By JACK WEATHERLY
Blake Wilson bade farewell Thursday to the Mississippi Economic Council after 19 years of leading the state chamber of commerce.
Wilson’s retirement, effective June 16, as only the third director of the 68-year-old organization, added a dimension to the annual meeting at the Jackson Convention Complex, which drew more than 2,000.
The growth of the organization under Wilson’s leadership was recounted. In 1997, there were 478 organization members, and membership has grown to 1,067.
Effective Monday, Scott Waller will become interim president and chief executive. He is now executive vice president and chief operating officer.
After a video of the state’s leaders complimenting Wilson for the achievements under his guidance, and a standing ovation, He said, “You’re too generous.
“The strength and the life’s-blood of the MEC is all you, our membership.”
The MEC board said bon voyage with a European trip for Wilson and his wife, Ann.
Three Mississippians made the event starry.
Ben Napier, who with his wife, Erin, is co-host of the Laurel-based “Home Town” show on the HGTV — connected a few dots.
“If I had known you were going to have Robin [Robinson], and Sanderson Farms chicken [for lunch] we could’ve done this in Laurel,” which is where the poultry producer is headquartered, Napier joked. Robinson, a Sanderson Farms officer, is departing as MEC chairwoman and will be replaced by William Yates III.
The home restoration show took off with a whoosh this year on the cable network and the viewing audience is seeing a “story about Mississippi that they haven’t heard before,” Erin Napier said.
“We [have] a diverse, beautiful, creative and powerful economy in our state,” she began, which, Ben interjected, “is a “big small town.”
That close-knit quality, the Napiers explained to HGTV producers, is how the show’s pilot debut scored a record 2.3 million viewers.
Mac McAnally, who grew up in Belmont, Miss., and is an eight-time winner of the Country Music Association Musician of the Year, a noted songwriter and recording artist and a member of Jimmy Buffet’s Coral Reefer Band, was on hand to celebrate Mississippi.
Mississippi’s reputation as a creative state “goes all the around the world,” McAnally said, recalling the spontaeous applause the state’s name elicited when he and Buffet were on a tour of Australia and New Zealand.
He recalled that his mother would always admonish him when he was growing up to “make some use of yourself” as he was leaving the house.
“That’s the way I want to look at every morning . . . whether it’s been a good brother to my sisters or better neighbor to my neighbors or a better ex-husband to my ex-wife.”
He said his song “It’s My Job” explains that outlook.
“Doing your best makes everything better,” he told the gathering.
Smallness seemed to be a theme of the show.
The running joke is that Wilson hails from “a state with three counties, two at high tide,” Delaware.
Waller got in a zinger in the event, which had elements of a good-natured roast. Waller said he and the rest of the staff took up a collection to buy the Wilsons a jonboat so they could paddle along the shores of Delaware at high tide.
But Wilson said he and his wife are Mississippians and will continue to live here, though they’ll avoid the long, hot summers of Mississippi by staying at his wife’s family’s cottage on the Chesapeake Bay.
In a way, Wilson got in the last word. Each vase of flowers on the tables at the luncheon had a card with Wilson’s closing in all his thousands of emails: “Keep the Faith!”