Archive for the ‘Favorite Arkansans’ Category

Curtis King: Arkansas’ legendary coach

Wednesday, January 8th, 2014

Sometimes you strike a chord with people.

I did that with my weekly newspaper column when I wrote about Coach Curtis King, who was the coach at Augusta High School from 1944-73, compiling a 182-105-12 record in football despite annually playing larger schools such as Batesville, Newport and Searcy. King also coached boys’ basketball, girls’ basketball and track while doing whatever else needed doing around the east Arkansas school.

He touched the lives of hundreds of former students, and I’ve heard from many of them this week.

I chose to write about Coach King this week because of the huge amount of national media coverage about the fact that Auburn University head football coach Gus Malzahn spent much of his career as a high school coach in Arkansas.

As I pointed out in the column, high school coaches are an important part of the fabric of this state. Start talking to Arkansans and you’ll find a lot of them who will tell you that outside of their parents, the people who had the most influence on them were high school coaches.

King died in October 1980 but is still remembered fondly.

I closed the column this way: “Gus Malzahn often tells interviewers that he comes from the high school coaching tree in Arkansas. For years, Augusta’s Curtis King was the base of that tree.”

I want to share a couple of things that I didn’t have room for in the newspaper column.

First, some quotes from a story Heber Taylor did on King for the Three Rivers Edition of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette back in April 1997.

Next, some memories from longtime Little Rock businessman and lobbyist Bill Brady, who played for King at Augusta.

This from the newspaper story of 17 years ago: “He was a natural as a teacher. Although small (5-7 and about 160 pounds), he had a booming voice and a presence that demanded respect. Former students say he would throw an eraser or a piece of chalk at a recalcitrant student.

“He might have the class sing the math principles he was teaching.

“He used the Bible to back up his quest for student achievement. A favorite statement was ‘woe be unto him that does not get his homework, for there shall be weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth.’

“To emphasize the mathematical formula for determining a circle’s circumference, he had his wife bake a special pie. He brought it to class covered and asked a student what shape the pie was. When the answer was ’round,’ he took a towel off his square-shaped pie as a reminder: ‘Pie are squared.’

“He was known to kneel beside the desk of an unprepared student and pray, ‘Lord, send your great angels and put some brains in this poor nincompoop’s head.’

“Billy Ray Smith remembers, ‘He would tear you up in class if you didn’t have your lesson.’ But he and other former Augusta athletes all say King was a great teacher.

“Bobby Pearrow, who played as a 135-pound guard in the early 1950s, said: ‘He went to great lengths to help. He gave me a good math background and that benefited me more than any other subject.’ King had such an influence on Pearrow, in fact, that he and his wife named their son Curtis after the coach.

“Smith and his cousin, Boots Simmons, who also played tackle for Augusta, told about King making them come to the front of the class for a spanking with a book. ‘He wouldn’t hurt you much, but he could sure scare you,’ Smith says.

“In 1978, Suzy Potter Lawler, who played basketball at Augusta in the late 1940s, wrote: ‘He not only taught us to work math problems and be good in sports, he taught us how to cope; how to get along in life; how to respect and be respected; how to live and, when necessary, to fight to live with dignity.’”

I’ll never forget how King described his offense during his induction speech at the 1980 Arkansas Sports Hall of Fame banquet: “I ran a single wing with an unbalanced coach.”

One of the most famous games of the King years occurred at Pocahontas in 1949 when King learned that the home team was planning to use a white ball with no stripes to blend in with its uniforms. King had a colored ball and told the officials that if Pocahontas used a white ball during the first half, Augusta would use the colored ball that matched its uniforms during the second half. The Pocahontas coach would not agree to the arrangement, and the officials awarded a forfeit to Pocahontas. On appeal, the governing board of high school athletics in the state reversed the decision.

Brady played for what he describes as the worst team King ever coached. He writes: “By any measure, Coach King was one of the finest coaches ever to field a high school team in Arkansas. However, as good as he was, he was not a miracle worker. And thus the Red Devil football team of 1958 stands alone as perhaps the worst team Coach King ever had. I was a member of that team. The 1957 team was a talented one. Ten guys from that team got college scholarship offers. For the 1958 season, we had only three lettermen returning — Larry Wayne Matthews at fullback and linebacker, Robert ‘Roebuck’ Arthurs, who moved from end to quarterback, and me.

“I’ll never forget being in Little Rock with Matthews late in the summer of 1958. He had been in an accident and was either still on crutches or limping pretty badly from having had his leg messed up. We wandered into Spaulding Sporting Goods in downtown Little Rock, just looking around and killing time. There was Coach King, talking with some of his fellow coaches and buddies. When he saw us, he called us over and began to tell all of the other guys just how bad it was going to be for the Red Devils. He pointed out that we were exactly two-thirds of his total returning lettermen. Then, he pointed out that Matthews was a ‘cripple,’ having been in an accident a month or so earlier.

“He pulled me to the front of the group and said: ‘Right here is my right halfback. He may be small, but he sure is slow.’ I had never heard that before, and we all had a good laugh. It was true. I was small at 144 pounds, and I was anything but fast. Well, coach was prophetic. We were awful in 1958, winning only one game, the homecoming game against Cotton Plant. He coached his heart out, but he couldn’t work miracles with an undersized bunch of guys who had made up the B team the previous year. We couldn’t get it together, no matter how hard we tried or how many trick plays we ran. During halftime of one game, he didn’t even want to come into the dressing room with us to give a halftime talk. It must have been the absolute low point in his otherwise stellar career.

“I think that we all learned a lot that night. I know I did. Somehow we pulled it together for him. We went back out onto the field and played solid, error-free football against a superior Trumann team. We didn’t win the game, but we did OK that night. I think Coach King was proud of the effort.

“Coach King told me one day when we were fishing on the bayou south of Gregory that he felt he hadn’t done a good job of coaching that year. I reminded him that he didn’t have much to work with and that perhaps we should be proud of that lone victory over Cotton Plant. We discussed the fact that sometimes you can learn more and develop more in the way of character in defeat than you can in victory. I’ve never forgotten how bitter those defeats were that year, how sweet that one victory was and how much respect I had for Coach King during both the great season of 1957 and the sorry season of 1958. Next to my parents, he was the most influential man in my life. I will forever be grateful for having known him. And he taught me some pretty good math, too.”

Post to Twitter

Cliff Harris Stadium: A family affair

Wednesday, December 18th, 2013

This story originally ran at SportingLifeArkansas.com.

It has been quite a year for Cliff Harris, especially when you consider that he last played football during the 1979 season.

The old Des Arc Eagle, Ouachita Tiger and Dallas Cowboy has been back in the news in a big way, and you can thank Little Rock’s David Bazzel for much of that.

Bazzel — the idea man who came up with the Golden Boot for the Arkansas-LSU football game, the Frank Broyles Award and the Little Rock Touchdown Club — wanted a national football award to be presented at the Touchdown Club’s annual postseason banquet.

Since it was founded in 2004, the Little Rock Touchdown Club has presented player and coach of the year awards in each high school classification. It also has given a most valuable player award for each college program in the state.

David, who is always on the search for something new, was looking for an award that would garner the club some national attention. He spent dozens of hours bouncing from website to website, trying to find a category that didn’t already have an award.

Everything was covered at the NCAA Division I level.

Division II already had the Harlon Hill Trophy over in Florence, Ala., which since 1986 has been presented annually to the top player from that level.

However, there wasn’t a major award for the top small college defensive player in the country. While driving from Siloam Springs to Little Rock on a hot day this summer, I spent more than an hour discussing the idea with David. He wanted to include nominees not only from Division II but also from Division III and the NAIA. He wanted to name the award after Cliff. And he wanted me to help convince Cliff that the Little Rock Touchdown Club does things in a first-class manner.

Cliff’s father and my father played football together at Ouachita in the 1940s, and our parents became close friends. Cliff’s mother was a Henderson Reddie. A mixed marriage, in other words.

Growing up a block from Ouachita’s football stadium, I walked the sidelines as a water boy when Cliff played college football from 1966-69. Cliff’s sister and my sister later attended Ouachita together.

When Cliff played for the Cowboys from 1970-79, we spent many weekends in Dallas watching Cowboys games. Tom Landry would require the players to stay in a hotel the night before a home game. Once the team moved from the Cotton Bowl at the Texas State Fairgrounds to Texas Stadium in Irving, the team hotel was the Holiday Inn Regal Row, which was in a nondescript warehouse district in Irving. We would stay at the team hotel on Saturday nights and ride a bus to the games on Sundays.

George Bernard Shaw wrote that “youth is wasted on the young,” and indeed I didn’t fully appreciate all those Sundays in the 1970s as much then as I do looking back now. It was a rare opportunity for a boy like me from a small town in Arkansas to be around those players and coaches. That was a golden era for the Cowboys as the team went to five Super Bowls in a 10-year period. Not only were the players famous, but Landry was already an icon. Even the general manager (Tex Schramm), the director of player personnel (Gil Brandt), the guy who played the national anthem on the trumpet (Tommy Loy) and the public address announcers (Bill Melton and James Jennings) were celebrities in those days.

Of all the players who have worn the Cowboy uniform through the decades, only 18 have been inducted into the Cowboys Ring of Honor. Cliff is among those honorees. He has continued to live in the Dallas area but still considers himself an Arkansan and is in the state often.

Once the award was explained to him — and once he was comfortable that there would be a big-time effort to publicize it — Cliff was on board.

The creation of the Cliff Harris Award was announced during a Little Rock Touchdown Club meeting on Monday, Aug. 26. The club has had some famous speakers through the years, but never has there been so much talent on the stage at the same time. They had all come up from Texas to honor Cliff.

There was quarterback Roger Staubach, who played from 1969-79 and was a 1983 Ring of Honor inductee.

There was cornerback Mel Renfro, who played from 1964-77 and was a 1981 Ring of Honor inductee.

There was Charlie Waters, the other safety in the Cowboys secondary during the 1970s.

There was wide receiver Drew Pearson, who played from 1973-83 and was a 2011 Ring of Honor inductee.

There was Gil Brandt.

And there was Gene Stallings, Cliff’s position coach with the Cowboys who went on to win a national college football title as the head coach at the University of Alabama.

It was a special day.

Still, David didn’t have a feel for how popular the award would be since it had never been given before. He was pleasantly surprised several weeks ago when nominations began to roll in from across the country. He was even happier when, after the list of 100 finalists was unveiled, athletic websites at dozens of colleges and universities featured stories about the Cliff Harris Award.

David also was pleased with the trophy — anyone who has ever seen the Golden Boot and the Broyles Award knows that David goes for big and heavy — which was unveiled in Arkadelphia on Nov. 16 at halftime of the Battle of the Ravine. A record crowd packed every nook and cranny of Ouachita’s outdated A.U. Williams Field that day. With the University of Arkansas football team open, the rivalry received unprecedented statewide media attention. The game itself was one for the ages. Henderson completed a second consecutive undefeated regular season with a 60-52 victory in three overtimes.

