Archive for the ‘Memories’ Category

David Solomon at 100

Tuesday, July 26th, 2016

The banner wishing David Solomon a happy 100th birthday stretched across the street that hot July Saturday near the banks of the Mississippi River in Helena.

Solomon long has been one of Arkansas’ most respected attorneys. He’s a Helena native and a stalwart of the Jewish community, which once thrived on both sides of the lower Mississppi River from St. Louis to New Orleans.

They came from across the Delta that Saturday. By late that afternoon, hundreds of people had made their way to the block of old buildings in downtown Helena known as Biscuit Row. Sam Elardo, who began restoring properties in the area in 1974, bought five buildings on what’s now Biscuit Row several years ago and began renovations. In a stuffy, crowded room, Solomon sat for more than two hours, greeting a steady stream of visitors.

Before we get to David Solomon, a bit more about Biscuit Row as downtown Helena tries to bounce back.

“The project started with the five historic buildings that I purchased from Morris Gist,” Elardo said in a 2013 interview with Melissa Martinez. “Back then, there were a number of things there ranging from juke joints and restaurants to liquor stores and gambling joints. … I used to be a merchant in the area so I understand the ins and outs of small businesses.”

In front of the buildings is a marker from the Mississippi Blues Trail celebrating the accomplishments of Sonny Boy Williamson.

That’s right: The Mississippi Blues Trail.

The trail was established in 2006 by the Mississippi Blues Commission. Interpretive markers were placed across the state. Later, those behind the trail’s establishment decided to reach out to surrounding states in places where the blues had been important — places such as Memphis and Helena.

The marker reads: “Helena was home to a flourishing blues scene that inspired Sonny Boy Williamson and other legendary musicians from Mississippi, including Robert Johnson, Pinetop Perkins, Houston Stackhouse, James “Peck” Curtis and Honeyboy Edwards, to take up residence here in the 1930s and 1940s. They and many others performed at a famous juke joint at this site called the Hole in the Wall. Williamson’s rise to fame began in Helena as the star of KFFA radio’s ‘King Biscuit Time.’

“Sonny Boy Williamson was born and laid to rest in Mississippi, and lived in Chicago, East St. Louis, Milwaukee, Detroit and numerous other locales. But Helena was the town he came to regard as home. He established himself as one of the premier blues performers in the Delta (on both the Arkansas and Mississippi sides) through his live appearances in cafes and clubs and his broadcasts on KFFA and other stations. His recordings, including the chart hits ‘Don’t Start Me Talkin’, ‘Keep It To Yourself’ and “Help Me’, brought him national recognition.

“In the 1960s, he played a key role in popularizing the blues in Europe and inspiring a host of British blues-rock musicians. In Europe, Williamson confounded eager fans and reporters who besieged him with questions about his life. As he told fellow bluesman Willie Dixon, ‘It ain’t none of their business. They don’t even know me.’

“Genealogical research and family sources point to a likely birthdate of Dec. 5, 1912, under the name Alex Miller. But he also called himself Rice Miller, Willie Miller, Little Boy Blue, Reverend Blue and Willie Williams, among other monikers, and he gave birthdates as early as 1893. When he eventually took his stage name from another popular bluesman, John Lee ‘Sonny Boy’ Williamson, in the blues lexicon he became Sonny Boy No. 2.”

There are few, if any, towns in Arkansas with as colorful a past as Helena.

As we left the Solomon reception, I thought back to a far quieter day in July 2010. I spent the better part of a Friday at the home of Solomon and his wife, Miriam, who died the next year. It was a civilized affair with David mixing drinks before lunch and Miriam making sure everyone was comfortable. Lobster shipped in from Maine was served for lunch. Their Helena home was filled with books and art, symbols of a cultured life lived well.

The Solomons had been married 68 years at the time. They were born in Helena. Miriam was three years younger.

Jewish culture once thrived on either side of the river from St. Louis to New Orleans.

At the time of my visit, David Solomon would still put on a suit and tie each morning and head to his office on Cherry Street, which once had been among the busiest commercial streets in Arkansas. In recent decades, Cherry Street has seen its buildings empty out and begin to crumble. With Temple Beth El closed by the time of my 2010 visit, the area’s remaining Jews had begun gathering in the Solomon home for Friday night services.

Beth El was built in 1916. The building has its original organ, purchased for $4,000 by the congregation’s Ladies Benevolent Association. It was a regional congregation, serving Jews not only from Helena but also from smaller farm-oriented communities such as Marvell and Marianna. In 2006, with fewer than 20 members remaining, the synagogue closed and the temple was donated to the state’s Delta Cultural Center to be used as an assembly hall. The loss of thousands of sharecroppers due to the widespread mechanization of agriculture following World War II had led to the loss of the once ubiquitous Jewish merchants up and down the river.

“There are only about six or seven of us,” David Solomon said on that Friday in 2010 when I asked him about the Friday night services. “One lady drives over from Marvell. Another comes from Holly Grove. There was just no way to maintain the temple. There were too few of us left. And we certainly weren’t going to give it to another religion.”

He smiled at me as he said that. His wit is as much a part of his persona as his bow tie.

The Delta is like many parts of rural America, a place that in some ways never made the transition from the agricultural age to the industrial age, much less the technological era.

Those sharecroppers moved from the cotton fields of the South to the steel mills and automobile factories of the Upper Midwest. They deserted places like Helena on the Arkansas side of the river and Greenville on the Mississippi side in droves for the promise of better jobs in cities such as Chicago, Cleveland, Detroit and Gary.

It’s still common during the holidays each December to see visitors in rural east Arkansas whose automobiles sport license plates from Illinois, Ohio, Michigan and Indiana. There are counties in Arkansas, Mississippi and Louisiana that had half or less the population in the 2010 census that they had in 1950.

The first Jews arrived in Helena in the 1840s. A Torah was borrowed from a congregation in Cincinnati in 1846 to use for the high holidays.

In 1867, 65 Jews formed Congregation Beth El. Now, almost 150 years later, the era of Jews living and thriving in the lower Mississippi River Delta is nearing its conclusion.

David Solomon, who received his bachelor’s degree from Washington University in St. Louis and his law degree from Harvard, expresses no longing for the past and no sadness at the decline of the Delta’s Jewish population. In his own stoic manner, he simply views it as things having come full circle. The Delta Jews, after all, met in private homes in the 1800s. By the 21st century, they were meeting in private homes once again.

“I relate everything back to economics,” Solomon once told me. “It’s not just the Jewish population that’s being affected in the Delta. All of the mainline Protestant religions are feeling the effect. It’s simple. People are going to go where the jobs are.”

The three Solomon sons, all highly successful, are a case in point. None of them stayed in Helena.

David P. Solomon went on to become the executive director of the American Jewish Historical Society in New York.

Rayman Solomon was the dean of the Rutgers Law School in Camden, N.J., for 16 years and now serves as dean emeritus.

Lafe Solomon is an attorney for the National Labor Relations Board in Washington, D.C., and served as the NLRB’s acting general counsel from June 2010 until November 2013.

For the elder David Solomon, the equation was simple. Jews came to the Delta in the 1800s when cotton was king because there were jobs. They left in the late 1900s because those jobs had disappeared.

The Delta long was known for its diversity. Blacks came in bondage as slaves and stayed on as sharecroppers. The Irish, Italians, Chinese, Syrians, Greeks and Lebanese were other groups who came up the river from New Orleans or down the river from St. Louis, settling in communities along the way.

The Delta was perhaps the greatest American melting pot outside a major city.

In an effort to preserve the state’s Jewish heritage, David P. Solomon (the son) established the Tapestry Endowment for Arkansas Jewish History. The endowment helped create a home at the Butler Center for Arkansas Studies in Little Rock for Carolyn Gray LeMaster’s extensive body of research on the history of Arkansas Jews. The fund’s name is taken from the title of LeMaster’s book, “A Corner of the Tapestry: A History of the Jewish Experience in Arkansas, 1820s-1900s.”

The Jewish Genealogy Library Collection calls the book “one of the most comprehensive studies ever done on a state’s Jewish community. … Data for the book have been collected in part from the American Jewish Archives, American Jewish Historical Society, the stones in Arkansas’ Jewish cemeteries, more than 1,500 articles and obituaries from journals and newspapers, personal letters from hundreds of present and former Jewish Arkansans, congressional histories, census and court records and some 400 oral interviews in more than 100 cities and towns in Arkansas.”

David Solomon’s grandfather arrived from Germany shortly before the Civil War and had eight children — six boys and two girls. That second generation later would own a department store, shoe store, wholesale dry goods operation and cotton farms.

Miriam Solomon’s father, Charles Rayman, operated Helena Wholesale Co.

David Solomon started the first grade at a Catholic School known as Sacred Heart, which was operated by the Sisters of Nazareth. The nuns quickly moved him from the first grade to the fourth grade due to his native intelligence. He likes to joke that his mother finally pulled him out of the Catholic school when he kept coming home with crucifixes and tiny vials of holy water.

After his graduation from Harvard Law School, he applied to be a tax lawyer at a large firm in Memphis. He wasn’t chosen and came home to Helena to practice law.

He married Miriam in September 1942, traveling back to Helena from Camp Carson in Colorado Springs where he was stationed in the U.S. Army. Miriam had been working as an occupational therapist at a Chicago hospital. The wedding was in Miriam’s family home.

In December 2009, the Jewish news service JTA distributed an article about a Friday night service at the Solomon home. Ben Harris wrote: “The plight of Helena’s Jews is mirrored in scores of communities across the Bible Belt, where Jews first migrated in the early 19th century, generally as peddlers. Those who stuck around opened small businesses, which for a long time provided an ample livelihood.”

Harris went on to write that Miriam and David Solomon’s “benign resignation” over the impending end of Jewish life in Phillips County derived “at least in part from the success they have had in winding down their affairs and ensuring the continued maintenance of their synagogue and cemetery, which dates to 1875. Their ritual objects have been donated to other communities, and a trust has been established to ensure the cemetery’s upkeep. And with the synagogue and its glass-domed ceiling turned over to the Department of Arkansas Heritage, the building will not only be preserved, it will be put to good use.”

At that lunch in 2010, Miriam Solomon told me: “I had made up my mind that we were not going to have the temple standing there with weeds growing out of the gutter. That wasn’t going to happen on my watch. In my mind, I gave it three years. If we hadn’t found a use for it by then, we were going to have it torn down.”

I’m glad I was there for David Solomon’s 100th birthday party. He’s one of the last of the Delta Jews.

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Bumpers: A senator remembered

Wednesday, January 6th, 2016

He never saw me walk into the back of the room.

It was a Thursday afternoon in the late 1980s, and U.S. Sen. Dale Bumpers from Arkansas was addressing a group of small business owners at the L’Enfant Plaza Hotel in Washington.

I was the Washington correspondent for the Arkansas Democrat at the time. It must have been a slow news day (which was rare on the Washington beat) because this wasn’t a major speech by any means. And I wasn’t trying to hide my presence. It’s just that I walked in late, and the senator didn’t see me.

