Archive for the ‘Memories’ Category

“I say good-bye”

Friday, August 28th, 2015

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

There’s an empty nest at the Nelson house.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

His first sentence: “This is CNN.”

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

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

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

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

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

She was true to her word.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That doesn’t mean I have to like it.

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Ben Elrod: Part 4

Tuesday, June 30th, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The shock waves were felt in neighboring Arkansas.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Ben Elrod: Part 3

Monday, June 29th, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Elrod responded bluntly: “No.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Then, Ouachita called once more.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Ben Elrod: Part 2

Friday, June 26th, 2015

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

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

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

Life as a student in Arkadelphia centered on the campus.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Ben Elrod: Son of south Arkansas

Thursday, June 25th, 2015

I usually have far too many projects on my plate.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Elrod’s family had roots deep in south Arkansas.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Leaving home

Monday, June 22nd, 2015

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

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

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

I was not yet two years old.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thanks, Lynda, for your hard work.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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Farewell Sno-White

Friday, February 6th, 2015

I received sad news Friday.

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

But it was inevitable.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Indeed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Garner doesn’t remember which hamburger the president had.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Plate lunches were 20, 25 and 30 cents.

The phone number was four digits — 1320.

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

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

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

And what about that Thanksgiving Day fire back in 1991?

Garner began work the next morning rebuilding the restaurant.

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

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

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John Prock: Man of influence

Tuesday, December 30th, 2014

The information that’s compiled on football players and coaches at the NCAA Division II level isn’t nearly as extensive as the plethora of facts and figures we can find on those who play and coach at the BCS level.

Ken Bissell, a native of Nashville in Howard County and a graduate of Harding University at Searcy, knew what faced him when he began working on a book about John Prock, Harding’s head football coach from 1964-87. There would be dozens and dozens of interviews to conduct. There would be a lot of digging through old files and scrapbooks.

Google the name of any FBS head coach, and dozens of stories will appear.

Google the name of John Prock, and you won’t find much.

To me, though, John Prock was as big a college coaching name when I was growing up as any head coach in the Southwest Conference, Big Ten or SEC. You see, I was a child of the now defunct Arkansas Intercollegiate Conference, raised by a sporting goods dealer in Arkadelphia in a home that was walking distance from the football stadiums of two AIC schools. If we weren’t in Arkadelphia on a fall Saturday, we were in Searcy, Conway, Russellville, Magnolia or Monticello.

This was college football to me, and the men who were coaching those AIC teams of the 1960s and 1970s — a Prock at Harding; a Benson at Ouachita; a Sawyer, Berry or Carpenter at Henderson; a Dempsey at Arkansas Tech; a Bright or Stephens at what’s now UCA; a Powell at what’s now SAU — were among the giants of my childhood.

Buddy Benson, the head football coach at Ouachita for 31 seasons, was like an uncle to me, and Prock was the AIC coach who — at least in my mind — was most like Benson: A ruggedly handsome, tough, driven man at a private university, forced to compete without the resources of the state schools.

Ken Bissell and I have much in common. We both hail from southwest Arkansas. I graduated from Ouachita in 1981. He graduated from Harding in 1984. We both were heavily involved as students in sports writing and in sports information work at our alma maters. Our mentors were legendary small college sports information directors, Stan Green at Harding and Mac Sisson at Ouachita.

Bissell later would serve as the sports editor of The Nashville News in his hometown and The Daily Citizen in Searcy before returning to Harding as sports information director in 1987. He was a natural to write “Many Sons To Glory,” which was released this fall.

“My relationship with Coach Prock began in 1980 when I was a freshman sports reporter for The Bison, Harding’s student newspaper, and further developed as I worked for four years as a student assistant in the school’s sports information office,” Bissell writes. “I wouldn’t call our relationship close, but I always found Coach Prock to be supportive and encouraging as we interacted through the years. While studying at Harding, I debated between sports writing and coaching as a career path so I pursued a major in journalism with physical education as my minor, which placed me in Prock’s ‘Coaching Football’ class.

“He frequently poked fun at my questions in the classroom, asking if my inquiries were more from a writer’s than a coach’s perspective. I determined quickly that my skills and demeanor were better suited for the press box than the sideline, but I’ve often wondered what might have been had I chosen the life of gridiron mentor over that of journalist and later PR and marketing professional. I have no regrets, it served my family and me well, but I loved coaching my sons’ youth league teams.”

