Former students fondly recall USM professor Gene Wiggins

SUN HERALDFebruary 22, 2013 

Southern Miss alumni took time Friday to remember Dr. Gene Wiggins, a longtime journalism professor remembered for his wit and knowledge of media law.

Here are a few recollections from Sun Herald staffers:

Dr. Wiggins had a great sense of humor, and he was a good sport. He was short, something he liked to joke about.

The year I graduated from journalism school, I went to a funky shop downtown and bought him the most hideous pair of platform shoes. They were lace-up denim men's shoes, with high, chunky white heels. We presented them to him at our graduation banquet. During Hurricane Katrina, I lost the 8-by-10 glossy of him grinning in those platform shoes.

Make no mistake, though, when it came to journalism, Dr. Wiggins took seriously his responsibility to teach the highest ethics and standards. He did not back down from a story. I had written something that aroused the administration's ire. Dr. Wiggins got a call from the president. We were just reporting the truth, he told me, and I shouldn't worry about it. He continued to back us on the coverage.

Everyone dreaded the course work in his Law of the Press class, but he made it bearable. He always came up with a spicy or amusing anecdote to illustrate those legal cases. We spent a good bit of time laughing in that class.

-- Anita Lee, Class of 1978

Dr. Gene Wiggins was an excellent teacher, and I was fortunate enough to take advanced reporting and media law courses from him.

I enjoyed hearing his stories of covering the 1966 Candlestick Park F5 tornado when he was a reporter for a Jackson newspaper, especially since as a child I survived the tornado as my home had been only a few blocks from the Candlestick Park shopping center where the tornado first touched down and killed 12 people before wreaking havoc through parts of Mississippi and Alabama.

Wiggins' media law course was thorough and all the journalism students knew they would have to do a lot of work for that course. It was well worth it, though, and he was always interesting and entertaining in presenting lectures and course material. The lessons he taught me and countless other students in that class over the years have served me well in my journalism career and for that I will forever be grateful.

-- Scott Hawkins, Class of 1992

I remember in my undergraduate days in the middle of a press law lecture, the lights went out. It was totally dark. Without missing a beat, he said, "That's all right, I've got it memorized." And he kept going. Believe it or not, my notes were legible.

-- Mike Lacy, Class of 1978

I had him for my last journalism course during my last semester of college. It was that dry media law course everyone tries to put off, so naturally I was uninterested in the material. However, Dr. Gene Wiggins was one of those professors that made a not-so-fun course tolerable. His been-there/seen-it-all mentality along with his gentle and teasing "old soul" sense of humor gave to his traditional lecture and storytelling type teaching style that would draw you in, case by case, controversy by controversy. He made you wish you had grown up with him as your grandpa, sitting at a table and listening to his stories as he kept his coffee mug filled.

-- Leighanne Lockhart, Class of 2012

I was a 1983 Journalism graduate from Southern and had Dr. Wiggins for Mass Comm Law, Advanced Reporting and Newspaper Layout and Design. I also had him for numerous graduate classes for my master's in Mass Comm and my Ph.D. (on which I am currently finished with all but the dissertation).

Dr. Wiggins was always my inspiration in going further in my education and career. He kept up with everyone. He stayed in touch with me and my husband Tim and always wanted updated pictures of our son Patrick. Dr. Wiggins was family -- not by birth, but by choice.

One of my favorite Wiggins stories was from my senior year of undergrad. At the Student Printz that year, we decided we wanted to have some fun for April Fool's Day and so we did an April Fool's edition of the Printz. One of the A-1 stories was one on Wiggins being selected to play E.T. in a sequel. We "quoted" Steven Spielberg as saying that he admired Wiggins' acting chops, but frankly, it took quite a lot to "find someone who could fit in the suit." Wiggins really loved it. He knew that all the "too tall" jokes were done in love. Turns out that later on, Wiggins confessed to me that he got a phone call from WDAM wanting comment on the E.T. story. The caller had actually bought the ridiculous yarn.

