Ole Miss Shrimp and BeerIt was a good damn party, maybe the best party Ole Miss has ever known. Or ever will know.
BY DAVID MAGEE
It was a good damn party, maybe the best party Ole Miss has ever known.
Or ever will know.
And that’s saying something, of course.
It was Shrimp and Beer, the annual April event at Sardis Lake that culminated Dixie Week activities for a handful of years before the too-good-to-be-true one-day festival was halted on a high note, before it got out of hand.
For a time and place it was the unusual collegiate ultimate, something that could never be done today. But in its moment, Ole Miss Shrimp and Beer served up springtime camaraderie and frolicking fellowship in a surprisingly wholesome atmosphere, considering the framework: free beer, free shrimp and music, all organized by the university at the closest beach they could find.
It was fleeting, from the late 1970s to early 1980s, but Shrimp and Beer arrived predictably in those years with anticipation by students as a semester highlight, a sort of student-body wide warm tradition that brought everyone together for a let-your-hair-down, tap the keg, down some shrimp, dance and Frisbee throwing moment.
“A good damn party,” says Sparky Reardon, the retired Dean of Students at Ole Miss who was responsible for both the birth and death of Shrimp and Beer at Ole Miss as director of student programming, his first job on campus.
Reardon was synonymous with Shrimp and Beer, its planner and maestro. He worked with a regional Budweiser distributor to provide free kegs of beer – dozens of free kegs of beer – and he ordered up more than 1,000 pounds of boiled shrimp that was distributed across tables as a wonderfully messy peel-em-and-eat-em affair with not enough napkins.
It was a different day, with the drinking age of 18 for beer. It was come one, come all, no student ID’s, nothing but festive attitude was required.
“It was a happy time,” says Reardon, always adorned at Shrimp and Beer in a Hawaiian shirt so he was easy to find. “I don’t even recall anybody getting into any real trouble.”
If it seems strange that the university ran a Shrimp and Beer party at Sardis that students drove themselves to, just consider both the era and that another informal spring Sardis alcohol-infused gathering of students held at the end of Dixie Week activities was underway before Reardon, an Ole Miss graduate, took the job running student programming.
There had been an accident involving a student and the university figured it was either get involved with this big spring party to get some control or take more risk with no involvement or control.
So Shrimp and Beer became for some glorious years the most marvelous university student party ever thrown, drawing some 9,000 students and other guests smart enough to recognize that free shrimp, beer and music on a spring day meant a good time.
“I felt like the best way to do it was rather than have everybody bring their own alcohol to this informal event, we should just offer free beer and be present,” says Reardon. “It was a different time. You obviously wouldn’t do that today. But it worked then.”
The event got so popular that cars lined up on Highway 6, with Ole Miss students piled into cars streaming to Sardis. The highway was still two-lane then, in the process of being expanded to four lanes, and a trucker passing by in the late 70s noted the crowd of stacked up cars on 6 and spread word on his CB radio that there must be a “helluva” party going on at nearby Sardis.
And he was right.
There were no official games, just free beer, shrimp and music, but Frisbees flew, suntan lotion poured and everybody came together. Bands including The Drifters – they played on a rainy day and students danced in the mud – the Mighty Majors and The Tangents competed against the smells of warm shrimp and spilled beer.
Shrimp and Beer t-shirts were made and students were given free Budweiser hats from the distributor as a sort of party favor, which many wore. Bathrooms were always a challenge, with so much free beer and limited facilities. And the crowd got so big they eventually had to park guests in one spot and shuttle them via hayrides on the back of truck beds to get them to the venue.
There was also the fact that many non-Ole Miss students wanted to get in on Shrimp and Beer, upping the risk ante as it grew in popularity. I was a junior in high school the first time I attended and I remember thinking that college must be the best place in the world – girls wearing bikini tops and kegs flowing with free beer while music blared and volleyballs were spiked.
The next April, spring of 1984, I sold the idea to a friend, Jon, and we navigated the crowd as high school seniors hoping to get in on the good time. The event had moved to lower Sardis, below the dam, because the crowds had grown so large they needed the extra room.
It was sealed with just one way in and one out, and walking up Jon and I met Reardon, guarding the road in his Hawaiian shirt. We knew him, and he knew us, and therefore he knew our age.
I was actually 18, old enough, but not yet an Ole Miss student. Jon was still 17. But Reardon wasn’t interested in a negotiation.
“You boys might just want to turn on back around,” he said.
And so we did, and that was the last glimpse we got of Shrimp and Beer, since on that very day, Reardon decided it would be the very last.
“There was 7 or 8 thousand people out there that day and I was looking across at the crowd and I turned to Charlie Wood (a University Police Department captain at the time) and said, ‘Charlie, this is the last one. We can’t do this any more.’”
The drinking age was moving to 21. Drinking and driving had become a thing. Reardon knew Shrimp and Beer was no longer something Ole Miss could control, so he called it to a halt.
Gerald Turner arrived as a new Ole Miss Chancellor about that time and student legend had it that Turner, a member of the church of Christ, had canceled the event. But that wasn’t true. It was Reardon who ended the greatest Ole Miss party of all time – the same man who helped bring it to life.
But Ole Miss Shrimp and Beer, while it lasted, was a good damn party.
David Magee is president and publisher of Oxford Newsmedia, which produces The Oxford Eagle and Oxford Magazine.