Bumpers was one of the best orators to ever come our way. He knew how to play to an audience.

He would pace.

He would wave his arms.

The former Methodist Sunday school teacher from Charleston would have been an effective evangelist had he chosen to follow that path.

Bumpers said this to his audience: “I know you will find this hard to believe coming from the senior senator from Arkansas, but Wal-Mart has been responsible for killing more small businesses that anything that ever came along.”

I was taking notes.

The staff member accompanying Bumpers was Bill Massey, a Malvern native who later was appointed by President Clinton to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. Massey’s head turned as he walked from the room at the end of the speech. He had seen me with my notebook.

Bumpers and Massey were headed to National Airport to catch a flight home to Arkansas.

I worked out of where I lived in those days — the basement of a townhouse on Capitol Hill — and walked back there to file my story.

Imagine that: An elected official from Arkansas criticizing Wal-Mart. The newspaper war between the Arkansas Democrat and the Arkansas Gazette had heated up. The Gazette correspondent wasn’t at the speech, and I had no doubt that my story would play on the front page of the Democrat the next morning since it was exclusive.

I had two phones on my desk — a business phone and a personal phone. The business phone rang as soon as I sat down, and I knew who it was.

Arkansas Democrat Washington bureau,” I answered.

“Rex, it’s Bill. The senator would like to speak to you,” Massey said.

“I bet he would,” I replied, a bit sarcastically.

The next thing I heard was the familiar voice of Dale Leon Bumpers.

“Rex, you know good and well that I never would have said what I did to those folks had I known you were in the room,” he said.

I replied: “I know that senator. But I was in the room. It was an open event, and you were on the record.”

He said: “Well, all I can do is ask you as a personal favor not to put that in tomorrow’s paper. If you do, I’ll live with the consequences since I said it.”

I had to make a decision.

I wonder to this day if I made the right one.

Here’s what I told him: “Senator, I’ve not yet mentioned this to my editor. We’re the only ones who know about this. If I don’t write it, I’m giving up a front-page story. The only way I can justify doing that in my mind is if I were to get two or three front-page stories in the future that the Gazette doesn’t get.”

Bumpers replied: “You have my word on it.”

I never wrote the story that day.

During the next few months, Bumpers’ office leaked me several stories that received front-page play.

It’s important to understand that Dale Bumpers had no reason to like the Arkansas Democrat, which had consistently been critical of him on its editorial page. But he was true to his word.

In that era before cell phones and the Internet, we did what I call shoe-leather reporting. I was in all six offices of the Arkansas congressional delegation on a daily basis, checking to see if there were news stories I needed to write. My favorite days were those in which one of our state’s two senators — Dale Bumpers or David Pryor — would invite me into their offices and simply tell off-the-record stories. I loved Arkansas history and politics (still do) and could listen to them for hours.

This will sound strange coming from a fellow who would go on to work for a Republican governor and a Republican president, but I likely became too close to the two Democratic senators from Arkansas. When I left Washington after four years on the beat, it was time for a new reporter who could be more objective when it came to Bumpers and Pryor. I still felt I could ask the tough questions when I needed to do so, but my fondness for both men had grown through the years.

One of the best compliments I ever received came one day while sitting in Bumpers’ office in the Dirksen Senate Office Building. He said to me: “There are only about two reporters I’ve ever been around with whom I felt I could be myself. You’re one of them.”

This former Marine knew he could tell me the latest joke or inside story. Off the record meant off the record.

Dale Bumpers came close several times to seeking the Democratic presidential nomination. I still wonder what would have happened had he run.

The first time was in 1976. Bumpers was in his second year in the Senate. Who knows? Dale Bumpers rather than Jimmy Carter might have been the young president from the South had the Arkansan chosen to run that year.

The last time was the 1988 election cycle. It was early 1987, and Bumpers was giving every indication that he would run.

I vividly remember taking the train from Union Station in Washington to Penn Station in New York with Bumpers’ press secretary, Matt James, to cover what was being billed as a major foreign policy address at Columbia University. Earlier that day, Bumpers had met with potential donors in New York and received millions of dollars in commitments.

Before we took a late-night train back to Washington, I filed two stories — one about the meeting with donors and one on the foreign policy speech. The announcement that he would run for president seemed like a mere formality at that point.

John Robert Starr, the Democrat’s mercurial managing editor, told me that I would cover the Bumpers presidential campaign on a daily basis. At my current age of 56, I can’t think of anything much worse than spending the winter in Iowa and New Hampshire. At age 27, however, I couldn’t wait to be one of the “boys on the bus.”

Everything changed on a Friday night that spring.

James had a leading role in a community theater presentation on Capitol Hill. He was about to leave the office for opening night when Bumpers walked by his desk, handed him a sheet of paper and said, “Get this out to the media.”

It was a short statement, explaining why he would not seek the Democratic presidential nomination.

I missed the story that night, but at least I had a good excuse.

Starr was in nearby Reston, Va., for a conference at the American Press Institute. He loved Mexican food and had called me earlier in the day.

“I know you have a favorite Mexican place you could take me for dinner,” he said. “Pick me up at 6 p.m. and we’ll go eat.”

As noted, this was the era before cell phones. No one back at the newsroom in Little Rock could find me. Meredith Oakley wound up doing the story from Little Rock since the Washington correspondent was out eating Mexican food with the boss.

After our dinner, I met some friends who were bank examiners from Arkansas. They were in town for training and had rented a hotel suite. I fell asleep on their couch while watching the NCAA men’s basketball tournament.

I didn’t return to my place on Capitol Hill until the next morning. My answering machine was filled with messages from editors back in Little Rock. Whatever had happened that Friday, it was too late for me to do anything about it.

I had picked up my Washington Post outside but failed to open it. I got into the shower. As I got out, the phone was ringing. It was Don Johnson, the Sunday editor.

“Are you planning a follow-up story?” he asked.

“A follow-up story on what?” I replied.

When he told me what had happened the night before, I panicked.

I immediately called the Bumpers home (I always thought the senator lived on the best street possible for a politician — Honesty Way in Bethesda, Md.), and Betty Bumpers answered.

Here’s how the conversation went:

“Mrs. Bumpers, this is Rex Nelson from the Arkansas Democrat. Is the senator home?

“No, he left about an hour ago.”

“Do you know where he went?”

“I think he might have gone to the office.”

“Do you know when he will return?”

“No, he didn’t say.”

“Please let him know I’m looking for him if he comes home.”

Since she thought he might be at the office, I sprinted the 12 blocks from my place to the Dirksen Senate Office Building. In those days, the photo IDs that congressional correspondents wore around our necks gave us access to the buildings at any hour. I went to the private door that led into Bumpers’ office and knocked.

No answer.

In desperation, I got down on the floor and peered through the crack at the bottom of the door to see if I could see anyone.

Then, I sprinted back to my place and again called the Bumpers’ home.

“Mrs. Bumpers, this is Rex Nelson again. I went to the office, and the senator wasn’t there. Has he come home yet?

“No, he hasn’t.”

“Do you have any idea when he might?”

“No, I don’t.”

As a last resort, I said this: “Do you mind if I ask you a few questions.”

Betty Bumpers had no reason to talk with me on the record that day. Yet she did. She told of how the senator had been restless for weeks and was no longer sleeping well. She told me that she would have supported his decision regardless, but she finally had put her foot down and said: “Dale, you need to go ahead and make a decision one way or another.”

I hung up the phone and wrote the story. The Democrat ran it on the front page the next morning.

On Monday, Starr called, praising me for having an angle the Gazette hadn’t thought of.

If only he had known the full story.

By the fall of 1992, I had returned to Little Rock and was the political editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette (the Gazette had ceased publication in October 1991). With the Clinton presidential race dominating our coverage, I decided to give the Senate race between Bumpers and Mike Huckabee some attention. I would spend two days on the road with each of the two candidates (who could have dreamed that I would wind up working almost a decade with Huckabee in the governor’s office?) and write long stories on each campaign for the Sunday edition.

My two-day trip with Bumpers ended with an evening event in Camden. We were flying back to Little Rock from Ouachita County on a small plane late that night when I asked my final on-the-record question.

“Senator, something you used against J. William Fulbright when you beat him in 1974 was the accusation that he was out of touch with Arkansas; that he had become a part of the East Coast establishment. Let me ask you: Had you rather be at a fish fry in Camden or at a dinner party at Pamela Harriman’s townhouse in Georgetown?”

Harriman, who died in 1997, was an English-born socialite whose first husband was the son of Winston Churchill. Her third husband, beginning in 1971, was the well-known American diplomat, politician and businessman Averell Harriman. She became an American citizen the year she married Harriman (1971) and also became a key fundraiser for the Democratic Party. The dinner parties she threw at her Georgetown townhouse were the stuff of legend. Bill Clinton appointed her as the U.S. ambassador to France in 1993 and she held the title until her death in 1997. Clinton dispatched Air Force One to bring her body back to the United States and spoke at her funeral.

Bumpers looked at me when I asked the question and smiled his famous smile: “Oh hell, Rex, you know how I have to answer that.”

The thing is, he was at home at the toniest events in Washington and the most down-home events in Arkansas that you can imagine.

I can’t count the number of times I saw him speak to a civic club in Arkansas when the members would start the meeting mad about his vote on some issue. After about 20 minutes, those club members would be laughing and smiling. He had them eating out of the palm of his hand.

The Bumpers charisma isn’t easy to put into words. You had to experience it.

It was my great fortune to cover him as a newspaper reporter for several years, experiencing the magic on a daily basis.

We’ll never see another one quite like him.

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Red: Born to coach

Tuesday, January 5th, 2016

There must be something in the soil in those pine woods of south Arkansas, something that produces football coaches.

Paul “Bear” Bryant, the greatest college coach ever, came out of the Moro Bottoms and played high school football at Fordyce.

Barry Switzer was a product of Crossett.

Larry Lacewell likes to say he was “a bug all my life” — a Chigger and Redbug at Fordyce and then a Boll Weevil at what’s now the University of Arkansas at Monticello.

Tommy Tuberville played high school football at Camden Harmony Grove and college football at Southern Arkansas University in Magnolia.

Sam Bailey, who was Bryant’s right-hand man for years, came out of rural Union County and played his college football at what was then Magnolia A&M (now SAU) for two years and at Ouachita for two years.

Legendary Henderson head coach Ralph “Sporty” Carpenter hailed from Hamburg.

I could go on and on.

No one worked at it longer, though, than Jimmy “Red” Parker, who died Monday at age 84.

Parker coached his last game on the evening of Friday, Nov. 13. His Benton Harmony Grove team lost to Fordyce, 22-8, in the first round of the Class 3A playoffs at Paul “Bear” Bryant Stadium in Fordyce.

Parker was born in 1931 — in the middle of the Great Depression — to Madelyn and Floyd Raymond Parker of Hampton in Calhoun County.

