Thursday, February 10, 2005

Fielder’s Choice
By Barry Burleson

Convention highlights

Haley Barbour got roasted Saturday night, and then Mississippi’s Governor did a bit of roasting himself.

The Mississippi Press Association held its annual roast at the Jackson Hilton. Barbour was the honoree. Proceeds go to MPA’s Education Foundation, which funds scholarships, internships and grants to benefit journalism students in Mississippi.

It was an honor for me to be on the program and get to welcome the approximately 250 guests who attended.

The Roast always includes lots of good fun for a good cause. There has been a time or two when it has almost gotten out of hand, due to some of the roasters.

There were plenty of laughs this time around – most focused on the defunct, state-backed Mississippi Beef Processors plant. The plant, in Oakland, closed three months after opening and cost state taxpayers $54 million.

It was auctioned off to the high bidder Friday morning of last week. Community Bank won it for $8.6 million.

There were plenty of beef jokes during the Roast.

Roastmaster was Sid Salter, perspective editor of The Clarion-Ledger. Sid always does a masterful job. He should have been a standup comic.

Roasters were Phil Bryant, state auditor; Marshall Ramsey, editorial cartoonist with The Clarion-Ledger; and Steve Holland, state representative from Plantersville. All three kept us laughing. A surprise roaster was the First Lady, Marsha Barbour.

Former state Attorney General Mike Moore’s name surfaced many times during the roasting. It stems from the Partnership for a Healthy Mississippi, which is under fire by state leaders, including Governor Barbour, looking for ways to stem an out-of-control Medicaid budget. The Division of Medicaid has announced its intent to file suit to recover an annual $20 million in annual state tobacco funds from the Partnership. Moore formed the Partnership in 1998 with tobacco settlement money.

There were several packs of cigarettes being passed around Saturday night — all in fun, of course.

Governor Barbour got the opportunity at the end to roast the roastees in return. He was taking notes throughout the night. And he fired back well. He had the audience laughing perhaps more than the roastees.

It was a very successful evening. Most importantly, about $16,500 was raised for MPA’s Education Foundation, which will be of great assistance to future journalists.

It was also good to see some Marshall Countians enjoying the Roast – Sheriff Kenny Dickerson, J.M. “Flick” Ash, County Administrator Larry Hall and Ken Stice.

Another highlight of the Mid-Winter Conference for me personally was getting the opportunity on Friday morning to introduce guest speaker Tommy Hamill, former hostage in Iraq. The Macon resident talked about his capture, the treatment he received while being held hostage and his escape.

Hamill was raised on a farm in Noxubee County. At a young age, he learned to drive a truck, and in common with many American family farmers, worked at multiple jobs to augment his family’s income. Hamill made long-distance runs hauling freight while continuing to manage his herd of dairy cattle. In 2003 he went abroad to support his country’s fight for freedom in Iraq, and to earn enough money to save his farm. His life revolves around his reverence for God and family.

He also had copies of his book, “Escape In Iraq - The Thomas Hamill Story,” available for sale and signed copies for purchasers. His inspiring story is one of danger, courage, faith and family.

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