Archive for the ‘Memories’ Category

Battle of the Ravine: The 90th edition

Monday, November 7th, 2016

We became spoiled in recent years.

During the first five years of the Great American Conference, the GAC football championship resided in Arkadelphia.

It was won three times by the Reddies of Henderson State University.

It was won two times by the Tigers of Ouachita Baptist University.

That means that a conference title was either on the line or already secured for at least one of the Arkadelphia teams each year from 2011 through 2015 going into the Battle of the Ravine.

The past five years have seen record crowds and unprecedented media coverage for the most unusual college football rivalry in America.

This year, the GAC title is headed to Searcy. Harding University is 10-0 and is playing Arkansas Tech on Saturday in an attempt to ensure it hosts its first game in the NCAA Division II playoffs.

Henderson is 8-2 and still has an outside shot at a playoff slot. Most likely, though, the Reddies will head to a Division II bowl game with a victory Saturday.

Ouachita has been decimated by injuries this fall — the Tigers have lost their quarterback, best running back, best receiver, best kick returner and more — and enters the game with a 6-4 record. So this IS the bowl game for Ouachita.

Still, these are two good football teams.

Henderson has the best record among all college football programs in the state since 2010 at 62-16.

Ouachita, meanwhile, has secured its ninth consecutive winning season, the most of any college football program in Arkansas.

You have to understand that having a conference title on the line really isn’t essential to this rivalry. It’s always the biggest game of the year for both teams. Always.

It’s one of the most intense rivalries in college football, regardless of the division. The neighboring schools have played 89 times. Henderson has won 43 times, Ouachita has won 40 times and there have been six ties.

The Battle of the Ravine might not receive the recognition of an Auburn-Alabama, Texas-Oklahoma or Michigan-Ohio State series. But those who have played in these games, coached in them, covered them as journalists or simply watched from the stands understand.

There are few things in American sports that can be compared to a rivalry between four-year schools — both with quality football programs — whose stadiums are within walking distance of each other. It’s the only college football game in America in which the visiting team doesn’t fly or bus to a game. It walks.

In Arkadelphia, the town in which I was raised, it’s a battle that divides families. It’s Christmas, New Year’s Day, Thanksgiving and Valentine’s Day all rolled into one. The local chamber of commerce once promoted it as the Biggest Little Football Game in America, a moniker originally used by two New England schools, Amherst and Williams. Those two schools began playing in 1884. Ouachita and Henderson began playing in 1895.

The game has had an off-and-on quality through the years.

After that first contest on Thanksgiving Day in 1895 (Ouachita defeated what was then Arkadelphia Methodist College by a score of 8-0), the two schools did not play again until 1907. Henderson won that game.

In 1914, perhaps the best Ouachita team ever defeated both the University of Arkansas and Ole Miss but was forced to settle for a scoreless tie in the Battle of the Ravine.

The game usually was played on Thanksgiving. The series was suspended from 1941-44 due to World War II.

Following the 1951 contest, the presidents of the two schools decided that the pranks and vandalism the week prior to the game had gotten out of hand. So they called an end to the series, and it didn’t resume until 1963. After three more Thanksgiving games, the contests were moved to the Saturday before Thanksgiving.

Another bump in the road came after the 1992 season when Henderson decided to leave the Arkansas Intercollegiate Conference for the Gulf South Conference, which is based in Birmingham, Ala. There was no Battle of the Ravine from 1993-95. The AIC disintegrated, Ouachita played a year as an independent and then joined the Lone Star Conference. The Battle of the Ravine resumed in 1996 as a nonconference game and was played as the first game of the season through 2001.

Ouachita and Harding eventually were allowed to join the other former AIC schools in the Gulf South Conference. But the folks in Birmingham never really understood this rivalry. Even though it was a conference game again, it wasn’t played as the final game of the season. For some reason, the GSC had Ouachita finishing against Harding and Henderson finishing against Southern Arkansas as “rivalry games.” Even worse, Ouachita “rotated off” Henderson’s schedule for two years and there was no Battle of the Ravine in 2004 or 2005.

Thank goodness for the GAC, an Arkansas-based conference that includes six schools from Arkansas and six schools from Oklahoma. The game is always played, and it’s always the final Saturday of the regular season, just as it should be.

The pranks leading up to the game are just as much a part of the rivalry as the game itself.

Ouachita students (including my youngest son; he’s a Ouachita sophomore) guard the Tiger statue in the middle of campus to keep it from being painted red.

Henderson turns off its fountain at the entrance to the school to keep it from being filled with purple suds.