Ouachita — which finished 7-3 and compiled its sixth consecutive winning season (the most consecutive winning seasons of any college program in the state) — received more positive exposure for its gallant effort against the heavily favored Reddies than it had received in any of its victories earlier in the season.

Cliff and David went home happy that night. But the huge crowd, the lengthy concession lines, the overcrowded press box and more had convinced Ouachita officials that the time had come for something to be done to A.U. Williams Field. Within a couple of weeks, a donor who has so far remained anonymous had made a substantial contribution to the school.

Last Thursday, the Ouachita Board of Trustees voted to launch a 120-day campaign to match that lead gift. The playing field, which is in good condition, will remain the same. There will be new stadium seating, a new press box (I’ve broadcast Ouachita games from the same booth since 1978), new parking lots and other improvements.

There also will be a new name: Cliff Harris Stadium.

To cap it all off, the day after the Ouachita board made its decision, the Des Arc Eagles beat Bearden (which ironically is the hometown of Cliff’s dad) in the Class AA semifinals and earned a spot in this weekend’s state championship game at War Memorial Stadium.

Like I said, it has been quite a year for Cliff Harris.

“Super Bowls and Pro Bowls say a great deal about his contributions to the game, but what many don’t know is the way he did it,” says Ouachita head coach Todd Knight. “Hard work and the values he learned in the Ouachita football program made him unique. Cliff is a great representative of the game of football.”

Cliff was born in Fayetteville, spent his formative years in Hot Springs and graduated from high school at Des Arc after his father was transferred there by Arkansas Power & Light Co. prior to Cliff’s senior year in high school. He played multiple sports growing up but received little interest from college recruiters. Some Harris family friends convinced second-year Ouachita head coach Buddy Benson that Cliff deserved a chance to play college football, and Cliff made a name for himself in the Arkansas Intercollegiate Conference in the late 1960s.

Cliff was overlooked in the 1970 NFL draft, but Brandt was well aware of the player at the small school in Arkadelphia. Cliff, in fact, won a starting position with the Cowboys as a rookie in 1970. His rookie season was interrupted by a tour of duty in the U.S. Army, but he wasted no time regaining his starting position following his military commitment.

During the next decade, Cliff Harris changed the way the position of free safety was played in the NFL. He rarely left the field, often leading the team not only in interceptions but also in yardage on kickoff and punt returns.

In his 10 years as a Cowboy, Cliff not only played in those five Super Bowls but also was named to the Pro Bowl six times and was named a first-team All-NFL player for four consecutive seasons by both The Associated Press and the Pro Football Writers Association. He was inducted into the Arkansas Sports Hall of Fame in 1985, was named to the Dallas Cowboys Silver Season All-Time Team and was selected by Sports Illustrated as the free safety on the magazine’s All-Time Dream Team. He later was awarded the NFL Alumni Legends Award.

Through tenacity, perseverance and old-fashioned hard work, Cliff overcame numerous obstacles in his football career to become one of the best defensive players in the history of the game. Now, he has a major national award and a college football stadium named after him. I just wish his parents, both of whom are deceased, were around to enjoy the moment.

O.J. “Buddy” Harris often was described by my father, who saw a lot of football, as the toughest player he ever knew.

“Buddy” Harris, a pilot during World War II, was shot down and left floating in the ocean at one point. He was tenacious, just like his kids (Cliff’s younger brother Tommy played for the Razorbacks in the 1970s). By the time Cliff began playing for the Cowboys in 1970, “Buddy” Harris was having a difficult time finding him on the field due to complications from diabetes.

“Cliff Harris keeps several images of his father close to his heart,” Kevin Sherrington wrote in The Dallas Morning News. “Linebacker and center at Ouachita Baptist; P-38 Flying Cross; educated, disciplined, upbeat husband and father of three. And then there’s this, too: O.J. Harris, his face inches from a TV screen, making out fleeting shadows. O.J. had first learned he had diabetes through a routine physical. The diagnosis washed out his plans to be a test pilot. But he did as he was told, gave himself insulin shots daily and never complained. And diabetes took his sight at 50. … Cliff didn’t think much about it back then. He was too caught up making and keeping his position with the Cowboys. Cliff says he is who he is because of his father. He figures he still owes him.”

Cliff also is who he is because of his mother. Margaret Harris wasn’t famous like her oldest son, but the redheaded lady known around our house as Big Margaret (so as not to be confused with her daughter, Little Margaret) should have been famous.

Don’t let the term Big Margaret confuse you. She wasn’t a big woman in a physical sense. It was her personality that was big. Margaret Harris died in October 2009 at age 83. My dad always claimed that Little Margaret was a better athlete than either Cliff or Tommy. He enjoyed telling the story of how Cliff made his own high jump pit in the backyard when the family lived in Hot Springs. Cliff tried all afternoon but couldn’t clear the bar. Little Margaret cleared it on her first try. Big Margaret loved it when my dad would tell that story.

Big Margaret, a Glenwood native, would cross the ravine from Henderson and marry a Ouachita football player. When the Harris family moved to Des Arc, my mother’s hometown, they wound up living in the house next to my grandparents. Arkansas is a small place, isn’t it?

After “Buddy” Harris lost his sight, Big Margaret cared for him for years without a complaint. She was always upbeat. In the words of her obituary, “Her devotion to her husband was an inspiration to all those around her.” She had taken her marriage vows seriously — every word of them.

Big Margaret had given up a potential singing career to marry “Buddy” in February 1946, though her voice would continue to bless the churches she attended through the years. During her funeral service at the Piney Grove United Methodist Church near Hot Springs, there was much talk about her singing abilities. Her strong voice also was effective in questioning the calls of football officials from her spot in the stands. She wasn’t shy about questioning a coach, be it Buddy Benson, Frank Broyles or Tom Landry.

Being a redhead myself, I always admired her redheaded feistiness.

I most admired the way she cared for her husband and remained true to her friends. When my father was in the hospital, she would call our house each day for an update on his condition. She was one of those ladies who make living in Arkansas such a pleasure.

When they dedicate Cliff Harris Stadium next fall, I have no doubt that “Buddy” and Big Margaret will be there in spirit.

I also have no doubt that Cliff will be thinking about them that day.

Post to Twitter

Presqu’ile: Almost an island

Wednesday, November 6th, 2013

Presqu’ile is a Creole word meaning “almost an island.”

For decades, it was the name of a gathering spot for the Murphy family of El Dorado at Henderson’s Point on the Mississippi Gulf Coast near Pass Christian.

Hurricane Katrina hit in late August 2005 and wiped Henderson’s Point clean.

In honor of that part of their family heritage, the Murphy family named a winery in the Santa Maria Valley of California after the Gulf Coast compound.

Many of those who attend the Nov. 21 Arkansas food and wine gala at the Capital Hotel in downtown Little Rock will be sampling Presqu’ile wines for the first time. The event will raise money for the new Arkansas exhibit at the Southern Food and Beverage Museum in New Orleans. Tickets are $125 each. Those desiring more information should call (501) 661-9911 or email morris.leslie@sbcglobal.net.

A bit of background on the Murphy family and Henderson’s Point is in order.

First, the Murphy family.

Charles Murphy Sr. already had extensive timber and banking interests in south Arkansas when oil was discovered in 1907 in the Caddo Field north of Shreveport.

“Murphy decided that his timber company should purchase land on a scattered, noncontiguous pattern to provide more exposure to any oil development,” John Ragsdale wrote in the online Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. “When the large Smackover Field in Ouachita and Union counties was discovered in 1922, Murphy had oil royalty interests in it. He and joint operators owned about 100,000 acres in the Union County area. In 1936, Phillips Petroleum discovered a small oil field at Snow Hill in Ouachita County, but the area’s extent was limited. Murphy preferred to spread drilling and production risks. He did not have an extensive operating company but rather owned interests in different operations.

“In 1937, an abandoned Phillips Petroleum well in western Union County, where some Murphy acreage was located, was re-entered by the Lion Oil Refining Co., which discovered deeper multiple zones between 5,000 and 8,000 feet below the surface in the Shuler Field. This included the Smackover limestone, which led to development of fields in the Smackover limestone throughout south Arkansas. Then, in 1944, Murphy land was included in the development of Louisiana’s Delhi Field, a major oil producer. This was the largest field for Murphy.”

Charles Murphy Sr. had moved to El Dorado in 1904 to operate a bank. By 1907, he owned 13 banks. He built a sawmill at Cargile in Union County and later established a railroad to supply the mill with timber from north Louisiana and south Arkansas.

Charles Murphy Jr. took over the family businesses in 1941 at the age of just 21 after his father suffered a stroke. Murphy Jr. had attended Gulf Coast Military Academy at Gulfport, Miss., at age 16 and had learned to love yachting. Much later in life, he would write two books on the sport, “Yachting Smart” and “Yachting Far.” He received expert tutoring, especially in French. Murphy Jr. graduated from El Dorado High School in 1938 and got married in October of that year.

Murphy Jr. spent three years in the Army during World War II. In 1946, he and his three sisters — Caroline Keller, Bertie Deming and Theodosia Nolan — pooled their interests to form C.H. Murphy & Co. In 1950, that company was transformed into the Murphy Corp., with Murphy Jr. as its president. He would serve as president until 1972 and as chairman of the board until 1994.

Murphy Corp., which had gone public in 1956, became Murphy Oil Corp. in 1964. The first foreign exploration for the company occurred in Venezuela in 1957. That was followed by production in Iran in 1966, the North Sea and Libya in 1969, Spain in 1979, Ecuador in 1987 and the Gulf of Mexico in 1988. Deltic Farm & Timber Co. was spun off from Murphy Oil Corp. in 1996 to form Deltic Timber Corp. Deltic is the developer of the Chenal neighborhood in west Little Rock and has timber holdings in Arkansas and Louisiana. Earlier this year, the Murphy USA subsidiary was spun off to form a company that focuses on retail sales, primarily at stores associated with Walmart.

Murphy Jr., an erudite man, served on the state Board of Higher Education and on the boards of Hendrix College at Conway and the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C.. He established the Murphy Institute of Political Economy at Tulane University in New Orleans. He died at his home in El Dorado in March 2002.

Murphy Jr.’s son Madison would go on to become chairman of the powerful Arkansas Highway Commission.

Next, Pass Christian and Henderson’s Point.