That was the topper for a really good joke.

We kept the E.T. joke going for the remainder of the semester. At the Sigma Delta Chi banquet that year, we presented Wiggins with a special award for which the prize was a small pair of boy's E.T. pajamas and some Reece's Pieces.

At the same banquet, we sang a song we'd composed for him to the tune of Toni Basil's "Hey Mickey." Our's began, "Hey Wiggy you're so fine, you're so fine we failed Design, Hey Wiggy, Hey Wiggy!" I wish like heck I could remember the rest. It was pretty funny. We dressed like cheerleaders and made pompoms out of newsprint.

How many people would repeatedly make fools of themselves for a person?

-- Judy Day Isbell, Class of '83, '93

Dr. Wiggins' Communications Law class was one of the toughest but yet one of my favorite journalism classes at Southern Miss. He quickly became one of my favorite professors and friend. Upon my graduation, Dr. Wiggins kept in touch with his former students. We were more like his kids than students. I can remember the pride he had in me as my career flourished at the Sun Herald and upon the publication of my books. When I was inducted in the USM Mass Communication Hall of Fame, Dr. Wiggins was one of the first to congratulate and poke fun at me.

Dr. Wiggins was short and always was the subject of good natured jokes. Dr. Wiggins participated in the Class of '83 journalism picnic at Paul B. Johnson State Park. We had a series of volleyball games and set up the court on a slope. Since the court was uneven, we put Dr. Wiggins on the hill. He took great pride in spiking all of the taller graduates.

Of course, we were not really jumping that high. All of us were having too good a time watching Dr. Wiggins having a good time. We gave him the nickname Gene "Too Tall" Wiggins.

I've been covering USM football for over 30 years. One of the reasons I enjoyed covering the games is it gave me the chance to visit with Dr. Wiggins in the press box. He always wanted to see the latest picture of Patrick and told me to send his best wishes to my better half, Judy. Dr. Wiggins was a joy to be around and will be missed.

-- Tim Isbell, Class of 1983

I only had Dr. Wiggins once as a Media Law and Ethics professor in the fall of 2011 as a Monday night class. It was only offered then, so there were about 150 close-knit journalism majors who crowded the auditorium to hear Dr. Wiggins' lectures. Dr. Wiggins knew that Media Law and Ethics wasn't the most interesting subject in the world, so he always stopped and told us jokes and personal stories from his past. Around 20 of us created a Facebook group to message each other during class and recite his jokes and shenanigans to each other. Dr. Wiggins will be extremely missed by the Mass Communications and Journalism department at Southern Miss.

-- Justin Mitchell, Class of 2012

He was a teacher who understood his students. His sense of humor always helped us understand his lessons. He was a great educator who will always be remembered.

-- Ravin Floyd, Class of 2012

Every college student, if they're lucky, has one professor who ignites in them a passion to learn and excel. For me, that was USM journalism professor Gene Wiggins. Dr. Wiggins was tough and insightful. He had a keen eye for what we were capable of, and then pushed us to go beyond that. We learned to never cut corners or do anything halfway, because Dr. Wiggins would spot it in a heartbeat and we never wanted to let him down. As much as he taught us about journalism, we learned more from him about life. His wry sense of humor enabled him to correct someone kindly or convert others to his point of view before they'd even realized what happened. He was generous and self-effacing and his tender relationship with his dear wife Linda set the bar so high for the rest of us. Dr. Wiggins is not gone, because we, his students, all carry forward a piece of what he taught us in all we do. Rest in peace, Dr. Wiggins!

-- Kathleen Koch, Class of 1981

I was walking to the student union past Southern Hall to pick up my cap and gown the day before graduation in May 1996. Dr. Wiggins had just come out of his office and walked out onto the sidewalk. He shook my hand and congratulated me and said, "I'll be in the crowd yelling my head off when they call your name tomorrow night." He really loved his job and all of the students that passed through the journalism program at Southern Miss.

-- Arthur Jaramillo, Class of 1996

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