College of Liberal Arts

University of Mississippi

Retiring Professor’s Love of Chemistry Started With a Blue Potato

“Of course, potatoes are starchy, and when you put iodine on them, the chemical reaction causes them to turn a deep shade of blue,” said Scott, who recently retired from the University of Mississippi’s chemistry faculty. In fact, Scott was so excited about the experiment that his father once returned home to find a perfectly good 5-pound sack of potatoes cut open, blue – and useless.

Scott recently left the lab for good after more than 30 years of teaching chemistry at the collegiate level, including the past 24 years at UM. During that time, he won the admiration and respect of faculty and students alike, including being chosen for the Cora Lee Graham Outstanding Teacher of Freshmen Award in the College of Liberal Arts. Through it all, he maintained a balance between his easygoing affable demeanor and high academic standards.

The academic career path for Scott was almost the proverbial road not taken. The Indianola native earned a bachelor’s degree in chemistry from Rust College in 1966, followed by a master’s in chemistry from the University of Iowa in 1968. From there, he was hired as a chemist at Sheller-Globe Corp., where he quickly rose to chief chemist for research and development.

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But with a career in corporate chemistry laid out in front of him, his life changed with a single phone call – this one from a former teacher at Rust College. She remembered a speech Scott gave as an undergrad, in which he passionately promoted interdisciplinary education, particularly in the sciences. Rust was launching a program based on that principle, and she wanted him to come back to teach in it. To Scott, the offer was an experiment in itself.

“I’d made up my mind that I wasn’t going to teach,” Scott said. “But I also didn’t want to look up at 60 years old and look back and feel like I’d missed my calling. So when I came back to Rust, I still wasn’t committed to being a teacher. I was committed to giving it a try.”

The experiment was a success. Scott taught at Rust College from 1970 to 1978, then spent six years working for Mississippi State Highway Commissioner Bobby Richardson. He returned to Rust in 1984. By then, he had his sights set on a doctoral degree, and he applied to UM. Given his experience as a teacher, he was soon hired as an instructor of chemistry by then-department chair Andrew Stefani.

“He entered our Doctor of Arts program and rose through the ranks to associate professor for his good work,” said Hussey, who had joined the UM faculty himself in 1978. “He always took care of business – Parents Day, transfer orientations and advising for undecided students. Bill was a great departmental citizen with a strong commitment to the institution.”

Scott was awarded his doctoral degree from UM in 1992 and would go on to become the university’s first black tenure-track professor of chemistry. Through it all, he built a close professional relationship with his colleagues.

“We ate together a lot,” Scott said, again with his trademark chuckle, which became familiar around campus. “We celebrated everything over a snack or a meal of some sort, and built a sense of camaraderie and fellowship. We didn’t mind asking each other for suggestions or ideas because we’d broken bread together.”

Over the years, Scott maintained his home in Holly Springs, where he was active in the community and church, serving as a scoutmaster for the Boy Scouts of America and in various leadership positions in the local and statewide United Methodist Church. In 1985, he narrowly lost an election bid to become Holly Springs’ first black alderman-at-large.

“He’s my buddy,” said Hussey, who not only recognizes and appreciates Scott’s dedicated work as an educator but also his leadership in the United Methodist Church, of which they are both members. “We come out of the same generation and lived through some difficult times together. As we got to know one another, we saw we had a lot of common ground. I’ll really miss him here.”

Next on Scott’s post-retirement agenda: Assorted home improvement projects and after a year or so off, he said he might teach a class or two at his alma mater, Rust College. “Other than that, it’s fishing,” he said.

As for the overall experiment that’s been about 30 years in the making, Scott has this to report:

“I would have missed my calling had I not chosen to teach. In industry, your job is somehow linked to the bottom line. One thing about being in higher education is that you get to be both a scientist and a teacher. You get to expose students to knowledge, then go into the laboratory and see if you can discover some new knowledge that you can expose more students to down the road. Teaching and research feed off of each other. I made the right call.”