Henderson’s Point on the Gulf Coast was named for John Henderson Sr., a U.S. senator from Mississippi from 1839-45. Along with several partners, Henderson acquired 15,000 acres and developed the coastal community of Pass Christian. He died in 1857. In 1903, descendants of Henderson formed the Mexican Gulf Land Co. to promote Henderson’s Point as a planned community. It was advertised to wealthy New Orleans residents as the only remaining undeveloped tract between New Orleans and Mobile with easy access to rail transportation. There would be parks, big lots and a streetcar line to Gulfport and Biloxi. Located at the western tip of the Pass Christian peninsula, Henderson’s Point had homeowners who were known for fighting annexation to Pass Christian, and the area thus remained unincorporated.

U.S. Highway 90 west of Pass Christian now separates Henderson Point from the Pass Christian Iles, a 1,400-acre development that began in 1926. Seven miles of canals and lagoons were dug while the marsh areas were filled with the dredged material. The Isles are totally residential while Henderson’s Point has a small commercial district.

The Murphy family compound consisted of 14 acres that stretched in the shape of an isthmus.

The family bought almost 200 acres in California in 2007 to establish the Presqu’ile Winery. The first estate grapes were planted in 2008. A San Francisco architectural firm was hired to design the winery and tasting room, which are connected by a cave that was built into a hillside.

“That the Murphy family’s new Santa Maria property is shaped a lot like an isthmus smacks of serendipity,” Gabe Saglie wrote last year in the Santa Barbara News-Press. “‘We were looking for a great piece of pinot noir-growing land with a little bit of soul,’ says vinter Matt Murphy with a distinct Southern inflection. His family find off East Clark Avenue in 2007, which came after a year’s worth of hunting through pinot hot spots like Carneros and Lompoc’s Santa Rita Hills, fit the bill for clear viticultural reasons. The plot’s pervasive sand-like soil drains extremely well, and its proximity to the Pacific Ocean (the Murphy’s property is the second western-most vineyard in the Santa Maria Valley) creates ideal maritime growing conditions.”

Matt Murphy, the son of Madison and Suzanne Murphy of El Dorado, says of the Mississippi compound: “It was home to us. And it will never be the same.”

The family compound in Mississippi was given its name by Charles Murphy Jr., who loved to use his French. It’s pronounced “press-keel” with the emphasis on the second syllable.

“Presqu’ile is led by president Matt Murphy, and features his wife, Amanda; his brother, Jonathan, and his wife, Lindsey; his sister Anna; and their parents, who still reside in Arkansas,” Laurie Jervis wrote in the Santa Maria Times. “Matt Murphy and winemaker Dieter Cronje, a native of South Africa, lead the winemaking and are vocal believers in the potential of the Santa Maria Valley to lead the West Coast in terroir-driven wines.”

The new tasting room opened in June.

In addition to the Mississippi Gulf Coast and now the California Pacific Coast, the Murphy family long has had close ties to New Orleans.

“New Orleans is, in essence, our second home,” Madison Murphy said recently. “This place is special to us.”

So it’s natural that the Murphy family — and its winery — is playing a leading role in the Nov. 21 Little Rock event to fund an Arkansas exhibit at the Southern Food and Beverage Museum.

Matt Murphy moved to California to learn the wine business.

“During the wine grape harvest of 2006, Matt found himself working at Bien Nacido Vineyard in Santa Barbara wine country,” Saglie wrote. “He’d already spent previous vintages in Napa, learning the business of growing grapes and selling wine. This was the year he’d get to know an increasingly renowned region called Santa Maria.

“The 2006 harvest had also brought Dieter Cronje to Bien Nacido. He’d already been trying his hand at winemaking for four years in his native South Africa and had developed a zeal for pinot noir. ‘I love to make it because it’s tough to make,’ he says with a Southern accent of a totally different kind. To stretch his wings, ‘it was either Burgundy or the United States for me, and since I knew my lack of French would make Burgundy tough, I came to the United States,’ he says with a laugh. The weather helped set his sights on Central California instead of Oregon.

“When Matt and Dieter met at the height of the grape-picking season, the unlikely duo quickly realized they shared a passion. And not just for pinot noir. The two will tell you they are fiercely focused on making wines that are balanced, not just big.”

The land purchased by the Murphy family in 2007 previously was being used to grow gladiolas.

Saglie wrote: “The promise for growing great grapes was palpable. And the fact it looked a heck of a lot like an isthmus was good fortune at least. They named their new property, for purely sentimental reasons, Presqu’ile.”

Matt and Amanda built a home on the property.

“Presqu’ile’s new, state-of-the-art winery and hospitality building — connected by a unique cave system — and the nearby residences could easily grace the pages of Architectural Digest,” Wendy Thies Sell wrote in the Santa Maria Sun. “The award-winning, San Francisco-based architectural firm Taylor Lombardo Architects designed the project. The design aesthetic is contemporary, sleek and elegant, incorporating stone, wood, concrete, glass and metal. Interesting modern art adorns the walls. They paid attention to every detail — just as Presqu’ile does in winemaking. Many of the building materials are sustainable and sourced from the West Coast. The sandstone used for the exterior and interior of the winery complex were harvested from a quarry in Lompoc. A local artisan labored for seven months hand-cutting and laying each stone.”

The newspaper describe Cronje as “a wine rock star — literally. Cronje not only handcrafts vibrant, complex wines, but he actually has a rock band, The Tepusquet Tornadoes, made up of wine industry friends.”

“We really do want it to be an easy rapport and a place where people can interact,” Madison Murphy said of the winery. “As they say on the Gulf Coast, ‘pass a good time.”’

From the pine woods and the oil patch of south Arkansas and north Louisiana to the Mississippi Gulf Coast to New Orleans and now to the Pacific Coast, the Murphy family of El Dorado has made its mark.

It all comes together on the evening of Nov. 21 at the Capital Hotel in Little Rock.

Post to Twitter

Rush Harding: The coach’s son

Friday, October 11th, 2013

Rush Harding is the son of a coach and proud of it.

Harding, the chief executive officer of the Little Rock-based investment banking firm Crews & Associates Inc., grew up at Clarendon, a historic east Arkansas city on the banks of the lower White River.

Clarendon, which is located near where the Cache River flows into the White River, was first settled in the late 1700s by French hunters and trappers. They recognized the bounty that came from those two slow-moving rivers and the surrounding bottomland hardwood forests. Clarendon’s importance increased in the 1820s when the builders of the Military Road from Memphis to Little Rock chose it as the White River crossing point. A ferry was operating there on a regular basis by 1828.

When Monroe County was created out of parts of Arkansas and Phillips counties in November 1829 by the Arkansas Territorial Legislature, Clarendon was chosen as the county seat. It remains so to this day. The town became an important port for cotton and other commodities. A factory was established to produce buttons from the millions of mussel shells found in the rivers. The hardwood forests were harvested for lumber. Some of that wood was used to make baseball bats for a time in the early 1900s at the Moss Brothers Bat Co.

Rush Harding still loves Clarendon. That love is evident to anyone who has ever visited with him.

As a boy, Harding thrived there. He hunted, fished, swam and played multiple sports. An upscale restaurant that the Harding family will open New Year’s Eve in Little Rock will be named Cache in honor of the area where Harding spent his boyhood.

“I thought Clarendon was the Garden of Eden,” Harding says as he sits in his office high atop the First Security Building in downtown Little Rock’s River Market District. “We were Methodists and never missed church. And I never missed an athletic event in town. If I wasn’t playing in it, I was attending it with my dad.”

Harding’s father, a legendary coach who went by the name of Buddy, was inducted into the Arkansas Sports Hall of Fame in 2002 in recognition of the almost four decades he worked with high school athletes. The elder Harding, whose football teams were 151-57 at Clarendon, also built the school into a track powerhouse.

The seventh-grade teams were called the Alley Cats. The junior high teams were the Cubs. The high school teams were the Lions.

His father’s work ethic was transferred to Rush Harding, who hasn’t missed a day of work for being sick in the past 37 years. Harding also has been active in the community. He’s a past president of the Arkansas Sports Hall of Fame and continues to serve on the Hall of Fame board. He also has served on the University of Central Arkansas Board of Trustees and on the board of the Arkansas Arts Center.

The Arkansas Sports Hall of Fame will honor Harding when it holds its annual fall salute on Thursday, Oct. 24. The event will begin at 6 p.m. in the Jack Stephens Center on the campus of the University of Arkansas at Little Rock.

This will be the fifth consecutive year for the Hall of Fame to put on a fall salute. Past honorees are Conway businessman Stephen L. Strange Sr., former University of Arkansas basketball star Joe Kleine, former University of Arkansas football star Jim Lindsey and former University of Arkansas track and field coach John McDonnell.

“My dad coached through my ninth-grade year, and then the principal’s job came open,” Harding says. “He had wanted to coach me all the way through high school, but the increased salary was important to our family. My mom was the guidance counselor and the home economics teacher. With two teachers in the family, you just couldn’t turn down a big pay increase.”

Clarendon went 5-5 in football during Harding’s sophomore and junior seasons.

Ronnie Kerr, who later would become a head coach at the college level at Henderson State University in Arkadelphia, came to town in the fall of 1971 for Harding’s senior year. With Kerr as the coach and Harding as the quarterback, Clarendon compiled an 8-2-2 record. The only losses were in the first game to Augusta, which was coached by east Arkansas icon Curtis King (a 1980 Arkansas Sports Hall of Fame inductee), and in the final game to Walnut Ridge in the semifinals of the state playoffs. The tie games were against Brinkley and Carlisle.

“We tied Brinkley 7-7, and I threw two touchdown passes,” Harding says. “I threw an interception to Brinkley’s Jerry Eckwood, which he took all the way for a touchdown. I threw the other touchdown pass to Gary Cook on our team.”

Eckwood went on to become a football star at the University of Arkansas.

Cook went on to play a major role in Harding’s life.

“Gary wanted to go to West Point and play football for Army,” Harding says. “He talked me into going to West Point with him. People told us that it would be unheard of for two boys from the same school to get appointments to the U.S. Military Academy, but we did. That was Gary’s dream, not mine, but I decided to go along.”

During the summer prior to his senior year, Harding was elected governor of Arkansas Boys State, a one-week program in civics that’s sponsored by the American Legion. A year later, he would hand the gavel over to the new Boys State governor, a high school student from Hope named Mike Huckabee.

During their senior year, Harding and Cook were the co-valedictorians at Clarendon High School.

In late May, three days after the graduation ceremony, Harding received word that Cook, who lived near the small community of Monroe, had drowned. He had been swimming in a rice irrigation ditch. It was Coach Ronnie Kerr who took Harding to the scene of the accident that awful day.

Heartbroken, Harding reported to the U.S. Military Academy on June 15 for the start of a grueling summer as a plebe.

“I had wanted to go to UCA, not West Point,” Harding says. “But people I respected said that I had received a coveted appointment and needed to follow through. I decided to prove that I could do it. They would haze the plebes in those days, but I stuck it out. I reported for football but frankly was too slow to play at that level. The coaches suggested that I join the sprint football team.”