Bissell explains Prock’s “faith in his assistant coaches to squeeze every drop of talent out of the players, and his determination to stretch every dollar, even at his own expense. … Ask his former players how he influenced their lives, and they often speak with such affection that lumps fill their throats and tears come to their eyes. Many of them are successful high school head coaches with multiple state championships.

“But warm feelings from former players and successfully building a program don’t necessarily warrant writing a book about a coach. There are many sports mentors who endear themselves to their teams and face challenges with determination. What set John Prock apart was the grace with which he faced his adversity-filled youth; the faith-based example he demonstrated with his family and the young men who played for him; and the integrity, humility, character and leadership he displayed throughout his life.”

Prock, an inductee into the Arkansas Sports Hall of Fame, died in July 2012. He was born in March 1929 in the small southwestern Oklahoma town of Hollis, which produced a fellow named Darrell Royal, another college football coach you might have heard of.

“Hollis was like any other plains town in the 1920s and ’30s,” Bissell writes. “With a population of a little more than 3,000, it was the county seat and center of commerce in Harmon County where the large majority of residents made their livings as farmers. Hard work in the fields through the week was typically rewarded with a trip to town on Saturday to buy provisions and other necessities and perhaps catch a flicker show at the LaVista movie theater. Sunday was reserved for church services and rest. That reliance on agriculture as the economic lifeblood of the nation’s breadbasket would become the bane of its existence as the Great Depression and severe drought converged to create the perfect poverty storm known as the Dust Bowl.

“The section of country that embraced the panhandles of Texas and Oklahoma, southwestern Kansas, southeastern Colorado and northeastern New Mexico became vulnerable as the influx of homesteaders increased through the first two decades of the 20th century. Endless fields that had served for centuries as the grazing home to buffalo and later cattle herds were converted into millions of acres of wheat in support of World War I food efforts and beyond. Poor land management combined with a three-year drought from 1930-33 eventually destroyed the area’s topsoil. The spring winds of 1934 lifted exposed, parched dirt that was no longer bound together by native grasses and swept it into boiling storms that were aptly called Black Blizzards. Suddenly those whose livelihoods depended solely on crops were left with nothing but silty wind-blown soil covering everything in sight.”

Prock’s parents weren’t among those who headed west to California. They stayed in Oklahoma. In May 1931, Prock’s mother died. The official cause of death was blood poisoning. She was pregnant when she died. Some believed she caught her husband, who was a truck driver, in an affair and tried to abort the baby. At age 2, John Prock moved in with his paternal grandparents. His grandfather died in 1934, leaving his grandmother to raise him during the depths of the Great Depression.

Prock’s grandmother died in April 1941, leaving him to be raised as a teenager by an abusive stepmother.

“As it was with most small rural communities in the 1930s and ’40s, sports served both as an outlet and escape for young men in Hollis,” Bissell writes. “When they weren’t working in the fields, it was common to find the neighborhood boys playing summer pick-up baseball games on makeshift diamonds, fall rag-tag football scrimmages on dusty gridirons or hoops on barn-side dirt basketball courts in the cold of winter. Any boy worth his salt was honing his ball skills with dreams of playing for the Hollis High Tigers and the University of Oklahoma Sooners.”

In a 1996 interview, Prock said: “I was living with my grandmother, and I told her I wanted to be a football coach. I never changed my mind.”

Prock went on to play three seasons of college football — 1952-54 — at Southwestern Oklahoma in Weatherford, lettering each year and earning all-conference honors his final season. He graduated in three years. Prock was hired as the head football and track coach at Buffalo High School in northwest Oklahoma. As August practices approached, however, he accepted a position as an assistant coach in Clinton, Okla., where he began his coaching career under Carl Allison.

Allison, who had starred in football at the University of Oklahoma, was hired by Harding in 1959 to revive the program after a 28-year hiatus. A year later, Prock joined Allison in Searcy. Allison left Harding in 1964 to join Gomer Jones’ staff at Oklahoma. Prock was promoted to head coach. For the next 24 seasons, he would be the face of the Harding football program.

Former Harding President Clifton Ganus wrote the foreword for “Many Sons To Glory.”

