complete and that, following the Legislature’s limitations on the power of state auditors, he would turn the file over to Oktibbeha prosecutors for their discretion in deciding whether to take the facts to a grand jury (criminal). Watson resigned from the university last week.

Meredith, who is paid $341,250 per year by the state plus a $25,000 housing allowance, says he was exonerated, but is calling it quits after 45 years in higher education. The College Board is indicating everything is cool and a new MSU president should be announced soon.

For the past two years, the incident with Johnny Cash has been the basis for a “Flower Pickin’ Festival” in Starkville. It’s been a fun time, including an official pardon of the performer. History, it seems, has redeemed the man best known for “Folsom Prison Blues.”

But others should be forewarned: Vegetation may be vegetation everywhere else. But in Oktibbeha County, fooling with plants and flowers can lead to unintended consequences.