Army has a rich football tradition with three national championships, three Heisman Trophy winners and 26 Hall of Famers. The sprint football team, which has been around since 1957, has a tradition of its own.

Few Arkansans even know there is such a sport. What’s known now as the Collegiate Sprint Football League was started in 1934 by George Little of Rutgers. The league’s seven charter members were Cornell, Lafayette, Rutgers, Pennsylvania, Princeton, Villanova and Yale. Yale and Lafayette disbanded their programs at the start of World War II. Play was halted for all schools from 1943-45 due to the war.

In 1946, the U.S. Naval Academy joined the conference and dominated play until the Black Knights came along 11 years later. In its first six years in the league, Army put together a 32-3-1 record and won four titles. After a losing season in 1963, the Black Knights won 17 of their next 18 games. Army had 21 consecutive victories between 1972, when Harding played, and 1975.

The rules of sprint football are largely the same as those for varsity football. Four days prior to a game, though, all sprint football players must weigh in at 172 pounds or less. They must weigh in again two days before a game. Scouting opponents is forbidden, and practice cannot start until three weeks before the first game.

Harding enjoyed playing sprint football. His heart, however, wasn’t in finishing school at West Point without Cook and then serving as an Army officer.

“I started my sophomore year that next summer, but I was miserable,” Harding says. “I didn’t want to become a career military officer. I had spent some time in Conway with friends and decided that I wanted to be a real college student and do the kinds of things most college students do. So I resigned my commission at West Point and enrolled in college at Conway.”

The Bear football team had an outstanding quarterback named Sam Coleman coming in. Harding knew he would never start at quarterback in the Arkansas Intercollegiate Conference. He decided instead to join the basketball team, which was coached by Don Nixon, who was inducted earlier this year into the Arkansas Sports Hall of Fame.

“I mainly sat by Coach Nixon and kept the shot charts,” Harding says. “I wasn’t eligible the first semester. I did play a bit during the next semester. It was a great experience for me. I got to be around guys like James Dickey, Joe Couch and John Hutchcraft.”

After playing basketball during the 1973-74 season, Harding decided to concentrate on his studies. He graduated in 1976, having majored in math and English. The son of a coach, Harding had once thought he too would teach and coach. He had, after all, grown up around coaches and sports. His Thanksgivings were spent attending Clarendon’s rivalry games against Holly Grove. His summer memories were of attending the annual coaches’ clinic and the all-star football practices in early August with his father.

“My father knew how to connect with young people,” Harding says. “To be honest with you, I was kind of scared of Daddy, but I always knew he loved me. My mom was the nurturer and the encourager. My dad was the boss. No one in Clarendon ever challenged his authority. Yeah, he was the boss.”

Harding’s father had lined up a job for him teaching and coaching at Forrest City at a salary of $8,400 a year.

“I just couldn’t make the math work in my head,” Harding says. “I didn’t know how I could live on that. I was in Little Rock one night and a guy asked me what I would do with $12,000. I thought he meant $12,000 a year and told him that would be wonderful. He said, ‘I’m talking about $12,000 a month selling bonds.’ I decided to give it a try. They would pay me $450 a month plus commissions. I asked my dad for a loan of $300 to rent an apartment, and he wouldn’t do it. I had to go to the bank and get the loan.”

Few people have ever outworked Rush Harding, the overachiever who had been Boys State governor, an Eagle Scout and the high school valedictorian. He joined T.J. Raney & Sons Inc. of Little Rock and, through hard work, soon was experiencing financial success.

“I had never taken a business class,” Harding says. “Things just worked out. When Bob Raney Sr. died in 1979, seven of us left the company and went out on our own.”

Adron Crews, John Bailey, Rick Chitwood, Jim Jones, James Lake, Rob Owens and Harding formed Crews & Associates.

Adron Crews died in May 1996 while on a business trip to New Orleans. In 2000, Crews & Associates became a wholly owned subsidiary of First Security Bancorp.

When Rush Harding was a boy, his father would take him on his birthday in late July to Spaulding Sporting Goods in downtown Little Rock to buy baseball bats from Lee Rogers. Harding has vivid memories of visiting with Rogers, who had starred in multiple sports at the University of Alabama and settled in Little Rock after having pitched for Doc Prothro’s Little Rock Travelers. Rogers was inducted into the Arkansas Sports Hall of Fame in 1983.

Not only birthdays revolved around sports for Rush Harding. So did the other days of the year.

Sports have remained important in Harding’s life. In 1986, Harding’s father retired from school administration. Rush Harding’s parents moved to Little Rock so they could watch Rush’s sons, Buddy and Payne, grow up and participate in sports.

“Team sports have been a top influence on me, and that’s because of the relationships I’ve had with teammates and coaches,” Rush Harding says. “One of the best compliments I ever received came from J.B. Grimes, who was a year behind me at Clarendon and went on to be a college football coach. I wasn’t the greatest athlete to ever come through that school, but J.B. once said to me: ‘You were a leader. You led our team.’ Participation in sports made me a better husband, a better friend and a better employer. In a sense, I’m still kind of a quarterback. I like to have a positive impact on the young people who work here. I do a lot of coaching down here at this office each day.”

Harding’s son Buddy recently had a son of his own. The baby’s name: Rush Harding V.

The grandfather isn’t quite ready to slow down.

“I got certified to teach several years back because I figured that I would get out of the business by this age,” says the man who will be honored later this month by the Arkansas Sports Hall of Fame. “I later decided to stick with this. We have about 250 employees who are my teammates. I didn’t take that job my dad got me at Forrest City all those years ago, but I’m still teaching and coaching. It’s just not in a classroom or on the sideline.”

Post to Twitter

Cliff Harris and LR’s growing TD Club

Wednesday, August 14th, 2013

It’s hard to believe it has been nine years since I sat down for lunch with David Bazzel at Ciao in downtown Little Rock and saw a dream begin to come to life. Over pasta and salad that June day, the idea of a football club for Little Rock was first discussed.

That wasn’t the stated purpose of the luncheon. I was working for Gov. Mike Huckabee at the time, and David had some ideas he wanted to run past me in his role as chairman of a physical fitness commission.

The date was Tuesday, June 8, 2004 (yes, I keep my old calendars).

I happened to mention the fact that Little Rock was one of the largest cities in the football-crazed South without a football club. In cities such as Memphis, Birmingham, Atlanta and Houston, such clubs had established their reputations years ago as the place for football fans to gather on a weekly basis during the season.

“I’ve been thinking the same thing,” David replied. “Do you want to see if we can establish such a group?”

As he typically does with ideas he likes, David took it and ran with it.

On Wednesday, Aug. 25, 2004, 17 people who were interested in being involved in such a club met for lunch at what was then the Little Rock Hilton on University Avenue. The Little Rock Touchdown Club was born.

Less than three weeks later, the club held its first formal meeting at the Hilton and then met every Monday for lunch until December. Much to our amazement, the club was an instant hit. We had figured it would take a few seasons to catch on. By the end of the 2004 football season, almost 200 people were showing up on a weekly basis, and the media coverage was outstanding.

We outgrew the Hilton after one year, moving the next season to the Embassy Suites in west Little Rock.

On Wednesday of next week, the 10th season of programs will begin. More than 500 people will head to the downtown Marriott to hear from Bret Bielema, the new head football coach at the University of Arkansas.

Speakers later in the year will include Tom Osborne, Houston Nutt, Gene Chizik, Mitch Mustain, Bryan Harsin, Roland Sales, Ike Forte and Steve Atwater.

In January, Lou Holtz will keynote the organization’s annual awards banquet.

Through the years, David has never stopped thinking, planning and scheming — always trying to make the club bigger and better. It’s safe to say that the Little Rock Touchdown Club now has a national reputation among those in the football world. Quotes from its speakers often make The Associated Press national sports wire and are published across the country.

Earlier this summer, David began thinking about ways to make the club’s postseason awards banquet even better. His initial idea was to present an award each year to the top scholar-athlete from one of the state’s NCAA Division II programs and name it for Cliff Harris, the former Ouachita Baptist University and Dallas Cowboys star.

Leave it to David to turn that limited idea into a national award within a matter of days.

In January, the Cliff Harris Award will be presented by the club to the top small college defensive player in the country. All schools from NCAA Division II, NCAA Division III and the NAIA will be eligible to nominate players.

It has been a special pleasure to work with David on the establishment of this new national award due to a family connection. Cliff’s father and my father played football together at Ouachita in the 1940s, and our families have been close ever since.

Cliff’s sister and my sister attended Ouachita together. Cliff’s brother and my brother were friends as boys.

When Cliff’s father was transferred by his employer — the Arkansas Power & Light Co. — from Hot Springs to Des Arc prior to Cliff’s senior year in high school, the Harris family purchased a home next door to my grandparents.

My father was among those who talked Ouachita’s football coach, Buddy Benson, into giving Cliff a chance to play college football.

In other words, the family ties run deep. Really deep.

Our fathers are no longer living, but their legacies loom large in our lives.

To understand what has driven Cliff Harris all of these years, you must know a little bit about his late father, O.J. “Buddy” Harris, a Bearden native.

My dad called “Buddy” Harris the toughest football player he had ever known. Mr. Harris was a pilot during World War II. He was shot down and left floating in the ocean at one point.

Let’s allow Kevin Sherrington, the fine sports columnist for the Dallas Morning News, to pick up the story. Here’s some of what Kevin wrote in June of last year in a column about Cliff’s dad: “Cliff Harris keeps several images of his father close to his heart: linebacker and center at Ouachita Baptist; P-38 Flying Cross; educated, disciplined, upbeat husband and father of three. And then there’s this, too: O.J. Harris, his face inches from a TV screen, making out fleeting shadows.

“O.J. had first learned he had diabetes through a routine physical. The diagnosis washed out his plans to be a test pilot. But he did as he was told, gave himself insulin shots daily and never complained. And diabetes took his sight at 50.”

By the time Cliff began playing for the Cowboys in 1970, “Buddy” Harris was having a hard time finding him on the field. Mr. Harris would turn down the sound on the television and listen to the radio instead.

“Cliff didn’t think much about it back then,” Sherrington wrote. “He was too caught up making and keeping his position with the Cowboys.”

Cliff says, “My dad never flew again after the war. I played in five Super Bowls, and he never got to live his dream.”

After his father died in 2001, Cliff gave a moving talk at the funeral service.

“Cliff says he is who he is because of his father,” Kevin Sherrington wrote. “He figures he still owes him.”

Cliff told the columnist, “I feel kinda guilty because I was so focused on myself all those years. I feel like I didn’t do him justice.”

When the Cliff Harris Award is presented in January, you can bet that the award’s namesake will be thinking about his father.