“I have often said that a man is what he is taught to be,” Ganus writes. “He is the sum product of his experience and teaching, formal and informal, right or wrong, good or bad. Coach Prock is good example of this. A strong Christian, faithful family man, coach and mentor didn’t happen overnight. A lot of blood, sweat and tears helped mold him into the successful man that he became.

“An early dysfunctional family life was overcome by a loving grandmother and a junior high coach named Joe Bailey Metcalf. He also coached John in senior high and college and left a deep impression on his life. Later, his beloved Charlene entered his life, and he became a Christian. Finances were always meager, and John had to learn how to be economical and to use his hands to build and to improvise. This ability helped him greatly in years to come. John loved football, and his coach became a father figure to him. He also looked up to outstanding players and coaches, one of whom was Carl Allison, a fine Christian man who became his close friend.”

What about the book’s name?

“Many Sons To Glory” comes from the New Testament. Hebrews 2:10 to be exact: “In bringing many sons to glory, it was fitting that God, for whom and through whom everything exists, should make the author of their salvation perfect through suffering.”

At Prock’s funeral, former player Jim Citty described his old coach this way: “He was a Bulldog from Southwestern Oklahoma before he became a Bison. From his humble beginnings, he became an inspiration to many. He was resourceful and made the most of the facilities and the athletes that he was given. For those of you who didn’t play football, I know it is hard for you to understand this bond. … Coach taught us that you had to work hard, and pain was not a factor. His philosophy was that football provided one of the greatest training grounds available for life, self-discipline, team discipline and Christianity.”

The hearse drove two laps around the football field before heading to the cemetery.

Bissell describes the scene this way: “In a fitting last tribute to the man who did so much more than coach football games on that field, several former players held up a sign on the home side bleachers that read ‘Farewell Coach Prock’ as the hearse made one final lap around the track. They represented the hundreds of Prock’s sons who waged battle on that turf and were forever influenced by the humble Oklahoman.”

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A very Southern Christmas

Tuesday, December 23rd, 2014

While preparing to write a Christmas eve column for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, I decided to have a blast from the past by invoking the Helena oyster loaf.

That’s right, I said oyster loaf.

Those of a certain age will remember that Richard Allin, who authored the “Our Town” column for the Arkansas Gazette and later the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, would write each Christmas about the oyster loaf.

Food traditions are an important part of Christmas. Each year, I delight in gathering the various food catalogs that have arrived in the mail so I can order pecans from Georgia, grapefruit from Florida, country hams and bacon from Virginia, brisket from Texas and wild salmon from the Pacific Northwest.

I was in Helena last week, passed the historic Allin house and decided to bring up the oyster loaf.

In my library is a delightful book published in 1978 by the Phillips County Historical Society. It’s titled “Helena: The Ridge, The River, The Romance.”

It includes a chapter by Allin, who died in October 2007 at age 77, about Christmas in Helena.

Here’s 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.”

Allin noted that mustard pickles had become hard to find. The old-fashioned 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. 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 made 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.”

Allin hailed from a prominent east Arkansas family. Born in October 1930, he graduated from high school in Helena in 1948 and finished the University of the South at Sewanee, Tenn., in 1952 with a degree in English literature. He served more than three years in the U.S. Navy, including working at the Pentagon in the Office of Naval Intelligence. His first job after leaving the Navy was as a roving reporter covering the Mid-South for The Commercial Appeal at Memphis. Allin joined the Gazette after three years of working for the Memphis newspaper. He played the tuba for the Arkansas Symphony Orchestra for a decade, and his tuba exploits often were the subjects of columns.

I still have his “Southern Legislative Dictionary” and “Wad and Gudge Creek Chronicles,” two little books he compiled.

His older brother, the Right Rev. John Maury Allin, was also a Sewanee graduate who went on to become the presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church USA from 1974-85. John Maury Allin died in March 1998.

“One of the surest signs of the approach of Christmas at my house in Helena was when my mother began muttering, more or less to herself, something about pecans,” Richard Allin wrote. “‘I’ve got to see about my pecans’ would suddenly come from the other room, and I would say, ‘Why did you say?’ and there would be no answer. About a month before Christmas, one of the chairs at the kitchen table would be pre-empted for a time by a huge brown paper sack containing always 10 pounds of pecans still in the shell.

