Archive for the ‘Memories’ Category

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, 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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Ben Elrod: Part 4

Tuesday, June 30th, 2015

It didn’t take Ben Elrod long to learn that there were major differences between being the vice president for development and being the president of Ouachita Baptist University at Arkadelphia.

“The main difference was having the ultimate responsibility and the weight of that,” Elrod said in a 2005 interview that looked back on his tenure as president. “I didn’t deal with that much as a vice president. The president is really the one who bears the brunt of that pressure. This was difficult because I had been a pastor. I had told Dan Grant way back there in the 1970s: ‘I don’t think I could be president because I would want to be pastor to all the people, and you can’t be pastor and administrator at the same time. You can’t be very objective if you’re going to be the pastor.’

“I had difficulty firing people when they needed to be fired. Delivering bad news was difficult for me. I had some doubts that I should serve as president. But between the time I left Ouachita and came back, I had the experience of being a president and felt that it went well.

“There is a sense in which you can’t be too close to anybody because of the danger of being partial. You’ve got to think in terms of everybody in the organization and the ways of properly communicating with them. I think the main duty of the president is to interpret the mission of the institution for the inner family and for the outside publics and then represent the institution. I got a great deal of personal satisfaction out of doing it and felt that it was a worthwhile investment for my life. I’ve loved Ouachita since I was a student there, so it was a labor of love. I felt good that it turned out the way it did and that we were able to accomplish the things that we did.

“I was conscious of the fact that I depended on a lot of people to get things done. I tried to give credit to others for the things that we accomplished. But I also knew that I had to carry the ball on interpreting the mission, providing the vision and setting the direction.”

The roughest waters that Elrod had to navigate as president came during the period when many Baptist institutions of higher education felt that the fundamentalist movement in the Southern Baptist Convention constituted a threat to academic freedom.

Baylor University in Waco, Texas, which was chartered in 1845, is the largest Baptist university in the country. In 1990, Baylor President Herbert H. Reynolds engineered a change in the university’s charter, a move that allowed the Baptist General Convention of Texas to elect only a quarter of the school’s trustees rather than all of them. Reynolds said at the time that he would not allow the university to be taken over by fundamentalists who were “more interested in indoctrination than education and enlightenment.”

The shock waves were felt in neighboring Arkansas.

Elrod issued a statement in October 1990 that said: “While it’s strictly their business, I’m saddened by the fact that the Baylor University trustees felt it necessary to take such action. Fortunately, the relationship between Ouachita and the Arkansas Baptist State Convention could not be stronger than it has been in recent years. We have excellent leadership in Dr. Don Moore as executive director and Rev. Mike Huckabee as president. They have provided rock-solid stability. For the record, I want to state that Ouachita will continue to be an institution of the Arkansas Baptist State Convention. Ouachita owes its very existence to the Baptist churches of the state. They have loved and nurtured Ouachita for more than 100 years.”

Huckabee, a Ouachita graduate from Hope who later would serve for more than a decade as Arkansas’ governor, had helped keep the Arkansas Baptist State Convention from fracturing during his two terms as convention president.

“My prayer and my commitment will be that, long after the controversies that divide Southern Baptists have subsided, Ouachita Baptist University will still be dedicated to the principles on which it was founded in 1886,” Elrod said in that 1990 statement. “We will continue to adhere to the mission statement adopted by our faculty, staff and board of trustees: ‘To provide students the opportunity to experience growth in Christian ideals and character, to develop their intellectual and physical abilities, to think critically and creatively, to mature in their understanding and appreciation of the world, to communicate effectively and to accept their obligation to be of service to God and mankind.”

Under Elrod’s leadership, Ouachita would revert to its original charter, which called for a self-perpetuating board in which board members elected their successors.

“It was the most difficult thing I dealt with as president,” Elrod said in the 2005 interview. “It became apparent to me that the nominating committee of the state convention was not communicating about the appointment of trustees. With the denominational situation divided, I could read that and knew what was happening. We were about to be taken over. It was an organized group that wanted power, and they wanted Ouachita. They had no business with Ouachita.

“I insisted that we had to minister to all Arkansas Baptists, not just a few and not just those of a particular persuasion. To do this, we were going to take back the authority we gave the convention soon after Ouachita was chartered to nominate and elect our trustees. We later did what we could to get the convention to agree to go ahead with the process. That system has worked quite well.

“The convention sequestered our money for two to three months and threatened not to support us further, but that was soon settled. The forces of reason won the battle. Ouachita people came out of the woodwork from all over the state. It was just an overwhelming show of support. A majority of Arkansas Baptists won that battle. It was a battle that had been lost in some other states.”

For Elrod, it might have been easier at the time if Ouachita had simply separated itself entirely from the Arkansas Baptist State Convention rather than crafting a compromise. Elrod, though, was determined to keep the relationship intact.

“It was difficult to decide how to do it,” he says. “I decided that the best way to interpret our actions was to say very little but to say the same thing every time we addressed the matter. What I said was: ‘We want Ouachita to be out of the line of fire when it comes to denominational warfare.’ I was determined that we would not be swallowed up by a fight that didn’t involve us. That’s what I said over and over.

“At schools in other states where that group had succeeded in taking over the trustees, there were just unbelievable problems. The matter of academic freedom just went out the window. The trustees would interview every prospective staff and faculty member. These people were required to sign certain things. There were all sorts of goofy restrictions. We were determined to avoid that. I’ve never had such a groundswell of support for anything I did.”

Of course, Elrod had a track record in Arkansas that dated back decades. It wasn’t as if he were new to the state, to Ouachita or to the Arkansas Baptist State Convention.

“I’m sure it helped,” he says. “Trust is so important in a leader. Once you lose trust, there’s not much that you can accomplish. I felt I did have the trust of Arkansas Baptists. I had been a pastor in Arkansas. I had been very supportive of the convention and its work. I was pretty well a theological fundamentalist, but I was not a warring fundamentalist. I didn’t want a warring faction to take over the institution. I had many friends among fundamentalists, but they were not part of the group that wanted to go to war and take over the school. So they supported us. I really appreciated them for doing what they did because it made them very unpopular in that group.”

Though there have been tough times and will be more hard times, Elrod is an optimist when it comes to the future of Christian higher education.