“As a young boy in Hampton, there were only two things that Parker ever dreamed of becoming,” Doug Crise wrote for the Pine Bluff Commercial back in 2003. “And neither of them had anything to do with football. ‘One of them was to be a big league baseball player,’ Parker said. ‘The other one was to be a cowboy.’ Parker spent his youth throwing himself into his twin passions — playing baseball and riding horses and bulls.

“When he moved with his mother to Rison, the cowboy interests faded when he was introduced to football. While his dreams were still pointed toward the diamond, Parker at least now had a more viable fallback option. ‘The only thing I ever had in my mind was playing big league baseball or being a big league football coach,’ Parker said. ‘I don’t know if it was a calling, and I don’t know if it was elimination. But those were the two things that motivated me, and I knew I could be happy doing them.'”

Parker graduated from Rison High School in 1949 and headed to Arkansas A&M, where he was a halfback for the Boll Weevils from 1949-52.

“In 1953, Parker was a young man with ample confidence and a $10,000 signing bonus sitting on the table courtesy of the Detroit Tigers,” Crise wrote. “The Tigers didn’t have confidence in Parker’s ability to hit a major league fastball, but aptitude tests revealed the 21-year-old to possess what it took to be a future manager. For Detroit, it seemed like a wise investment. The problem was that Parker had a wife and child, and no desire to move to Warsaw, Wisc., to play for the Tigers’ low-level minor league team.”

Parker’s wife, Betty Ann, also hailed from south Arkansas — from Herbine in Cleveland County, to be exact. She died last April after 64 years of marriage. The Parkers are survived by three children — Vicki Wallace of Hot Springs, Cindy Yoos of South Carolina and Jim Mack Parker of Bryant.

“I hated cold weather, so I said, ‘I’m going to Fordyce,'” Parker said of the offer to play professional baseball.

Crise wrote of Parker’s decisions to take over the struggling Fordyce football program: “Clearly, this was the road less traveled. Parker admits now that he didn’t know then what it took to turn a young man into a winner. Relatively young himself, Parker attacked his first coaching gift with equal parts enthusiasm and instinct.”

Parker said: “I guess I just had enough gall to think I could do that. It was gall. It wasn’t ability. … I didn’t have a philosophy then. I didn’t know until the third year that I coached that I didn’t really have a philosophy.”

Parker was eager to learn. He used his own money to travel to Florida for a coaching clinic. While there, he met one of the nation’s most famous coaches, Bud Wilkinson from the University of Oklahoma.

“For some reason, Bud Wilkinson just took a liking to me,” Parker said. “I just kind of got into his head and listened. I was running plays and calling defenses and had no idea of what it was all supposed to mean together. He made me understand.”

Parker coached at Fordyce from 1953-60, compiling a record of 76-15-4. The Redbugs had a 37-game winning streak from 1957-60.

His college alma mater called, and Parker moved down the road from Fordyce to Monticello, where he was the head coach of the Boll Weevils from 1961-65. He won two Arkansas Intercollegiate Conference championships there, and his teams from 1963-65 had a combined record of 24-5-1. He was 29-19-2 overall with records of 2-8 in 1961, 3-6-1 in 1962, 9-1 in 1963, 8-2 in 1964 and 7-2-1 in 1965.

Parker’s climb up the coaching ladder continued when The Citadel, a well-known military school in South Carolina, took notice. Parker coached there from 1966-72, compiling a 39-34 record.

Parker was hired to replace Hootie Ingram at Clemson University following the 1972 season.

“Losses were more frequent than wins during Parker’s four-year stint with the Tigers, but his recruiting work laid the foundation for Clemson’s return to national prominence in the late 1970s under Charley Pell,” Rudy Jones wrote for the Spartanburg Herald-Journal in South Carolina in 2013. “At least 11 members of the Clemson Athletic Hall of Fame played under or were recruited by Parker.”

Parker was 17-25-2 at Clemson. His Tiger teams went 5-6, 7-4, 2-9 and 3-6-2. He was fired following the 1976 season and replaced by Pell, a man he had hired as an assistant.

Pell’s first team went 8-4. That began a streak of 15 consecutive winning records at Clemson, which won the national championship in 1981 under Danny Ford and will play for another national championship next week.

Parker always felt he was betrayed by Pell.

Pell had been an all-conference guard and defensive tackle for Bryant at Alabama from 1961-63. He was a graduate assistant for Bryant in 1964 and then was an assistant coach at Kentucky from 1965-68. Pell’s first head coaching job came at Jacksonville State in Alabama, where he compiled a 33-13-1 record. He left Jacksonville to become the defensive coordinator at Virginia Tech, where he stayed for two seasons before being hired in 1976 by Parker to be the defensive coordinator at Clemson.

Parker said Bryant had warned him that Pell was deceitful but “I was too arrogant to listen.”

Pell’s first Clemson team as head coach went to the Gator Bowl. It was the school’s first bowl invitation in 18 years.

“We took a whole lot of lumps that last year I was there, but we knew we were going to be good, and we knew we had a chance to be outstanding,” Parker said. “I didn’t mind taking the lumps, but I really didn’t plan on Pell knifing me. That was the one thing I didn’t plan. Everything else I had laid out pretty well.”

Steve Fuller, Parker’s Clemson quarterback, said: “The thing I remember about Coach Parker is he worked so hard to get the thing turned around and got such a recruiting group with my group and the group after me. The way things turned out, he just never got a chance to enjoy the success of that group and what was generally the turnaround of the whole program. It’s a shame. I know it’s part of the business. I can’t say we were shocked, but certainly disappointed and kind of uneasy about the situation. … I think I can make the argument — anybody can — that we would have been pretty good the next year if you or I had coached them.”

Pell’s second team at Clemson went 10-1 and won the Atlantic Coast Conference title.

Pell was hired at Florida at the end of the 1978 season and left immediately. Assistant coach Danny Ford coached the Tigers in the Gator Bowl. That was the game that led to Woody Hayes being fired at Ohio State. The Tigers were leading the Buckeyes 17-15 late in the game, but freshman quarterback Art Schlichter was driving the Buckeyes into field goal range. On third-and-five at the Clemson 24 with 2:30 left in the game, Hayes called a pass play. The pass was intercepted by Clemson’s Charlie Bauman, who ran out of bounds on the Ohio State sideline. After Bauman stood up, Hayes punched him in the throat and then stormed the field to argue with the referee.

Hayes was dismissed the next day.

Ford, meanwhile, was hired to replace Pell at Clemson.

Pell’s first team at Florida went 0-10-1. But the Gators improved to 8-4 in 1980, 7-5 in 1981, 8-4 in 1982 and 9-2-1 in 1983.

Following the 1982 season, the NCAA began an investigation into recruiting violations by Pell and his staff. Pell announced in August 1984 that he would resign at the end of the season. Three games into the season, the NCAA announced that Florida was alleged to have committed 107 infractions. Pell, whose team was 1-1-1, was fired that night and replaced by Galen Hall.

Pell fell into a deep depression that lasted for years. He attempted suicide in 1994 and died of lung cancer in 2001.

Red Parker returned to Arkansas after being fired at Clemson and bought a Chevrolet dealership in Fordyce, where he was still a hero.

Feeling the urge to get back into coaching, he headed to Nashville and Vanderbilt University in 1980 at the behest of George MacIntyre (whose son Mike is now the head coach at Colorado), a friend who was in his second year at the school.  Vanderbilt struggled to a 2-9 record that season (0-6 in the Southeastern Conference), but Parker again had the coaching bug.

Southern Arkansas University offered him its head coaching job, and he led the Muleriders to a 7-3 record in 1981. That led to an offer to be the head coach across the Mississippi River at Delta State University in Cleveland, Miss., where Parker compiled a 34-26-4 record from 1982-87.

Parker attracted the attention of Billy Brewer at Ole Miss. Brewer hired Parker to be the Rebels’ offensive coordinator, and Parker was part of Ole Miss teams that finished with records of 5-6 in 1988, 8-4 in 1989, 9-3 in 1990 and 5-6 in 1991.

After four years at Oxford, Parker returned to Fordyce and his automobile dealership. But the football bug was still there.

In 1993, Parker returned to the high school coaching ranks for the first time since 1960. The destination: His alma mater at Rison.

Parker was 38-4 in three seasons at Rison, including a Class A state championship in 1995 when his team went 15-0.

To the west in Arkadelphia, another legend, Buddy Benson, had decided to step down as the head coach at Ouachita following 31 seasons. The school’s president, Ben Elrod, was a Rison native and a longtime friend of Parker’s. Elrod called and asked if Parker would like to take one more shot at being a college head coach.

Parker accepted.

Ouachita, the smallest college in the state still playing football at the time, was struggling to make the move from the NAIA to NCAA Division II following the dissolution of the Arkansas Intercollegiate Conference. Parker’s teams there went 3-7, 4-6 and 3-7. Ouachita played as a Division II independent the first season and was a member of the Lone Star Conference the next two years.

Parker decided that the college job needed a younger man. But high school football? That was another matter.

He went to Bearden at the start of the 1999 season and compiled a 26-16-4 record in four seasons as the Bear head coach.

In 2003, Parker returned to where it had begun, Fordyce. He was the coach there from 2003-05, but he couldn’t reproduce the magic of the 1950s. The Redbugs were 11-20-1 when Parker resigned at the end of the 2005 season.

Most people thought Parker had finally retired for good, but he was talked into heading up the tiny program at Woodlawn in 2008. His team there went 7-4.

After Parker’s wife was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, he moved to Saline County to be near his son. Benton Harmony Grove was starting a football program, and Parker had an interest in helping out.

“About three or four days after I moved here, the school decided it wanted to have football,” Parker told an interviewer in 2013. “I called the superintendent, and he said he would hire me today if I would come. It just worked out that way. I work half a day. … What I’m doing is more like babysitting. Really and truly, it’s not like coaching because it’s the hardest thing I’ve ever tried to do: Teach kids to play football who never have played before. My heart played out two years ago.”

Parker had what’s known as a ventricular assist device inserted in 2010 to help fight congestive heart failure. In 2011, a mechanical pump was inserted.

“I was really too old for them to do it, but I had a doctor that I had coached when I coached in high school the first time,” Parker later told an interviewer. “He was a noted heart surgeon, and he told the doctors here: ‘He can survive. Don’t you worry about him.’ He talked them into doing it.”

Parker’s first team at Harmony Grove went 2-8 in 2010. The second and third teams were 4-6.

Parker finished with a record of 28-35 in six seasons at the school.

His combined record as a college and high school head coach in a career that began in 1953 and ended in 2015 was 322-221-13.

He told the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette in October: “I struggle walking. I struggle standing. I struggle doing everything. To be honest, I’m worn out.”

Back in 2003, Parker had told the Pine Bluff Commercial: “No matter how bad we are, I always feel like there’s going to be something happen to give us a chance to win. What I don’t do now is I don’t get nervous before a game because I know we’ve prepared well. I can honestly say that once the game begins, I don’t know the difference between Neyland Stadium and Redbug Field.”

He was born to be a coach.

Like Paul “Bear” Bryant, he was dead within weeks of his final game.