“Times were dangerous in the kitchen during the next week or so. The air was filled with shards of pecan shrapnel that whizzed around the room every time the lever on the pecan cracker was pulled. Scientists and sages have tried down through the ages to build a better nut cracker, but the only kind ever used at our house was the type that you screwed to a table. It had a lever that worked against a ratchet, and when you pulled the handle the pecan would shatter around on all sides. When 10 pounds had to be attacked, you had to bring in the heavy machinery.

“To this day, cracking pecans seems to me like one of the universe’s most boring activities. But my mother greeted each pecan as a new challenge to be attacked with unwavering ferocity. Shucking 10 pounds of pecans is no mean task.”

The 1978 collection of stories about Helena also contains a piece by Frank Jeffett about a Christmas eve duck hunt in which he and some friends narrowly avoided disaster. This story appealed to me because my late father was an avid outdoorsman. The Christmas holiday always included quail and duck hunts. On Christmas afternoon, when my father had been in the house long enough, he would say to me: “Let’s go give the bird dogs a little exercise.” We would head out and hunt quail until dark.

Sometimes we were up before daylight on the day after Christmas for a duck hunt. Jeffett wrote: “Only one who has duck hunted can fully appreciate how cold it can be when the wind is blowing and the thermometer has dipped below the 20-degree mark — and to know how really cold you can get, you’ve got to get in an open motorboat under those conditions before the first daybreak has appeared in the east.”

We often had baked wild ducks on Christmas eve (with cornbread dressing) and fried quail on Christmas morning (with biscuits and gravy).

A book I’ve been reading recently is “The Edible South” by Blytheville native Marcie Cohen Ferris, who’s now an associate professor of American studies and Southern studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She is married to Bill Ferris, a noted Southern scholar who once chaired the National Endowment for the Humanities. In the preface to the book, she writes about Christmas vacations spent on the farm near Vicksburg, Miss., where her mother-in-law, Shelby Flowers Ferris, lived until her death this past August at the age of 96.

Shelby Ferris grew up at Vicksburg, graduating from All Saints Episcopal High School and then going to New Orleans, where she received her bachelor’s degree from Sophie Newcomb College of Tulane University. She married William Reynolds Ferris in 1941 and began living on the family farm, named Broadacres, south of Vicksburg.

According to her obituary: “As a young bride, she made many adjustments, leaving behind a comfortable urban life in Vicksburg for an isolated rural life with dusty roads, no telephone, a generator to provide electricity and a well for water. She embraced and loved this life and soon developed a lifelong passion for gardening, planting extensive flowerbeds around her hilltop home, which she lovingly tended for almost 75 years. … Over the years, visitors from around the world enriched her rural Mississippi environment and were in turn enriched by it.

“Relatives from Boston and Chicago brought friends who talked about their lives, so different from daily life on the farm. The wide web of visitors increased over the years. Shelby’s children’s friends spent weekends riding horses, swimming in the lake, driving the Jeep and paddling down the Big Black River. Many learned to drive on the farm, across the wide pastures. These rich experiences nurtured the adventurous spirits of those who visited and left memories for generations of people who enjoyed Shelby’s hospitality and generosity, as well as her humor, the freewheeling conversations and delicious meals served at her dining table. Throughout all the years, Shelby continued to welcome old friends and make new ones, always with great hospitality and grace.”

She sounds like someone I would have loved to have known.

Marcie Cohen Ferris wrote this about the Christmas visits to the farm: “Food is the center of our holidays at the farm where my husband was raised in Mississippi. On Christmas Day, the family gathers around the dining room table. The ritual surrounding the preparation for the Southern meal is elaborate. Activity begins months in advance as casseroles and desserts are prepared and frozen by Liz Martin, a expert cook and housekeeper. She has worked in culinary tandem with Bill’s mother, Shelby Flowers Ferris, for over 30 years. In the last 24 hours before the meal, work reaches a crescendo. Bill’s three sisters, and now the next generation of grandchildren and nieces and nephews, divide up chores, polishing silver, setting tables and arranging bowls of camellias. The other meals surrounding Christmas Day are just as important, such as the traditional gumbo we enjoy for supper on Christmas Eve. Eating this meal reminds us of the family’s deep ties to New Orleans, the Creole city that has seduced each generation of Ferrises.