The most famous prank occurred in the late 1940s when Ouachita’s homecoming queen, Ann Strickland, was taken by Henderson cheerleaders the week before the game to a house on Lake Hamilton at Hot Springs. She later would become Ann Vining, the wife of legendary Ouachita basketball coach Bill Vining. At the time of the friendly kidnapping, Bill Vining was a Ouachita athlete. He led search parties through the Caddo Hotel in downtown Arkadelphia, looking for his girlfriend. She was released after two days when it was learned that Ouachita officials had reported the incident to police as an actual kidnapping.

Diesel fuel has been used through the years to burn OBU into the Henderson turf and HSU into the Ouachita turf.

One year, male Henderson students who were dressed in drag convinced a Ouachita librarian that they were there to take a Tiger statue in the library away for its annual cleaning.

In the 1970s, the Henderson bonfire was ignited early by Ouachita students. One of the Ouachita students reportedly involved in the prank was a religion major from Hope named Mike Huckabee.

In 1999, the incident that became known as Trashcam occurred. A Henderson graduate assistant took a video camera into Arkadelphia’s Central Park, which overlooks the Ouachita practice field. As he was taping practice, the graduate assistant was spotted by a member of the Ouachita football team. The graduate assistant sped away but left the camera in a nearby trash can. When the camera was found with a Henderson identification tag on it, Ouachita athletic director David Sharp returned the camera to Henderson. It was the proper thing to do. The rivalry might be intense, but these folks have to live with each other 52 weeks a year. They sit in the same pews at church and find themselves next to each other in the waiting room at the dentist’s office.

In 1949, Ike Sharp (the father of David Sharp) performed one of the most talked-about feats in Battle of the Ravine lore. Henderson led 14-0 with seven minutes remaining in the game. Ouachita scored to make it 14-7, and then Ike Sharp successfully executed an onside kick. Ouachita then scored to tie the game. Sharp executed a second onside kick. Otis Turner, known by Ouachita fans as the Magic Toe, kicked a field goal to give Ouachita a 17-14 lead. Sharp then executed a third onside kick, allowing Ouachita to run out the clock.

The most memorable college football game of my childhood occurred in 1975 when both teams were ranked in the top five of the NAIA. Henderson was 9-0, and Ouachita was 8-1. On a bitterly cold day at Haygood Stadium on the Henderson side of the ravine, Ouachita converted a fourth-and-25 with time running out as Bill Vining Jr. completed a pass to Gary Reese that forced a measurement. Ouachita retained possession by the nose of the football and scored moments later to win 21-20. The two teams shared the AIC title. Ouachita advanced to the NAIA playoffs, and Henderson had to settle for a slot in the first (and last) Bicentennial Bowl at Little Rock’s War Memorial Stadium.

The lights will be on in both stadiums each night this week to discourage pranks.

The signs on both campuses have been covered to keep off the paint.

As for me, I’ll look at the clock and count the hours until Saturday’s 1 p.m. kickoff at Carpenter-Haygood Stadium. The rivalry is an important part of who I am.

In my family, the day Ouachita played Henderson in football was as big as Christmas. We lived in the Ouachita Hills neighborhood, and we could walk to both stadiums from our house.

When they started playing again in 1963, I was 4 years old. You can bet I was there. So it has been 53 years since my first Battle of the Ravine.

Even though I’m in my 34th season of doing the play-by-play on radio of Ouachita games, I can assure you that there will be butterflies in my stomach when we sign on the broadcast at noon Saturday. I hope that never changes — that sense of anticipation, that realization of just how much this series has been a part of the life of my family (my father played quarterback for Ouachita in the 1947 Battle of the Ravine and my mother had been proclaimed the Ouachitonian beauty).

I lived in Washington, D.C., during the late 1980s, where I covered Congress for the Arkansas Democrat. I missed the 1985, 1986 and 1987 games. I flew back to Arkansas for the 1988 game, which was called off with the score tied at the half because the field was flooding.

I broadcast my first Battle of the Ravine in 1978 and did the games through 1984. I’ve broadcast all of the games since 1990.

One of my goals is to get ESPN to do its “College GameDay” show from Arkadelphia on the day of a Battle of the Ravine.

After all, ESPN took the show to Williamstown, Mass., on Nov. 10, 2007, for the Amherst-Williams game. That’s an NCAA Division III contest.

ESPN has never done the show from the site of a Division II game.

Can you imagine a national audience getting to watch as the visiting team walks to a road game?

At about 11:30 a.m. this Saturday, state troopers will stop traffic on U.S. Highway 67 and the members of the Ouachita football team will walk across, making the trek from their own dressing room to a visiting stadium.