 

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Mincemeat pie (and other Christmas treats)

Monday, December 21st, 2015

My father always insisted on a mincemeat pie for Christmas.

My wife, a south Texas native, had never heard of mincemeat until she met me.

Maybe it’s the English roots on my father’s side of the family that caused us to like mincemeat so much.

My wife is Hispanic, and tamales were the food item in her family that told you that Christmas was approaching. The first time I asked her to buy a mincemeat pie for Christmas, I was met with a blank stare.

“If you didn’t grow up with mincemeat, chances are you’re totally confused about what this food actually is,” Julie Thomson wrote for The Huffington Post. “From the sound of it, one would assume the meat was the main ingredient, but that would be entirely wrong. Well, almost entirely wrong.

“Mincemeat is (more often than not) just a mixture of chopped, boozy, spiced fruit that is widely popular in the United Kingdom. It is traditionally served around Christmas, often baked into pies. In order to understand how this spiced fruit recipe came to be called mincemeat, we have to take a look at history. Mincemeat was first created as a way of preserving meat — usually mutton — without having to salt or smoke it. It became a Christmas staple when the Crusaders returned home in the 12th century with cinnamon, cloves and nutmeg. The three spices used in this recipe were symbolic of the gifts given to the baby Jesus by the Magi, therefore linking this recipe to Christmas. The spices contain antimicrobial properties that helped keep the meat through winter (and also probably masked any flavors of old meat). The meat used was normally finely chopped — also known as minced in cooking lingo — and that’s where this pastry got its name.

“By the 20th century, beef suet replaced the meat in most mincemeat, and the fruits (such as apples, dried raisins and candied citrus) took center stage — always with booze like brandy. These days sometimes even the suet is taken out and replaced with butter.”

Translated to modern English, here’s a recipe from the 16th century: “Pie filling of mutton or beef must be finely minced and seasoned with pepper and salt and a little saffron to color it. Add a good quantity of suet or marrow, a little vinegar, prunes, raisins and dates. Put in the fattest of the broth of salted beef. And if you want royal pastry, take butter and egg yolks and combine them with flour to make the paste.”

King Henry V of England served mincemeat pie at his coronation in 1413. Oliver Cromwell considered Christmas a pagan holiday, and traditional mincemeat pie was banned for a time. King Charles II restored Christmas as a holiday when he ascended the throne in 1660, and mincemeat pie returned to England.

Mincemeat remains popular in a number of former parts of the British empire such as Australia, New Zealand and Canada.

“Roasted leg of lamb tastes like Easter, turkey and dressing tastes like Thanksgiving and mincemeat pie tastes like Christmas, not just rich in flavor but in Christian tradition, Americana and history,” writes Lauren Fink. “This old world pie needs a revival in America, to the delight of our taste buds and historic sensibilities.”

I agree.

This will be my first Christmas without either of my parents (Dad died in the spring of 2011, but my mother continued to be a part of our Christmas celebrations; she died the week of Thanksgiving this year). My sister will be making a mincemeat pie for this Friday as we continue a family tradition.

As noted in an earlier Southern Fried blog post, a large fruitcake shipped from the Collin Street Bakery in Corsicana, Texas, also will be on the table at our home. These cakes have been a Christmas tradition in our family for as long as I can remember.

Though it’s not a part of our family’s holiday menu, no Christmas ever approaches without me thinking of the Helena oyster loaf. That’s because I was a fan of Richard Allin, the Helena native who wrote columns for the Arkansas Gazette and later the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. Allin, who died in October 2007 at age 77, would extol the virtues of the oyster loaf in print each December.

This was his recipe for an authentic Helena oyster loaf: “Slice the top from a long pullman loaf. Remove all the crumb from the loaf, leaving only a boat made of the crust. Brush melted butter generously over the inside of the loaf and on the inside of the top, and toast under the oven broiler until pleasantly browned. Roll oysters in cornmeal and fry until golden brown and crispy. Assemble lemon wedges, green olives with pits, tomato ketchup and mustard pickle.

“After the loaf is toasted and the oysters fried, place a layer of oysters in the bottom of the loaf. Put in two or three lemon wedges and as many olives. Repeat the process, adding from time to time some of the ketchup and the mustard pickle. Continue until the loaf is filled, and top the oysters off with more lemon wedges, olives, ketchup and mustard pickle. Add the latter two items with care. If you wish, you may add them after the loaf is sliced and served. But if you do, you are not making the Helena version of the oyster loaf.

“After the loaf is assembled, cap it with the buttered and toasted top and put it back in the oven to heat for a while. When ready to serve, slice it across in about two-inch-wide sections. A chilled white wine goes well. So does beer. This is a Christmas eve dish. If you eat it at any other time, you do so at your own risk.”

Mustard pickles are no longer easy to find. The recipe consists of cucumbers and onions pickled in a mustard sauce along with turmeric and celery seed.

“The tradition of eating the oyster loaf on Christmas eve got started, in my family at least, many years ago when my grandfather would stop by an old Helena restaurant-delicatessen and pick up a couple of these specialties,” Allin wrote. “In those days, that particular restaurant made its own bread, a type of which was the long pullman loaf, named, I suppose, because it had the same dimensions as the railroad car. By the time I was invited into the family, it had become the practice to make the oyster loaf at home, although still using the restaurant’s singular bread. It was more economical, and the homemade loaf was more generously treated. So many good traditions have passed. The restaurant no longer makes either oyster loaves or bread. About the best we can do in Helena these days is … well, never mind.

“The tradition of the oyster loaf perhaps came up the river from New Orleans. It is known there as the mediatrice, so named because it was frequently brought home by wayward husbands who wanted to make peace with their angry wives. In Helena, it was simply a seasonal food item. Other methods were used to restore family tranquility. By the time the oyster loaf had arrived in Helena from New Orleans, there had been a few changes in its structure. The New Orleans mediatrice was simply a hollowed-out, buttered and toasted loaf of French bread into which mealed and fried oysters were piled. The top was put back on, and the delicacy was then sliced into serving portions.”

I’m drawn to these six words written by Allin: “So many good traditions have passed.”

I’m a traditionalist, especially at Christmas.

That’s why there will be a mincemeat pie and a Corsicana fruitcake at our home Friday.

 

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Fruitcake lovers unite

Friday, December 18th, 2015

There will be a large fruitcake at our table on Christmas day.

Yes, a fruitcake.

Enough already with the fruitcake jokes.

The fruitcakes shipped from the Collin Street Bakery in Corsicana, Texas, have been a Christmas tradition in our family for as long as I can remember.

The recipe for this fruitcake was brought to Texas from Wiesbaden, Germany, by a baker named Gus Weidmann in 1896. Weidmann and a business partner, Tom McElwee, built a thriving bakery in Corsicana.

The Collin Street Bakery website tells their story this way: “The shy, perfectionist Gus Weidmann ran his little kitchen in this newly formed Collin Street Bakery and made ready for the busy Christmas seasons. At the same time, Tom McElwee was sending out letters, making sales trips and lining up an ever-growing list of bakery customers. They made a nice team and enjoyed such success that their once anonymous Texas fruitcake and pecan cake became a delicacy to be sought after by folks from every corner of the globe.

“In 1906, after outgrowing the original Collin Street Bakery in its 10th year, Tom and Gus put up a structure of such ambitious size that Tom was able to make its whole second floor into an elite private hotel. Only a flamboyant patron of the Corsicana Opera House could have pulled it off; one like Tom, who was accustomed to attracting the nation’s best performers to this oil and rail center, home of the first two oil strikes west of the Mississippi.

“Interestingly, Mobil and Texaco were both founded here in Corsicana. Tom formed instant friendships with the visiting celebrities and made sure that every guest who boarded the outbound train had an extra cake in his travel trunk. Folks who worked at the bakery back then remembered getting glimpses of Will Rogers, Enrico Caruso, Terrible-Tempered John McGraw and Gentleman Jim Corbett. They remembered the great John Ringling and told of the afternoon when Ringling’s whole circus traipsed over and ordered Christmas cakes for circus friends in every corner of the world. It brought a few nostalgic sighs when Tom McElwee’s glamorous digs were transformed, room by room, into an area of executives and clerks and jangling phones. But prosperity clears its own path. The Collin Street Bakery was getting waist deep in a new and thriving mail-order business.

“Though Tom McElwee and Gus Weidmann died less than a year apart, the management of the Collin Street Bakery passed smoothly into experienced hands. Nothing fundamental in its operation has changed. Cakes are still baked to order and shipped directly from Corsicana.”

Corsicana is 58 miles southeast of Dallas at the junction of Interstate 45, U.S. Highway 75 and U.S. Highway 287. It was established in 1848 to serve as the county seat of Navarro County, a new county named after Texas Revolution hero Jose Antonio Navarro. He suggested that the county seat be named after the island of Corsica, where his parents had been born.

In November 1871, the Houston & Texas Central Railroad came to Corsicana. The Handbook of Texas reports: “The coming of the railroad brought numerous settlers and new merchants, among them the Sanger brothers, the Padgitts and others who established stores near the new depot on East Collin Street. The construction of the Texas & St. Louis Railway (later the Cotton Belt) in 1880 prompted further commercial development, and by the mid-1880s Corsicana had become the leading trading and shipping center for a large area of the northern blacklands.”

Yet another boost to growth came in the 1890s.

“By the early 1890s, the rapidly expanding city had outgrown its water supply, and the following year civic leaders formed the Corsicana Water Development Co. with the aim of tapping a shallow artesian well in the area,” according to The Handbook of Texas. “Drilling began in the spring of 1894, but instead of water, the company hit a large pocket of oil and gas. The find — the first significant discovery of oil west of the Mississippi River — led to Texas’ first oil boom. Within a short time, nearly every lot in the town and in the surrounding area was under lease, and wells were being drilled within the city limits.”

The first oil refinery in the state was built at Corsicana in 1897.

By 1898, there were 287 wells in the Corsicana Field.

J.S. Cullinan founded the Cullinan Oil Co. That became the Magnolia Oil Co. which, in turn, became Mobil.

Another local company, the Texas Co., later became Texaco.

When Gus Weidmann showed up in 1896, he was coming to one of Texas’ wealthiest cities. In fact, Corsicana was among the first cities in Texas to use natural gas for lighting and fuel.

The Collin Street Bakery fruitcakes aren’t the only well-known food product to have started in Corsicana. Lyman T. Davis began selling his chili from a wagon downtown in 1895. He started canning the chili in 1921 and called it Wolf Brand in honor of his pet wolf. The name of the wolf was Kaiser Bill.

In 1923, a second oil deposit known as the Powell Field was discovered, and a new boom period began. The Handbook of Texas notes: “Within a few months, Corsicana’s population swelled to unprecedented heights. Some estimates placed the number of residents as high as 28,000 during the peak months of the oil frenzy. Construction transformed the face of the city, and stoplights were installed for the first time to control the increased traffic. During the height of the Powell Field boom, 550 wells in and around the city produced an estimated 354,000 barrels per day.”

