Illustration by Laurie Luczak
Sam Haskell recently relocated from Los Angeles – where he spent more than 30 years rising through the ranks of the William Morris Agency to become worldwide head of television, representing entertainers from Ray Romano to Dolly Parton – to his beloved home state of Mississippi. He’s been chairman of the Miss America Organization since 2006 and continues to produce the annual pageant – that is, when he’s not on the road promoting his best-selling 2009 memoir, Promises I Made My Mother.
From the eight Stars Over Mississippi concerts he’s staged in his hometown of Amory to benefit the Mary Kirkpatrick Haskell Scholarship Foundation (established in memory of his mother), to the Mississippi Rising show he produced to raise money after Hurricane Katrina, Haskell and his wife, Mary, have collected more than $50 million for charity over the last 20 years.
Although he is not a Rotarian, Haskell has spoken to more than 20 Rotary clubs and is donating his personal proceeds from the sales of his memoir at those events to The Rotary Foundation. This spring, he was the keynote speaker at the Rotary Club of Atlanta, and he raised thousands of dollars for Parton’s Imagination Library in Blytheville, Ark., through the town’s Rotary club.
Haskell’s relationship with Rotary dates back to his senior year in high school, when he found himself in the running for the local Rotary Boy of the Year award.
From ages 10 to 13, I focused almost exclusively on what I could do to win my junior high school’s good citizenship award. I was certain it would be mine. I’d been student body president in the eighth grade, I played football, and I had become an Eagle Scout much earlier than any of my peers. I was courteous to all of my teachers, I made great grades, I went to church regularly, and I had won superior ratings at three college piano festivals. I was the perfect 13-year-old, and in my mind, the only choice for the Middle School Good Citizenship Boy of the Year.
To my horror, I didn’t win. I managed to hold my head high during the ceremony even though I was sick at heart, but afterward, I cried when I saw my mother, who comforted me and, wisely, counseled me to look forward.
The next year, at Amory High School, I set out to fix what had gone wrong – which (being honest with myself) I realized was my bravado and cockiness. Although I was a high achiever, running for school elective offices and leading clubs, for the next two years I lay low and worked on myself instead. I was 16 before I was elected to anything again.
By the time I was a senior, the pain of losing the good citizenship award was forgotten. I had been voted class president. I led many committees, was editor of the school paper, and was inducted into the National Honor Society. I had the leads in all the plays. I was starting lineman on the football team and a member of the tennis team. I was also a different person. I knew that this time, it had all happened because instead of working to win an award, I wanted my accomplishments to reflect greater humility and integrity.
One crucial motivator was my parents’ divorce. I was absolutely determined never to be the product of a broken home. My mother had taught me to focus on the positive, so I’d look in the mirror every day and say to myself: “I will not let this divorce get in the way of my goals. I will not let this depress me and turn me away from what I think is the right thing to do. I will not let this pull me out of the light and leave me standing in the shadows.”
I remained focused. I stayed in the church. I played sports. I studied and concentrated on my goals.
Every month during the school year in Monroe County, the Rotary Club of Amory named a Boy and Girl of the Month from among high school seniors. The choices were based on community service, scholarship, character, and leadership, and from those nine boys and nine girls, the club then chose the Boy and Girl of the Year.
I was named Rotary Boy of the Month at the start of my senior year in 1972. You couldn’t ask to be nominated; you couldn’t campaign. The selection panel had the names of all the seniors, complete with a rundown of their grade point averages, activities, community service, church affiliation, everything, and one day, the announcement was made over the school public address system: “The Rotary Boy and Girl of the Month are …”
I was in math class when my name was announced, and the kids applauded. Afterward, I started thinking I might have a chance to be Rotary Boy of the Year, but I didn’t focus on it the way I had on the good citizenship award. I was just who I was.
The big announcement was made at the end of the school year, at the annual Rotary dinner at the Amory Community Center. About 400 people attended, seated at two very long banquet tables, and the press was there. The winners got a $500 scholarship – back then, quite nice – and their name on a plaque, forever. A photo of the two honorees always appeared on the front page of the paper.
After dinner, the Girl of the Year was announced: Sheila Smith. She was the first African American girl to win, and sadly some people were appalled. I was thrilled for her, and applauding so loudly that some of the families – and their daughters who were in my class – cut their eyes at me. I said, “She deserves it. She’s great.” I ran into Sheila years later at one of our reunions, and she said, “It was such a big deal for me to have won that award, and I felt like you were one of my only school friends who was happy for me.”
As the Rotary club president started going through the boys’ names, my close friend Frank Page, who was sitting beside me, turned to me and said, “I think it’s gonna be you.”
When it was, my mother cried and cried. She’d been so nervous. She knew how devastated I’d been when I’d lost the award in the eighth grade. Then, I had talked nonstop about wanting to win; this time, hardly at all. But as we were leaving the house to go to the banquet, she’d said, “I really think you have a good chance to win this.”
My mother was no stranger to awards herself. She’d been her class valedictorian, had been in the Amory High School Hall of Fame, served as editor of the school paper, and won the Daughters of the American Revolution Good Citizenship Award. I wanted her to be proud of me, to feel that she’d been a successful parent. “Well, Mama,” I’d said, “if I win it, this time it’s not for me – it’s for you.”
I believe I won the Rotary award because I didn’t let the divorce affect me. I believe I won it because I was focused on being the best I could be, with no expectation of a reward for having done it.
A Rotarian friend of my mother’s came up after the banquet and said, “I don’t think we’ve ever had a more outstanding Rotary Boy of the Year.” My mother couldn’t stop crying. The honor may have been mine, the result of a change in myself that I’d worked on for four years. But in the end, it was also about how winning it in the right way honored my mother.