Cliff was born in Fayetteville, spent most of his formative years in Hot Springs and graduated from high school at Des Arc. He played multiple sports growing up but drew little interest from college recruiters. Ouachita’s Coach Benson, who was later inducted into the Arkansas Sports Hall of Fame in 1993, gave Cliff the chance to prove himself at the college level.

Cliff indeed made a name for himself in the Arkansas Intercollegiate Conference from 1966-69. I was only 7 years old his freshman year and 10 years old by the time Cliff’s college career ended, but I was on the Ouachita sideline as a water boy during the games he played.

Cliff was overlooked in the 1970 NFL draft. However, Gil Brandt, who headed a famous scouting operation for the Cowboys, was well aware of this hard-hitting player from the small school in Arkadelphia. Cliff signed as a free agent with the Cowboys.

A decade and five Super Bowls later, he retired.

Cliff earned a starting position with the Cowboys as a rookie in 1970. His rookie season was interrupted by a tour of duty in the U.S. Army, but Cliff wasted no time regaining his starting position following his military commitment.

During the decade of the ’70s, Cliff changed the way the position of free safety was played in the NFL. He rarely left the field, often leading the team not only in interceptions but also in yardage on kickoff and punt returns.

In addition to playing in those five Super Bowls (the Cowboys won two of them; I still hate the Steelers for winning two others against Dallas during the decade), Cliff was named to the Pro Bowl six times and was named a first-team All-NFL player for four consecutive seasons by both The Associated Press and the Pro Football Writers Association.

Cliff was named to the Dallas Cowboys Silver Season All-Time Team and was selected by Sports Illustrated as the free safety on the magazine’s All-Time Dream Team. He was even given the NFL Alumni Legends Award. For years, the Cliff Harris Celebrity Golf Tournament has been among the leading charity events in the Dallas-Fort Worth area.

Cliff was inducted into the Dallas Cowboys Ring of Honor in 2004. I was at Texas Stadium that day for the induction ceremony, which occurred during the halftime of a game against the New York Giants. During the 1970s, my family had had the good fortune of making many such trips to Texas Stadium to watch Cliff play.

I can tell you that I plan to be in Canton, Ohio, when the time comes for Cliff to be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. He was a finalist in 2004 but didn’t make it. There’s a seniors’ committee that each year can add two Hall of Fame finalists from among the list of players who have been retired 25 or more seasons. Cliff’s last season was 1979, so his time could still come to be a senior finalist one of these years.

In the meantime, thanks to David Bazzel — the man who created the Broyles Award — for bringing yet another national college football award to Little Rock. Having grown up with small college football, I’m pleased that this award will go each year to a player from a small college.

“As a small college player myself at Ouachita, I always understood that recognition and respect for oustanding play was more difficult to attain,” Cliff says. “Because of this, I relied on perseverance and mental toughness.”

O.J. “Buddy” Harris — college football star, war hero and an inspiration for all who knew him — wouldn’t have had it any other way.

Post to Twitter

Don Munro: Gentleman and scholar

Thursday, July 11th, 2013

This story originally was published in the July issue of Celebrate Arkansas magazine:

Arkansas was a far different place in 1959 than it is today.

The state’s image was tied to the 1957 desegregation crisis at Little Rock Central High School, Orval Faubus was in the governor’s office and thousands of Arkansas homes were still without electricity.

A young New Hampshire native named Don Munro moved to this rural state in 1959 to establish Lake Catherine Footwear, a division of the New Hampshire-based shoe manufacturer that employed him.

In early 1953, another East Coast native — Winthrop Rockefeller — had moved to Arkansas to escape a failed marriage and the prying New York media.

In 1955, Faubus — who was in the first of six two-year terms — decided to capitalize on Rockefeller’s famous name. He appointed Rockefeller to head the Arkansas Industrial Development Commission.

Rockefeller took the assignment seriously during his nine years in the job, bringing almost 600 new industrial plants to the state. Industrial employment grew by 47.5 percent and manufacturing wages grew by 88 percent in Arkansas during that era.

“Sears Roebuck & Co. was our biggest customer,” says Don Munro, now 85. “I always suspected that Winthrop Rockefeller was friendly with someone on the Sears board and that’s how the shoe company got to Arkansas from New Hampshire.”

The two partners in the shoe manufacturing company traveled to Arkansas to scout locations with AIDC (now the Arkansas Economic Development Commission) representatives. They visited small towns such as Lepanto and DeWitt during the day. They came back to Hot Springs each night.

Gambling was technically illegal but wide open in the Spa City in those days. There were nice hotels, good restaurants and live entertainment. The AIDC representatives undoubtedly felt that Hot Springs would be the best place to impress the visitors from New England at night.

Eventually, those visitors also decided Hot Springs would be the best place for a plant.

“It was either out here on Lake Catherine or over by the airport,” Don says of the two locations that were the finalists for the manufacturing facility. “This location has a lake, and the other location didn’t. So we ended up here. It has been a good spot for us.”

Back home in New Hampshire, Don and his wife Barbara had four children — daughter Lindy, son Bruce, son Neil and daughter Mollie. Another daughter, Christine, later would be born in Arkansas.

It would no doubt be a culture shock for this New England family.

“Most of the people we knew in New England had never even heard of Arkansas,” Don says. “It was a foreign land to them. They were a bit shocked we would move the family here.”

To prepare for his move to the South, Don read W.J. Cash’s exploration of the region, “The Mind of the South.” The book originally was published by Alfred Knopf in 1941 and was widely acclaimed for the way it explored Southern culture.

Cash wrote in the book’s concluding paragraph: “Proud, brave, honorable by its lights, courteous, personally generous, loyal, swift to act, often too swift, but signally effective … such was the South at its best.”

Don Munro sometimes is described as the ultimate Southern gentleman who just happens to hail from New England.

Through the decades, he has earned the reputation of being one of the state’s leading businessmen and philanthropists.

Through it all, he has never forgotten his obligations to his family.

“I had some advantages growing up that my children didn’t have,” Don says. “By that I mean that there were a lot of relatives around. We moved to Arkansas and my kids didn’t have all of those relatives. Family time was always important to me.”

He says the move to Arkansas proved easier than expected. He spent $24,000 on a lakefront home but only on the condition that the previous owners throw in their wooden Chris Craft boat. Munro family members brought a love of the water with them from New Hampshire.

“Reading ‘The Mind of the South’ was helpful,” Don says. “It made everything more understandable. But from the first, people here were very accommodating. And the terrain was much like that in New Hampshire. It wasn’t as big of an adjustment as you might think.”

Bruce Munro says of his father: “The first thing you recognize in him is his respect for other people. He looks at everyone the same. He has that innate respect for each individual.”

Indeed, Don Munro became famous for knowing hundreds of employees on a first-name basis along with remembering the names of their spouses and children.

“It wasn’t something that just came naturally,” Bruce says. “He worked hard at it. His respect for people is one thing that makes us different as a company.”

Don replies matter of factly: “People like to be called by their names.”

He says learning his employees’ names was part of “the bigger picture” during those early years in Arkansas.

“I was the only person who had ever made a shoe when we started,” Don says. “I had to be intimately involved in every part of the process. You get to know people when you’re working by them.”

More than a third of Munro & Co. employees have been with the company for at least 20 years.

There have been plenty of honors that have come Don Munro’s way through the years. All of them were well-deserved. In 2005, he was inducted into the Arkansas Business Hall of Fame. At a time when his competitors were moving their operations to other countries, he remained determined to make shoes in this country.

He purchased the Southern division of his longtime employer, Connors & Hoffmann Footwear Co., in 1972, establishing Munro & Co. That family company grew into the country’s largest shoe manufacturer and maintains operations at Hot Springs, Mount Ida and Clarksville.

Neil Munro bought the Wynne plant and now has his own company, NMF.

Bruce is the president and chief executive officer of Munro & Co.

Mollie is the company’s executive vice president and marketing mastermind.

At age 85, Don puts on a tie each morning and comes to work.

“He gets here at 6:45 a.m. and doesn’t leave until 5:15 p.m.,” Bruce says.

He then smiles and adds, “Don is starting to slack off a bit, though. He leaves by noon on Saturday. I’ve never known him not to wear a tie, but he was never formal and proper in a stuffy sort of way. He always had a sense of adventure. He was always taking us on trips.”

Don Munro is remarkably fit for his age. He has earned his good health. For years, he would swim at least a mile a day in area lakes. When swimming at night, he would wear a strobe light on his wrist to ensure he wasn’t hit by a boat.

“He has never slowed down,” Bruce says. “He’s our hardest worker.”

His father replies: “I pretend to work, and they pretend to pay me.”

The Munro American brand comes in 75 size and width combinations. The typical shoe producer makes only 17 sizes per style. Many of the shoes made by the company are women’s professional footwear, and Nordstrom is the biggest customer these days.

Mollie has worked to develop a modern website for the company, and both she and Bruce travel extensively so they’ll better understand customer wants and needs.

All the while, Don is there to offer advice and insight.

Despite his exercise habits, Don claims that his wife Barbara is the real “health nut” in the family. At age 83, she often kayaks on area lakes for two to three hours at a time. She also walks three to four miles each day.

“We never had what I would describe as goodies around the house when we were children,” Bruce says. “But here’s a secret: Don has a sweet tooth. He usually would keep some candy stashed away.”

Don had left college at Yale to serve in the Army and was sent to Japan soon after the end of World War II. He was the news editor of the Pacific Stars & Stripes and thought he might become a journalist. He wrote a story that displeased at least one general, and his journalism career came to an early end.

He returned to Yale to finish his degree and then went to work in the shoe manufacturing business.

“I used to think that writing would be my creative outlet,” Don says. “I later discovered you also could be creative in the world of business.”

After opening the Lake Catherine Footwear facility at Hot Springs for his employer in 1960, Don added the Addison Shoe Co. in Wynne and Mount Ida Footwear in 1967. Munro & Co. continued to operate those three plants following its establishment in 1972.

In 1979, DeWitt Footwear and Clarendon Footwear were added to produce children’s shoes.

Clear Lake Footwear was started at England in Lonoke County in 1975 to produce work boots for men. That plant closed in 1995.

In 1960, more than 90 percent of the shoes sold in the United States were made in this country. It’s now less than 1 percent.

As other shoe companies moved production out of the country, the Munro family knew changes would have to be made at Munro & Co.

“American companies were paying their workers $4 to $5 an hour for a 40-hour week, and Chinese workers were paid $10 a month for a 56-hour week,” Theresa Sullivan Barger wrote in the Saturday Evening Post in 2009. “Munro & Co. faced pressure to lower it prices or lose business. Munro founder Don Munro did not want to go overseas. He believed in buying American, insisting on purchasing American cars and TVs. He did not want to close factories, lay off workers and move jobs out of the counry.”