Corsicana now has about 24,000 residents.

With all due respect to the sales ability of Tom McElwee, John Ringling must get much of the credit for making the fruitcakes from Corsicana popular across the country. Born in 1866 in Iowa as the son of a German immigrant who made harnesses, Ringling was one of seven brothers (there was one sister). Five of the brothers formed a traveling show in 1884. In 1889, they moved from animal-drawn wagons to railroad cars, becoming the first circus to truly travel the country. By 1925, John Ringling’s wealth was estimated at $200 million. He was one of the investors in the original Madison Square Garden in New York.

He loved the Corsicana fruitcakes and wanted his friends to experience them.

Fruitcakes have been around since the Roman times, when preserved fruits, honey and spices were mixed with barley mash. They soon spread across Europe and later became popular in the American colonies. In England, fruitcakes usually are known as plum cakes.

Collin Street Bakery relied on the local availability of pecans, leading to the term “nutty as a fruitcake,” which was coined in the 1930s.

Johnny Carson often would joke that there was only one fruitcake in world, passed from one family to another each Christmas.

But you can bet that the Corsicana fruitcake from the Collin Street Bakery, still using Gus Weidmann’s recipe, will be on our table once again this Christmas.

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The Louisiana Purchase survey

Wednesday, December 9th, 2015

Little Rock attorney John P. Gill has spent years trying to bring attention to one of the most important surveys in the history of Western civilization.

And it began right here in Arkansas, though the vast majority of Arkansans couldn’t tell you anything about it.

Gill worked with former Arkansas Secretary of State Sharon Priest and longtime state employee Ron Maxwell to raise money for a public sculpture that will be installed in 2016 in front of the Statehouse Convention Center in downtown Little Rock.

Michael Warrick, a professor at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, and Louisiana sculptor Aaron Hussey were commissioned to create a worked titled “Straight Lines on a Round World.” At a height of 20 feet, it will be among the largest freestanding glass sculptures in the world.

Gill wrote the entry about the Louisiana Purchase survey for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. He began it this way: “The purchase of the Louisiana Territory from France in 1803 practically doubled the size of the United States, yet little of it was marked off by the American land survey method, which divides land into square tracts, an orderly prerequisite for land ownership in the 19th century. The survey of this vast, new American West began in what would later become the state of Arkansas and is commemorated at Louisiana Purchase State Park on U.S. Highway 49 between Brinkley and Helena. Since Arkansas was first, the survey enabled early sale of land that contributed to Arkansas being the third state admitted into the union west of the Mississippi River (after Louisiana and Missouri).

“The survey of the Louisiana Purchase, ordered during the administration of President James Madison, began shortly after the end of the War of 1812, in part as a means for the federal government to pay its veterans with land. The nation’s greatest asset was land west of the Mississippi River, and it was necessary to survey that land so that it might be apportioned fairly to veterans and sold to settlers and other investors who were already streaming into the trans-Mississippi West.”

In October 1815, surveyors Prospect Robbins and Joseph Brown set out from the Mississippi River.

Robbins began at the mouth of the Arkansas River and headed due north.

Brown began at the mouth of the St. Francis River and headed due west.

“Brown’s survey line is called the baseline, and Robbins’ line is called the fifth principal meridian because it was the fifth north-south line surveyed in the United States,” Gill wrote. “During this period, surveying land was exceptionally difficult work. Using only a compass and a chain, surveyors made their way through the wilderness, stopping every half mile to mark or ‘blaze’ a tree. They carried all of their provisions with them for a task that lasted several months. In the wilderness of the Arkansas Delta where Robbins and Brown worked, the only signs of life were scattered Indian and animal trails.

“On Nov. 10, 1815, Robbins crossed the baseline that had been set by Brown, who already had proceeded to the west of that point. Robbins sent for Brown, who returned to mark this intersection of their surveys as the initial point of the first survey of the American West. From this initial point, which is located in a headwater swamp at the northwest corner of Phillips County, the lands in Arkansas, Missouri, Iowa, North Dakota and part of Minnesota and South Dakota are measured. This initial point is located in the Louisiana Purchase State Park. Brown’s survey line today marks the northern boundary of Phillips County. He continued west to the Arkansas River on Dec. 4, 1815, while another surveyor continued the baseline across what is now known as Baseline Road in Little Rock.

“Robbins traversed the western boundary of Phillips County and continued north, reaching the present-day Missouri border later that month and continuing onward to the Missouri River, where other surveyors continued the meridian to the Canadian border. Several other surveyors followed Robbins and Brown, marking the corners of each square mile using the initial point as their reference. The process took many years, and some surveys were still not complete when Arkansas joined the union in 1836.”

During a recent lunch meeting in downtown Little Rock, Gill told me: “This survey was a key to the growth of the United States. We read all the time about the Lewis and Clark expedition, but Robbins and Brown ought to get recognition. I’m hopeful that the sculpture will at least make people in Arkansas more aware of their history. People will see it and want to read more about the survey. It has taken us years to get to the point of actually commissioning the sculpture, but we finally concentrated and got it done.”

In November 2002, Gill joined 12 other Arkansans in retracing the initial baseline of the Louisiana Purchase on a three-day hike through east Arkansas. He later edited a journal about the expedition that was published in 2004 by the Louisiana Purchase Bicentennial Committee of Arkansas.

“A nation that only recognizes part of its history is not a whole nation,” Gill wrote in the preface to the journal. “A nation that celebrates with selective memory does not practice equal treatment of all its citizens because all of them have their own history. A marker outside Marianna in Lee County locates the home site and grave of John Patterson, Arkansas’ first native-born white child. … The unique history of this Arkansas resident and others similarly situated is not recognized by most Americans and is lost in history.

“Twenty miles southwest of Patterson’s grave is another monument, one that locates the initial point for the first survey of the new West — the Louisiana Purchase. Although the survey enabled the settling of some of the land that doubled the size of the United States, this unique history of Arkansas is not recognized by most Americans and is lost in history. One hundred fifteen miles west of the initial point marker is another monument, one that marks the trail of explorers William Dunbar and George Hunter at Hot Springs, where their ascent of the Ouachita River culminated. Although these explorers made the first report to Thomas Jefferson of exploration of the Louisiana Purchase (even complete with biological specimens), this unique history of Arkansas is not recognized by most Americans and is lost in history.

“Ninety miles southwest of the Dunbar-Hunter marker is the place near Texarkana where the Spanish army stopped the Freeman-Custis exploration of the Red and Arkansas rivers that was the Southern counterpart to Lewis and Clark. Although Thomas Jefferson’s instructions to both the Lewis and Clark and Freeman and Custis expeditions were nearly identical, and the U.S. Congress initially appropriated more money for Freeman and Custis than for Lewis and Clark, their expedition is not recognized by most Americans and is lost in history.

“In an effort to help this nation recognize its whole history and give equal treatment to Arkansas’ central role in the exploration and settlement of the Louisiana Purchase, 13 Arkansawyers sought to examine just one of these events lost in history and set out to retrace the initial baseline of the Louisiana Purchase on the eve of its bicentennial.”

The long hike took place from Nov. 7-9, 2002.

Of the spot where the three-day expedition began, Gill wrote: “The place where the St. Francis River and Mississippi River join forces is called the mouth of the St. Francis, but that geographic term does not do justice to the beautiful place where the St. Francis meets the father of waters. Reached by Forest Service road through a huge native pecan orchard, a 13-foot circumference native pecan sentry permits entry to this fairyland. The quiet calm of this land belies the power of 484,000 cubic feet of water passing this place each second of every minute of every day. The willow and cottonwood trees reaching from the loess soil and sand blend in perfect harmony with the water, and one standing in this place understands and feels peace.

“It has not always been so. Violent floods have moved the river like the tail of the panther crouching for its prey. This mouth is now one mile downriver from where it lay on Oct. 27, 1815, when Joseph Brown set out on his epic journey to make Thomas Jefferson’s dream of private land ownership come true. At that time the St. Francis made a fishhook to the east and then flowed north to meet the Mississippi; therefore, when Brown set out heading west, he left the mouth, traveled just over two and a half miles and hit the St. Francis again. So he crossed and continued from the west bank. This spot, under a 10-foot circumference American elm, became the starting point for the 2002 expedition on Nov. 7.”

Gill wrote that Crowley’s Ridge “stands in stark contrast to the flat Mississippi Alluvial Plain known as the Delta. Unlike most mountains created by violent upheavals, volcanoes or earthquakes, Crowley’s Ridge is the remains of fine, windblown soil accumulated from ancient time and then eroded by the Delta’s many rivers. The dust-like soil created when ice age glaciers pulverized rocks is called loess. Its susceptibility to erosion created deep ravines with near vertical cliffs as though sliced with a knife. Even an experienced hiker or woodsman is not prepared for the arduous task of crossing the ridge. Most of the journey is a steady climb punctuated by a steep slide and another climb. And another slide. And another. And another in endless succession. The loess soil is extremely loose, making footing difficult.

“Sinkholes beneath the soil can, and did, twist knees and legs when the soil gave way. Fall rains made matters worse. But at least the 2002 expedition did not have to contend with large brass compasses, mules, chains and provisions. In the first half mile from the low road, the baseline traverses six steep elevations; the first as high as a 16-story building. Little is known about Joseph Brown, but he must have been a rather rugged individual for he described Crowley’s Ridge as just ‘very hilly oak land.’

“As much as the terrain is unforgiving, the scenery gives breathtaking beauty. It is much more than oak land, for just the first hill contains a smorgasbord of trees spread among trout lilies; yellow poplar, red buckeye, hornbeam, water oak, cedar, sugar maple, sassafras, cherry bark oak and surprisingly beech, which is at its southern growth range on Crowley’s Ridge. The autumn rainbow of colors set against a blue bird sky lingers in one’s memory.”

In an essay in the journal, naturalist John Morrow wrote: “Our journey drew attention to a gorgeous part of the Natural State, but one not often closely examined. All too often stereotyped as a boring, monotonous region, the trip proved to me that sometimes you just have to slow down to appreciate some things. I have found that any disdain for the Delta comes from people who drive across it at 70 miles per hour, staring at it through tinted glass.”

Though it is one of our smallest state parks, Louisiana Purchase Historic State Park is among my favorite spots in the state parks system. While surveying the boundary between Lee and Phillips counties in 1921, surveyors Tom Jacks and Eldridge Douglas from Helena found witness trees that had been marked by Robbins’ party more than a century earlier. The L’Anguille chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution in Marianna held a ceremony on Oct. 27, 1926, to place a stone marker on the site. The Arkansas Legislature authorized a state park there in 1961, but no money was appropriated. In fact, development did not begin until 1977. Today visitors can walk down a boardwalk through the swamp to the 1926 monument, reading interpretive panels about the Louisiana Purchase, the survey and the Delta. In the modern visitors’ center of the Mississippi River State Park near Marianna, a video features Gill talking about the survey.

The Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture notes that Louisiana Purchase Historic State Park “conserves a rare headwater swamp, located on Little Cypress Creek, and a granite monument standing in the swamp’s interior. … On April 19, 1993, the National Park Service designated the point a National Historic Landmark. … The park’s complex plant community includes species normally associated with swamps such as swamp tupelo, bald cypress, black willow and buttonbush, in proximity with upland species such as sweet gum, mulberry, Nuttall oak and sassafras. Many bird species — such as the prothonotary warbler, the belted kingfisher, the pileated woodpecker and the barred owl — can be observed in the surrounding swamp area.”

Thanks John Gill, Sharon Priest, Ron Maxwell and Arkansas State Parks for not letting us forget the survey that changed America.

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Mom (1925-2015)

Monday, November 23rd, 2015

I knew immediately what the news would be when the telephone rang shortly before 6 a.m. on the first truly cold Sunday morning of the fall.

My wife told me it was Parkway Village calling.

My mom, who had been going downhill since a fall earlier this year resulted in her hip being broken in three places, had died at age 90.

I drove quickly to the facility off Chenal Parkway, called my sister and then sat with Mom while waiting on the funeral home to arrive from Arkadelphia.

It’s Thanksgiving week, and all I could think while I waited with my mother’s body is how thankful I am.

I’m thankful to have grown up in a beautiful state, surrounded by good people.

I’m thankful to have had my father until he died in March 2011 at age 86.

I’m thankful for my wife and two sons.

I’m thankful for my sister and her family.

And I’m thankful to have had Carolyn Caskey Nelson for a mother.

I inherited my love of Arkansas from her. She was born Aug. 21, 1925, to Bess Rex Caskey (yes, my name comes from my maternal grandmother’s last name) and W.J. Caskey in the old White River town of Des Arc, a place filled with colorful characters.

Her father owned the funeral home and hardware store on Main Street (the two businesses went from the name Caskey to Eddins to Garth through the years but still occupy the building my grandfather built almost a century ago), and she was raised in a big house a couple of blocks away on Erwin Street. My grandfather was also a county elected official, and Mom told of trips with him to places across the county, places with names like Tollville, Ulm and Beulah.

The Caskeys were staunch Baptists, and Mom would laugh decades later at the memory of the elderly Catholic lady at Slovak who pointed to my mother and asked in her thick European accent: “Would the child like some wine?”

Mom was a proud daughter of the Grand Prairie, soaking up the traditions and culture of the lower White River region.

The First Baptist Church of Des Arc was just across the street from the Caskey home, and she would spend hours there. In fact, she was at the church practicing with the youth choir for an upcoming Christmas concert when word came on that fateful Sunday afternoon in December 1941 that the Japanese had bombed Pearl Harbor.

Soon, her three older brothers — Bill, Mike and Joe — were out of the country, fighting in the war.

There were three blue stars in the front window of the Caskey home on Erwin Street. It was just my grandparents, my mother and her older sister Ellen Bess, listening to the radio each evening for war news and saying a nightly prayer for those who were far from home.

Her brothers were still gone on May 27, 1943, when my mother spoke at her high school graduation. One of my most treasured possessions is a typed copy of her address that my sister found while cleaning out our family home.

“Most of us have grown up in a period of world-sweeping events,” Mom said that day. “Most of us are being impressed each day with the fact that we are coming out of school in the most critical period of American history. The far-reaching effects of the present great struggle for renewal of the rights of men is an inspiration for anyone. Deep in the heart of every boy or girl lives an ambition to become great. To study the noble deeds and great advancements of others is to long to do something equally as grand ourselves, and we are inspired with a burning desire for some opportunity for the display of heroism or strength of character. We see how far short we are of what seems necessary to do those things.”

She closed by saying: “There was a time long ago when a lonely band of Pilgrims faced fear and cold and hunger on the shore of a new and strange continent. Their inspiration was the cause of justice and freedom. There was a time when a nation struggling to be born almost perished at Valley Forge. There was a time when brother fought brother in America in civil strife. Those times passed, and so will the one in which we now graduate from school. America will again know a day when it will be not only the land we know and love, but a land of richer promise than man today has ever dreamed. In this there is an inspiration for today.”

Her three older brothers (all of whom would return safely from the war and live to ripe, old ages) graduated from Arkansas Tech. But W.J. Caskey — the staunch Baptist — wanted his girls to go to the Baptist school in Arkadelphia. Mom’s older sister had gone there. And my mom followed in the fall of 1943. She excelled in school at what’s now Ouachita Baptist University and after the war met Robert L. “Red” Nelson of Benton, who was returning to Ouachita following service in the U.S. Army Air Forces as a bombardier on a B-17.

Red was a sports star at Ouachita, excelling in football, basketball and baseball. He set what was then a school basketball record for most points in a game at Ouachita, scoring 38 points at a time when high-scoring games were rare. He earned 11 varsity letters — four in football, four in basketball and three in baseball. That was the maximum since Ouachita did not field a baseball team his freshman year.

Mom, meanwhile, was named the Ouachitonian Beauty.

The quarterback and the beauty queen were married on Aug. 11, 1946, at the Caskey home in Des Arc by the Rev. Homer Bradley, pastor of the First Baptist Church.

Mom graduated from college in the spring of 1947 and worked for two local businessmen — Cecil Cupp Sr. and John Malcolm Moore — while my dad finished his senior year at Ouachita. Following Dad’s graduation from college, he was offered the job of head football coach at Newport High School. He accepted the offer, and the young couple headed off to Jackson County, where my mom taught elementary school while Dad coached the Greyhounds.

Their first child — a daughter named Lynda — was born on Oct. 16, 1950.

After three years at Newport, my father joined his older brother, Lowell, in business at Arkadelphia. Dad had become known as one of the state’s up-and-coming young coaches but decided he could better provide for his family as a businessmen. The Nelson brothers built Southwest Sporting Goods Co. into one of the region’s largest providers of athletic supplies to high school and college teams, and my mom served for many years as the company’s business manager.

My dad would spend days at a time on the road calling on high school and college coaches. Mom stayed behind in Arkadelphia to help raise her family.

A son named Bob was born in 1954.

A second son named Rex was born in 1959.

The ultimate test of my mother’s faith and strength came on Feb. 29, 1964, and in the days, months and years that followed.

My parents and Bob were not people who missed Ouachita football and basketball games often. They loved the Tigers, and they had gone to Pine Bluff to watch Coach Bill Vining’s Ouachita basketball team play in the old NAIA District 17 Tournament. They were visiting the home of dear friends from college when a grocery delivery truck backed over my brother, who was playing in front of the house.

My mother held him as they rushed to the hospital, where he died at the age of 9.

As the father of two sons, I cannot imagine how one could go on after watching a 9-year-old child die. But Mom had my father, my sister and me to care for so she persevered, leaning on her strong Christian faith.

If the doors to the First Baptist Church of Arkadelphia were open, we were usually there. Mom could be found each Sunday morning with my father in their usual seats in the balcony. He would look at his watch if the sermon were running long and the Dallas Cowboys had a noon kickoff. Mom would tap him on the leg, her way of asking him not to make a scene just because the preacher — Sam Reeves, Dan Blake or Nathan Porter — was going a bit long.

Mom and Dad celebrated their 64th anniversary on Aug. 11, 2010. They were a couple in the truest sense of the word. She was never quite the same after my father died on March 3, 2011.

Mom would be embarrassed by all these words I’ve written tonight. She was never one to draw attention to herself.

As we told stories at home on Sunday, my wife noted that Mom was considerate of others even in death. Though she longed to be reunited with Bob and my dad, it was if she had waited until my football broadcasting duties were over for the season (I did my final high school radio scoreboard show of the year on Friday night and Ouachita broadcasts had ended a week earlier) and everyone was headed home. Both of our sons already were scheduled to come home from college on Tuesday, so Wednesday’s memorial service won’t require a special trip.

Mom was one of those people who would be up offering another cup of coffee or another glass of tea during meals, leading me to often cry out: “Mom, please sit down and eat your meal.”

In her honor Thursday, I think I’ll stand around pouring tea during the Thanksgiving meal.

Our family’s faith teaches us that it’s not “farewell forever.”

It’s simply “farewell for now.” So farewell for now, Mom.

We’ll celebrate the life of Carolyn Caskey Nelson this Thanksgiving.

My hope is that your Thanksgiving is as filled with gratitude as the one we plan to celebrate at our home.

You see, I won the lottery when it came to having great parents. I will think of them daily for as long as I live.

Thanks for everything, Mom. I love you.

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Ravine time

Wednesday, November 4th, 2015

Those who know me well know that my favorite day of the year is the Saturday of the Battle of the Ravine.

There have been four Great American Conference championship trophies awarded in football since the GAC came into existence, and all four trophies reside in Arkadelphia — two at Ouachita Baptist University and two at Henderson State University.

Because both football programs have been good in recent years, this unique rivalry has received increased national attention.

Last month, Champion, the official magazine of the NCAA, featured the Battle of the Ravine in a story titled “The short walk.”

Jared Thompson wrote: “One college’s water turned purple. Across the road, red marshmallows rained from the sky. A future state governor set the other school’s party ablaze. One time, a homecoming queen was kidnapped. And no one recalls where the drag queens buried the tiger’s tail.

“This fall marks the 89th edition of the Battle of the Ravine. The pranks defining Division II’s oldest football series have been legendary. The football games have been extraordinary, too. The rivalry pits two schools separated by two lanes of U.S. Highway 67, over which the visiting team walks to its opponent’s field on game day in the shortest road trip in football. The ancestries supporting either side are entwined tighter than the kudzu that suffocates the nearby ravine from which the rivalry’s namesake was found. In Arkadelphia, you grow up cheering either for red or for purple. Yet credits transfer freely between the two schools, and students from one often take classes at the other. Where else might you see the starting quarterback sit next to an opposing lineman in biology class?”

When the writer called me for a quote, I told him that this is the small college version of Alabama-Auburn, a rivalry that divides families. As an Arkadelphia native, I also pointed out that it’s Christmas, New Year’s, Thanksgiving and Valentine’s Day all rolled into one for that town.

“Tiger fans still express zeal about the 1975 matchup,” Thompson wrote. “Ouachita converted a fourth-and-25 play by one inch and scored on its final drive to upset a previously undefeated Henderson team, 21-20. Reddies, meanwhile, point to as recently as 2013, when they emerged victorious after a triple-overtime affair to complete a second consecutive undefeated season. Henderson leads the series 42-40-6. The first game was played in 1895; the matchup was resurrected in 1907 and interrupted for World Wars I and II. Then the pranks and vandalism escalated, and officials suspended the game for 12 years after the 1951 contest. Nowadays, when game week arrives, school signs are wrapped in protective plastic, garbage bags or tarps.”

In the late 1940s, the game was promoted as the Biggest Little Football Game in America, a moniker initially used on the East Coast for the NCAA Division III rivalry between Williams College and Amherst College, who first played in 1884. The Nov. 10, 2007, game between Williams and Amherst in Williamstown, Mass., was selected as the location for ESPN’s popular “College GameDay” program. One of these days, the folks at ESPN will make the wise decision to bring that program to Arkadelphia and show the only time in college football in which the visiting team walks to a road game.