“Throughout the holiday, we gather daily for breakfast, a hearty noontime dinner and a light supper in the evening. Mrs. Ferris sits at the head of the table. She is the center of life at the farm. She still plans the menus and coordinates our meals. It is difficult to rise before her, at 5 a.m. each morning. There are fresh grapefruits cut and ready for each of us at our places at the table, designated by napkin rings personalized with our names. These rituals reinforce our Southern family and Shelby’s love.”

Christmas traditions, whether they’re about food or hunting trips, are important. You see, the memories you make are a key part of the Christmas season.

Merry Christmas.

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Tears at 10-0

Tuesday, November 18th, 2014

As the clock ticked down to 0:00 on a cold, gray Saturday afternoon, I tried to describe the scene at Carpenter-Haygood Stadium in Arkadelphia to those who were listening to the broadcast of the 88th Battle of the Ravine.

For the previous 30 minutes — since it had become likely that Ouachita Baptist University would beat Henderson State University to go to 10-0 for the first time in school history — the messages had been flooding my phone. They came from Ouachita graduates across the country who were listening online.

I attempted to paint a verbal picture as the packed Ouachita stands emptied, students and even some adults storming the field in the wake of one of the most historic victories in the rich annals of a football program that dates back to 1895. Henderson had become the giant among NCAA Division II football programs in the state, going undefeated during the regular season in 2012 and 2013 and winning the four previous Battles of the Ravine. The Reddies were 30-1 in regular-season games since the start of the 2012 season, having only lost to a talented Harding squad in the final minute earlier this season.

Ouachita was ranked No. 9, and Henderson was ranked No. 14 in Division II coming into Saturday’s game.  Despite Ouachita’s higher ranking, 100 percent of those who picked the game on the Great American Conference message board had gone with Henderson.

No doubt, the Reddies were Goliath.

As I drove from my home in Little Rock to Arkadelphia on Saturday morning, the clouds thickened. The day reminded me of the Saturday before Thanksgiving in 1975 when Ouachita and Henderson met in another classic at the same stadium. The two schools held a joint homecoming for a few years in the 1970s with the game played each season at Henderson’s newer and larger stadium. Even though the 1975 contest was at Henderson, it was technically Ouachita’s home game and Ouachita sports information director Mac Sisson was on the public address system that day.

Mac would always give the weather before the game, and I can still remember his words in that distinctive baritone: “Winds out of the north at 10 to 15 miles per hour with a temperature of 29 degrees.”

A bit of personal history: I grew up a block from Ouachita’s football stadium, the son of a former Ouachita quarterback and a former Ouachitonian beauty (I still have the yearbook in which my mother was featured as such). I’ve bled purple since birth.

The football series between Ouachita and Henderson was suspended following the 1951 game due to excessive vandalism and was not resumed until 1963. I would have been 4 years old in 1963, and I would have been at the Battle of the Ravine. I’ve been at every Battle of the Ravine since 1963, in fact, with the exception of the 1986-87 games when I was working for the Arkansas Democrat in Washington, D.C. It is, to put it simply, a part of who I am.

Like most boys who grew up in Arkansas, I rooted for the Razorbacks. Unlike most boys, Arkansas was not my main team. Ouachita was.

We didn’t often go to Hog games in Fayetteville or Little Rock. We were too busy following Ouachita. Some of my fondest childhood memories are of trips back from places like Searcy, Conway, Russellville, Magnolia and Monticello in the back of my father’s big Oldsmobile.

From about age 6 through high school, I walked the Ouachita sidelines during games. Legendary Coach Buddy Benson was like an uncle to me, and he welcomed a group of boys — Tab Turner, Neal Turner, Mike Balay, Richard Balay and others — to work as ball boys and water boys.

I was in the 10th grade when that 1975 game occurred. I played high school football on Friday nights but spent my Saturdays watching Ouachita. On the morning of the game, I accompanied the team’s head manager, Wesley Kluck, to my father’s downtown sporting goods store to borrow Coleman stoves, which we put along the sideline so the players could warm their hands on the frigid afternoon.

Henderson was 9-0. Ouachita was 8-1, having lost to Southern Arkansas in Magnolia three weeks earlier. Both teams were ranked nationally.

I love those November games that begin in the daylight and end under the lights. The lights were on and darkness had descended on Arkadelphia. Ouachita trailed 20-14 and faced a fourth-and-25 with time running out.

One last chance.

