John Dickerson, a Columbus native who instilled character in an untold number of young people and who also played a quiet, but important, role in integration during a historic career as an educator and coach, died Monday.
He was 86.
“You’re talking about a class individual in John,” Billy Brewer, who coached alongside Dickerson at Lee High School in the early 1970s, told The Dispatch on Tuesday. “A fine guy who came from a fine family.”
In addition to Lee High School, Dickerson coached at Hunt High School, at Amory High School and at what is now Mississippi Valley State University. At each stop, success followed.
At Hunt High School the football team under his guidance compiled a 27-2-1 record. He also coached baseball. That team won two Little Six Conference Championships. He once led the football team in Amory to a 22-game winning streak.
Before all that, though, Dickerson was the son of a Memphis Town grocery store owner. He fell in love with athletics at an early age. When the Mississippi Senate passed a resolution honoring Dickerson in 2005, it was noted that as a small child “he could always be found in any place allowing him running space and a space to huddle.”
Dickerson graduated from the now-defunct Mississippi Industrial College in Holly Springs, where he lettered in baseball and football. Then the cherub-faced young man with a hoarse voice began his coaching career.
In the 1960s, while coaching football at Hunt High School, he had a young defensive end on the team named Robert Smith. Smith, who is now the mayor of Columbus, sat in City Hall on Tuesday morning and credited his old coach with “everything.”
“He is the reason I am sitting where I am today,” the mayor said of Dickerson, who encouraged Smith to stick with football.
“Without football, I would have never gone to college,” Smith said, explaining that money was tight in his household.
Each fall evening after football practice, Dickerson gave Smith a ride home.
Thomas Lee, a Columbus funeral home owner today, played against Dickerson’s Amory teams in the early 1960s.
“We all looked up to him,” he said. “He demanded respect.”
Lee remembers him always being interested in helping the younger generation. It was a passion that did not waver with age. In recent years, after Dickerson had retired and his beard had gone white, he would attend Columbus High School football practices.
While former players and opponents remember Dickerson’s success and driving personality, Brewer, who later served as head football coach at Ole Miss, credited his old colleague with quietly helping lead the Columbus community through what could have been a tough time.
In the summer of 1970, when Columbus schools came under forced integration, Hunt High School merged with Lee High School. Dickerson, who had been coaching at the predominantly black Hunt High School, joined Brewer’s football coaching staff at Lee High School.
Dickerson brought his players from Hunt High School over and they joined Brewer’s. No internal problems emerged from the situation.
“It was a smooth transition,” Brewer said. “And that was because of the kids he coached and taught at Hunt. They made a tremendous contribution to athletics in Columbus.”
That year, the Lee High School football team went 9-0. The trophy from the season sits in City Hall.
William Browning was managing editor for The Dispatch until June 2016.