“It’s by the grace of God that these institutions have survived for as long as they have,” he says. “I have a feeling they will survive a long time yet to come by the grace of God. I’m not sure that those who abandoned their Christian commitment will do as well as those who have stuck by it. I think there’s a strong support structure out there for institutions that maintain their dedication to Christian values and to the lordship of Christ. I have great hope that this will be the case for Ouachita. I have confidence in the Ouachita family.”

Elrod says he could always feel “the presence of God” at Ouachita.

“When I walk across this campus, I’m as convinced as I can be that his presence is here and that it brings about all sorts of miracles,” Elrod says. “That confidence is what keeps me optimistic about Ouachita’s future.”

In a September 1989 address to the Ouachita student body, Elrod said: “The nicest tradition going at Ouachita since its founding in 1886 is what thousands have agreed is a sense of the presence of God. Of all the ways in which Ouachita has influenced those who have been a part of the family, nothing has compared to the impact of the unmistakable presence of God in the lives of students, faculty and staff.”

In a speech titled “Why I Believe in Baptist Higher Education,” Elrod said: “I believe in Baptist colleges because they are conservative institutions in the best sense of that term. Conservative in its best sense refers to the preservation of things of value. Our Baptist colleges have through the years been conservative in that sense. They had laid heavy emphasis on basic honesty, the sanctity of marriage and the home, the orderly process of government, the worth and dignity of every human being and the key role of the church in the life of our nation.

“We need some institutions of great strength serving that function in America. Such values have held us together as a people. The society will disintegrate just as slowly or as quickly as those values become no longer held by our people. We are not bound together in America, as are the people of many nations, by the overshadowing guns of an army. We are not held together by racial singleness. Our cohesiveness is not to be found in our government as such. America is bound together by commonly held values, and our little hilltop colleges have been staunch defenders of those values.”

In 1997, Elrod announced that he would retire as president of Ouachita, taking the title of chancellor of the university. He had accomplished what he set out to do.

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Ben Elrod: Part 3

Monday, June 29th, 2015

When Ben Elrod arrived as the young president of Oakland City College in rural southwestern Indiana in 1968, the school had 670 students and an operating budget of $1.2 million.

“Gifts and grants in 1967-68 were $78,000, practically all from the denomination,” Elrod says. “The college had never been regionally accredited. The denomination (General Baptists) was small, consisting of about 60,000 people. The total denominational budget was less than $300,000 for all causes. The 800 churches were primarily small rural churches, most of which were barely able to finance the local ministry without regard to other denominational causes. There were 4,000 alumni and friends on the mailing list. There had never been an alumni fund as such, although alumni had been solicited for various capital campaigns.

“The college had operated with a deficit for four consecutive years and had drawn upon its meager reserve funds to bail it out. The reserves were depleted, and there were scarcely any uncommitted assets. There was one person with a doctorate on the faculty, the rest holding master’s degrees. The denomination was suspicious of the college but was giving practically all the outside support the college was receiving.”

Under Elrod’s leadership, 600 additional contributors were recruited, and student applications increased by 10 percent.

“In about February of my second year there, just as I was finishing up at Indiana University, a committee from William Jewell College in Missouri called and wanted me to come over and talk to them about the presidency,” Elrod says. “I did. I dealt with them during a period of four to five months. Then Dan Grant called and told me he was coming to Ouachita as president. He wanted me to come back to my old job of vice president for development. I had the pain of that decision to make. I could stay at Oakland City, I could go to William Jewel or I could come to Ouachita.”

Grant’s father, Dr. J.R. Grant, had been Ouachita’s eighth president from 1934-49. The elder Grant was able to keep the doors open during the Great Depression while overseeing the construction of a gymnasium, student center, auditorium and dormitory. Student enrollment numbers increased after World War II. The administration building known as Old Main was destroyed by fire in 1949, but Grant Memorial Building was dedicated in 1953 to honor the former president’s accomplishments.

At the time of his hiring at Ouachita, Dan Grant was on the faculty at Vanderbilt University in Nashville and was recognized as one of the nation’s leading political scientists. The Ouachita board of trustees asked him to move to the town where he had grown up — Arkadelphia — and become Ouachita’s 12th president.

“It was the toughest decision I ever made,” Elrod says of his decision to follow Grant to Ouachita. “William Jewell College called on a Saturday night. The fellow who had been my contact there said the committee was ready to unanimously recommend me the next afternoon as president and that he had no doubt the board would accept the recommendation. I said, ‘When do you have to have an answer?’ He said, ‘By 8 p.m.’ This was after I had been thinking about it and praying about it for a month. So he had every right to put a deadline on it. Well, we did some more driving around, talking, praying and thinking. Finally, I called him at 8 p.m. and said: ‘Bill, I can’t say yes. So I guess that means no.’ At the time, I really didn’t know why. I just knew I couldn’t do it. I turned around and called Dan Grant. I told him I was coming back to Ouachita. I never looked back or regretted the decision to come back. I had eight of the most pleasant years of my life with Dan Grant as president and with me as vice president for development. We just had a wonderful relationship.”

Elrod says he hadn’t considered the possibility of coming back to Ouachita when he left for Indiana.

“I knew of Dan Grant’s reputation, and it was very tempting to me to come back to work with him,” Elrod says. “When I had been at Ouachita the first time, I had corresponded with him and talked to him on the phone, enlisting him to take part in the alumni campaign. I got him to help with his classmates so they would give to the annual fund. That was our only acquaintance up to that point.

“When he accepted the presidency at Ouachita, he said the first thing he did was call me. He thought he could administer a college, but he didn’t think he could raise money. He thought I could, so he called me. We had eight wonderful years. Ouachita prospered during those years, and we raised a lot of money. We added to the endowment. I thought I would be here for a lifetime.”

Those eight years saw the establishment of international exchange programs, an expanded honors program and endowed chairs of instruction. Elrod also raised millions of dollars for construction of the Evans Student Center and Lile Hall in 1973, the Mabee Fine Arts Center in 1975, a new campus drive and pedestrian bridge over the ravine in 1976, the Blackmon Field House in 1977 and McClellan Hall in 1978.

While on the platform for the dedication of McClellan Hall, Dr. W.O. Vaught, the legendary pastor of Immanuel Baptist Church at Little Rock, leaned over and asked Elrod if he would be willing to talk to the presidential search committee from Georgetown College in Kentucky.