At about 4 p.m. Saturday, the troopers will stop the traffic again, and the Tigers will walk back home.

There’s nothing else in America quite like it.

I’m counting the days, the hours, the minutes.

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Lacewell: A bug all his life

Friday, October 7th, 2016

Larry Lacewell is proud to say that he has always been a bug.

He was a Chigger and a Redbug while growing up at Fordyce.

And then he played college football at Arkansas A&M (now the University of Arkansas at Monticello), where he was a Boll Weevil.

You’ve probably heard him on those radio ads for Delta Pest Control.

The news last month was sudden and shocking: At age 79, Lacewell had suffered a severe stroke at his home in Jonesboro and was battling for his life in the intensive care unit of St. Bernards Medical Center at Jonesboro.

Lacewell, however, has always been a fighter. He survived and is now undergoing rehabilitation in Chicago.

Lacewell was born Feb. 12, 1937, in Fordyce. It was during the Great Depression, and times were tough in the pine woods of south Arkansas. Lacewell’s father had grown up with Paul “Bear” Bryant, and the two men remained friends. It was the Bryant connection that allowed Lacewell to get a job as a graduate assistant at the University of Alabama for the 1959 season.

Lacwell returned home to Arkansas in 1960 for his first full-time job, coaching the freshmen football players at what’s now Arkansas State University. He went back to Monticello to coach the defense at his alma mater in 1962 and then began climbing up the coaching ladder as a defensive assistant — Kilgore Junior College in Texas (which won a national junior college championship in 1964 when he was there), Oklahoma, Wichita State, Iowa State.

In a 1995 story for D Magazine in Dallas, Skip Bayless chronicled how the paths of Lacewell, Barry Switzer (a Crossett native), Jerry Jones (a North Little Rock native) and Jimmy Johnson (a University of Arkansas graduate) crossed through the decades: “Switzer and Lacewell competed against each other in sports. Switzer, says Lacewell, went on to play football in ‘the big city,’ in Fayetteville at the University of Arkansas. But Switzer couldn’t stay away from his roots, sometimes hitchhiking to Monticello to hang around with Lacewell. … The paths crossed, the ties bound.

“At Arkansas, Jerry Jones and Jimmy Johnson were coached by Switzer. Later, while Jones went off to make his first million, Johnson began his coaching career as a high school assistant in Picayune, Miss. Meanwhile, Lacwell had become defensive coordinator at Wichita State and needed an assistant. Switzer recommended Johnson, who worked under Lacewell at Wichita State, then followed him to Iowa State (where Johnson was best man in Lacewell’s wedding) and on to Oklahoma, where Lacewell was defensive coordinator to Switzer’s offensive coordinator. When head coach Chuck Fairbanks left for New England and the NFL, he recommended Switzer over Johnson as his successor.

“Johnson’s first head coaching job was at Oklahoma State, where he didn’t have the talent to beat Switzer’s OU in five tries. But after Johnson took the University of Miami job in 1984, he was 3-0 against Switzer. Meanwhile, Switzer and Lacwell had a falling out, and Lacewell eventually became head coach at Arkansas State, then defensive coordinator at Tennessee. Jones, running up the score and the millions in oil and gas, kept in touch with Johnson and Switzer, who after he was fired in 1989 became something of an entrepreneur himself, investing in some 80 companies.”

As the defensive coordinator at Oklahoma, Lacewell reportedly was the highest-paid assistant coach in the country. He even had his own television show. After the falling out with Switzer, Lacwell served as a volunteer adviser to the Arkansas State program in 1978 before being named the school’s head coach in 1979. His first five teams at ASU went 4-7, 2-9, 6-5, 5-6 and 5-5-1. Then the Indians went on a run that saw them go 8-4-1 in 1984 (advancing to the second round of the 1-AA playoffs), 9-4 in 1985 (advancing to the second round of the 1-AA playoffs again), 12-2-1 in 1986 (advancing to the 1-AA title game) and 8-4-1 in 1987 (advancing to the second round of the 1-AA playoffs).

One of my favorite Lacewell stories concerns his scheduling a game against what turned out to be Bryant’s final team at Alabama in 1982. Lacwell was trying to build the ASU program and needed the guaranteed payout Alabama could offer.

Bryant, Lacewell and the late Logan Young of Memphis (a businessman and bon vivant who was close to both programs) were in Las Vegas for some rest and relaxation, and Bryant happened to mention over drinks late one night that he had an open date he needed to fill.

“Why don’t you play Larry’s team?” Young asked.

“Yeah, coach, that would be great for us,” Lacewell chimed in.

