Storyteller and mentor: McDavid to retire after three decades at MSU

Long-time professor and veteran journalist Frances McDavid will retire from the Mississippi State University department of Communication after 30 years of teaching journalism courses and 20 years advising the Reflector, MSU’s campus newspaper. (Photo by Logan Kirkland, SDN)
Staff Writer

Frances McDavid first came to know newspapers by reading the Sunday comics as a young girl growing up in the Oktoc community. It would prove to be a lasting relationship.

At the end of the spring semester, McDavid will retire from the Mississippi State University Department of Communication after 30 years of teaching journalism courses and 20 years advising the Reflector, MSU’s student newspaper. McDavid has also worked in several newsrooms, including the Commercial Dispatch, the Columbia, Tennessee Daily Herald and the Starkville Daily News, where she covered Oktibbeha County government. She holds a bachelor’s in communication and a master’s in public policy and administration from MSU. Her final official day at the university will be May 15.

Her husband, Sammy, who has worked for MSU’s Office of Public Affairs since 1976, will also retire.

“My husband has worked at public affairs for several decades, and we have just both reached the age where we want some freedom to do some travel and just have some more time for ourselves,” McDavid said. “We’ve worked long and hard and just want to have some leisure time.”

While McDavid’s love for newspapers started with comics, it eventually grew to more serious subject matter as she matured. Still though, when she got to MSU in the early 1970’s, she was not quite sure what she wanted to study.

“I was flipping through the catalog one day, and saw that (journalism) was offered at State,” McDavid said. “I decided to go check that out and met with the instructor Henry Meyer, who was my mentor. I asked him if he thought I would be decent at it, and he encouraged me to go for it.”

McDavid graduated from MSU, and went through several newsrooms, covering Starkville for the Commercial Dispatch, where she had freelanced while attending MSU.

She returned to school for her master’s before coming to the Starkville Daily News as it Oktibbeha County reporter in 1982. She said the Starkville Daily had a strong family environment while she was working for the paper.

“I came to the Daily News on a temporary basis while I was looking for work, and I stayed at the Daily News until 1988,” McDavid said.

She recalled reporting on the county’s road funds, which she wrote a series of stories on.

“The county was considering going to the unit system of government, so I did a lot of digging into the records at the courthouse to see how the money was being spent to show the inequities between the districts. Shortly after that series ran, the county did vote to go to the unit system, which they still operate under.”

She came back to MSU to teach a few years after she became a mother, in search of a more predictable schedule than being a reporter offered.

“I took that job on a temporary, one-year basis also,” McDavid said. “That turned into 30 years, rather than the six at the Daily News. I had never envisioned teaching.”

She described her early years teaching, saying she did not know what she was doing at first. She also said her naturally-shy demeanor made it even more difficult. However, as she taught more, she became better at teaching, and discovered it was her calling.

She said one of her favorite assignments is taking her class to a Starkville Board of Aldermen meeting and requiring them to write a meeting story.

“That’s one of the things that I undertook immediately,” McDavid said. “It’s also one of the things that one of my first students said I should never let a class go by that did not experience that.”

McDavid has enjoyed seeing her students succeed, both in the journalism field and in other careers.

“It’s always rewarding some years later when you hear back from a student where they tell you what the work you did with them meant to them, and how it shaped them,” McDavid said. “You don’t see it on the front end, but when you start getting that acknowledgement several years later that you’ve had an effect on people’s lives, it makes you realize that you’re still having that impact on young people’s lives.”

She said she had taught her last class at MSU on Wednesday, April 25, which she recounted as being an experience she will remember.

“They started asking me questions about journalism and about advice and about life,” McDavid said. “It was just the perfect way to go out.”

Carl Smith, a MSU journalism alumnus and former Starkville Dispatch reporter now working for the MSU Research and Curriculum Unit, reminisced about his time as one of McDavid’s students.

He particularly remembered her ethics class and her advanced news writing class, which he said was the closest experience a student could get to being a reporter.

“Frances’ moral and ethical compasses were always true, and she always had a great way of letting my 20-something-year-old self know that maybe – just maybe – my limited worldview prevented me from fully seeing all sides of an issue,” Smith said.

Smith also recalled her leadership of The Reflector’s staff.

“No matter how personally-invested in an issue or impassioned about a topic, I learned quickly that Frances was always right, even when I didn’t want to admit it,” Smith said. “I’m grateful to be able to call her a mentor, and I’m lucky to be able to say she’s a friend.”

MSU Department of Communication Head John Forde discussed working with McDavid in the department.

“I’ve been department head for 14 years, and she’s been one of those I can always count on.” Forde said. “You know she’ll get things done correctly, and very supportive to me and the department, everybody in the department.”

Forde also discussed Mc- David’s role as head of the department’s scholarship committee. He said the department had approximately $30,000 in scholarship funds.

“Really that’s just continued to go up, and a lot of that I attribute to her because she has such a good relationship with so many of our donors,” Forde said. “She’s just a joy to work with, a joy to have around and just a very solid person.”

McDavid said even as the industry has changed with the advent of the internet and social media, journalism students have stayed pretty much the same. She said the main changes she has seen are in terminology, as well as a slight political shift.

She said she has factored changes to the industry into her curriculum.

“In the end, the basic fundamental reporting that journalists do is the same,” McDavid said. “The type of stories that people find appealing, the type of stories that are important to people, those are the same as they were 30 years ago.”