Elrod responded bluntly: “No.”

“We went ahead with the dedication, and I thought about it some more,” Elrod says. “I decided I ought to at least give it a look.”

Vaught’s brother-in-law was on the Georgetown board and had inquired about Elrod. Georgetown was an old school, having been chartered in 1829 as the first Baptist college west of the Allegheny Mountains. There was tradition, but there also were financial problems. The school is in the bluegrass region of Kentucky, about 12 miles north of Lexington. Elrod accepted the board’s offer at Georgetown.

At age 47, Ben Elrod found himself leaving Ouachita again in the summer of 1978 to become a college president for the second time.

“We look upon this move as a closing to a wonderful chapter of our lives,” Elrod said at the time. “One of the things that has made the experience such a delight has been the pleasure of working with Dr. Grant. He’s one of those unusual administrators who makes it a pleasure to work for him. It’s highly probable that we will retire in Arkadelphia. We’ve lived here longer than any other place other than the towns where we grew up.”

Grant said at the time: “It’s hardly enough to say that Ouachita’s loss is Georgetown’s gain or that we will miss Ben Elrod very much. We can only be grateful that he has shared the past eight years of his energy, dedication and wisdom with Ouachita and contributed in such a strategic way to this period of unparalleled progress.”

Elrod served as president of Georgetown College for the next five years. Then, he and Betty Lou came home to Arkansas.

“I felt I had done at Georgetown what I went there to do,” he says. “At the time I went to Georgetown, the relationship between Georgetown and the denomination was in a bad state of repair. They were financially strapped, all of their reserves were drained and they had been accumulating an operating deficit. I knew that I could help them in those areas and went there to do that. I did accomplish those things and felt good about it. I never thought of it as a lifetime proposition. When the call came to come back to Arkansas, that was the call to come home, and we did.”

Grant had helped convince the presidents of the other private colleges and universities in the state to hire Elrod to head what’s now known as Arkansas’ Independent Colleges and Universities. The organization operates from offices in North Little Rock, specializing in governmental affairs and public affairs for private higher education while also raising money for scholarships at the 11 member institutions. What’s now AICU had been founded in the spring of 1954 as a sort of United Way for private colleges. During the organization’s more than five decades of existence, more than $20 million has been raised and distributed to member institutions.

Elrod served as the president of AICU from 1983-88 while also doing outside fundraising consulting for other institutions of higher education.

Then, Ouachita called once more.

Returning to Ouachita as the university’s president wasn’t on Elrod’s radar in early 1988.

“I came back to Arkansas with the idea that the last expression of my ministry would probably be the position of president of the Independent Colleges of Arkansas and the Independent College Fund of Arkansas,” Elrod said in an August 1988 interview. “I was comfortable in feeling that my last contribution would be to the overall field of independent higher education in Arkansas. … I also was given permission to do consulting on a part-time basis in the area of fundraising for colleges and universities. I’ve been keeping at least one out-of-state client. I had thought about doing more of that and perhaps easing out of this job in later years.

“When Dr. Grant retired when he did, which was earlier than I had expected, I was contacted by a number of Ouachita people on and off the campus. I didn’t apply. … I found that my background of having had a call from the Lord at age 16 and having been fully employed in one place or another in the work of the Lord ever since without ever applying for a job, that background wouldn’t let me apply for this or any other job. So I didn’t. I did respond to the committee’s inquiry by saying that I would suggest they look for a younger man who could give them 20 years perhaps and that if they didn’t find that person, they could come back and we would talk later. That’s what happened. Through my personal prayer and questioning, I had come to the position that if they asked me, I would be willing to serve.”

Elrod, who was 57 at the time, said he had “no illusions about being a long-term president” but that things had “come together in a rather nice way. It feels right to me. You know, some decisions you make feel a bit uncomfortable, sort of like a new pair of shoes. Others feel comfortable from the moment you make them, and this one has.”

“I would be hard-pressed to turn down an opportunity at this point just because I’m 57 years old,” he said at the time. “I still want to serve. And if I’m capable and judged capable by the people who are making the decision, I will have a hard time saying no to them.”

Several months after beginning his tenure as Ouachita’s president, Ben Elrod was formally inaugurated in the spring of 1989.

He said in his inaugural address on April 13, 1989: “As a university, we accept the challenge of the 1990s. We understand that the challenge is not that we simply exist, but that we excel. We intend to do just that, building on the strong foundation provided by those who have served before. One can readily envision a great decade of progress in the 1990s. Alumni, Arkansas Baptists and friends comprise a loving constituency. They share the burden of the challenge. They are strong and steady allies. They have witnessed dramatic progress. They like the feeling. They take pride in the results. They are ready to join us in further victories.”

In his charge to the new president that day, Grant urged Elrod to hold people’s feet to the fire.

“This doesn’t always bring the praise of people, but it will bring appreciation from more than you might expect,” Grant said. “Your life in the fiery furnace or, to change the metaphor, your life in the lions’ den may be worrisome during the long, hot summers and even in the cold of winter, but take the world of Daniel. It will be worth every minute of it.”

Elrod later said, “I didn’t realize how much I had missed being on a college campus, especially Ouachita’s campus. The call of alma mater is the call to come home, and it evokes all kinds of good feelings, just as going home had done through the years.”

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Ben Elrod: Part 2

Friday, June 26th, 2015

As vice president of development and later president of Ouachita Baptist University, Dr. Ben Elrod earned a reputation as a master fundraiser.

He got his start as a Ouachita student, helping save the school’s athletic program.

“During my sophomore year, the decision was made to stop subsidizing athletics,” Elrod says. “So there would be no more scholarships, no more books furnished for athletes. A group of us got together as students and formed a club that we called IPSAY. That stood for I Pay Six A Year. We asked the students to give $6 a year — $3 per semester — to help support the athletic program. We also created a library so athletes would have books. We built a pretty complete library and gave the athletes their books. That helped preserve some kind of athletic program. It was a good little organization.”

Life as a student in Arkadelphia centered on the campus.

“The options for going into town were the picture show and the church,” Elrod says. “We could also go out on the town and eat. There were a couple of good eating places. The girls could go out on Wednesday nights to church. On weekends, they had to be in at 11 p.m. They were very restricted, and that kept the boys in line.”

