It was not so much greed, but pride, he said.
The first of the seven deadly sins, but it proved to be his redemption. A decade ago, native-Mississippian, author and publisher Neil White was convicted on one count of bank fraud and sentenced to 18 months in a federal prison.
Now, as owner of Nautilus Publishing in Taylor, Miss., and acclaimed author of, “In the Sanctuary of Outcasts,” the memoir about his time in prison, White credits his time as an inmate and Mississippi, in particular Oxford, for the man he was able to become.
“I was an idiot,” White said of his former self. “I just thought I could conquer the world.”
With dreams of a media empire, White became publisher of four magazines in just four years. His quick expansion proved too much for his business revenues, though.
In 1992, he was caught “kiting” checks to support his grand growth plans. The practice of transferring nonexistent money between accounts provided the last-minute funds White needed for business expenses, but left him with $2 million in debt and a year and a half in Carville, Louisiana’s federal prison.
Carville was different, though. It was an experiment where inmates were housed along with the nation’s last leper colony, or Hansen’s disease patients. As he grew to know the leprosy patients, he was forced to face his flaws.
“I was terrified to let anybody know that I had flaws,” he said. “And I tried to build this façade of perfection.”
But at Carville, the 160 Hansen’s disease patients had no way to hide their imperfections, he said, their affliction often plainly displayed in deformed or missing limbs and scarred skin.
“It was the one place in America where outside didn’t matter,” he said.
The final catalyst in his transformation, though, came when his wife, Linda, informed him she was filing for divorce. The couple had two, young children, and White was devastated knowing he would probably never wake up in the same house with his children again.
After his release, he moved to Oxford, where his wife and children lived, determined to be in his children’s lives.
At first, he was unsure about moving back. Years earlier, he started the Oxford Times as the competing newspaper to the established Oxford Eagle. The reporting and editorials garnered praise, but to stay afloat, he made his first foray into check “kiting.” Although he was never formally charged, he damaged relationships.
Being from Mississippi is unlike being from any other state, though. “I’m not the first to say this, or even the first 1,000th, but Ole Miss is like a club or a family,” he said. “And Mississippi tends to be the same way.”
He was accepted back into the community, and friends and acquaintances gave him small writing and marketing projects for a modest publishing operation in his apartment kitchen, called Nautilus.
Nautilus moved from his kitchen to an Abner’s warehouse, then eventually to an office in Taylor, Miss. Now, the company has three employees, including his daughter, White said.
Maggie, who was 3 years old at the time of White’s incarceration, works on formatting books and publications for the company. She doesn’t remember much about the 18 months her dad was away, but she knows there was a change in him.
“My dad now has these values that don’t have anything to do with money,” Maggie said.
It’s a value he passed on to her, she said, pointing out that she chose a college major that has very little hope of making any money: art history, she said, laughing.
Nautilus is a far cry from the 32 employees of White’s coastal magazines, but White says he now takes his projects slowly. If there is too much risk, he doesn’t stretch the company.
The company publishes educational materials for colleges and students. They’ve also published books that showcase the state, such as “Mississippians,” a compendium of the state’s 150 most-notable citizens.
Coming in September, 2013, they’ll publish the project White has been most excited about this year, Robert Khayat’s memoir. It will have everything from his days as a professional football player to the death threats he received during his Ole Miss chancellorship.
Personally, White still tours with his memoir and has started planning a novel, although he couldn’t reveal the details. He’s even been discussing the possibility of his memoir making it to the screens, he said.
But he would never have gotten to this point had he not gone to Carville, he said, or had the people of Oxford not given him a second chance. He wishes he could take back all the hurt he caused, but there is a part of him that is glad he went.
“I would always be close to falling off a cliff,” he said. “I don’t think I would have changed much had (Carville) not happened.”
Photos by Phillip Waller // Story by Natalie Richardson