After much urging, a tired Bryant agreed to the game. Young made the two men shake on it.

The next morning, as they went to the airport, Bryant delivered the bad news.

“Larry, I was not thinking straight last night and agreed to something I shouldn’t have agreed to,” Bryant said. “I’ve known you since the day you were born, and I’ve always been a man of my word. But I just can’t do it.”

“Come on coach, we need this game,” Lacewell responded.

Bryant said: “Larry, I can’t play Monticello. My folks would string me up.”

Lacewell exclaimed: “Coach, I’m not at Monticello! That’s where I played! I’m at Arkansas State!”

The game was played at Legion Field in Birmingham in October 1982.

While his team warmed up, Bryant would lean against a goalpost as dozens of photographers took his photo.

Lacewell went out to stand by Bryant that day but didn’t say anything.

Finally, the towering Bryant looked down at the much shorter Lacewell.

“You’re scared, aren’t you? “Bryant asked.

“Yes sir, coach, I am,” Lacewell answered.

Bryant smiled and said, “Hell, you ought to be.”

Alabama won, 34-7. Bryant could have made it much worse, but you don’t pick on old family friends.

In 1986, I had left my job as the assistant sports editor of the Arkansas Democrat to become the newspaper’s Washington, D.C., correspondent.

ASU defeated Sam Houston State, 48-7, in the first game of the 1-AA playoffs on a Saturday.

My phone on Capitol Hill in Washington rang the following Monday. It was Wally Hall, the newspaper’s sports editor.

“Do you want to write sports one more time?” he asked. “Arkansas State is going to Delaware for the second round, and it would be cheaper for you to drive over there from Washington than to have me fly someone up for the game.”

I jumped at the opportunity.

As I checked into my hotel in Delaware the following Friday evening, I ran into Larry Lacewell and Logan Young, who invited me to dinner with them. Arkansas State won the next afternoon, 55-14, and later lost by a score of 48-21 to Georgia Southern in the national championship game at Tacoma, Wash.

Lacewell’s final two teams at Arkansas State went 5-6 in 1988-89, and Lacewell took a job as the defensive coordinator at the University of Tennessee for the 1990 and 1991 seasons. In 1992, his old friends Johnson and Jones hired him as the scouting director for the Dallas Cowboys. He remained in Dallas until 2004.

At a 1984 coaches’ convention in Dallas, Lacewell had urged Johnson to leave Oklahoma State for Miami.

“Jimmy asked me what I thought he should do,” Lacewell said in an interview years later. “I said, ‘Jimmy, have you ever beaten Oklahoma or Nebraska?’ I knew the answer. Then I said, ‘Sooner or later, your alumni are going to figure out that you ain’t beat them. Have you won a national championship? You can win one at Miami.'”

Lacewell became a bit of a fixture in Dallas. In an address to the Little Rock Touchdown Club after retiring from the Cowboys, he said: “I left the Cowboys due to illness and fatigue. Bill Parcells was sick and tired of me.”

Lacewell, though, remained a trusted adviser to Jones. Many say it was Lacewell who helped talk Jones into hiring Switzer in 1994 when Jones and Johnson fell out despite two consecutive Super Bowl wins for the Cowboys.

Lacewell told Bayless: “I honestly believe if I’d said it just wouldn’t work, he wouldn’t be here. But Jerry basically asked me, ‘Will he screw it up?’ and I said, ‘No, he will not screw it up.'”

Bayless wrote: “Originally, says Lacewell, Johnson wanted him to serve as a buffer between Johnson and Jones. Yet Johnson wanted Lacewell to be a loyal buffer. And Johnson, it appeared, thought Lacewell was siding more and more with Jones, who spent more and more time conferring and socializing with Lacewell.

“Says Jones: ‘Larry influenced my decision (to part with) Jimmy without saying a word. All I had to do was observe the way Jimmy began to treat Larry after Jimmy had been the best man in his wedding.’ The flip condescension and the arrogant insensitivity grated on Jones. The Johnson-Lacewell relationship grew so strained that Lacewell refused to spend much time around training-camp practices before the 1993 season. … Yet when Jones fired Johnson, Lacewell went from Johnson’s frying pan back into an old line of fire. Talk about mixed emotions.

“It had been a long time since it happened, about 16 years, and maturity and a deeper spiritual awareness have given Lacewell a better perspective on why it happened. But it did happen, and suddenly Lacewell was faced with having to work closely with the childhood friend (Switzer) who had an affair with his wife.”