It was during Elrod’s time as a student at Ouachita that the Battle of the Ravine football game with neighboring Henderson ceased following the 1951 game. The rivalry wouldn’t resume until 1963 due to excessive vandalism and violence. One memorable confrontation took place adjacent to the well-known Tiger statue at the center of the Ouachita campus.

“We actually had a brawl out here around the Tiger,” Elrod says. “Every year there was a pot of Reddie stew cooked the week before the game beside the Tiger. There was a big pot. I have no idea what was in it, but we kept it boiling for a week. We would take turns staying out there all night guarding the Tiger. The Henderson students would find some way to get to the Tiger nearly every year, including throwing balloons full of paint from a distance.

“We had a fence erected to protect the Tiger from the back. There were flanks of students in front of the Tiger to protect it from the other direction. The Henderson students came marching over in ROTC formation, some with ROTC helmets on. Our scouts down in the ravine notified us that they were coming. They just came up to our lines, and we stood there toe-to-toe and fought. It was the silliest thing in the world, and people were injured. One of our guys broke his hand. It was just one of the most stupid things I ever saw in my life, but we thought it had to be done.

“Some people had socks full of rocks that they were using to hit with. It should have never gotten that way. I don’t remember the police coming. I guess we just got tired of fighting.”

Female students watched from the windows of their rooms at Cone Bottoms Hall, which Elrod said made the Ouachita men even more determined to fight. One of the female students was from Smackover and later would become Betty Elrod, Ben Elrod’s wife.

“She was an outstanding basketball player in high school,” Ben Elrod says. “Smackover came up to Rison for a tournament, and I met her there. We had a double date. I was with another girl, and she was with my best friend. I was pretty impressed with her from watching her play basketball and meeting her. That was the last contact we had in high school. We knew each other as freshmen at Ouachita but did not date. She had two or three boyfriends on the line, and I wasn’t one of them.

“I had a girlfriend back home in Rison, and I dated a girl over here at Ouachita most of my freshman year. But we started dating our sophomore year and got married the summer after our junior year. She dropped out of school to teach at Donaldson. She brought in $107 a month. We lived on that the first three months, and then I was called to pastor an Atkins church. We were rolling in money. I was making $200 a month, and she was making $107.”

Elrod’s first church as a pastor had been the Cedar Creek Church near Waldron in west Arkansas. He would drive to Scott County only once a month since four churches were using an old school building on alternating Sundays. Elrod was paid on Sunday nights after church members had come to the front of the church and put money in a collection plate.

“Sometimes it paid my expenses there and back, and sometimes it didn’t,” Elrod said. “If I could, I hitchhiked up there so it didn’t cost so much.”

Then came the call from Atkins, where Elrod had filled in as a guest preacher.

“It was a wonderful experience for us,” he says. “We were 20 years old, and they took us in as their kids.”

In 1953, Elrod enrolled at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth.

“While I was in seminary, I was a pastor at Tioga, Texas, which was Gene Autry’s hometown,” he says. “I had a tremendous ministry there and made dear friends.”

Elrod later was the pastor of the First Baptist Church at Marlow, Okla. He would commute from Fort Worth to Marlow and back several times a week.

“That was a pretty stressful time due to the necessity of traveling so much,” Elrod says. “I got to where I could sleep standing up pretty well.”

The next stop for Elrod was back home in south Arkansas at South Side Baptist Church at Pine Bluff.

“I was there for three years,” he says. “During those three years, I was elected to the Ouachita board. I was in the second year of my tenure on the board and was elected vice chairman. It seemed that every time we would meet, we would talk about a lot of needs. The upshot would be that we decided it was a good thing but that we didn’t have the money to do it. So the president, Ralph Phelps, started talking to me about coming as vice president for development. Ouachita had never had a vice president for development, nor had it had an organized fundraising program.”

Phelps, who had replaced Haswell as president in 1953, loved to hunt and fish. He talked to Elrod about the idea of a vice president of development when the two men were fishing.

“I had interpreted my call to be a call to the pastorate, and it was very difficult for me to think about doing anything else,” Elrod says. “I loved the pastorate, but he was pretty insistent on this. One of my problems was that when he talked about fundraising, I sort of equated that to riverboat gamblers. The only fundraisers I had ever seen were people who came down South and fleeced other people. But I had this pressure of seeing the needs of Ouachita from the inside as a member of the board.”

Elrod later learned that Birkett Williams, the school’s largest benefactor, had told Phelps that he would quit giving money to Ouachita if a professional development program wasn’t started. Williams, a 1910 Ouachita graduate, had become one of the nation’s largest Ford dealers at Cleveland. He was president of the National Automobile Dealers Association in 1960 and later was inducted into the Automotive Hall of Fame.

“That was Ralph Phelps’ motivation to get a vice president for development,” Elrod says.

The decision weighed on him. It was 1963, and he had served as a pastor for a dozen years. But Ouachita had been good to Elrod, and he wanted to be good back to Ouachita.

In a speech a quarter of a century later, Elrod would say: “I left the pulpit of one of the finest churches in my home state of Arkansas to enter the field of Baptist higher education. When anyone asked why, I found myself telling the same story over again. It was the story of a young country boy who went to college at Ouachita in 1948 with little to his credit except an unusually large number of rough edges; the story of his surprise at finding young people his own age who were firmly committed to the Lord and to high ideals of honesty, upright loving and service to God and fellow man; the story of the boy’s growing admiration for brilliant men and women on the faculty who were also humble and devoted servants of God; the story of the boy’s own vision of service and submission to the will of God for his life.

“In brief, it was the story of a boy remade by the transforming grace of God through a Christian institution. It was that story that I told repeatedly. It was my story. Since that time 25 years ago, I have lived with a fierce determination that what God did for me then would be available to every young man and woman who will accept it. I continue in that determination.”

Elrod says he “reached the decision to accept the position after about a year of praying and trying to decide what to do.”

He had enjoyed the ministry, having served at First Baptist Church in Atkins from 1953-55; First Baptist Church in Tioga, Texas, from 1955-57; First Baptist Church in Marlow, Okla., from 1957-60; and South Side Baptist Church in Pine Bluff from 1960-63.

Elrod quickly discovered that raising funds for Ouachita in the 1960s was a challenge.

“When I called upon donor prospects, they were more interested in conflict than in giving,” Elrod says. “That environment was not conducive to raising funds from private sources. So I turned to the new federal sources of funds available to higher education through the Great Society legislation.”

