By: Sid Salter
Third-generation Mississippi newspaper publisher William Henry (Billy) Harris, Jr., 70, died March 1 at North Mississippi Medical Center in Tupelo. A chapter closes on a rather remarkable family’s contribution to print journalism in this state with his passing.
Billy was only seven years my senior, but he signed one of the first journalism paychecks I earned as a sportswriter for The Starkville Daily News in 1979. While I was a student at Mississippi State, that job introduced me to journalism, printing, and the business side of newspapers.
As a publisher, Billy was not given to anger or outbursts but was exceedingly level in temperament and martini-dry in his humor. He treated the staff fairly and well.
Billy Harris was the son of William Henry Harris, Sr., and the grandson of Edgar G. Harris. Grandfather Edgar Harris founded newspapers in both West Point and Laurel, Mississippi, and Blytheville, Arkansas. Edgar was a past president of the Mississippi Press Association and later the MPA Hall of Fame.
Billy’s father, Henry Harris, took the reins of the family publishing business in 1953 when Edgar Harris died. Through then-modern printing technologies and other innovations and his work ethic, Henry built the family business to include publishing newspapers at both West Point and Starkville, and his West Point plant printed newspapers for Louisville, Houston, Macon, Eupora, and Aberdeen in addition to the West Point and Starkville daily newspapers.
Henry Harris was a past president and Hall of Famer in the MPA. His brother, Sid Harris, was publisher of the weekly Houston Times Post and a past president of MPA. Billy’s sister, Marie Harris Lambeth, also served as president of MPA.
Perhaps most famously in the summer of 1955, Henry Harris hired a 21-year-old Jewish Harvard graduate from New York City named David Halberstam as the 4,000-circulation Daily Times Leader newspaper in West Point’s only news reporter. Less than a decade later, at age 30, Halberstam would win the 1964 Pulitzer Prize for distinguished international reporting of the early years of America’s insurgence into Vietnam for The New York Times.
But in 1955, after the promise of a job at a much larger Jackson, Mississippi newspaper fell through, Halberstam was steered to the Harris family newspaper in West Point. According to members of the Harris family and Halberstam’s accounts, there was culture shock on both sides of that transaction.
Halberstam recounted the tale of his first meeting with Mrs. Beulah Ligon Harris – Henry Harris’ mother and Billy’s grandmother, to author James Fallows of The Atlantic in 2019: “‘She often came in on Saturday afternoon to look around, to make sure that everything was in order, and, if nothing else, to wash the floors of the newsroom … She was a small, heavily powdered woman; she was fearfully hardworking and equally devoted to her Baptist faith.’”
“‘You’re David, aren’t you?’” she asked.
“‘I said I was. ‘I don’t think I’m ever going to learn your last name,’” she announced.
“‘I said that was all right.
“‘Then she smiled and said, “‘The Lord Jesus Christ sent you here.’”
“‘I, the descendant of many centuries of illustrious rabbis, a line only recently broken by two or three generations of American renegades, looked at her in stunned surprise. “‘Of course, He did,’” she said. “‘Why else would you be here?’”
“‘I could not argue, and with that, we became friends.’”
Years later, I met David Halberstam in Willie Morris’ Faculty Row bungalow in Oxford. He was a wise and formidable man who admired, appreciated and understood both Willie and Mississippi – but I suspect that understanding was born and significantly nurtured by Halberstam’s time with the Harris family in West Point.