Archive for the ‘Favorite Arkansans’ Category

The remarkable Roaf family

Friday, September 15th, 2017

Dr. Clifton Roaf of Pine Bluff died last week.

If you’re a sports fan, you probably know more about his son than you know about Dr. Roaf. After all, Willie Roaf was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2012 and the College Football Hall of Fame in 2014.

I can tell you this: Dr. Roaf was one of the most inspiring men I’ve ever met. I came to know him when I worked as the director of corporate communications for Simmons Bank. He served on the bank’s board and also on the board of the Simmons Foundation.

His prayers before foundation board luncheons at the Simmons Building in downtown Pine Bluff were legendary, as were the pep talks he would give when things weren’t going as well as he thought they should be going in southeast Arkansas.

No one ever loved Pine Bluff more than Dr. Roaf. In a town where race relations have long been an issue, he was the consistent voice of reason.

He was just one part of the amazing Roaf family.

His wife, the late Andree Layton Roaf, became the first black woman to serve on the Arkansas Supreme Court when she was appointed by Gov. Jim Guy Tucker to succeed retiring Justice Steele Hays in January 1995. She wasn’t eligible to run for a full term on the high court but was appointed by Gov. Mike Huckabee to the Arkansas Court of Appeals, where she served for almost a decade. Andree Roaf died in 2009.

Sports Illustrated has had a number of talented writers through the years, and Gary Smith rates near the top of that list. In 1993, Smith wrote about the Roaf family.

“She carries a book with her,” Smith wrote of Andree Roaf. “She always does. Tonight it’s ‘The Fountainhead’ by Ayn Rand. She walks to the framed photographs that cover the top of the piano. Heads. Suits. Ties. Smiles. They are the prologue to her tale. They must be revealed first.

“She points to her grandfather, who won a scholarship to Yale in the early 1900s, graduated and became a teacher and the executive director of the Norfolk, Va., YMCA. Then to her other grandfather, a college graduate, superintendent of a school for orphans and wayward children.

“There’s her mother, Phoebe. Top five in her high school class, scholarship to Talladega College, honors graduate, master’s degree from Michigan State.

“And her father, William. Master’s degree from Fisk, director of equal employment opportunity for the Federal Reserve System, local executive director in the Urban League, poet, thespian, community leader.

“Here’s her sister, Mary. Honor student, master’s degree from New York University, former assistant postmaster general, now director of communications for the Child Welfare League of America. Next, her late sister, Serena. Honor student, Michigan State grad, clarinet player, advertising copywriter.

“Over here is Andree’s husband, Cliff, co-valedictorian of his high school class, degree in dentistry from Howard, member of the school board in Pine Bluff for 21 years. … Next to him there’s Andree herself. Honor student, Michigan State grad, law review, second in her law class at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock with a 3.78 grade point average. … Look, there’s Andree’s oldest child, Phoebe. Presidential scholar, cum laude graduate of Harvard, master’s degree from Princeton, research officer for a nonprofit organization designing programs for disadvantaged youths. And Andree’s second child, Mary. Honor student, winner of two state oratory contests, graduate of Georgetown, seventh-grade teacher at an inner-city school in Washington, D.C.”

And then there was Willie, one of the greatest offensive tackles to ever play the game.

Willie has often told reporters that his mother would have preferred that he become a doctor or an attorney. He was attracting so little interest from college recruiters as a football player at Pine Bluff High School that he considered switching to basketball.

Finally, Willie decided to play football at Louisiana Tech University. He was 6-4, 220 pounds when he went to Tech, small for a college offensive lineman. By his sophomore season, he was 6-5, 300 pounds.

Louisiana Tech played Alabama, Baylor, South Carolina, Ole Miss and West Virginia, allowing professional scouts plenty of opportunities to watch him by his senior season. Willie was picked in the first round of the 1993 NFL draft by the New Orleans Saints. He was the eighth selection overall and the first offensive lineman to be drafted that year. Willie spent the first nine years of a 13-year NFL career with the Saints. He started 131 games for New Orleans and helped the franchise to its first playoff win, a 2000 victory over the defending Super Bowl champion St. Louis Rams.

A torn ligament in his right knee forced Willie to miss the second half of the 2001 season. He was traded to the Kansas City Chiefs, where he made the Pro Bowl in each of his four seasons. Roaf was voted to the Pro Bowl 11 times in 13 seasons. He earned a spot on the NFL All-Decade teams for the 1990s and 2000s.

Clifton Roaf was one of nine children who grew up in a four-room house at Pine Bluff. Smith described Dr. Roaf’s father as a man who “loaded railroad freight, worked fields, sawed wood and pushed mops to survive.”