Quarterback Bill Vining Jr., who had grown up just down the street from me in the Ouachita Hills neighborhood, passed to Gary Reese across the middle. Out came the chains.

The stadium was packed but dead quiet as those chains were stretched. The referee went to a knee for a better look. Then, he came up and signaled that Ouachita had made a first down by inches.

New life.

Two plays later, Vining passed to Ken Stuckey for a touchdown. Russell Daniel kicked the extra point.

Ouachita 21, Henderson 20.

I’ve had the good fortune in my career of covering Super Bowls, Sugar Bowls, Cotton Bowls and more. That still rates as the greatest football game I ever attended.

I still have a photo of the players carrying Coach Benson off the field. It was among the most memorable days of my life.

I thought about that day as I pulled into the parking lot of Henderson’s Carpenter-Haygood at noon last Saturday.

Same stadium. Same weather. Same big stakes.

At age 55, I find myself becoming more nostalgic.

I sat in my car for several minutes before walking to the press box and thought about the past.

I thought about how I wish my dad, who died in March 2011, could be here. Oh, how he would have enjoyed the atmosphere that electrified Arkadelphia.

Dad had been raised poor during the Great Depression in Benton. Following his high school graduation in 1942, he took a job with the Chicago Bridge & Iron Co., which was building the aluminum plant in Saline County. The United States had entered World War II in December 1941, and there was a rush to get the plant finished so it could contribute to the war effort. Dad was paid union wages and found himself making more than his father had ever made. He told his parents that he would stay with the company rather than going to college.

He had been offered a football scholarship to Ouachita, and my grandmother was insistent that he go to college, something neither she nor my grandfather had done. She called the Ouachita head coach, Bill Walton, and ordered him not to let my father come home once he reached campus for a visit.

The 1942 Ouachita team went 9-1, losing only to Union University in Jackson, Tenn. Dad joined the Army Air Corps the following spring and served for two years. He returned to Ouachita after the war to obtain a degree and played on the 1945, 1946 and 1947 teams. He met a pretty young lady named Carolyn Caskey from Des Arc and married her prior to graduation in the spring of 1948.

My sister was recently cleaning out the house we grew up in and found the program from the Battle of the Ravine on Thanksgiving Day 1947. My father is listed as the starting quarterback. She gave me the program, which I now consider to be among my most cherished possessions.

As I sat in my car Saturday, I also thought of Coach Benson, who was my childhood hero along with my father and Coach Bill Vining Sr. This would have been his type of game. Buddy Benson had been among the nation’s most highly recruited high school players coming out of high school at De Queen. He signed with Oklahoma, a powerhouse in those days, but later transferred to Arkansas, where he threw the famous Powder River pass to beat nationally ranked Ole Miss at War Memorial Stadium in 1954.

Coach Benson was the head coach at Ouachita for an amazing 31 seasons, winning more than he lost while playing much larger state schools with bigger athletic budgets. He passed away on Good Friday in that terrible spring of 2011, just weeks after I had lost my dad.

I also thought of the aforementioned Mac Sisson, my college mentor who gave me the chance as an untested freshman in 1978 to begin broadcasting Ouachita games, something I’m still doing all these years later. Mac and I spent fall Saturdays for years traveling through Arkansas, Mississippi, Oklahoma, Texas and other states for Ouachita games. I miss him every day.

I thought of family friends like Ike Sharp and his son Paul, also gone. They had both played at Ouachita and personified what my alma mater’s football program is all about.

To be fair, I thought of men who had been among my mentors who were on the Henderson side and are also gone, coaches with names like Wells, Sawyer and Reese. They were giants to me. They also would have enjoyed this big-game atmosphere.

Ouachita trailed 17-7 in the first quarter of Saturday’s game, and it appeared the Reddies were poised to blow the Tigers out.

I didn’t say it on the radio, but I thought at that point in the game about something Coach Benson would tell his team before every game: “If at first the game or breaks go against you, don’t get shook or rattled. Put on more steam.”

You see, it’s a 60-minute game.

Coach Benson had played for Bowden Wyatt at Arkansas. Wyatt had played for Gen. Robert Neyland at Tennessee. Wyatt would repeat Neyland’s pregame maxims before each game. Buddy Benson would continue that tradition at Ouachita.

