Oxford and the surrounding area exert a magnetic charm that goes beyond the gridiron.
Written by Eugene Stockstill | Photographed by Joe Worthem
Call it Southern charm. Call it a mystique as cavernous as that of one of its most famous inhabitants (William Faulkner). Call it whatever you will. Oxford exerts a magnetism that some folk find almost impossible to resist.
Take the Broekers from Springfield, Illinois. The father, John, grew up in Chicago and played football for Northwestern University. Older son Jack played for the University of Illinois. Younger brother Nick is an offensive lineman at Ole Miss, but all of them “grew up Big Ten fans,” mother Missy said.
These days, things have changed quite a bit. Mom and Dad have a condo in Oxford, she visits every six weeks or so during the offseason, brother Jack drives from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, for every home game. And, yes, the whole Big Ten crew follows the SEC.
“I would never have seen it,” Missy Broeker said. “We feel like this is our second hometown.”
Her husband agreed.
“We love being Rebels,” he said. “It’s just an easy place to be.”
It should come as no surprise that Oxford sits at the top of the list of Mississippi communities experiencing extended growth spurts. The latest national census data shows Oxford as the third fastest-growing city in the state, behind Southaven and Olive Branch, and the city’s population shows no signs of slacking. Traffic circles, residential subdivisions, apartment complexes and businesses are popping up wherever you turn.
What may come as something of a shock is that the city itself boasts drawing cards that have little to do with university life, said Jon Maynard, president and CEO of the Oxford-Lafayette County Economic Development Foundation and Chamber of Commerce.
“You’re seeing an awful lot of neighborhoods filled with second homes,” Maynard said. “There are an awful lot of folks with no ties to Oxford or the state,” who have just moved to Oxford because they like it. The Chamber of Commerce even has a burgeoning newcomers club.
What this means in practical terms, Maynard said, is that people don’t come to Oxford simply because of the university or action on the gridiron, court or diamond. After NCAA sanctions against Ole Miss a few years ago, Maynard tabulated economic metrics that showed a decrease in university enrollment but increases in county population, total jobs and assessed value.
Translation: The county and the university have a give-and-take relationship. The secret to Oxford’s success? Community pride, Maynard said.
When he visited Paris in 2010, Maynard expected an ugly reception, but instead, he encountered “a large city filled with people who are genuinely proud of where they live” and who go out of their way to help strangers.
“I have never seen a community that’s prouder of place,” he said. “I didn’t see that again until I moved to Oxford, and I realized the secret sauce.”
Enter the Broekers and other families like them, who have enjoyed the same sort of extended greeting. Unconfirmed rumors even place siblings of well-known athletes in Oxford by overwhelming choice.
On a visit during an LSU game, for example, the son of some friends of the Broekers remained all but silent until it was time to leave, then said the following to his parents: “Hey, I’m done. I’m going to Ole Miss, and you are buying a condo.”
And some of the Broekers’ best friends also have their own place in Oxford, but only after they first met here did they discover they both come from the same area of Illinois.
“Eight kids from Nick’s high school graduating class go to Ole Miss,” Missy Broeker said.
If you are keeping track, that’s nine college students from Springfield (a city with a population of less than 150,000) who not only live in Oxford but don’t want to live anywhere else. Will Springfield and Oxford forge a sister-city bond?
“Even the people who visit us get wrapped up in it,” she said.
She confirmed, too, that the appeal of Oxford goes far beyond the gridiron.
The bartender at Lenora’s knows the Broekers and starts pouring their drinks as soon as they walk through the front door. Missy goes to boutiques where non-football fans greet her by her first name. Her other friends ask her what in the world tomato gravy tastes like.
“I can’t tell you what it tastes like,” she tells them. “You have to try it.”