Yes, early on the afternoon of Nov. 14, state troopers will stop traffic on Highway 67, and the Reddies will walk across to play at Ouachita’s Cliff Harris Stadium after having put on their uniforms in their own dressing room. Shortly after 4 p.m., the troopers will stop traffic again, and the Reddies will trudge back across the highway. Of the 88 battles between the two schools, the game has been decided by a touchdown or less 39 times with Ouachita holding a 19-14-6 advantage in those games. Last year’s game was a bit of an anomaly in that there was a 21-point final margin. Ouachita won 41-20 in 39-degree weather at Henderson’s Carpenter-Haygood Stadium en route to an undefeated regular season.

Some of the best national publicity ever received by the Battle of the Ravine came two years ago, a few days before that triple-overtime game. Gregg Doyel, then of CBSSports.com, wrote a lengthy piece titled “Battle of Ravine: Can’t sum up D-II’s oldest rivalry in a football game.”

Doyel wrote: “It’s not easy to make a mark with a prank because the best ones have been done. So have the worst. There’s the tiger on campus at Ouachita, for example. For years it was missing a tail because kids at Henderson would sneak over and clip it off and bury it somewhere. Ouachita would replace it. The kids at Henderson would clip the new tail and bury it somewhere else. Ouachita eventually built a fence around its signature statue, but it had a smaller one at the school library. A young man dressed in drag — everyone swears that’s what happened — talked the Ouachita security officer into giving him the tiger for its ‘regular cleaning.’ The statue came back clean. And without a tail.”

Doyel went on to tell the famous (famous in Arkadelphia at least) story of Ann Strickland, the Ouachita homecoming queen: “Ann Strickland grew up in the shadow of both schools. She attended Ouachita but knew lots of kids at Henderson, which is why she got in the car with a few of them in late November 1946, shortly after being named the Ouachita homecoming queen. The Battle of the Ravine was in two days. Ouachita’s homecoming queen had just been kidnapped by Henderson.

“The kidnapped Ouachita homecoming queen was dating Ouachita star defensive back Bill Vining, so it wasn’t just the town that was looking for Ann Strickland — it was the team, too. Vining and teammate Ike Sharp got word that Strickland was being held in Arkadelphia at the Caddo Hotel, and they pounded on doors looking for her. Good thing they didn’t find her. According to legend, Ike Sharp was wearing overalls. According to legend, he was hiding a shotgun under his clothes.”

The “friendly” kidnapping had seen Strickland entertained at a house on Lake Hamilton. She was returned before the game, which Ouachita won, 26-16.

Following a scoreless tie in 1947, Ouachita won again in 1948. In 1949, Henderson led 14-0 in the fourth quarter.

Doyel wrote: “Enter Ike Sharp. The guy with the overalls and the shotgun. Sharp successfully booted three onside kicks — the last one just for spite — as the Tigers scored three times in the final 10 minutes to win, 17-14.

“Move ahead to 1975, to a game many consider the greatest in series history. By then Bill Vining — boyfriend of the kindnapped homecoming queen — was the basketball coach at Ouachita, which now plays in Bill Vining Arena. Well, by 1975, Bill and Ann Vining’s son was the quarterback on the Ouachita football team. That year Henderson came in at 9-0, a game ahead of Ouachita at 8-1. In the final minute, Ouachita trailed 20-14 and faced fourth-and-25 when Bill Vining Jr. completed a 25-yard pass to Gary Reese. Two plays later, he threw a touchdown to Ken Stuckey, and Ouachita won 21-20 to take Henderson’s spot in the national playoffs.

“Ann Strickland Vining died in August 2009. Over the years the homecoming queen’s house up on a hill had become a hangout spot for kids in Arkadelphia. They learned to swim in the Vining pool. On snow days they trooped up the Vining hill with sleds. Some of those kids went to Ouachita. Some went to Henderson.”

I was one of those kids, having grown up a block from the Vining home in the neighborhood known as Ouachita Hills.

How deep are the family ties at these schools?

David Sharp, one of my closest friends and the Ouachita athletic director since 1999, is the son of the aforementioned Ike Sharp. Our fathers played football together at Ouachita in the 1940s. When my dad accepted the job of head football coach at Newport High School following his graduation from Ouachita in the spring of 1948, it was Ike Sharp who drove my parents to Jackson County since they didn’t own a car.

David and his older brother, Paul, played in the Battle of the Ravine and later coached in the series as Ouachita assistants. Each year when Ouachita and Southwestern Oklahoma meet on the gridiron, they’re playing for the Paul Sharp Trophy, named in honor of the late coach who led Southwestern Oklahoma to an NAIA national championship.

During his first year as athletic director in 1999, David had to deal with an incident that became known as Trashcam. A Henderson graduate assistant coach took a video camera into Arkadelphia’s Central Park, which overlooks the Ouachita practice fields. As he was taping the Tiger practice, the graduate assistant was seen by a Ouachita player. The cameraman, realizing he had been spotted, sped away in his car, leaving the camera in a nearby trash can. When the camera was found with a Henderson identification tag on it, David removed the tape and returned the camera to Henderson. It was the proper thing to do. Though the rivalry is intense, these folks have to live with each other all year. They sit in the same pews at church and find themselves next to each other in the waiting room at the doctor’s office.

To illustrate how families are divided by this rivalry, I give you none other than Cliff Harris, the former Dallas Cowboy star for whom Ouachita’s new stadium is named. Both Cliff and his father played for Ouachita. But his mother was a graduate of Henderson.

Though the stands and press box are new, the field at Ouachita is where it has been since the early 1960s. Even though the team for which I broadcast lost both times, two of the finest football games I’ve ever seen were the previous two Battles of the Ravine on that field.

Two years ago was the aforementioned three-overtime game as Henderson went undefeated in the regular season and Ouachita finished 7-3. The Reddies came in ranked fourth nationally in NCAA Division II by the American Football Coaches Association. Ouachita was only three or four plays away from being undefeated after close losses to Harding and Southern Arkansas.

This was a battle between two teams that simply refused to lose. Ouachita had Henderson down to fourth down twice in the second overtime — one play from victory — and both times the talented Reddie quarterback Kevin Rodgers completed passes that few other players in Division II could have completed. Even in defeat, Ouachita quarterback Benson Jordan (the grandson of former Ouachita head coach and Arkansas Sports Hall of Fame inductee Buddy Benson) played the best game of his career. It was a pleasure just to say you attended that game.

Four years ago, Ouachita had already wrapped up the first Great American Conference championship. The Reddies roared to a 41-17 lead in the third quarter behind the play of Rodgers, who was a freshman at the time. People began heading for the exits at that point.

Then, Ouachita quarterback Casey Cooper hit wide receiver Brett Reece for a six-yard touchdown. Next, Cooper found tight end Phillip Supernaw for an eight-yard touchdown. Finally, sophomore tailback Chris Rycraw scored on a 12-yard run with 3:47 left to make it a one-possession game, 41-36.

On the kickoff, Henderson fumbled, and Ouachita’s Ryan Newsom recovered at the Reddie 29. Henderson held on downs, and the Reddies got the ball back with 2:15 remaining. Henderson needed just one first down to be able to run out the clock. That first down never came. Christian Latoof’s punt carried 35 yards, and Ouachita took over at its 47 with 43 seconds on the A.U. Williams Field clock.

Cooper completed a 13-yard pass to Rycraw. Then, a 29-yard pass to Reece gave the Tigers the ball at the Henderson 11. On third-and-five from the Reddie six, Cooper completed a pass to Reece, who was pulled down a yard away from the end zone. A Cooper pass on first-and-goal was broken up by Chuck Obi.

The clock showed six-tenths of a second remaining. There was time for one play.

Rycraw got the ball on a dive up the middle. There was a huge pile at the goal line. None of the officials signaled touchdown, though fans on the home side thought Rycraw had scored. Henderson had held on, 41-36.

That played will be debated as long as anyone is still alive who attended the game. Henderson fans will tell you it rates among the greatest games in the history of the series. Ouachita fans will insist that Rycraw scored.

I’m a Ouachita man so, of course, I’ll tell you that the 1975 game was the best. In fact, it’s the best college football game I’ve ever seen, at any level.

I usually arrive at the stadium three hours in advance of a Battle of the Ravine to prepare for the broadcast. It was brutally cold as I got out of the car at Carpenter-Haygood Stadium last year, and the skies were cloudy. All I could think was: “It feels just like 1975.”

You see, the Battle of the Ravine and I go way back.

I was a high school student in 1975 and was on the Ouachita sideline that day.

I’m 56 now and still feel like a kid on Christmas morning when Battle of the Ravine day arrives.

It all started on Thanksgiving Day in 1895 as Ouachita defeated what was then known as Arkansas Methodist College by a final score of 8-0 on the Ouachita side of the ravine.

Long may it continue.

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The Buddy Benson legacy

Friday, September 11th, 2015

We will honor the legacy of the late Buddy Benson in Arkadelphia on Saturday night shortly before the Tigers of Ouachita Baptist University take on Southeastern Oklahoma.

It’s entirely fitting that Ouachita officials chose this game to change the name of A.U. Williams Field to Benson-Williams Field. That’s because it was against Southeastern Oklahoma that Buddy Benson got his first victory as a college head coach in 1965. And it was against Southeastern Oklahoma that he achieved his 100th victory.

Benson’s 162-140-8 record in 31 seasons as the head coach at Ouachita is remarkable when one considers how poor the facilities were in those years and how little money he had to spend on his program. Benson rarely had more than two or three full-time assistant coaches. Most high school coaching staffs in the state were larger than what Benson had to work with at Ouachita.

Still, he produced 16 all-America and more than 200 all-conference players. Almost all of his players graduated, moving on to success in business, medicine, law, education and other professions.

Dozens of them will be at the stadium Saturday night to see him honored.

I wrote a lot of what follows after the coach’s death in April 2011, but it’s worth repeating.

Buddy Benson’s recruiting strategy was based on quality rather than quantity, not only physical quality but also mental and moral excellence. His players knew they were expected to do well in class and were expected to graduate in four years.

Sitting in the den of his Arkadelphia home one day, I asked him why he had stayed at Ouachita for decades despite the lack of funding and the crumbling facilities.

He answered: “There’s just something special about this school. You can see it in the students and feel it when you walk around the campus. We have a high class of individuals going to school here. If a kid can stick it out with us for four years, he will end up being a pretty high-class person himself.”

Former Ouachita President Dan Grant called Benson “a dream coach for a small private university. I taught for 22 years at Vanderbilt, and the chancellor would have given his right arm to have a coach with Benson’s record of accomplishments.”

Former Ouachita President Ben Elrod said: “I never thought of Buddy Benson working for me or, for that matter, for Ouachita in the years that I was president. He had his own inner compass, which he consulted for his sense of direction as a coach and as a man. The results verified the accuracy of the compass in the quality of his life. We were friends who respected each other.”