Pine Bluff was among the most segregated cities in the South in those days. Dr. Roaf would later say that one could “look at an address and tell whether the person was white or black.”

“Sure he had been his high school’s co-valedictorian, but sports had always been his true love,” Smith wrote. “He had spent Friday nights playing football and Saturday mornings picking cotton, and he had become an all-state defensive lineman talented enough to do what was virtually unheard of for a black teenager in Arkansas in the 1950s — win a scholarship to a Big Ten school. But here he was (at Michigan State), hobbling through his senior year on a kneeful of mush, teaching freshman lineman how to pass rush, no longer even on the roster.”

Dr. Roaf had attended all-black Merrill High School at Pine Bluff.

In 1958, one of the city’s largest employers, International Paper Co., paid a Michigan State education professor named Raymond Hatch to evaluate the city’s schools. Dr. Roaf told the Pine Bluff Commercial years later: “What he found, of course, was a big discrepancy between the educational facilities at Pine Bluff High School and those at Merrill. They told him that they perhaps had someone who could go from this small segregated school in Pine Bluff and matriculate through a major white university, and that someone was I. Dr. Hatch was instrumental in me getting the scholarship to go there.”

Dr. Roaf boarded a train in 1959 and vowed that he would never return to the South. He had his train ticket, a copy of his financial aid agreement with Michigan State, a bag of clothes and $30.

Clifton Roaf was the first of several dozen black players from the South who were recruited during the tenure of legendary Coach Duffy Daugherty. Football success eluded Dr. Roaf at Michigan State, though.

“When I got hurt again in the Green and White game my second year, it ended for all practical purposes my athletic career,” he told the Commercial.

He met Andree, however.

She had been born in Nashville, Tenn., in a family where academics were stressed.

“To think how innocent it all seemed,” Smith wrote. “How benignly it began. A lovely spring Saturday in 1961 at Michigan State. A blind date for Cliff Roaf and Andree Layton, arranged by the girlfriend of Cliff’s teammate, Herb Adderly. Andree, a knockout — that was the scouting report. A little quirky perhaps. Rarely went to parties. Never had a boyfriend. Burned a hole clean through her sheet and mattress pad at age 11 with a hot light bulb while reading under the blanket at midnight so her parents wouldn’t know.

“A knockout bookworm, a wonderful anomaly. Cliff was intrigued. Never mind his right knee, which burned like dripping candle wax from his collision with another player that afternoon in the annual Green-White intrasquad game. Never mind the assistant coach’s order that Cliff, a sophomore backup defensive lineman for the Spartans, go to the campus hospital that night. A knockout bookworm. Besides, if they said the knee needed surgery, it would mean weeks of missed classes, certain failure in physics and chemistry, no college degree for a young man whose family had no money, none, to pay for an extra semester once his four-year academic-athletic scholarship ran out. Cliff was going to get a college degree. He found a cane. He hobbled through the date with Andree. They talked ideas. They talked books. His eyes kept growing bigger. So did his knee. It was a mango in the morning.

“The knee would never recover. Duffy Daugherty made the pain worse, burying Cliff in the depth chart for insubordination. All in one day Cliff lost a football career and gained a wife.

“‘They went into my living room at home and read — that’s how they dated,’ recalls Andree’s father, William Layton, a Renaissance man who loved writing and reading and acting and dancing and singing.”

Though she was born in Nashville, Andree later grew up in Ohio and Michigan. She wanted to pursue a career in biological sciences and graduated in 1962 with a bachelor’s degree in zoology. Cliff and Andree were married in July 1963. She was a bacteriologist for the Michigan Department of Health in Lansing from 1963-65. Andree then worked as a research biologist for the U.S. Food & Drug Administration in Washington, D.C., while her husband was training at Howard to be a dentist.

The couple moved to Pine Bluff in 1969 so Dr. Roaf could begin his practice. Andree was a staff assistant for the Pine Bluff Urban Renewal Agency from 1971-75 and then worked as a biologist with the National Center for Toxicological Research. She began driving to Little Rock for law school in 1975 and graduated in 1978. She taught at the law school for a year before joining the Pine Bluff firm Walker Roaf Campbell Ivory & Dunklin in 1979.

“I had to get another degree of some kind,” Andree Roaf said of her decision to attend law school. “In my family, if you only have a B.A., you feel like a dropout.”

In addition to being in the Pro Football Hall of Fame and the College Football Hall of Fame, Willie Roaf was inducted into the Arkansas Sports Hall of Fame in 2007, the New Orleans Saints Hall of Fame in 2008 and the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame in 2009.