As part of the Higher Education Act of 1965, Congress created what’s known as the Title III program, a federal grant program designed to improve education. The federal TRIO programs were an outgrowth of that effort. They were designed to identify and provide services for those from disadvantaged backgrounds. TRIO would grow to include eight programs serving low-income individuals, first-generation college students and those with disabilities. Ouachita became a host site for several of the programs.

Elrod says it was a “great boost to Ouachita’s growth. While it was onerous for me to do that and not be able to raise a lot of private money, I realize now it was a good thing for thousands of southwest Arkansas young people who benefited from those programs.”

When Elrod left Ouachita after almost five years on the staff, it was to go to Indiana University and obtain his doctorate in educational administration.

“Dr. Raymond Gibson and one of his cohorts came to Ouachita to consult with us on the Title III program in educational administration,” Elrod says. “Dr. Gibson got me to thinking about obtaining the doctorate. He was very insistent. He was at the time the chairman of the higher education department of the graduate school at Indiana. He just insisted that I give it some thought. I had come to realize that I was prepared academically to be a pastor, not a college administrator. But it looked as if I was going to be in this field the rest of the way. Ultimately, I decided to take the plunge and go. It was a hard decision to leave Ouachita and leave Arkadelphia because we loved it there.”

Before the Elrod family could make the move to Indiana, Gibson called to ask if Elrod would consider serving as the president of a small college in the southwest part of the state, Oakland City College, while doing the work on his doctorate at Indiana University. Now known as Oakland City University, the school was founded by the General Baptists and opened its doors for classes in 1891. In addition to liberal arts and religion classes, an industrial and agricultural department was added to meet the needs of rural areas in southwestern Indiana.

“The two schools were 90 miles apart, and we already had rented a townhouse in Bloomington, so we decided that we would talk to these folks,” Elrod says. “We needed some income while we were in school. Oakland City College hired me as its president. We moved to Bloomington, and I commuted to Oakland City.”

For the first time, Ben Elrod was a college president.

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Ben Elrod: Son of south Arkansas

Thursday, June 25th, 2015

I usually have far too many projects on my plate.

But how was I to say “no” when my friend Ian Cosh, the vice president for community and international engagement at Ouachita Baptist University, called last year and asked me to join him as the co-author of a small book on the life of Dr. Ben Elrod, the former Ouachita president?

When I was growing up in the Ouachita Hills neighborhood of Arkadelphia, the Elrod family lived just two doors down during Ben Elrod’s time as Ouachita’s vice president for development. After I moved away from Arkadelphia, Elrod served as Ouachita’s president from 1988-97. The task of working on the book proved to be a blessing for me, giving me a greater appreciation than ever for this dear family friend who had been a fishing and quail hunting partner of my late father.

Elrod, one of Arkansas’ most respected leaders in the 20th century, learned much about leadership as a high school student at Rison.

“I injured my knee in a football game during the 1947 season, which was my junior year,” he says. “The knee surgery procedures weren’t as refined back then. My surgery at the Campbell Clinic in Memphis didn’t restore full use of my knee. The decision by the doctors was that I should not play contact sports anymore. That was a disappointing development for me, especially as it related to my favorite sport, which was football.

“As the 1948 season neared, the school superintendent and the high school football coach approached me with a request that I coach a newly formed junior high team in the fall. When I arrived at their office, I was really shaken to see both the coach and the superintendent waiting on me. What they had to say was one of the greatest surprises of my life. I could hardly believe what I was hearing. I was frightened but excited about the offer. I thought about it for about two minutes and said I’d like nothing better. I eagerly accepted the task and coached the first junior high football team that Rison had fielded.”

Elrod says the high school coach had promised to help, but his focus (as one might expect) was on the senior high team once the season began.

“I was pretty well on my own,” Elrod says. “I was fortunate in that the 40 or so boys who reported for practice were above-average athletes, and a few of them were exceptional. They had played sandlot games together most of their lives. They blended into a good team. We had fun, especially the coach.”

Elrod says coaching helped fill the void that had been created by the doctors’ decision not to let him play football as a high school senior.

“I found that I really liked coaching,” he says. “I had a great group of boys, and they loved the game. If it ever bothered them that they had a high school senior with no coaching experience as their coach, they never gave any indication of their concern. How did we do? We played seven games, and we won four and lost three. The same group as seniors won the state championship in their division.”

In the state playoffs as seniors, those Rison athletes beat Atkins. Elrod was a Baptist minister at Atkins at the time.

“One would assume that I had mixed emotions,” he says. “That would be wrong. Where those kids were concerned, I was still a Rison Wildcat fan. I still am and follow the team closely in the news. That early exposure to such heavy responsibility was one of the formative experiences in my life. Do I think my coaching made them state champions? No. In fact, they may have won that honor in spite of my coaching. But what I’m certain about is that they made my senior year the most enjoyable year of my high school experience and among the most enjoyable of my life.

“I still have great admiration for the two men, superintendent Bill Hobgood and coach Boyd Arnold, for the gamble they took on a high school senior. The boys? The surviving ones are retired now. I’ve attended some of their reunions and take pride in their accomplishments as men. I could have gladly gone into the coaching field as a vocation.”

Instead, Elrod became a pastor, a college administrator, a college president and a master fundraiser.

In all of his roles, he was having an influence on young people, just as he did when he was coaching during his senior year of high school.

In August 1988, Elrod conducted a lengthy interview with Erwin McDonald, the well-known editor of the Arkansas Baptist, a widely circulated magazine. Elrod had experienced heart problems, and McDonald asked him if he worried about the stress of being Ouachita’s president.

Elrod answered: “I could check out right now and feel that the Lord has given me far more than I ever deserved in a lifetime. I have often wished that I could live three lifetimes because there are so many things I want to do. God has filled my life with activity and rewarded me with seeing to it that those activities are worthwhile. I’m not sure that a person could ask for a lot more than that. I have had more than I deserved and much more opportunity than most people have. This makes me want to give the Lord all I have as long as he lets me live.

“If the curtain comes down during my Ouachita days, the only thing that would bother me would be the inconvenience that would cause Ouachita. I would much rather be doing something worthwhile for the Lord and feeling good about it than to live longer by not being busy. However, I plan to live to a ripe old age and may even have a challenge or two beyond Ouachita waiting on me. Those matters are in God’s hands, and I’m pleased to leave them there.”