Bayless went on to write: “The afternoon Switzer’s hiring was announced, Lacewell told me, ‘The good Lord put us on the earth to forgive and forget.’ Lacewell has forgiven the affair but can’t completely forget. He and Switzer have worked productively, mostly because of their professional respect for each other. Switzer, who leans heavily on Lacewell’s advice, says, ‘Larry Lacewell knows as much about this game as anyone I’ve ever been around.’

“Around the office, he and Lacewell can still laugh and tell stories, like the time in an Oklahoma City airport bar that Switzer decked a guy for making fun of Lacewell’s shoes. But Lacewell draws the line at running with Switzer after hours as they once did. ‘I have different priorities now,’ Lacewell says. ‘My family is more important to me.'”

Lacewell was inducted into the Arkansas Sports Hall of Fame in 1996. He’s a member of the Hall of Honor and the Ring of Honor at Arkansas State. He’s also in the UAM Sports Hall of Fame.

After returning to Arkansas, Lacewell and his wife divided their time between homes at Jonesboro and Hot Springs. He was a fixture at Arkansas Sports Hall of Fame events and often commented on my Facebook page.

Asked about Jerry Jones, Lacewell told The Oklahoman several years ago: “Jerry is probably the most remarkable person I’ve ever been around. He’s the eternal optimist. I’ve never seen anyone like him in my entire life. The world can be falling apart, and he would think the sun is shining. He’s great. He’s a brilliant person. People keep saying the Cowboys need to hire a football man. Jerry has been in the business more than 20 years. Good Lord, I have to believe he’s just as much a football man as Tex Schramm and Gil Brandt after 20 years. Jerry doesn’t get enough credit because he goes on the sidelines and talks as much as he does.”

Of Jimmy Johnson, Lacewell said: “Jimmy was an extremely smart, calculated person who knew what he wanted and how to get there. Jimmy frankly was lucky the year he had 500 draft choices following the trade with the Vikings. That’s hard to screw up when you have that many picks. But Jimmy had an eye for talent. No doubt, when he left it hurt us. I was still learning what I was doing. Gradually, we all improved as a scouting department.”

Lacewell remembers the 1966 season at Oklahoma fondly.

“I coached the freshman team,” he told the Oklahoma City newspaper. “We played real games. I was the head coach. I was such a good coach I had Steve Owens on that freshman team, and Kansas State beat us. They hadn’t beaten anybody. I thought I was a big shot coach and was tired of coaching only the freshmen. I stupidly left for Wichita State. Fortunately they hired me back a few years later.”

He called the chance to return to Oklahoma in 1969 the greatest thing to ever happen to him.

“Other than 1970, when they wanted to fire all of us, from 1971 on it was an incredible run,” Lacewell told The Oklahoman. “I came from a small town in Arkansas. To suddenly be a big shot and have the only television assistant coach’s show in the country, drive a Cadillac and coach a great defense was a thrill. I was such a good coach I made the Selmons great, Rod Shoate great, Randy Hughes great. It was amazing how great I was. Seriously, we had such terrific players that I feel blessed to have coached them.

“I’ll always be thankful to Barry because he saved all of our jobs in 1970 when we went to the Wishbone. Barry studied the Wishbone so hard and knew it so well that helped us get to where we needed to be. Barry never gets enough credit for being the one who helped get the program rolling again. Everyone knows Barry and I had our problems, but it wasn’t quite what people thought. But it wasn’t good. At the same time, I don’t believe you walk away from a relationship where you could use the word ‘love’ to describe how much we respected one another. We had known each other since I was in the eighth grade. We came from similar backgrounds. We had great admiration for each other. It was pretty easy to repair our friendship. It has flourished over the years.”

Best wishes to Larry Lacewell, a colorful Arkansan if there ever were one, as he recovers from his stroke.

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The Shockers at War Memorial

Friday, September 30th, 2016

Thanks to Nate Olson of Simmons Bank for his help on this story. For more, please go to our Simmons Bank blog at www.beyondthebank.com.

Thousands of Arkansans have memories of University of Arkansas football games they’ve attended through the years at War Memorial Stadium in Little Rock.

Those who were there on Oct. 24, 1970, will never forget when the Wichita State Shockers came to town.

As far as football games go, Arkansas’ game against Alcorn State from Mississippi at War Memorial Stadium this Saturday likely won’t be memorable.

But a ceremony on the field should be.

Surviving members of Wichita State’s 1970 football team will attend the Arkansas-Alcorn State game. A plane crash that killed 31 people is at the heart of this story.

Why Arkansas?

Why Little Rock?

Why War Memorial Stadium?

Read on.