Ouachita indeed put on more steam, outscoring the powerful Reddies 34-3 the rest of the way.

I counted down the final seconds on the radio and looked at the Ouachita fans pouring from the stands. That’s when the tears came.

Silly, you say, for a 55-year-old man to cry at the end of an athletic contest. It’s only a game, you say.

I’m sorry, but it’s more than a game to me. Ouachita football has been one of my passions since birth.

My wish for my sons and for you as we near Thanksgiving is that you have one or more great passions. It might be a passion for music. It might be a passion for acting. It might be a passion for writing. It doesn’t have to have anything to do with sports. It has to do with finding something you care about deeply throughout your life. It’s even more special if you’ve suffered defeats so you more fully appreciate the high points.

I know defeat.

So does Ouachita’s head coach, Todd Knight. I was on the committee that was appointed to search for a head coach following the resignation of Red Parker at Ouachita after the 1998 season. We ended up offering the job to Knight, a former Ouachita player, who had led the Delta State in Mississippi to its first Gulf South Conference title. Delta is bigger, richer and had things rolling.

Todd turned down our offer. He turned it down multiple times. The then-Ouachita president, Andy Westmoreland, wouldn’t take no for an answer. He kept telling Todd to pray about it. Shortly before Christmas, Todd decided to come to Ouachita despite having recruited players to Delta who would win the Division II national championship in 2000.

His 1999 team started 3-1 but, lacking depth, finished 3-7. When you’re a small school like Ouachita, you welcome anyone who wants to jump aboard the bandwagon. Yet I suspect this year’s undefeated season is even more special for those of us who were in Tahlequah, Okla., on the afternoon of Oct. 16, 1999, as Northeastern State beat Ouachita by a score of 57-0. Or those of us who were there for the last game that season as Harding beat Ouachita by a score of 41-7.

Seven of Todd Knight’s first nine seasons at Ouachita, one of the smallest schools in the country to play the sport at the Division II level, were losing campaigns. Most schools wouldn’t have stuck with a coach that long. Ouachita stuck with Todd Knight, and Todd Knight stuck with Ouachita.

Patience paid off.

Ouachita is now the only college football program in the state — at any level — with seven consecutive winning seasons.

So as the students stormed the field and the tears rolled down my cheeks at about 6 p.m. Saturday, my mind wandered.

I thought about Dad, Coach Benson, Ike Sharp, Paul Sharp, Mac Sisson and other men who bled purple who were watching from above.

I thought about Coach Knight and that day in Tahlequah when I had struggled to broadcast the end of a 57-0 blowout.

I thought about how happy I was for the students, the faculty, the staff, the alumni and the other good people associated with this school that has been so much a part of my life.

I thought about my wife and son sitting in the cold across the way, no doubt also enjoying the moment.

I thought of past Ouachita presidents like Dan Grant and Ben Elrod, Arkansas leaders who know how difficult it is for a little school like Ouachita to make it to 10-0.

And I thought about how happy I was to share it all with what I call my “Saturday family,” the men with whom I share the broadcast booth.

My childhood friend Jeff Root, who grew up a few houses down Carter Road from my house, has been in the broadcast booth with me for more than a quarter of a century. Jeff, who is now the dean of the School of Humanities at Ouachita, and I have a special bond. Jeff also was on the committee that hired Coach Knight. Saturday was the culmination of all we had hoped for 16 years ago.

I also was glad to have Richard Atkinson and Patrick Fleming, who have been in the booth for eight years, there. It’s hard to explain to those who aren’t broadcasters, but you really do become like family.

I continued to broadcast — after all, there was still work to do on the postgame show– as the tears ran down my cheeks. I’m not really sure what I said, though. On this cold November day, I had been transported back in time.

I was a kid again, marveling at my good fortune; the good fortune of one who grew up in a small town in the South and attended a small school where people call you by your name and care about you. A place where people give you opportunities. After all, who has ever heard of a 19-year-old college play-by-play man?

Once again, I was in the back seat of the Oldsmobile, fighting to keep my eyes open as Dad drove us through the autumn Arkansas night, home from a Ouachita victory.

Once again, Buddy Benson was on the sideline in his starched shirt and tie, and Mac Sisson was in the press box.

Once again, my beloved Tigers were on top and the future was limitless.

I’m blessed; blessed beyond description as we enter another Thanksgiving season.

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