Serial Entrepreneurs

By Tina Hahn

Ed Meek remembers one of the hardest days of his life: trying to pick 100 pounds of cotton in the Mississippi Delta heat to impress Helen Rebecca Wolfe and her mother.

“You couldn’t sit down and pick the cotton nor could you stand up to pick (you had to stoop or squat!) It was just miserable,” recalled Ed, who grew up in Charleston, Mississippi.

When it came time to weigh the cotton, Helen who later became known as Becky, had picked 110 pounds, and Ed had picked 78 pounds. 

Fortunately, Ed still won Becky’s heart, and the two have spent a lifetime pursuing innovative businesses and other important work – most becoming extremely successful due to the work ethic they developed in their youth. All along the way, they have been fully dedicated to uplifting others with resources so young people and communities have a better chance of developing their potential and building better lives.

The Meeks both came from meager beginnings. Ed’s mom, Ernestine Priddy Meek, operated a beauty shop in her home, and his dad, Jon F. Meek, worked as a plumber and electrician. Becky’s dad, Bill Wolfe of the Paynes community, farmed and later served as a game warden. Her mom, Alice Wolf, worked in the fields with Becky and eventually ran a country store. Becky had to complete her family’s ironing on Saturdays before she was free to see Ed when they were high school students..

Ed and Becky likewise made faith a priority in their lives. Ed was proud of his 12-year perfect attendance pin for Sunday School, but along came the youngest Meek brother Larry who earned a 14-year pin. His oldest brother, Jon, became a minister–enjoying a career that included pastoring a church in Manhattan, New York, where his sermons were translated in eight languages.

Several mentors had a transformational impact on their lives.

Take Ed for instance. Better known by some as “Budgie,” he was not what you would describe as a good student and never entertained the idea of attending college. By the seventh grade, he had joined the Sun-Sentinel (then named the Mississippi Sun), the weekly newspaper of Charleston. With only a very small staff, Ed was the “printer’s devil,” doing anything and everything for the newspaper when asked by the owners, W.W. “Bill” May and his wife, Jean.

“The Mays were my mentors and offered me many wonderful experiences in a great, positive environment,” Ed said. “My years at the newspaper gave me so much including a career in journalism, which has blessed our family throughout our lives.”

As a high school junior, Ed was the one who helped keep the paper running when the publisher became ill. While a student at East Tallahatchie High School, he worked every afternoon, until 11 p.m: On Wednesdays, when the paper went to press, Saturdays and full-time in the summer. For his diligent work, Ed earned $7.35 a week working from the sixth grade to senior year.

“I never thought about my pay, I was so delighted to have the Mississippi Sun job. Years later, I asked Bill about my $7.35 paycheck and he characteristically said ‘well, you were overpaid at that.’

“The work ethic developed in the job was far more valuable that any compensation,” Ed said.

Bill May suggested that after high school Ed attend the Southern School of Printing and pursue the lofty goal of being a pressman who could make $50 a week. Mrs. Dan Frederick, Ed’s senior English teacher, had other ideas. After an “A” on his term paper, the teacher declared, “Budgie, you need to go to college.”

Ed traveled to Mississippi State University, when the now late George Payne Cossar of Charleston learned of the young man’s plans. George Payne immediately set out to move the freshman to his alma mater, the University of Mississippi. There, Ed worked for the weekly campus newspaper, the predecessor to The Daily Mississippian.

While still an undergraduate, he and Becky married on June 24, 1960, in Charleston and drove a 1949 Plymouth car – which featured a prominent hole in the floorboard – back to campus so Ed could take an exam the next morning for an upper-level marketing course. Before that test, Professor Carl Morrison called Ed to the front of the classroom and asked him to tell everyone about married life. 

The newlyweds lived in the Village on campus, married student housing that cost $47.50 a month. Ed described the apartment as “perfect for us.”

To finance his degree, Ed worked as a freelance writer and photographer for United Press International, as well as regional newspapers and national publications. He was right alongside the now late Larry Speakes, his friend who became the White House media spokesman for President Ronald Reagan in the 1980s. 

Ed next accepted a full-time position on staff of the Ole Miss Department of Public Relations while completing his graduate degree. Two years later at age 24, he became UM’s youngest-ever department head and helped shape the university’s public image for 37 years in his role as Assistant Vice chancellor for Public Relations and Marketing and Associate Professor of Journalism. 

The Ole Miss leader helped create the national Small Business Development Centers, which now makes business assistance programs available in every state in the nation. He and other faculty wrote a proposal for the University’s Cultural Center, which includes Rowan Oak, home of author William Faulkner; the University Museum and Historic Houses; and the Gertrude C. Ford Center for the Performing Arts.

Ed earned a doctor’s degree in journalism at the University of Southern Mississippi, while Becky owned a hair salon in Oxford and grew her staff to multiple employees. Becky began her own college pursuits at Ole Miss and earned undergraduate and graduate degrees in special education. She worked the majority of her career at Oxford’s Mental Health Center, now called Communicare.

While dedicated to this work, Ed and Becky also started a successful publishing business as well as one of the first trade show companies that hosted events across the nation. The publishing business, which sold to Questex Media Group, started with magazines – 14 over the years  – and then recently, Ed founded the National Graphene Association that champions a material that scientists confirm as the strongest in the world and holds unrivaled potential in its application. Ed founded the Tupelo Furniture Market which is one of the nation’s largest exhibition centers supporting a multi-million dollar furniture industry in Mississippi, Alabama and Tennessee.

The couple founded the popular online news site, which they later made available to the School of Journalism and New Media at the University. The Meek’s provided funding for the establishment of the School of Journalism and New Media which incorporated a new focus in Integrated Marketing Communications, a program that attracted students from all over the nation and saw the school’s enrollment go from 300 students to 1600 students, the University’s fastest-growing academic program at the time.

“I’ve always been a serial entrepreneur,” said Meek, laughing.

Ed has authored several books, including “E. Percy Howe’s Dollar Democrat: A Frontier Mississippi Newspaper, 1842-1846,” published in 1963, and “RIOT: Witness to Anger and Change” published in 2015. He is the co-author of “Dreams and Visions” by Theora Hamblett published in 1975 and worked with renowned artist, the late Theora Hamblett, in publishing books on her work and life. Ed is a Fellow of the American Council on Education and an Eagle Scout.

RIOT featured a sequence of photos Ed shot as a college student of James Meredith in a classroom in Peabody Hall on Mr. Meredith’s first day of class, October 2, 1962. Mr. Meredith was the first African American student to enroll at Ole Miss, and National Guard troops were called in to restore order when violence and protests began. On Sept. 30, 2015, the 53rd anniversary of the 1962 disturbance at Ole Miss, the School of Journalism and New Media published Ed’s book.

Working alongside the Meeks in their businesses were daughters, Cindy and Kellye, and the couple now advises their five grandchildren through careers and business projects. The newest additions, two great-grandsons, enlarged their family both in number and in joy.

Now the Meeks have established the Ed and Becky Meek Foundation to expand their legacy by helping Charleston and East Tallahatchie County thrive with resources to embrace the future.