Chuck Dicus, a former Razorback and a member of the College Football Hall of Fame, now heads the Arkansas Game & Fish Foundation in Little Rock. A business associate met a former Wichita State football player named John Potts, and they began talking about what happened in 1970. The business associate mentioned her conversation to Dicus this spring and said he should reach out to Potts.

Dicus called, and the idea of a reunion with both teams in attendance was born.

On Oct. 2, 1970, two chartered planes left Wichita to carry the Wichita State football team to a game in Logan, Utah, against Utah State.

Most of the starters were on what was known as the Gold plane.

Others were on what was known as the Black plane.

Olson picks up the story at that point: “While in Denver, several players on the Gold plane asked their pilots to take a scenic route. The players wanted to pass over the Eisenhower Tunnel, on which they had worked as part of a road crew the previous summer. When the plane tried to reach a higher altitude, the cargo load proved too heavy. The plane became trapped in a box canyon, clipped the trees for 400 yards and crashed. Some passengers survived the initial impact but perished when the aircraft burst into flames.

“The Black plane stuck with its original flight plan, which called for it to fly north for 60 miles to avoid the tallest mountains before heading west to Utah. In Logan, the Black plane was sitting at the airport as the players wondered where the other plane was.”

Ray Burford, a player who was on the Black plane and is now a vice president and commercial loan officer for Simmons Bank in Wichita, remembers one of the players joking, “Maybe they crashed.”

Olson writes: “The players knew something was wrong when airport officials pulled assistant coaches off the aircraft for a discussion. When the coaches came back on the plane, they were visibly shaken. Burford says the team was taken to a hotel where the surviving players spent the night. The coaches made the players stay in their rooms to avoid the reporters who had gathered to cover the story. The team boarded a bus for Salt Lake City the next day and took a commercial flight back to Wichita. The bus broke down on the way. When they arrived at the airport, some players opted to drive home. Burford says the days that followed the crash were spent at memorial services for players and staff members. Despite the grief, the players voted to continue the season.”

The NCAA didn’t allow freshmen to play in varsity games in those days but made an exception for Wichita State.

An Oct. 10 home game against Southern Illinois was canceled.

An Oct. 17 home game against Cincinnati was rescheduled for later in the season.

That meant that the Oct. 24 game against Arkansas at War Memorial Stadium would be the Shockers’ first game since the crash.

Bruce James was an All-American defensive end on the 1970 Arkansas squad and now lives in Little Rock. He remembers the Razorback head coach, Frank Broyles, telling him that he would start but only play four downs. Broyles later told members of the scout team and walk-on players that if they could get to Little Rock, they would play. For many of them, it was the lone varsity game in which they would compete.

“The Shockers took a commercial flight from Wichita to Little Rock,” Olson writes. “The only available flight brought the team to Little Rock a day earlier than normal road trips. Players were allowed to explore downtown Little Rock. Little Rock residents left cards and other memorials at the team hotel. James says he remembers that the captains, including one survivor on crutches, had tears in their eyes. When the Shockers took the field, the crowd stood and gave them an ovation that Burford says ‘felt like 10 minutes.’

“James recalls that a number of Arkansas fans decided to root for the underdogs. Burford says the Shockers left the field proud of their effort. Wichita State discontinued football in 1986, but there’s a constant reminder of that 1970 team on campus. A monument was built soon after the tragedy, and Burford says that every year the surviving players gather for a memorial service. This year that service will be held in Little Rock on Sunday following the Arkansas-Alcorn State game.”

Kevin Crass, a Little Rock attorney who now chairs the War Memorial Stadium Commission, was a young boy from Pine Bluff in attendance at the 1970 game.

“There have been some great moments at War Memorial Stadium, but that has to be right up there,” Crass says.

When the Gold plane crashed about 1 p.m. on Oct. 2 on Mount Trelease, which is 40 miles west of Denver, there were 31 people killed — 14 players, 14 staff members or boosters and three crew members. Twenty-nine of them died at the scene. Athlete John Taylor and trainer Tom Reeves died later in hospitals.

Eight players and the co-pilot survived.

The Wichita State athletic director and his wife were killed.

The Shocker head coach and his wife also were killed.

The chairman of the Shocker Club and his wife were killed.

A Kansas state representative and his wife were killed.

A couple who had won a Shocker Club membership drive and were awarded the trip to Logan were killed.

Burford says he often thinks about the day of the crash. He also thinks about that night in Little Rock later in the month, the sea of red in the stands and the sustained standing ovation.

“It just shows so much about this city, the state and Razorback fans,” James says. “Everybody here wanted them to know how much they cared. It was an awesome moment. It made me proud to be a Razorback.”

