Harrison County

Mitchell Salloum enjoyed helping others — especially if no one knew

Mitch Solloum, right, served for many years as the president of the Coliseum Commission. He didn’t like to have his picture taken and often gave money to those in need, but didn’t want any public acknowledgment of those gifts.
Mitch Solloum, right, served for many years as the president of the Coliseum Commission. He didn’t like to have his picture taken and often gave money to those in need, but didn’t want any public acknowledgment of those gifts. meperez@sunherald.com

A person can be part of a community for a long time and his accomplishments not really be known, and that was the case of Mitchell Salloum, 82, who died Sunday in Gulfport.

People know him as the longtime owner of M. Salloum Toggery in downtown Gulfport, and of the Best Western Beach View Inn that was lost during 2005’s Hurricane Katrina.

What they might not know is he played on the first championship basketball team for Gulfport High and he helped finance construction of one of the finest collegiate tennis facilities in the nation at his alma mater, Ole Miss.

He wasn’t tall, but he was scrappy as a point guard on the Gulfport Commodores 1951 basketball team. “Winning the school’s first basketball championship was an exhilarating feeling,” he told the Sun Herald at his 50th class reunion.

Basketball wasn’t his best game. That was tennis, and Salloum was a champion on the Gulfport team, said his brother-in-law Ron Werby. He also played on the tennis team at Ole Miss while maintaining mostly A’s in his classes, and won the Fort Hood base tennis championship during his two years in the U.S. Army.

Salloum, a 1955 graduate of Ole Miss, and John Palmer, a 1956 alumnus and prominent Jackson businessman, were benefactors for the University of Mississippi’s Palmer/Salloum Tennis Center at the campus.

“They were at Ole Miss together and both of them were athletes,” Werby said. The facility was built in honor of Salloum’s father, Mitchell Salloum Sr., a 1926 law graduate of Ole Miss.

The family persevered through many hard times, opening their first mercantile business in Gulfport in 1906. The Toggery opened in the Durham building right at the start of the Depression and when fire destroyed it, the family moved across the street.

“I have had so many people say without the Salloums they wouldn’t have made it,” Werby said. During the Depression and war years, he said, the family would let their customers buy clothing and shoes on credit and repay them when they could. Mitch Salloum carried on the tradition of helping the community.

“Nobody knows about the things he did,” Werby said. “I would like the Coast to know the real Mitch.”

Most of those things were behind the scenes, Werby said, such as buying appliances for people who were down on their luck and campaigning for casinos to be legalized in Mississippi. “He knew what it would do for the Coast,” Werby said.

When Katrina hit, Salloum was living at Sands Apartments he owned at the beach. He lost the apartment and the complex, his family home on the beach and the Best Western. He was a partner in Hardy Court Shopping Center, and that was badly damaged.

He also was a partner in Salloum Properties, was a founding director of Merchants Bank and Trust Company of Gulfport, and served on its board of directors until it was sold to Whitney Bank. He was on the board of Memorial Hospital at Gulfport for 17 years.

“He served on the Coliseum Commission 28 years,” said Matt McDonnell, executive director of the Coast Coliseum and Convention Center, who believes Salloum was the longest-serving commissioner in the Coliseum’s 40-year history.

McDonnell called him “very colorful, extremely intelligent and understanding of the basic principles of how to do business correctly.” He was fiscally cautious, he said. “He never let us get in too deep or over our heads.”

Walter Blessey serves on the Coliseum Commission and said Salloum was a very dear friend. “The Coast and the state have lost an icon,” he said. “He was very tuned in to tourism and the hospitality industry” and was very prudent with how he spent public money.

“He served with great distinction,” said Bill Holmes, former Coliseum executive director. “He brought humor and intellect to the meetings,” Holmes said, and recalled how Salloum twirled his finger in the air when the agenda wasn’t moving fast enough for him.

“I’ve seen him take care of people in need,” Holmes said. “He was just an all-around great guy — not a good guy, a great guy. He had a great life.”

Funeral services will be at 11:30 a.m. Wednesday at St. James Catholic Church, Gulfport, with visitation two hours before Mass.