Fortunately for all of us, Ben Elrod has lived to that ripe old age he talked about. Arkansas is a better place because he walks among us.

Elrod’s family had roots deep in south Arkansas.

“My mother was a member of the Sadler family,” he says. “She was one of five children, all of whom lived in Rison. Both sets of grandparents lived in Rison. … I had enough aunts and uncles and grandparents that if my mother and father were gone for a day or a week or a month, I had plenty of places to stay. I never had a minute’s insecurity because I knew I was loved and accepted.”

Elrod’s mother was less than five feet tall and wore a size 3 1/2 shoe. She almost died in childbirth when John Elrod was born four years before Ben.

Ben Elrod says: “When she became pregnant with me, the doctor advised an abortion and asked for a decision on the matter with a one-week deadline for the decision to be made.”

Elrod says his mother didn’t tell him the story until he was an adult. She decided to have the baby despite the chance she would die during childbirth, something Ben Elrod now calls “a pretty brave response from a little 25-year-old woman.”

One thing that was a given in the Elrod family was that Sundays would be spent at the local Baptist church.

“When I was 12 years old, I made a profession of faith,” Elrod says. “We had a revival meeting, and all of my buddies had made a profession of faith, and I had not. Two or three weeks later, I realized the preacher was preaching to me. I realized my need for Christ and made my profession of faith. The church we attended was a strong church for a little country town. We had some good pastors. We had one very fine pastor in my later years as a teenager.”

For parts of two years, Elrod served as a page for the U.S. House of Representatives.

“I was in Washington at 16 years old when I felt called into the ministry,” he says. “I hadn’t been to church in quite a while. I was living with three roommates, two from New Mexico and one from Little Rock. I don’t know when we had been to church. We went to the Smithsonian Institution. I had always planned on being a doctor. We went through the medical section of the Smithsonian. As I walked through that, the thought came to me: ‘Hey, who are you fooling? You’re not interested in this stuff.’ I really wasn’t. I spent a restless night in which I prayed and asked God to direct me. I felt strongly that his answer was that I was to be a minister. I never wavered from that. My father was not very favorable toward it. He had looked forward to my being in the family business with him and my brother. He didn’t know that my decision was a mature decision, so he challenged it a bit. But I didn’t have a more enthusiastic supporter once I went into the ministry. My mother, of course, was supportive of whatever I did.”

During his senior year at Rison High School, Elrod considered attending the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville, the school from which his older brother had graduated. He was concerned, however, about the lack of religion courses. After a visit with Dr. J.R. Grant, Ouachita’s president at the time, Elrod decided to attend Ouachita. Many years later, Elrod would find a letter that Grant had written years earlier to Elrod’s older brother following a visit to Rison. He still has the letter.

Grant was president during Elrod’s freshman year. When Grant retired (he had been president since 1934), he was replaced by S. William Eubanks, who served as president for two years. Harold A. Haswell served as president during Elrod’s senior year.

“We got into deep financial trouble,” Elrod says. “We got into problems with the North Central Association and lost our accreditation. Dr. Haswell has never been given proper credit for what he did for Ouachita in two years’ time. He turned it around with North Central and recovered our accreditation. He was a brilliant man. I was the president of student government during my senior year, and he gave me a voting spot on the administrative council as a student. I thought he was way ahead of his time on that. He was ahead of his time on most everything. He was the world’s poorest speaker. He would bore you to death as a public speaker, but he was a tremendous administrator and did a great job for Ouachita.”

Elrod majored in history and minored in political science. He had been advised that if he planned on attending seminary he should major in something other than religion at Ouachita.

“That was good advice,” Elrod says. “I got a good liberal arts education here and then built on that in seminary with specialized education there.”

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Leaving home

Monday, June 22nd, 2015

I walked out of my childhood home for the final time this morning.

I knew this day was coming, but that doesn’t mean it was easy.

As my sister and I sat in the offices of the title company across from the Clark County Courthouse early on this Monday morning, I looked at the papers that showed my parents had purchased the house in the Ouachita Hills neighborhood of Arkadelphia in the spring of 1961.

I was not yet two years old.

In other words, it was the only house I knew as a boy.

What’s now Ouachita Baptist University had begun developing the wooded hills near what’s known locally as The Bluff (it overlooks the Ouachita River) in the late 1950s for faculty housing. Indeed, most of the houses when I was young were occupied by Ouachita faculty members, coaches and administrators. My father and mother were Ouachita graduates, but they didn’t work at the school. They ran a business downtown.

I didn’t realize it as a child, of course, but I was living in a special place where my neighbors included a noted musician, a talented playwright, a famous basketball coach, a philosopher, a writer, a theologian, the state’s lieutenant governor and more. It was the kind of neighborhood you would be unable to find up the road in Malvern or down the road in Camden. It was the kind of neighborhood that could only be found in a college town.

And there was much more than intellectual capital. What a playground this neighborhood was. It was just a short walk to the Ouachita River and Mill Creek, where I could wade, throw rocks and fish. There was a pond across the street to fish in and an old barn to hide in. Ouachita had cattle and horses in the pastures in those days. So even though we were in the city limits, it was like living in the country. It was the best of both worlds.

In the winter, the abundant hills in the neighborhood provided the perfect venue for sledding when there was the occasional south Arkansas snow.

In the spring, floods on the Ouachita River provided opportunities to look for turtles and snakes in places we might not otherwise find them.

In the summer, the Little League baseball field was an easy bicycle ride away.

In the fall, the huge pecan trees along the river provided the nuts we would use at Thanksgiving and Christmas (if I would pick them up, my dad would shell them). And the practice field for my beloved Ouachita Tiger football team was just down the street, giving me a place to hang out after school as a water boy until I had my own team’s football practices to attend in junior high and high school.

It’s human nature to look back on things with rose-colored glasses, but there really was a Mayberry element to that neighborhood where everyone knew each other and socialized together. Most of us even attended the same church, the First Baptist Church of Arkadelphia.

I lived in a dorm the entire time I was a student at Ouachita, but I could come home each afternoon to check my mail, deliver dirty laundry and wind down for a few minutes before returning to my job at the newspaper.