The former Arkansas and Wichita State players will participate in a tailgate party Saturday morning and then be honored on the field.

“I see it as an opportunity for our team to show their team how much we respected them and still do today,” Dicus says. “They’re still going through it every single day, and it’s going to be a moving, emotional time.”

Burford, who was a sophomore in 1970, was playing messenger guard with sophomore Richard Stines, who died in the crash. The two players would rotate with the play call.

“You don’t process something like that,” Burford says of the crash. “It’s pretty tough. You lose your head coach and teammates, and three or four of those guys were people I had played against since I was in grade school.”

Burford had been scheduled to fly on the Gold plane. He instead got on the Black plane, which he had ridden earlier in the season. His parents were distraught after seeing their son’s name on the Gold plane flight manifest.

Gus Grebe, Wichita State’s radio play-by-play man, was on the Black plane. Burford gave Grebe a novel to read. During the refueling stop in Denver, a player told Grebe he should be on the Gold plane. Grebe declined the offer. He said he would stay on the Black plane since he had left the book there.

Burford knows the memories will come flooding back at War Memorial Stadium on Saturday.

“When we were in the locker room together, and then when we got the standing ovation, we knew we had done the right thing by playing,” he says. “We’re coming back to Little Rock to get a little bit more of that feeling again. It’s like coming full circle. It’s closure.”

Burford finished his college football career at Wichita State and went to professional training camp with the Houston Oilers of the NFL in 1974. He later played briefly for the Chicago Bears’ developmental team in Madison, Wisc.

Burford eventually returned to the Wichita area to teach and coach high school football. At the time, he was the youngest high school head coach in the state. After three years, a Wichita State booster hired him to work for a real estate development company. The company’s owner was killed in an accident a year later, and Burford took a job as the top assistant coach at Wichita North High School. Prior to the 1978 season, he was offered a job at what was then the Federal Land Bank. Burford left coaching for good. He worked for the Federal Land Bank for more than 12 years and later moved into commercial community banking.

Burford has been married for 38 years and has a daughter who lives in Charlottesville, Va. He says several of his teammates struggled for years to come to terms with the crash. Burford was determined to live life to the fullest after that fateful day.

“I took very few things for granted after that,” he says. “I appreciated things more than I had previously. … You looked at the opportunities going forward as God-given opportunities. We knew we better count our blessings and do the best we could.”

“It’s important that we as Razorback fans, and we as the Razorback team of 1970, show how much we think of them,” Dicus says of Saturday’s reunion. “Our hearts are still with them.”

Ed Plopa, a sophomore receiver on the 1970 team, told the Wichita Eagle: “They were so kind to ask us down, we need to be there. We’re very excited and, I guess, astounded by the fact that the Razorbacks think enough of us to invite us down there and be so hospitable.”

Paul Suellentrop writes for the Wichita newspaper: “Players on both sides of that 1970 game mark it as one of the most memorable experiences of their football careers. Newspaper accounts describe the crowd of 40,000 giving the Shockers a minute-long standing ovation. Telegrams and cards with well-wishes filled a training table in the locker room. Arkansas won 62-0. WSU played with 46 athletes, 39 of them freshmen and sophomores.”

In a 2005 story marking the 25th anniversary of the game in Little Rock, former player John Hoheisel said: “Just going out there, the standing ovation, it gave you butterflies in your tummy. You learn to appreciate people and, when things happen, how they’ll gather around you.”

In that same story, former player Bruce Featherstone said of the Arkansans they met on that trip: “People would start crying. They wanted to say something and didn’t know what to say. It was just overwhelming.”

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Patrick

Friday, September 2nd, 2016

We didn’t know quite what to expect from the new man who entered our football radio booth at Ouachita Baptist University eight years ago.

His name was Patrick Fleming, though he went by Patrick Thomas on the air.

The Ouachita Football Network had entered into a new arrangement with Noalmark Broadcasting of El Dorado, and I had asked my contact there, Sandy Sanford, to assign me a stadium engineer who could take our broadcasts to the next level.

I didn’t know Patrick, but Sandy assured me he was the man for the job. He was an interesting mix — a Marine veteran, a radio man, a Presbyterian minister.

Ouachita was opening the 2008 season against Fort Lewis College from Colorado, which had agreed to make the long trip to Arkadelphia if the kickoff were early enough for the team to fly back home that day. So it was a noon start, meaning I arrived at the stadium in Arkadelphia at 9:30 a.m. I had spent that entire week at the Republican National Convention in St. Paul, Minn. There wasn’t much time to prepare for the broadcast, and I was uneasy with a new engineer. Ouachita easily defeated Fort Lewis, 58-7, and I determined that Patrick was a pro.

