Story by By Michael Newsom – University of Mississippi
William Magee was a talented, bright young man who brought love and laughter to all who knew him, but in 2013, his life was tragically cut short by his struggle with addiction.
The Ole Miss alumnus’ story doesn’t end there, though, thanks to a grassroots outpouring of $2.7 million in his memory as part of a “collective prayer” by his friends and family to create a center to help those who struggle with addiction. On September 6th, the University of Mississippi held the grand opening for the William Magee Center for Wellness Education at the new South Campus Recreation Center.
David Magee first shared his son William’s story in August 2016, addressing incoming Ole Miss freshmen. It has been read online by more than a million people.
After that column, the Magee family made an inaugural gift that launched the fundraising campaign for wellness resources and support for Ole Miss students. Students, Greek organizations, alumni, companies and foundations followed with gifts to support the effort.
David Magee spoke at the dedication and said William told him just before he died that he wanted to help others who were struggling with addiction. He said he was moved by just how many have taken up William’s last cause.
“From the beginning, this was a grassroots movement involving so many students, alumni, faculty, staff, parents of students, friends of William’s and family of William’s and even people who did not even go to this university,” Magee said. “I am in awe of the power we all had to come together and create such a movement. It did not happen by accident.”
“From the Lyceum to City Hall, to fraternity houses to individuals on campus, all across this community we collectively said, ‘Lord, hear our prayer.’ It’s an amazing blessing to see that kind of collective prayer come together. It’s very powerful.”
William Magee ran track for Ole Miss, including competing in the SEC Championships, and made the SEC academic honor roll. He was an alumnus of the Sally McDonnell Barksdale Honors College and Croft Institute for International Studies.
He was shy and suffered from anxiety, using alcohol and drugs initially to help him fit in and be more comfortable in social situations. He planned to stop using once he graduated.
In his senior year, he realized his drug habit was out of control. He graduated and entered a rehabilitation facility. More than a year and several facilities later, he was making progress, working in Nashville and planning to attend law school.
He met friends from college to enjoy a concert after work one night and relapsed into drug use, which claimed his life in an accidental overdose. He was only 23 years old.
The South Campus Recreation Center was packed with his friends and loved ones. Many in the standing-room-only crowd could be seen choking back tears throughout the remarks.
The commitment to the effort for David and his wife, Kent, began with a walk the couple took one Sunday morning through Oxford and the Ole Miss campus. They talked about what level they wanted to use their son’s legacy to get the center built, and their level of commitment to it.
On the route, Kent Magee picked up a quarter and put it in her husband’s pocket. They went into Paris-Yates Chapel, where they prayed and meditated. On their way out of the chapel, Kent Magee took the quarter out as they approached the Phi Mu Fountain.
“She closed her eyes and she threw that quarter, and she said, ‘If it is meant to be, it is meant to be,” he said. “The second it hit the water in the fountain, the Paris-Yates Chapel bells erupted into this symphony of cascading bells ringing all around us.”
“I know those bells were on a timer; I guess it was about noon, but we had no idea what time it was. We were stunned. The hair on our arms stood up. We had tears of joy and we walked back home that day not talking much.”
“We were confident and focused and called to the work ahead.”
The campus community will continue to support the Magee Center to help it reach its full potential, Interim Chancellor Larry Sparks said. The university community looks forward to expanding its partnerships and seeing its growth from a university center, to a nationally recognized institute, he said.
“I am tremendously proud of what this facility means for our campus community and for the vision for the Magee Center, which is already serving students and becoming a foundation for a national model,” Sparks said. “I am excited to share that the university is already engaged in a long-term vision for the Magee Center to advance from a university center to a nationally prominent institute.”
Sparks thanked the IHL board for the approval to transition the center to a comprehensive, stand-alone institute that can become a national leader for alcohol and drug prevention.
The Magee Center’s mission is to promote well-informed, healthy choices and setting wellness as a goal, so that students work toward it in a positive, empowering, open and inclusive setting. The center provides multiple spaces and opportunities for the Collegiate Recovery Community, which was founded in 2010 on the Oxford campus and supports undergraduate and graduate students in recovery.
The Quentin and Ginger Whitwell Family Wellness Classroom, which houses a demonstration kitchen, is next door to the center. It will be used for academic purposes from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., and the Magee Center will offer programming there in the evenings for students to learn basic cooking skills, healthy snacks and healthy meal plans.
Brandi Hephner LaBanc, UM vice chancellor for student affairs, said the Magee Center means that William will be remembered at Ole Miss forever, and she thanked his parents for their courageous dedication to bringing the vision for the center to life.
She said the university is “building a culture of care” through programs and services available at the center, including getting students involved with helping peers and expanding outreach into the community.
“In the future, our students and community will see expanded outreach and educational opportunities,” Hephner LaBanc said. “The staff of the William Magee Center will expand on the critical peer programs of the wellness ambassadors. Research indicates that students gain more from peer-to-peer training and outreach and, to that end, the Magee Center staff will expand peer programs and provide training and development for peer leaders to enhance interpersonal and wellness capacity among peer groups.”
Sam Dethrow, a recent Ole Miss graduate, also spoke at the event. Dethrow was vice president of the Interfraternity Council when he heard William’s story and was “devastated” by it. He became involved in the effort to create the center and to promote wellness on campus.
“What sets Ole Miss apart is our people,” Dethrow said. “The genuine care that we have for one another is unparalleled and has allowed this university to flourish for many years. Such care now is driving us into the future, and the William Magee Center for Wellness is a shining example of that.”