I was raised just down the street from the Ouachita stadium and practice field. From the time I was old enough to walk, fall afternoons were spent watching my beloved Tigers practice.

I was in awe of him.

Here’s how Arkansas Democrat sports editor Fred Morrow put it in a column after the Tigers won a share of the Arkansas Intercollegiate Conference championship in 1975: “His athletes are going to go to class. They’re not going to abuse (or even get caught using) tobacco or alcohol, and they’re going to keep their hair nice and neat, and they’re going to say yes sir and no sir. Oh, they’re also going to receive degrees.”

Benson was fond of saying, “I’m not running a popularity contest.”

Coming out of De Queen High School, Benson was among the most highly recruited running backs in the country. He signed with the University of Oklahoma. Coach Bud Wilkinson’s teams won 47 consecutive games between 1953 and 1957. But Buddy Benson missed his home state and decided to transfer to the University of Arkansas, where he helped lead the Razorbacks to a share of the 1954 Southwest Conference championship, an 8-3 record and a berth in the Cotton Bowl against Georgia Tech.

It was Benson who threw the 66-yard touchdown pass to Preston Carpenter at Little Rock’s War Memorial Stadium to lead the Razorbacks to a 6-0 victory over nationally ranked Ole Miss. The late Orville Henry, the longtime sports editor of the Arkansas Gazette, later would describe what was known as the Powder River Play as the school’s most famous play because it put the Arkansas program on the map and gave the Razorbacks a statewide following.

Following his college graduation in the spring of 1956, Benson was offered a professional contract with the Pittsburgh Steelers. He turned down that offer (NFL rookies made very little back in those days) to try his hand at coaching high school football.

Benson took a job at Lewisville in far south Arkansas, and his first team went 10-1. His second team was 7-1-2, and Benson was being listed as one of the hottest young coaches in the state. He needed to provide for his family, though, and coaching high school sports in Arkansas wasn’t a way to make a good living in the 1950s. He decided to sell automobiles for his father-in-law.

He told the sports editor of the Texarkana newspaper: “I was getting a better deal going into the automobile business. It’s just one of those things. I had the opportunity to go, and I couldn’t pass it up. As much as I like it here, I have to make a living for my family.”

The sports editor Benson was talking to was Wick Temple, who would go on to become a top executive in New York for The Associated Press.

Temple wrote in his column back then: “His was the model small school coaching situation. He produced fine athletes and a fine athletic program. He had a good record and no difficulties with anyone, much less the school board. But he quit. He left what had taken him 10 years of playing and coaching to achieve.”

He poured his heart into being the best car salesman in the South, but he wasn’t happy.

In the summer of 1961, Benson showed up at the annual coaching clinic in Little Rock to look for a job. He wanted to find his way back into coaching. A friend told him that Ouachita’s head coach, Rab Rodgers, needed an assistant. It didn’t pay much, but Benson didn’t care. He found Rodgers and was offered the job. Benson moved to Arkadelphia that summer and never left.

Rodgers decided to get out of coaching following the 1964 season and devote his time to being Ouachita’s full-time athletic director. Benson was promoted to head coach, but it was a risky proposition. Few people believed that Ouachita, a Southern gridiron power in the early 1900s, could win again in football. Benson’s friends told him that he had ruined his career by taking on an impossible task.

The school’s president, Dr. Ralph Phelps, had admitted in a speech to the Ouachita student body a few years earlier that “Ouachita, after having been at the pinnacle of athletic glory, has sunk about as low as a school can go without dropping competition altogether.”

In fact, Ouachita had experienced just two winning seasons the previous 16 years.

Having that context helps you understand how amazing it was that Benson didn’t have a single losing season in his first 12 years as head coach.

He worked his magic quickly. By his second year, the Tigers had captured a share of the AIC championship. Benson did it with players who were a reflection of their leader. They wore suits on road trips, they maintained a clean-cut appearance at all times and they played the game cleanly.

To his face, of course, his players only referred to him as “Coach Benson.”

When they were talking about him, though, they called him The Man.

The Man turned boys into men. That’s why so many of them will be in Arkadelphia on Saturday. They had a strong loyalty to this tough taskmaster who would accept nothing less than their best.

“Suck it up,” he would tell them.

He would remind them of the “difference between pain and injury.”

He would walk up and down the practice field during August two-a-days and chant: “It’s hard, but it’s fair. You had a good home, you should have stayed there.”

The most famous of Buddy Benson’s players, Cliff Harris, said his college coach “taught us to achieve at levels we didn’t believe were possible. At critical moments in my life, I’ve thought of Coach Benson and the things he taught me. It was his influence that allowed me to step it up a notch at those important times.”

Another former player, Jim Crane, said: “One of the proudest accomplishments in my life is to have played four years for Coach Benson. He was a constant in my life. I could always count on him to be there, and he always took care of his boys. He was The Man and my friend. I am a better man for his presence in my life. I loved him as my second father.”

Speaking of second fathers, I wrote this on the day Buddy Benson died, less than two months after I had lost the other major influence in my life, my father: “On the night my father died — as I waited at the Little Rock nursing home for the funeral home personnel to arrive from Arkadelphia and pick up his body — the first call I received on my cell phone was from Coach Benson.

“‘Are you all right?’ he asked me ‘Do you need me to come up there?’

“‘No sir,’ I replied. ‘I’ll be OK.’

“You see, he had taught me long ago to ‘suck it up’ in tough times. I have no doubt, though, that he would have been in the car headed to Little Rock within minutes had I said I needed him.”

Just as he was there for his former players, he was always there for me.

That’s why there’s nowhere I rather be Saturday night than the newly named Benson-Williams Field.

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“I say good-bye”

Friday, August 28th, 2015

“To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven” — Ecclesiastes 3:1.

There’s an empty nest at the Nelson house.

On Tuesday of last week, Melissa pulled out of Waco, Texas, where she had helped set up our oldest son, Austin, in his garage apartment. He will be obtaining his master’s degree at Baylor University.

Our youngest son, Evan, went with Melissa to help his brother move in. Melissa and Evan arrived back home in Little Rock that Tuesday night, and Wednesday was a whirlwind for them as Evan prepared to begin college at Ouachita Baptist University in Arkadelphia.

On Thursday, Melissa moved Evan into his dorm room at Ouachita.

By that Thursday night, it was strangely quiet at our home.

As they say in the Westerns right before the Indians attack: “It’s quiet. Too quiet.”

The quiet had been shattered in February of 1993. At the time, I was the political editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, and we were in the first crazy weeks of the Clinton administration in Washington. I was in charge of our three full-time reporters in the nation’s capital. I also was in charge of three full-time reporters at the state Capitol, where Jim Guy Tucker was in the middle of his first legislative session as governor. As if that weren’t enough, late nights and weekends were being spent at the office writing a biography of Hillary Rodham Clinton. The 16-hour day at the newspaper office had become the norm.

The news stories were lined up to be edited late that gray winter afternoon when Melissa called in a panic. Her water had broken even though the baby wasn’t due for another month.

I looked across my desk at the man who was then the newspaper’s city editor, Ray Hobbs, and said: “Ray, you’re going to have to edit these stories. I need to get home.”

As it turned out, it was the only icy night of the winter. The bridges were beginning to freeze as I headed west on Interstate 630, and it took me far longer than normal to reach our apartment on Chenal Parkway. To add to the frustration, when I opened the door, our neighbor’s dachshund raced into the apartment. I had to retrieve it from under a bed while Melissa stood next to the door with her bag in her hand.

It was slow going on the drive to the hospital but — long story short — we made it to Baptist Health Medical Center in plenty of time.

I should have known that Austin would grow up with an interest in politics, government and current events (he was a politics major at Hendrix College, where he obtained his undergraduate degree). Melissa would leave him in a playpen in front a television tuned to CNN, which he would watch as a baby for hours at a time.

His first sentence: “This is CNN.”

I came home following the crash of ValuJet Flight 592 in the Florida Everglades, which had occurred shortly after takeoff from Miami International Airport on May 11, 1996. The CNN coverage had been on for hours

An excited Austin (age 3) stood up in his playpen and screamed at me: “The ValuJet crashed!”

Austin was obsessed with anything having to do with trains and airplanes. In that simpler time before long security lines at airports were the norm, Austin and I would spend Sunday afternoons at Little Rock National Airport, walking from gate to gate as we watched planes arrive and take off.

Austin had a strange name for airplanes. We would later figure out that he was calling them, “I say good-bye.” He had been conditioned by the many good-byes he would hear on those Sunday afternoons at the airport.

Austin was slow to potty train, and it was my mother who came up with the idea that finally worked. She promised Austin that if he were to become potty trained, she would take him on a “real train.”

She was true to her word.

Austin spent the night at his grandparents’ house in Arkadelphia, where one could always hear the freight trains crossing the Ouachita River late at night. My mother would later tell the story of how Austin had a difficult time falling asleep. Each time he heard a train, he would ask: “Did we miss it?”

The next morning, my father took Austin and my mom to the old Missouri Pacific depot in Arkadelphia. Mom and Austin boarded an Amtrak train, going only as far as Texarkana.

My father raced down Interstate 30 to pick them up. They had lunch at Bryce’s Cafeteria (long a family favorite), and an exhausted Austin slept all the way back to Arkadelphia.

Evan came along in January 1997, and there wasn’t as much drama this time around. In fact, his delivery was scheduled.

With a precocious older brother who was good at barking orders, Evan was forced to grow up quickly. At an age when other children were watching cartoons, Evan was watching CNN and ESPN with his brother each morning before school.

Both boys attended school at Holy Souls in Little Rock from pre-kindergarten through the eighth grade.

Austin went on to Catholic High, where he would be the valedictorian before heading to Hendrix on a Governor’s Distinguished Scholarship.

After attending Catholic High in the ninth grade, Evan decided it was time to go his own way. He transferred to Arkansas Baptist High School. Always the extrovert, he made friends easily and was elected the president of the student body for his senior year.

Like his big brother, Evan earned a Governor’s Distinguished Scholarship. But just as he had decided to attend a different high school than his brother, he also decided to attend a different college. Evan makes the third generation of his family to attend Ouachita (my mother is Class of 1947, my father was Class of 1948, my sister is Class of 1972 and I am Class of 1982).

We’re proud of both boys. And we miss them.

With my trips to Arkadelphia in the fall to broadcast football games, I’ll see Evan a lot more than I see Austin. Giving Austin a hug that morning he left for Waco was hard. As I drove to work (yes, I was wiping tears from my eyes), I thought about his first name for airplanes — “I say good-bye.”

It was time to say good-bye to my oldest son.

True, Waco and Arkadelphia aren’t that far away. The boys could be on the West Coast, the East Coast or in a foreign exchange program.

Yet the quietness of the house on weeknights is going to take some getting used to.

The empty nest is as old as civilization itself. I suspect that most of you reading this have been through it. It’s yet another stage in life.

That doesn’t mean I have to like it.

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