Ouachita moved the kickoff of the next game up to noon in an attempt to beat the remnants of Hurricane Ike, which was entering Arkansas from Texas that day. The Tigers defeated West Georgia, 41-17, and Patrick again was at the top of his game.

The first road game of the season was a long one — Valdosta, Ga. Ouachita athletic director David Sharp and I flew to the game. Patrick made the drive with the broadcast equipment and met us at the stadium.

The Tigers would finish the season 7-3 with a thrilling victory over Henderson in the Battle of the Ravine on a Thursday night. It would be the start of what’s now a streak of eight consecutive winning seasons for Ouachita, and Patrick was along for the ride.

Jeff Root and I have worked together on the Ouachita broadcasts for decades. Not only that, we grew up together. Richard Atkinson also joined us in 2008, but he’s an Arkadelphia native and a Ouachita graduate; a known commodity in other words.

Patrick had no connection to Ouachita until Sandy assigned him to us. But he came to love the school and its football program as much as we do. I would look down to my right, where Patrick always sat, during the final minutes of close games and see him nervously chewing on his knuckles.

Patrick was a perfectionist. I knew we would get on the air despite the gremlins that show up from time to time when you’re doing live radio. And I knew we would sound good. I could count on Patrick.

He was with me in Omaha, Neb. We stuck our toes in the Atlantic Ocean at Jacksonville Beach, Fla. We covered a lot miles together. In fact, he never missed a game until last year when he informed me that he would skip our three games in Oklahoma so he could see his daughter play in the band at Bethel University in Jackson, Tenn. How could I argue with that? But I was a nervous wreck without him in the booth.

This year, Patrick vowed that he would be at all 11 games. We had exchanged emails throughout the summer, talking about the team. Then, on a Sunday night last month, there came a phone call that devastated me. It was Sandy Sanford, Patrick’s former boss. He was calling to tell me that Patrick had been killed in a one-vehicle accident on Interstate 40.

Patrick had taken his daughter back to Bethel for her final year of school. The last thing he posted on his Facebook page was a photo of the Welcome To Arkansas sign on the Memphis bridge.

I’m glad Patrick got to experience the first 10-0 regular season in school history two years ago. More than anything, though, I’m glad he became my friend. When you spend every weekend of the fall with the same group of people, you become almost like a family. And Patrick had indeed become a beloved, trusted member of my Saturday family along with Jeff Root, Richard Atkinson, David Sharp and Casey Motl.

We’ll carry on, but there’s a big void in our broadcast booth this season. Prior to the first game Thursday night, we dedicated the 2016 season to the memory of our colleague, our friend, Patrick Fleming.

He’s no longer with us on the broadcasts. But because he’s a believer, he has received his reward of eternal life.

To borrow a line I use from time to time on the football broadcasts, Patrick has gone to the Promised Land.

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David Solomon at 100

Tuesday, July 26th, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

That’s right: The Mississippi Blues Trail.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Bumpers: A senator remembered

Wednesday, January 6th, 2016

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

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

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

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

He would pace.

He would wave his arms.

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

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

I was taking notes.

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

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

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

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

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

Arkansas Democrat Washington bureau,” I answered.

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

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

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

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

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

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

I had to make a decision.

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

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

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

I never wrote the story that day.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Everything changed on a Friday night that spring.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here’s how the conversation went:

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

“No, he left about an hour ago.”

“Do you know where he went?”

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

“Do you know when he will return?”

“No, he didn’t say.”

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

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

No answer.

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

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

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

“No, he hasn’t.”

“Do you have any idea when he might?”

“No, I don’t.”

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

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

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

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

If only he had known the full story.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We’ll never see another one quite like him.

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Red: Born to coach

Tuesday, January 5th, 2016

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

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

Barry Switzer was a product of Crossett.

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

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

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

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

I could go on and on.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Parker always felt he was betrayed by Pell.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hayes was dismissed the next day.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Parker accepted.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He was born to be a coach.

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

 

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Mincemeat pie (and other Christmas treats)

Monday, December 21st, 2015

My father always insisted on a mincemeat pie for Christmas.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I agree.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I’m a traditionalist, especially at Christmas.

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

 

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Fruitcake lovers unite

Friday, December 18th, 2015

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

Yes, a fruitcake.

Enough already with the fruitcake jokes.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yet another boost to growth came in the 1890s.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Corsicana now has about 24,000 residents.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Louisiana Purchase survey

Wednesday, December 9th, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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