“It’s amazing to think a kid like me from Pine Bluff, barely recruited to college and signing with a program just entering NCAA Division I, could end up one of the best to play the game at my position,” he said. “It shows young football players from Arkansas that with a lot of hard work and great character you can achieve anything. I had great coaches and teammates along the way to help guide me. I always competed hard and strived to be the best.”

It didn’t hurt a bit to have Clifton Roaf and Andree Layton Roaf as parents.

They were a remarkable Arkansas couple.

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Remembering Glen Campbell

Thursday, August 17th, 2017

We had spent the day at the Hope Watermelon Festival, and it was time to head back to Little Rock.

I was riding with Paul Austin, the head of the Arkansas Humanities Council, and suggested that we not get back on Interstate 30 just yet.

Instead we would make our way through the pine woods and cattle pastures of southwest Arkansas — to Washington, Ozan, Nashville and Murfreesboro — to soak up the rural atmosphere in my old neck of the woods.

Our destination was Delight.

Glen Campbell, one of our most famous Arkansans, had died four days earlier and been buried the next day in a private ceremony near Delight.

A perk of hailing from southwest Arkansas was being able to correct people when they claimed that Campbell came from Delight.

“Well, he’s actually from Billstown,” you would say with a smile. “That’s a suburb of Delight.”

Glen Travis Campbell was born April 22, 1936, at Billstown to Carrie Dell Stone Campbell and John Wesley Campbell. It was the middle of the Great Depression, and he was one of 12 children.

“Many of his relatives were musicians, and young Campbell soon developed an interest in singing and playing,” Terry Buckalew writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. “He received his first guitar at age 4, performed in public by age 6 and made occasional appearances on the local radio station. The Campbell family first moved to Houston and then to Albuquerque, N.M, where teenaged Campbell began performing in nightclubs. Campbell dropped out of school in the 10th grade to spend more time on music. In 1956, he joined the Sandia Mountain Boys, a local band led by his uncle, Dick Bills. Campbell stayed with the group until 1958.

“In 1958, Campbell formed his own band, Glen Campbell and the Western Wranglers. In 1960, Campbell disbanded the group and moved to Los Angeles. He hoped to establish himself as a solo performer but found himself instead to be a sought-after studio musician and guitarist.”

Billstown is about six miles from Delight. The schools there consolidated with Delight at the start of the 1948-49 school year. Since then, Billstown has mostly been a collection of homes.

The Ozan Lumber Co. was among the area’s dominant businesses for much of the 20th century. The company owned 132,000 acres by 1956 and was sold to the Potlatch Corp. in the 1960s. As timber companies cleared the woodlands, farmers such as John Wesley Campbell turned to growing cotton in the “Pike County sandy loam” that son Glen later would reference in his song “Arkansas.”

Young Glen hadn’t been a stranger to chopping cotton in the summer and picking it in the fall.

As Paul and I headed east on Arkansas Highway 26 last Saturday afternoon, I spotted the small sign for Billstown and asked Paul to take a right. We wound down a county road on the off chance that we might see Campbell’s grave. For all we knew, it was hidden in a family cemetery well off the road.

We were about to turn around when I spotted a mailbox that had “Campbell” stenciled on it.

“Let’s keep going a bit,” I said to Paul.

Just up the road on our left was a cemetery. A wooden sign read “Campbell’s Cemetery, Billstown, AR.”

Eureka.

We got out of the truck and found the headstone for Carrie and John Wesley Campbell. Behind it was a freshly dug grave. At the head was a large floral arrangement from a Murfreesboro florist with a ribbon that said “Brother.”

At the foot was a vase of roses.

It was quiet on Billstown Road as the August sun baked the soil. We stood there for a minute, silently paying our respects to an Arkansas legend.

Less than 48 hours after that cemetery visit came word that we had lost another Arkansas icon, former Razorback football coach Frank Broyles. Campbell was 81 when he died; Broyles was 92. Both had Alzheimer’s at the end.

I was born in September 1959 and was coming of age in the late 1960s when Glen Campbell became a national star.

Campbell recorded “Gentle on My Mind” in 1967 and earned Grammy Awards in 1968 for Best Country Vocalist and Best Contemporary Vocalist.

In 1968, he recorded “By the Time I Get to Phoenix,” which won him three more Grammys. Songs such as “Wichita Lineman” and “Galveston” soon followed.

The man from Billstown became a regular on “The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour,” and CBS asked him to host a summer replacement show in 1968.

In 1969, CBS created “The Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour,” and the program ran through 1971.

The year 1969 also saw the release of the John Wayne movie “True Grit,” based on the novel of the same name by native Arkansan Charles Portis. Campbell had a role in the movie, which premiered at Little Rock’s Cinema 150.

