By Joe Lee
MADISON – Known nationally for his business books and Ted Talks, Oxford native David Magee seemingly had it all before his beloved son William – who lettered in track at Ole Miss and attended Honors College – died of an accidental drug overdose in 2013, a year after graduation.
But it wasn’t just William who was hurting at the time of his death.
“I had to go look at what happened in our family,” Magee said. “How did what looked like a picture-perfect American family chasing the dream get completely shattered?”
Author of the critically acclaimed memoir, Dear William, Magee is the keynote speaker at this year’s Journey of Hope luncheon, set for Tuesday, Sept. 20 at the Jackson Convention Complex. Much more than simply a tribute to his late son, Dear William is a brutally honest look at a family that had been in crisis for many years.
The long, hard gaze into the mirror began with Magee himself, who was adopted and unaware of his birth parents’ identity until well into adulthood.
“I lived a great life in this wonderful university town,” he said of Oxford. “We knew everyone and could walk to the Square. But my house was very dark because there was a lot of depression and emotional pain inside me.”
“I did not know who I was, and the lack of sense of identity was something I didn’t deal with well. I tried to pretend it wasn’t there with alcohol and prescription Adderall.”
In addition to losing William, Magee and his wife, Kent, nearly lost their son Hudson to an overdose. Magee’s infidelity led to divorce before he and Kent remarried. But as facing their fears put them on a successful path to recovery and healing, Magee consulted his family about going public with everything they’d gone through in hopes of benefitting those in crisis.
“It took some years, but I had their blessing to do it – Kent, Hudson and our daughter Mary Halley,” he said. “The strength of Dear William is not that we lost him, but that we found joy and recovery together. The book applies to families who feel like they’ve lost something; they can get joy beyond what they ever imagined. It also applies to communities. We look around and see despair, but it is doable. You must have a plan and work hard to execute it.”
What would Magee, who is helping launch the William Magee Institute for Student Well Being at Ole Miss, tell his twenty-one-year-old self?
“To believe in yourself,” he said. “The self-doubt is so poisonous. When you’re going through a hard time, it’s easy to point fingers at others. The twenty-one-year-old me had all these dreams of the American family I would have, and I coached my three children in most every sport they played. I taught Sunday school. I was on the City Council in Oxford.
“I was checking all the boxes,” he continued, “but rather than having a strong faith foundation and a strong belief in myself, I had a lot of self-doubt. I wish I could tell that version of me to get some counseling. I could have saved myself and my family a lot of pain and grief.”
Magee will have a strong message for parents at the Journey of Hope luncheon.
“Their own fears will often get in the way of raising their kids,” he said. “We want our children to have the best of everything. If warning signs flare up, the parents may fear that if they do ask for help – such as counseling – they may be labeled.
“A lot of kids have lost their joy. A lot of them tell us, ‘I’m making A’s, I’m on the sports teams, I’m on the homecoming court. Why do I feel so bad?’ We should worry about exposing them to what will help them, such as a good education. Faith is a big, positive part of their joy, while misuse of alcohol and substances steals that joy. We must do a better job of educating parents in navigating that path.”