Many major retailers were no longer willing to pay what it cost to buy shoes from domestic manufacturers.

Mollie says her father once told her: “There are two reasons to own a business. One is to make money, and one is to be in business. I always chose the latter. My decisions have been predicated on staying in business.”

Don says: “We had hundreds of people working for us and depending on us for their living. I always wanted to be fair to those people and their families. I didn’t want to desert them.”

“Around here, ASAP means ‘After Sears and After Penney’s,’” Bruce says. “As the business changed, Don recognized in the early 1980s that we were going to have to get into the branding business. We have been able to establish an extremely loyal customer base. It’s probably unique in the shoe business. The first things to really go south on people as they age are their feet. We recognize that and thus work to provide superior support, comfort and fit. That’s what we’re known for.”

Rather than making shoes that were later sold under store brands, the company began establishing in-house brands.

The women’s brand now known as Munro American was started in 1984.

Two years later, the Child Life brand was acquired. In 1991, Jumping Jack Shoes was purchased.

The major niche is now women with thin, wide, small or long feet.

The company’s workforce did, however, shrink from more than 2,200 people in the early 1980s to fewer than 1,000 today. In the 1970s, there were more than 1,000 U.S. shoe factories. There now are fewer than 50.

Munro & Co. always had the advantage of not having to answer to shareholders. Don Munro and his family could do it their way. They take pride in being responsive to retailers. If a retailer calls early in the morning to place an order, the order is shipped that day.

“We use what we learned from Don to focus on consumers and get them on the Munro team,” says Bruce, who joined the company at age 25.

Looking at his son, Don says: “He always wanted to introduce more sizes and more widths. That’s what led to Nordstrom being our main customer.”

It’s obvious that Don Munro is proud of his children.

“Each one is unique and each one brings different skills to the table,” he says. “They have all been successful in their own way and seem to be happy. That’s the most you can ask for.”

On a sunny late-spring morning on the shores of Lake Catherine, it’s evident that this isn’t just a business story.

It’s a story about family — Don Munro’s immediate family and his extended family of hundreds of employees.

“Don has set the standard here since the start,” Bruce says. “And he continues to do that every day.”

Post to Twitter

Bennie Fuller needs our help

Tuesday, June 25th, 2013

Summer has officially arrived.

No group was happier to see the end of spring than the residents of the Oklahoma City area. That region was hit by major tornadoes this spring that took lives and did tens of millions of dollars in damage.

Among those who lost homes was a former Arkansan named Bennie Fuller.

Those of us who grew up in Arkansas and are of a certain age need no introduction to Fuller.

He was, quite simply, one of the greatest high school basketball players in Arkansas history. The fact he’s deaf just makes the story more intriguing.

Back in January, the Arkansas School for the Deaf in Little Rock named its basketball court for Fuller, who was in attendance at the ceremony along with his wife, Emma. Also there was Little Rock’s Emogene Nutt. Her late husband, Houston Nutt Sr., was Fuller’s coach.

Emogene was the mother hen who treated all of the athletes as if they were her sons. She, of course, has four sons — Houston, Dickey, Danny and Dennis — who went on to careers as college football and basketball coaches.

Emogene Nutt refers to Fuller as the “Wilt Chamberlain of the deaf.”

She devoted more than three decades of her life to the school and considers Fuller a “once-in-a-lifetime athlete.”

Houston Sr., who died in 2005, no doubt would have agreed.

An account has been set up at First Security Bank to help the Fuller family. Checks can be made out to the Bennie Fuller Donation Fund and left at any First Security location across the state.

Fuller is the all-time leading scorer in Arkansas boys high school basketball history and still ranks fourth on the national list. He scored 4,896 points at the School for the Deaf from 1968-71.

All of those ahead of him are from Louisiana. Greg Procell of Noble Ebarb scored 6,702 points from 1967-70, Bruce Williams of Florien scored 5,367 points from 1977-80 and Jackie Moreland of Minden scored 5,030 points from 1953-56.

Procell, who is Choctaw-Apache, played at what later became a designated Indian school on the banks of Toledo Bend Reservoir about 70 miles south of Shreveport. There were no limits on the number of games that could be played in that era, and Ebarb played 68 games during Procell’s senior season.

In Arkansas, no one comes close to Fuller for career points. Jim Bryan of Valley Springs is second with 2,792 points from 1955-58, and Allan Pruett of Rector is third with 2,018 points from 1963-66.

Fuller is third nationally on the per-game scoring average list (50.9 points per game during the 1970-71 season) behind Bobby Joe Douglas of Louisiana (who averaged 54 points per game at Marion High School in 1979-80) and Ervin Stepp of Kentucky (who averaged 53.7 points per game at Phelps High School in 1979-80).

In 1971, Fuller scored 102 points in a game against Leola that was played at Arkadelphia.

“I didn’t know I had 22 points in the first quarter and 44 points at halftime,” Fuller said in an interview several years ago through a sign language interpreter. “I wasn’t counting. We were just playing. At the end, I had no idea I had scored 38 points in the fourth quarter. It was like a machine gun, one after another. It was just nuts.

“I had some big nights before. If I had to guess that night, I would have thought around 70. But they showed me the scorebook. It was incredible.”

This was, mind you, long before the three-point shot. Here’s how it broke down that night in Arkadelphia in each of the eight-minute quarters:

– First quarter: Nine field goals and four of five from the free-throw line for 22 points.

– Second quarter: Seven field goals and eight of 11 from the free-throw line for 22 points.

– Third quarter: 10 field goals for 20 points.

– Fourth quarter: 15 field goals and eight of eight from the free-throw line for 38 points.

Fuller had grown up near Hensley, where he learned to shoot a basketball into a hoop made from a bicycle wheel. By his senior season in high school, college coaches were filling the stands at the School for the Deaf to watch the Class B team play.

After campus visits to Arkansas, UTEP and Memphis, Fuller chose to attend Pensacola Junior College in the Florida Panhandle.

Bob Heist explained that choice in a story for the Pensacola News Journal: “Jim Atkinson, an assistant on the coaching staff at the time, accepted the head job at PJC on an interim basis when Paul Norvell unexpectedly left during the spring recruiting period. The Pirates’ program wasn’t competitive … so the new coach returned to some old roots for talent.

“A native of Fordyce, Atkinson shared the same hometown as the state’s first family of the deaf — the Nutts. All the children were born with either serious hearing or speech impediments, including Houston Nutt Sr., the only person to play for basketball coaching greats Adolph Rupp at Kentucky and Henry Iba at Oklahoma A&M (now Oklahoma State).

“Nutt, whose speech was impaired from birth, was the coach and athletic director at the Arkansas School for the Deaf. His brother, Clyde, was a sensational athlete who led the 1957 U.S. deaf basketball team to the world championship in Milan, Italy. Clyde’s son, Donnie, was full hearing and an accomplished player at a Little Rock public school, and he understood sign language.

“Why did Fuller choose PJC? The school offered a vocational trade course in technical typesetting he was interested in, plus Atkinson offered a scholarship to Donnie Nutt. No other school could accommodate Fuller with a personal interpreter.”

Atkinson told Heist: “I had heard of Bennie and what he had done like everyone else, plus I knew Houston was the head coach and athletic director. To be honest, I was trying to find someone to tie our next season to, that one player who would make it interesting for fans. To me, that had to be Bennie. Then I learned about Donnie. I didn’t know how to do sign language, and he was also a very good player. I had a spot, so we kind of got two birds with one stone.”

Fuller averaged more than 30 points per game and Donnie Nutt averaged more than 20 points per game in 1971-72 even though PJC only went 7-18. Atkinson was replaced at the end of the season by a junior college coach from Missouri named Rich Daly, who brought in a number of highly touted recruits. Fuller and Nutt found their roles reduced as the Pirates went 26-4. Daly would later go on to serve as a longtime assistant for Norm Stewart at the University of Missouri.

Fuller received an associate’s degree after two years. He moved to the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff but was only a role player for the Golden Lions. After receiving his bachelor’s degree from UAPB, he taught at the School for the Deaf for a time before beginning a long career in Oklahoma with the U.S. Postal Service. He and his wife’s four children all could hear.

Fuller’s 102 points on Jan. 19, 1971, against Leola are the most points ever scored by a deaf high school player in a certified varsity game. Fuller is also believed to be the first deaf player to receive a college basketball scholarship at a hearing institution.

“In the world of the deaf, Bennie Fuller’s name resonates like a midnight lightning strike,” Heist wrote. “He’s the legend for the hearing- and speech-impaired.”

Or as Emogene Nutt puts it, there was no one like Bennie Fuller in the deaf community before and has been no one like him since.

Now, Arkansans are being called on to lend a hand to this native son.

Post to Twitter

Happy birthday Brooks Robinson

Friday, May 17th, 2013

Brooks Robinson turns 76 Saturday.

Perhaps you can wish him a belated happy birthday when he returns home to Arkansas next month.

Robinson, the Little Rock native who was inducted into the Arkansas Sports Hall of Fame in 1978 and the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1983, will be at Lamar Porter Field on June 15 to draw attention to revitalization efforts at the historic complex.

The field is owned by the Boys & Girls Club of Central Arkansas. Those associated with it want to make sure it doesn’t meet the same fate as nearby Ray Winder Field.

Do you get as sick as I do each time you travel down Interstate 630 and see the ghastly UAMS parking lot that occupies the site that was long the home of Ray Winder Field?

“The sadness of witnessing the demise of Ray Winder fills me with gratitude that Lamar Porter doesn’t suffer the same fate,” says Little Rock businessman Jay Rogers. “Lamar Porter is now the oldest usable field in the state of Arkansas.”

In late 2011, the Lamar Porter Complex Revitalization Committee was formed. In addition to renovating the baseball field, the committee hopes to fund improvements at the Billy Mitchell Boys and Girls Club, the Woodruff Gardens and adjoining recreational areas.

Lamar Porter Field was built between 1934 and 1937 by the Works Progress Administration as part of the Roosevelt administration’s efforts to put people to work during the Great Depression. It was an impressive concrete-and-steel facility that could seat 1,500 people. It was also the only baseball field in the state that had electric lights at the time.

The 10-acre site that includes the baseball field was given to what was then known as the Little Rock Boys Club in honor of Lamar Porter. The Little Rock native was a junior at Washington and Lee University in Virginia when he was killed in an automobile accident on May 12, 1934.

In addition to donating the land, the family contributed money for construction. The first anniversary of Porter’s death coincided with Mother’s Day. The donation was announced that day by his mother, Louise Skillern Porter.

Lamar Porter’s nephew, who shares his name, is among the trustees for the revitalization committee.