When Melissa and I were newlyweds and short on funds (I had moved back to Arkansas after several years in Washington, D.C.), she sometimes would say: “Would you like to spend the weekend at your parents’ home?”

That meant that we didn’t have the money to eat out, but we knew we would eat well in Arkadelphia. Mom would fix the side dishes inside while Dad would fry crappie, smoke a turkey or grill burgers or steaks outside.

And our boys — now ages 22 and 18 — enjoyed nothing more than weekends spent with their grandparents at 648 Carter Road.

In bed late at night when the house was quiet, you could hear the trains as they crossed the Ouachita River. We promised our oldest son that if he would become potty trained, his grandmother would take him on a real train trip (it was a short Amtrak jaunt from Arkadelphia to Texarkana). On the night before that trip, Austin couldn’t sleep because he kept hearing trains. Each time he would ask if he had missed his train to Texas.

We realized the day when my parents could no longer remain in the house would arrive. As my father’s dementia and other ailments took hold, we were forced to move them to a facility in Little Rock. Even though neither of us lived in Arkadelphia, my sister and I hung onto the house. After all, there was more than 50 years’ worth of “stuff” to clean out and for the longest we had neither the time nor the will to take on the task.

We left the water and the electricity on, and I occasionally would spend nights there after broadcasting Ouachita football games in the fall.

I held out the hope that I could renovate the house as a weekend writing retreat. Finally, Melissa convinced me just how impractical that plan would be.

Last spring, my sister retired following a career in public education and began what turned out to be a new full-time job: Cleaning out the house in Ouachita Hills. She did the bulk of the work. I’m not sure I would have been able to do it. I would have wanted to read every old newspaper clipping and save those things that really aren’t worth saving.

Thanks, Lynda, for your hard work.

I sat in my chair at home in Little Rock yesterday morning, reading the two newspapers I get each Sunday and drinking good, strong coffee from Louisiana. In the background, I had on one of the few television programs I watch, “CBS Sunday Morning.”

Steve Hartman, the network’s modern-day Charles Kuralt, had a piece about moving his father out of the house in Toledo, Ohio, that had been in his family since the 1950s. I don’t remember his exact words, but his ending to the story went something like this: “A house with no one in it is no longer a home. It’s just a house. What endures are the memories and the lives that were touched by those who once lived there.”

I thought of those words as I drove from Little Rock to Arkadelphia early this morning.

I thought of my father, who has been gone for four years now.

I thought of my mother, who will turn 90 in August.

I thought of my older brother. He got to grow up in that house for less than three years before leaving this earth in 1964 when he was nine and I was four.

I met my sister at 7 a.m. for breakfast at the Cracker Barrel in Caddo Valley. We sipped our coffee after the meal and didn’t say much. Neither of us looked forward to the real estate closing, though we knew it was something that needed to be done.

We signed the papers shortly after 8:30 a.m. My sister stayed to visit with the real estate agent, and I made one last trip to the house.

I walked through the kitchen where I ate most of my meals, the den where I spent so many nights in front of the fireplace watching sports events on television, the living room where we would place our Christmas tree and open gifts on Christmas morning.

I walked for the final time into the recreation room my father had added to the house, the one that had the pool table and hosted hundreds of Ouachita students and others through the years.

I walked into my parents’ bedroom, the bedroom I once had shared with my brother and my sister’s bedroom.

Then, I took my key off the chain, laid it on the kitchen counter, took a long look and shut the door before the memories could totally consume me.

It was time to say so long to 648 Carter Road.

I stepped into the carport where my dad once had parked his big Oldsmobile, started my car, drove slowly around the circle and then headed for U.S. Highway 67, Interstate 30 and the office.

The tears didn’t clear until somewhere east of Malvern.



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Farewell Sno-White

Friday, February 6th, 2015

I received sad news Friday.

An Arkansas institution, Pine Bluff’s Sno-White Grill, will be closing.

But it was inevitable.

Bobby Garner is well past retirement age. Like so many independently owned Arkansas restaurants — think Shadden’s near Marvell — there’s nobody waiting in the wings when an owner retires or dies (as was the case with Wayne Shadden).

That’s why we need to enjoy these Arkansas classics while we still can.

Below is the story I wrote in 2009 for Roby Brock’s Talk Business magazine. I hope you enjoy it:

The newspaper clipping from the Pine Bluff Commercial is framed on the wall of Pine Bluff’s Sno-White Grill. The story is dated Nov. 29, 1991, and tells of a fire that broke out at Sno-White at 12:26 a.m. on a Thursday. It was Thanksgiving morning.

The article describes a devastating fire that destroyed the business at 310 E. Fifth Ave. downtown, a restaurant that the newspaper said had the reputation of serving the “best hamburgers in the state.”

“I don’t think I’ve gotten over the shock yet,” Sno-White owner Bobby Garner told the newspaper.

Then, he added: “I’m down, but I’m not out.”


Fast forward the clock almost 18 years, and you’ll find Garner behind the counter of a rebuilt Sno-White on a summer Friday morning. He’s serving as the short-order cook and still dishing out what many people consider Arkansas’ best hamburger.

Across this state, there are restaurants where the locals gather to drink coffee, catch up on the town’s gossip, discuss the previous day’s sports events and talk politics. But few of those gathering spots have the longevity of Sno-White, which was founded in 1936, one year before Walt Disney produced his first full-length animated classic, “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.”

The chances are that if you’re in Sno-White, so is Bobby Garner.

“I’m the only one who has a key,” he says matter of factly as the ceiling fans whirl overhead.

He’s there six mornings a week at 5:30 a.m. and even comes in on Sunday mornings to clean up. The landmark restaurant is open from 6 a.m. until 3 p.m. on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday and from 6 a.m. until 9 p.m. on Thursday, Friday and Saturday.

And at the age of 73, Garner doesn’t show signs of slowing down.

“I checked with my board, and they said Sno-White doesn’t have a retirement plan,” he says, a sly grin crossing his face.

Of course, Bobby Garner is the board. His wife, Blanche, is still around to offer advice but doesn’t come to the restaurant often. From opening time until closing time, it’s Bobby’s show.

None of the coffee mugs match, which is part of the charm of a place like Sno-White. On the table where Garner sits down to visit there’s a mug that says “Sparkman Sparklers,” the name of a girls’ basketball team from Dallas County that was nationally known in the 1930s. It’s as if Sno-White has become the repository of south Arkansas history.

