Walks With Finnegan: How one man found a home – and a dog – in Mississippi

Story by Zack Grossenbacher. Photos by Vince Evans.

On any given day, you can see Vince Evans and his border collie Finnegan walking around downtown Jackson. Vince’s Jackson is preserved in photos he shares on Instagram and other social media sites. They are part remembrance, part experiential artifact. It’s as if his lens follows Finnegan and makes a disjointed map of the city.

In what he calls “the best part of his day,” Vince has constructed a city seen from a dog’s eye.

Finnegan was born in Mississippi, but Vince is a transplant. The local shows the new guy around.

Born in the Catskills of Upstate New York, Vince is from a rural town called Liberty. It was a poor place, and he came from what he calls a broken family. The child of unmarried teenagers, Vince didn’t have the easiest go of things. Evictions and house hopping were the norm. He even spent a week living with his principal once.

Photo by Vince Evans.

From an early age, he had an interest in politics. He remembers when he was first drawn to the subject. In fourth grade, while Bill Clinton was campaigning against Ross Perot and George H.W. Bush for the Presidency, his class hosted a mock debate. Vince was chosen to portray Clinton in what seemed an intentional choice by his teacher.

“I think he knew my family received welfare,” he said. “We looked like kids that weren’t very well cared for.”

I met him years later when he was a Barksdale Fellow at the Honors College at the University of Mississippi. He was fresh off a Masters in Philosophy at Notre Dame (and before that a stint at the other Oxford as a Marshall Scholar). He had been to Marine Officer Training School, but left after a severe back injury. He was teaching Public Policy and Ethics.

When we met recently, on a bleak winter day earlier this year, we strolled around downtown Jackson in what must have felt very similar to his ritual walks with Finnegan, though the pup was absent.

We went from building to building — City Hall, the Governor’s Mansion, and the unusual, modernist headquarters of Trustmark — and Vince recounted tidbits of trivia about each with the familiarity of a Jacksonian of decades.

Afterwards, he spoke about his decision to return to Mississippi from his unfinished doctoral studies at Johns Hopkins in Baltimore.

“There is a sense of culture that is palpable in Mississippi,” Vince said. “It is rich in a way that I’d find it really hard to say that New York’s culture is rich.”

Photo by Vince Evans.

 

He meant, in part, the obvious trappings: Faulkner and company, the food and the blues – but surely he meant more. New York, after all, is the home of great museums and the birthing place of great artistic movements. The culture in Mississippi is born from hardship and the failure of us to see each other as equal humans beings.

“I’ve always been interested in the dialectic of America’s experiment with democracy,” Vince said, “and that dialectic is most rigorous in Mississippi, and what I mean by that is this struggle to really look at people, regardless of their contingent features, as equals, as peers in a republic. There is no place that has failed more than Mississippi.”

Though he says this off the cuff, you can tell that Vince has thought about it at length with a philosopher’s mind. He is here because there is a home in this failure. There is room to work and to help grow.

“The dynamic that led me to developing an affection for this place is the interplay between people who are from Mississippi and people who aren’t,” Vince said.

When he decided he was moving here, he recalls the father of a friend evoking that tired old question of whether or not Mississippians wore shoes. In response to people like his friend’s dad, Vince has a direct answer.

“Three million people live in this state. If 30,000 of the ‘bleeding-heart’ liberals moved here, they could change the culture of this state in one election cycle.”

Photo by Vince Evans.

After years working in different capacities for the Democratic Party, Vince isn’t in the political sphere anymore. He does work to break the insider/outsider barrier in Mississippi, and his walks with Finnegan are a central part of that. He says Finnegan was part of the reason he returned home.

“He’s a Mississippian, after all,” he joked.

And as a Mississippians are wont to do, Finnegan has been making connections with folks of all sorts. From coworkers to tenants in Vince’s apartment building, people have started scheduling time to go on walks with the pair.

“We meet all kinds of people,” Vince said. “When people see me without him, they say, ‘Where’s your buddy?’”

One day, they were out walking down Capitol Street, near the Woolworth’s building. Vice saw an elderly man standing near the Freedom Trail marker that addresses the 1963 sit in. He pointed out a few more markers the man was interested in, but the man stopped him and said that, in fact, he knew many of the people that were at the sit in pictured on the sign. He was Henry Wingate, who was appointed to a federal judgeship by Ronald Reagan in 1985. Wingate was 16 when the Medgar Evers led the sit in.

“I couldn’t have gushed enough,” said Vince. “[It was] maybe one of the most significant experiences in my whole life.

Photo by Vince Evans.

People can fall in love with a place for a number of reasons and in a number of ways. A big part of Vince’s Mississippi is his dog. Finnegan is both his connection to his place and his inroad to know it more intimately.

“There is only one decision that I don’t regret even a little bit,” said Vince, “and that is the decision to adopt Finnegan.”

But it seems that where he gained a friend, he also gained his own piece of Mississippi.

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