“A memorial serves no purpose if it ceases to exist,” says the younger Porter. “This complex needs revitalization soon or it will meet the same fate as Ray Winder Field.”

The June 15 event will begin at 5:30 p.m. and is scheduled to end by 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $10 each and are available at The SportStop on Rodney Parham Road. The business is owned by Rogers. Each ticket will be good for admission to the event, a hot dog, a soft drink, popcorn and a chance to get Robinson’s autograph.

Robinson remains a legendary figure in Baltimore, where he spent his major league career. Following his retirement at the end of the 1977 season, Robinson began a 16-year career as a television announcer for the Orioles. He was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility. He’s one of only six former Orioles to have had a number retired by the team.

Was Brooks Robinson the best third baseman ever to play the game?

Many baseball historians think so. He began playing baseball almost as soon as he could walk. Robinson’s father, a fireman, had played semipro baseball and also was a member of the 1937 International Harvester softball team from Little Rock that played in the finals of the World Softball Championship in Chicago.

“Brooks Robinson began playing baseball at the grammar school level as a catcher for the Woodruff School,” Jeff Bailey wrote for the online Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. “He spent much of his time practicing at the facilities of the Arkansas School for the Deaf, which was across the street from his home. He also worked the scoreboard and sold cold drinks during games played at Lamar Porter Field. While a student at Pulaski Heights Junior High, Robinson played quarterback for the 1951 junior high state championship football team and was an honorable mention on the all-state team.”

Robinson played basketball and ran track at Little Rock High School. During the summer, he played American Legion baseball for the M.M. Eberts Post No. 1′s team, the Doughboys. The Doughboys won American Legion state championships in 1952 and 1953.

As soon as Robinson graduated from high school in 1955, he signed a contract with the Orioles. Having just turned 18, he first played for the Orioles’ farm team in York, Pa., in the Piedmont League. Late in the season, Robinson earned a promotion to the big leagues. By the 1958 season, he was the Orioles’ regular third baseman.

Known as the Human Vacuum Cleaner, Robinson won an amazing 16 consecutive Gold Glove Awards (1960-75). His best season offensively came in 1964 when he batted .317 with 28 home runs and 118 RBI. He was the Aemrican League MVP that year, receiving 18 of the 20 first-place votes. Mickey Mantle was second in the voting.

In 1966, Robinson was the MVP at the All-Star Game. He finished second that year behind teammate Frank Robinson in the American League MVP balloting as the Orioles defeated the Los Angeles Dogers in the World Series.

The Orioles would win two World Series while Brooks Robinson was playing for them. The second came in 1970 when he was the World Series MVP against the Cincinnati Reds.

The Orioles had lost the World Series to the New York Mets the previous season. In 1970, however, it was almost as if Robinson willed them to a championship.

Robinson had a .583 batting average in the 1970 American League Championship Series against the Minnesota Twins. In the World Series against the Cincinnati Reds, Robinson had a .429 batting average with two home runs and some incredible defensive plays.

“I’m beginning to see Brooks in my sleep,” Reds Manager Sparky Anderson said. “If I dropped this paper plate, he would pick it up on one hop and throw me out at first.”

As the World Series MVP, Robinson was awarded a new Toyota.

Reds catcher Johnny Bench said, “Gee, if we had known he wanted a new car that bad, we would have chipped in and bought him one.”

Robinson played in his last World Series in 1971 as the Orioles lost to the Pittsburgh Pirates in seven games. Baltimore would win division titles in 1973 and 1974 but lose in the American League Championship Series.

Robinson was selected for the American League All-Star team for 15 consecutive years from 1960-74. His career batting average was .267 with 2,848 hits, 268 home runs and 1,357 RBI. He led the American League in fielding percentage 11 times. He retired with a .971 fielding average, the highest ever for a third baseman.

At the time of his retirement, Robinson also had the records for a third baseman for games played at third (2,870), putouts (2,697), assists (6,205) and double plays (618). Only Carl Yastrzemski, Hank Aaron and Stan Musial played more games during their careers for one franchise.

Yet another Robinson record came from hitting into four triple plays during his career.

“I wouldn’t mind seeing someone erase my record of hitting into triple plays,” he later said.

How popular was Brooks Robinson in Baltimore, even after he retired?

In 1982, WMAR-TV’s on-air announcers had been on strike for two months leading into the baseball season. When Robinson refused to cross the picket line as opening day approached, station executives began new negotiations. The strike ended the next day, and Robinson was on the air for the season opener.

Robinson and Baltimore Colts’ quarterback Johnny Unitas had plaques in their honor in Balimore’s venerable Memorial Stadium. The two men were saluted on the field when the Orioles played their last game there on Oct. 6, 1991.

In 1999, The Sporting News placed the native Arkansan on its list of the 100 Greatest Baseball Players. He also was named to the All-Time Rawlings Gold Glove team.

Veteran Associated Press sportswriter Gordon Beard was the emcee for the ceremony that marked Robinson’s last game at Memorial Stadium in 1977. Beard reminded the crowd of Reggie Jackson’s remark: “If I played in New York, they would name a candy bar after me.”

“Around here,” Beard said, “nobody has named a candy bar after Brooks Robinson. We name our children after him.”

Now, Robinson is coming back to Little Rock to lend a hand to those who are saving Lamar Porter Field.

Little Rock’s Catholic High School for Boys and Episcopal Collegiate High School use Lamar Porter Field for home games. The field and an adjoining space also are the Arkansas home of a national program known as Reviving Baseball in the Inner City, which is sponsored by Major League Baseball.

Portions of the movie “A Soldier’s Story,” starring Denzel Washington, were filmed at the field in 1984. In December 1990, the facility was placed on the National Register of Historic Places.

There are other positive things going on in the neighborhood.

The Woodruff Community Garden allows novice and experienced gardeners to have plots in the city. The renovation project will add lights, security updates, a more secure gardening shed, a gate and fencing to the community garden.

There also will be restoration work on historic stone walls and bridges.

Other improvements will take place at the Billy Mitchell Boys & Girls Club, which is named after the man who became associated with the club in 1922 and began heading the organization in 1928. Mitchell, who had played basketball at Texas A&M, was connected with the club for more than 50 years. Construction of the current facility was completed in 1982.

In December 2011, the revitalization committee announced that an anonymous donor had given a significant gift to begin the process of planning the renovation effort.

In January 2012, representatives of the Little Rock architectural firm Witsell Evans Rasco met with the committee. Last August, the firm’s initial renderings for renovating the complex were approved.

Robinson agreed in September to become the honorary chairman of the revitalization committee.

“Not only did I sharpen my baseball skills at Lamar Porter, I even once won a bubble-blowing contest there and proudly rode a new bicycle home,” he said. “The memories of playing there and the friendships that I made have lasted all my life.”

In October, the Boys & Girls Club of Central Arkansas and the Lamar Porter Complex Revitalization Committee announced a partnership with the Cal Ripken Sr. Foundation of Baltimore. The foundation was founded in 2001 by Hall of Famer Cal Ripken Jr. and his brother, Bill Ripken, who also played for the Orioles.

Cal Ripken Sr., who died in 1999, had a 37-year career working for the Orioles. The Ripken Foundation seeks to help kids from low-income families, using baseball as the hook to reach boys and softball to reach girls.

The revitalization committee’s website contains the words ”heading for home.”

With a master plan now in place, it’s a fitting motto as the great Brooks Robinson heads home to Little Rock, determined that the city won’t see another historic treasure turned into a parking lot.

Post to Twitter

Tales from the South: Randy Tardy

Wednesday, May 8th, 2013

There was no way I was going to say “no” to this request.

Walter B. Walker was born and raised at Helena. He moved to Little Rock in 1962 and worked for the Darragh Co., the Mountaire Corp. and Orbit Valve Co. before retiring in 1993.

Walter has been friends with fellow Helena native Randy Tardy since the first grade.

“I don’t think a week has gone by since 1939 that we haven’t talked at least once,” Walter told me.

I’ve only been friends with Randy since 1981, when I went to work for the Arkansas Democrat as a sportswriter. Randy was a business writer at the newspaper for a quarter of a century, and a darn good one.

He’s also a great storyteller, especially stories of his early life when Helena was a prosperous port city on the Mississippi River. Randy is in hospice as I write this. It was Walter’s idea to contact Paula Morell, the talented executive producer and host of “Tales from the South.”

His plan was to have some friends of Randy read pieces Randy had written. They would be read during the weekly taping of the radio show at the Starving Artist Cafe in downtown North Little Rock.

Morell agreed to the idea, and so I found myself at the Starving Artist on Tuesday night reading stories along with Walter and Harvey Joe Sanner of Des Arc. A full house listened.

“Tales from the South,” which airs each Thursday at 7 p.m. on Little Rock station KUAR-FM, 89.1, is quite a phenomenon. It began as a single show seven years ago. It’s now syndicated by the World Radio Network, where it airs three times a week on WRN Europe, twice a week on WRN Asia and twice a week on WRN Africa.

The show also can be heard on numerous public radio stations across the country.

The weekly taping before a live audience features writers reading their stories. All stories must be true. Past participants have included people ranging from Judge Reinhold to Jill Conner Browne to David Pryor.

I only wish I could have read a story by Randy about the old second-floor newsroom at the Democrat. When I went to work there in 1981, it was still like something out of the 1931 movie “The Front Page.” There was trash on the floor and wires running everywhere. The air was thick with smoke, and ashtrays were overflowing. Finding a chair that wasn’t broken was a challenge.

Randy used to claim he was going to write a book titled “Ray 85.” Here’s the story behind that: The late Ray Hobbs was the city editor in those days, and the main number to the city desk was 378-3485. Clerks would answer the phone and then scream at the top of their lungs for the city editor to pick up on that line.

“Ray 85!”

Frank Fellone, in a column in Monday’s Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, described that old newsroom as a place “so crowded, noisy and unkempt that reporter Randy Tardy once described it as being like Bhopal, India, at rush hour.”

Randy loved the newspaper business, and he loved every form of transportation. His idea of a day off was to go to the airport to watch planes take off and land, to the banks of the Arkansas River to watch the barges go by or to the train station to watch the trains as they passed.

I like Helena, I enjoy radio and I’m intrigued by the history of KFFA-AM. So I had no complaints Tuesday night when Walter asked me to read about those subjects.

Here’s part of what I read. The words are those of my friend of more than three decades, Randy Tardy:

“I worked at radio station KFFA-AM, 1360, in Helena from 1956 until July 1959. I set up locally prepared newscasts and delivered them, using information gathered from local sources, our Associated Press newswire, handouts and local interviews.

“As I recall, my live newscasts were weekdays at 8 a.m., noon, 5 p.m. and a 6:15 p.m. wrap-up of the day for 15 minutes. My noon program was unique. It immediately preceded the 12:15 p.m. broadcast of ‘King Biscuit Time,’ which had been on the air since around 1941 and is still going.