There used to be quite a few locally owned, full-service restaurants in Pine Bluff like Sno-White. But as the city has lost population and economic vitality through the years, their numbers have declined. Garner rattles off the names of the competitors that are now only memories. There was John Noah’s Restaurant over by the Norton Lumber Mill. There was the Wonderland. The Country Kitchen out on the Dollarway Highway is about the only comparable place to Sno-White these days.

Restaurants aren’t the only things disappearing in southeast Arkansas.

“Most of my friends have either died or moved,” Garner says. “There’s a void there.”

Still, Garner insists that despite the dramatically decreased population, business is good. The prime rib special for $14.95 on Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights remains popular, as do the plate lunches. For $6.25 at lunch, you get an entrée and three vegetables. Garner lists main courses off the top of his head. Monday features pork chops or chicken and dressing. On Tuesday, it’s chicken and dumplings or grilled beef liver. The choices on Wednesday are fried chicken, baked ham or spaghetti and meat sauce. On Thursday, it’s chicken fried steak, chicken spaghetti or barbecued pork. Fridays feature salmon croquettes, fried catfish or hamburger steaks.

“We have to keep the Catholics happy on Friday,” Garner says of the two fish entrees.

He estimates that he sells between 150 and 180 plate lunches each day.

“I cooked 75 chicken fried steaks yesterday and sold them all,” he says on this Friday morning. “We have a lot of people come in on Tuesdays just for the liver. That’s hard to find in restaurants these days, and folks won’t fix that for themselves at home.”

Garner claims that he doesn’t have a favorite dish, though he’s quick to mention the cornbread salad: “You make it like you would make tuna salad. But instead of using tuna, you use cornbread.”

Mornings belong to the coffee-drinking regulars. There’s a 6 a.m., 7 a.m., 8 a.m., 9 a.m. and even a 10 a.m. shift.

Upon entering Sno-White, look immediately to your left and to the back of the room. You’ll see the famed Back Booth. It’s the one with political posters covering the walls behind it. There are posters for familiar Arkansas politicians — “I’m for Arkansas and Faubus,” “John McClellan for Senate,” “Dale Bumpers for Senate,” and even “Monroe A. Schwarzlose, Democratic Candidate for Governor, The Law and Order Candidate.”

Schwarzlose hailed from nearby Kingsland and ran for governor in the Democratic primaries of 1978, 1980, 1982 and 1984.

Of course, there’s a poster for Pine Bluff’s own Joe Holmes, who ran for governor in the Democratic primaries of 1990 and 2002. Holmes is among the regular coffee drinkers, usually a part of the 9 a.m. shift.

There are also local political signs such as “Buck Fikes for Municipal Judge” and “Dub Koenig for Justice of the Peace.” Fikes and Koenig are among the coffee drinkers.

“This is where the decisions are made,” Koenig says on his way out the door. “I’ve been coming in here for 30 years and have seen all of the famous Arkansas politicians in here at one time or another.”

Bill Clinton even came in as president to have one of Bobby Garner’s hamburgers.

“When I left the night before, there was a car across the street with two guys in it,” Garner says. “They were watching the restaurant. I came back early the next morning, and these two guys were still in the car. The police later began blocking the streets several blocks away in every direction. If you were already in here, you could stay. But nobody else could come in. There was one guy over in a booth that the Secret Service thought might be with the media. I asked him, and he said he was. He gave me no problems when I told him the president’s visit was closed to the media. He left.”

Garner doesn’t remember which hamburger the president had.

There’s the Hutt Special, named after the owners of the Hutt Building Material Co. over on Alabama Street.

There’s also the Perdue Special, named after the owners of the Perdue Co., which was Pine Bluff’s largest office products and commercial printing company before being sold.

Garner, who grew up 18 miles to the west of Pine Bluff at Grapevine in Grant County, jokes: “When I was coming up in Grapevine, I thought I might be president. I never thought I would cook a hamburger for one.”

Garner purchased the Sno-White Grill on Feb. 15, 1970, from Roy Marshall, who had owned the restaurant the previous 27 years. Garner never dreamed he would own the place so long.

“It just sort of happened,” says Garner, who also served on the Jefferson County Quorum Court for 14 years.

A number of former Pine Bluff residents make it a point to stop by Sno-White when they’re back in town. They include Paul Greenberg, who won a Pulitzer Prize for editorial writing at the Commercial and raised his family in Pine Bluff before moving to Little Rock and the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette in 1992. Greenberg has described Sno-White in print as “my favorite diner.”

In June 1996, when “The NewsHour” on PBS wanted to discuss the felony conviction and impending resignation of then-Gov. Jim Guy Tucker and its effect on average Arkansans, Bobby Garner was among the first people interviewed.

Garner doesn’t know how the restaurant got the name Sno-White, but he once had figures representing Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs attached to the outside of the building. Those came off the day Garner received a visit from a local lawyer who had been hired by the Walt Disney Co. to ask for royalty payments.

Among the notable things in the restaurant these days is what might be one of the few remaining Lou Holtz dolls. There’s also a cardboard cutout of John Wayne that looks out over the dining room.

“I haven’t been broken into since I hired him,” Garner says of the Wayne cutout.

Behind the Wayne cutout is a framed ad for the Sno-White from 1939.

Plate lunches were 20, 25 and 30 cents.

The phone number was four digits — 1320.

And the owner must have just hired the most popular waitress in town since the ad proclaimed: “Martha Mae Foust has joined our staff and will welcome her friends here.”

Garner has seven employees these days. One of his waitresses has been with him almost a quarter of a century. He has a cook who has been working there almost 30 years. Garner picks her up shortly after 5 a.m. each day on his way to the restaurant.

James Sapp first visited Sno-White for breakfast in 1958, just after he had moved to Pine Bluff as a 19-year-old from Mobile, Ala., in order to take a job with International Paper. After 51 years in Pine Bluff, Sapp is moving to Mayflower to be near his children. He finishes his breakfast and says he will miss Sno-White.

And what about that Thanksgiving Day fire back in 1991?

Garner began work the next morning rebuilding the restaurant.

“We took Christmas morning off,” he says. “We worked that afternoon.”

The restaurant reopened Feb. 14, 1992. This Arkansas institution hasn’t missed a beat since.

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