“The musicians stored their instruments in a corner of my newsroom. So did the janitor with his mops, brooms and bucket. I even had a vertical rack of glowing and buzzing radio tubes, which kept the station’s signal going out.

“During one noon show, I was talking about an explosion of some kind along the Gulf Coast when the King Biscuit drummer came in to get his instrument. He had trouble holding onto it. As I was reading the story, there was a ‘wham’ behind me. It was timed right with the word ‘explosion’ as I was reading the story. It was not a funny story, but the timing almost got to me. It was hard to get through the rest of the newscast.

“I looked at the drummer with my microphone still on. He said, ‘Excuse me, Mr. Randy, I didn’t go to do that.’ I knew he didn’t, but I remember that moment until this day. I believe that drum, with its red lettering, is still around and on display at the Delta Cultural Center.

“When I would come into the station from making my rounds of the police department, fire station and courts, I would park out front on York Street and put a nickel in the parking meter. Often, Dudlow, the King Biscuit piano player, would be standing there. This time he asked me if I could give him a dime to ‘get me some soda crackers and a little bologna.’

“That day I had a pocket filled with quarters because the gas station I had just stopped at was out of dollar bills. I had put five gallons of gas in my 1955 Pontiac and was expecting $4 in change. I got it, but not in bills. They gave me the change in quarters. They were out of bills.

“‘Here, Dudlow, here’s a quarter,’ I said. ‘Go have yourself a big lunch.’ He thanked me over and over. He looked at the quarter and said, ‘This will really help me tickle them ivories.’

“Those were interesting times. Little did I know that the broadcast would live on for decades and become the centerpiece of an internationally known blues festival. Sunshine Sonny Payne was at KFFA then. He’s still there as of this writing, a legend himself.

“When folks sometime refer to me as a pioneer radio broadcaster, I tell them that I never looked upon myself as a pioneer. But there weren’t too many of us around back then. One is my old friend H.R. ‘Herbie’ Byrd, who toiled for early news operations at several radio stations. I remember him best as the news voice of Little Rock station KLRA-AM, 1010, which has been off the air for years.

“Life goes on, but I wish news today were the real news we tried to deliver back then.”

Nice memories from Randy Tardy.

They’re holding the third annual Arkansas Delta Rockabilly Festival in Helena this weekend. The likes of the Kentucky Headhunters, Ben “Cooter” Jones, The Cate Brothers, Sonny Burgess and the Legendary Pacers and Wanda Jackson will be there.

Rockabilly got its start in the Memphis area in the 1950s. I wish Randy could be there for the festival. I have no doubt he would enjoy it, especially if he had a spot atop the levee where he could also see those barges moving up and down the Mighty Mississippi, the river that so defined his youth.

Post to Twitter

Mr. Chairman: Congressman Wilbur D. Mills

Monday, March 18th, 2013

I didn’t want to move to Washington, D.C., in 1986.

Even though I was only 26 years old at the time, I was the No. 2 person in the sports department at the Arkansas Democrat and enjoying my work.

A Monday morning call from the newspaper’s mercurial managing editor, John Robert Starr, changed my life.

If you work in a newspaper sports department, the chances are that you work on weekends. That’s when the action occurs.

My days off back then were Mondays and Tuesdays. I was sleeping late on a Monday morning when the phone in my Brightwaters apartment rang.

I was jolted awake by the voice of Bob Starr. If Starr were calling me at home on a Monday morning, I figured we must have made a huge mistake in that morning’s sports section.

“Why haven’t you applied for the Washington job?” he asked almost immediately.

“Because I don’t want to move to Washington,” I replied.

“Well, you need to apply and go through the motions because I’ve already decided you’re going,” Starr said.

If you worked at the Democrat for Bob Starr, you knew better than to question him.

Within days, I was on a flight to Washington. I slept on the couch in my predecessor Damon Thompson’s Capitol Hill apartment while looking for a place of my own to live. I would wind up in the basement of a Capitol Hill townhouse for the next four years.

A few days after my return to Little Rock, I had packed my Oldsmobile Cutlass and was making the 1,100-mile trip on Interstate 40, Interstate 81 and Interstate 66 to the nation’s capital.

I was scared to death.

The newspaper war between the Arkansas Gazette and the Democrat was heating up, and you weren’t supposed to get scooped on your beat. Starr wrote scathing daily critiques for the whole staff to read, identifying those reporters he felt had been outworked by the competition. I would be going up against a veteran Gazette Washington correspondent, Carol Matlack. And I was coming from a sports department, not from a government and political beat.

The big story in Washington at the time was the development of the Tax Reform Act of 1986. I figured a natural angle for an Arkansas newspaper to take would be to talk to former Congressman Wilbur D. Mills from Kensett, who had written much of the tax code.

Even though he had been gone from Congress for almost a decade, Mills still went to his office each day at a K Street law firm. I set up an appointment with him.

I vividly remember walking in and looking at the wooden nameplate on the front of his desk that simply said “Mr. Chairman.”

I began asking questions. He was cordial but not overly friendly. One of the things I love about this small state of Arkansas is the fact that there’s, at most, two degrees of separation. Thus I decided to mention my maternal grandfather, who had died in 1980 at age 96. My grandfather had been the Prairie County judge at the time Mills had vaulted from the position of White County judge to Congress.

White and Prairie are adjoining counties.

“Mr. Chairman, I believe you knew my grandfather,” I said.

“Who was your grandfather, son?” he replied.

“W.J. Caskey of Des Arc,” I said.

Mills’ face lit up as he began to smile.

“Good Lord, son, if it had not been for the votes that Will Caskey delivered me in Prairie County the first time I ran for Congress in 1938, I might not have been elected,” he said.

Whether or not the story was true, I knew better than to ask the meaning of the word “delivered.”

I can tell you this: From then on, Mills treated me more like a long-lost relative than a newspaper reporter. Anytime I had a question, he would take my call. He didn’t want to be quoted by name, but I could always attribute his background quotes to “someone close to the tax negotiations.”

Little did my readers or the Gazette correspondent know that my source was one of the most powerful people ever to serve in the U.S. Congress.

Kay Goss was making the rounds in Little Rock last week. She spoke to a luncheon meeting of the Political Animals Club at the Governor’s Mansion on Tuesday and spoke the following evening at the Clinton School of Public Service.

She’s promoting her new book, “Mr. Chairman: The Life and Legacy of Wilbur D. Mills,” which recently was released by Parkhurst Brothers of Little Rock. It’s high time that someone wrote a book on Mills, and Goss was just the person to do it. She first met the congressman when she was teaching at the University of Arkansas. While completing her doctoral studies, she worked for then-Congressman Ray Thornton and watched Mills and his staff in action. In fact, she married his chief of staff, the late Gene Goss.

Among those in attendance at last Tuesday’s Political Animals Club meeting was former Gov. Jim Guy Tucker, who replaced Mills in Congress in 1977 (and whose grandfather was the incumbent Mills defeated when he first was elected White County judge).

“Kay has special and personal knowledge of Wilbur Mills, both the Chairman and the simply human,” Tucker writes. “She shares it with us wonderfully. Mr. Mills provided steady help and hope for ordinary working Americans and for those in need beginning in 1934 with what was, in effect, a ‘county Medicaid’ program while serving as county judge in White County. There was later the massive strengthening of Social Security and the creation of Medicare and Medicaid. … His good deeds live on in the memories of those who watched and in the lives of those receiving these services today.”

Goss, the former teacher with a keen sense of American history, writes: “The power of Congress has swung like a pendulum through the centuries. The peak of presidential power under Abraham Lincoln was followed by a surge of congressional power after his assassination, causing Woodrow Wilson, a political scientist at the time, before becoming governor of New Jersey and later president, to write in his book ‘Congressional Government’ that congressional committees were ‘lord proprietors.’ However, during the personality cults of the 20th century (Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson and Franklin Roosevelt), Congress was weak and overshadowed.

“After Roosevelt’s passing and the passage of the Legislative Reform Act of 1946, Congress began regaining power. At this time, Mills was a rising star in Congress and a few years from becoming Ways and Means chairman. He was a part of a new generation in Congress, 40 years younger than Robert Doughton of North Carolina, the chairman of Ways and Means at the time, and compiling the second-longest tenure.

“The power of Congress increased until the congressional reform acts of the 1970s. Thus Mills was a congressional legend while I was a student at the University of Arkansas, pursuing bachelor’s and master’s degrees in political science and history, doctoral studies at West Virginia University and teaching public administration and political science at three of Arkansas’ institutions of higher education.”

Former Sen. Dale Bumpers notes that Goss doesn’t ignore Mills’ alcoholism and the personal scandals of his later years.

“The challenges Wilbur Mills faced as he slipped into the disease of alchoholism and resulting controversy are dealt with forthrightly here, rekindling the reaction in the public’s mind during those difficult months,” Bumpers writes. “Unfortunately, Mills’ late-career difficulties dimmed the remembrance of some of his major achievements. … Kay Goss has deftly weighed Mills’ character and shown the complexity that was Wilbur Mills. She lets his example show that no matter how high a person goes, how much he or she achieves, it is possible to fall and then to recover magnificently as Mills did when he went on to help others who suffer from addictions.”

Former Sen. David Pryor remembers that “only a handful of members of the House and Senate called him Wilbur. To most of us, he was Mr. Chairman. No legislative tactician grew to understand better or in more detail the myriad complexities of the federal government, especially our country’s tax code. … In addition, his enormous impact on health programs, most notably Medicare, and social issues remains a hallmark of his service.

“The tremendous respect Chairman Mills enjoyed among his colleagues in the House translated into support from both Democrats and Republicans. It was said that during his years chairing the House Ways and Means Committee, a roll-call vote was needless, as the chairman governed his committee by reason and ultimately consensus.”

After leaving Congress, Mills said: “There was a time when I felt that I couldn’t make a mistake. If I did, the country would go to rack and ruin. I was making myself a god. Human beings make mistakes, but I thought I couldn’t make a mistake. Therefore I didn’t let myself be a human being. That kind of internal pressure is more than the human system can sustain. Here I was doing it to myself consistently. .. I used to be lonesome all the time, even among 10,000 people. I don’t remember any time when I didn’t feel lonesome.”

Goss writes that when the words Mr. Chairman were spoken in Washington, “everyone from the president to the newest elevator operator knew the reference meant Wilbur Mills. He had a personal network of influence in the House.”

But when asked about giving up that power, Mills later told The Daily Citizen at Searcy: “I enjoy life more now. It’s just great to be a human being. In the chairmanship of the Ways and Means Committee, I was more of a machine than a man.”

In “Mr. Chairman,” Kay Goss probes both the reasons for his greatness and his human frailties.

Post to Twitter