In 1970, Campbell played the title role in “Norwood,” which also was based on a Portis novel.

“Campbell continued to enjoy chart success through the late 1970s,” Buckalew writes. “Among his more than 70 albums are several gospel albums recorded in the 1990s, one of which — ‘A Glen Campbell Christmas’ –earned a Dove Award in 2000.”

Campbell was inducted into the first class of the Arkansas Entertainers Hall of Fame in 1996 and was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2005.

In the late 1960s when Glen Campbell was at the height of his popularity, we were just more than a decade removed from the embarrassment of the 1957 Little Rock Central High School desegregation crisis. Arkansas had lost the highest percentage of its population of any state from 1940-60.

There wasn’t a great deal to be proud of, but we had the likes of Glen Campbell and Johnny Cash on the national stage.

Like Frank Broyles, who would die less than a week after him, Glen Campbell made us proud to be from Arkansas.

Godspeed, Glen.

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Coach Broyles

Monday, August 14th, 2017

Frank Broyles wasn’t born and raised in Arkansas.

He hailed from Decatur, Ga., and his rich Southern accent was never replaced by an Arkansas twang. Yet he was one of us. Indeed, he was the best of us.

He moved to Fayetteville following just one season as the head coach at the University of Missouri.

Orville Henry wrote in the Arkansas Gazette the day after Broyles’ Dec. 7, 1957, hiring at the University of Arkansas: “Frank Broyles is the fastest walking, thinking, talking Southern boy I’ve ever run across, in or out of football. He charms the uninitiated with his complete candor and confidence and the rippling softness of his Dixie accent. And he possesses the pigskin technicians with the inside-outside mastery of his subject matter, which is basic football in general and the T formation attack in the specific. As of this hour, he embodies every answer to John Barnhill’s prayer.”

Barnhill, the Arkansas athletic director at the time, told Henry: “Frank is the only man from the outside who could come in and pull us all together toward what we’re after. We’ve lost no ground in the last three years, and we’re in good shape. Within a month I believe we’ll be a lot better than we were.”

Barnhill added: “Broyles convinced me that he wants to come to Arkansas and stay.”

Stay he did, for the next six decades.

National news had been dominated in that fall of 1957 by the Little Rock Central High School desegregation crisis. That didn’t deter Broyles, who always would refer to the Arkansas coaching position as his dream job.

The desegregation crisis made Arkansas the subject of derision in other parts of the country. Arkansans had both a strong pride in the place they called home and a glaring inferiority complex.

Though Broyles wasn’t from here, he understood us.

He pledged his allegiance to Arkansas and never left.

It didn’t take Broyles long to build a football powerhouse. John Barnhill’s instincts had been correct.

As least among college football fans, Gov. Orval Faubus wasn’t the only well-known personality in Arkansas. We had Broyles, his shirttail flapping as he paced the sidelines on those glorious fall afternoons.

College Football News once ranked the top college football programs for the 1960s. The ranking was based on Associated Press polls. Alabama (coached by a native Arkansan, Paul “Bear” Bryant) was first in that decade. Arkansas and Texas were tied for second.

I was born in September 1959. Frank Broyles was the only Razorback football coach I knew until high school. Arkansas won several versions of the national championship in 1964, but that was the year my 9-year-old brother was killed in an accident. So the few memories I have of that year are of family tragedy, not college football.

The next year was different. I clearly remember that at the end of the 1965 season, as the Razorback winning streak reached 22 games, my parents announced that they would take my older sister and me to Dallas to see Arkansas tangle with LSU in the Cotton Bowl.

I remember the trip down U.S. Highway 67 from our Arkadelphia home to Dallas. I remember the stop at The Alps restaurant in Mt. Pleasant, Texas, for lunch. I remember staying in downtown Dallas at the Baker Hotel.

And I remember wanting to see Frank Broyles in person, which I finally did.

I got into trouble with my father on that trip when I refused to shake the hand of the LSU head coach, Charlie McClendon. McClendon was from south Arkansas (Lewisville to be exact) and knew my father. McClendon’s brother, Bill, and my dad hunted quail together.

But to a 6-year-old, he was the enemy because he coached the hated purple-and-gold Tigers.

LSU upset Arkansas on Jan. 1, 1966, ending the 22-game winning streak. I cried in the cab on the way from Fair Park back to the Baker Hotel.

With victory having proved elusive, the highlight of the trip for me was having seen Broyles at the hotel.

You could tell by looking at him that he had once been a great athlete. He was a star quarterback at Georgia Tech, where he played for Bobby Dodd and led the Yellowjackets to three bowl games. He started his coaching career as an assistant at Baylor in 1947, but Dodd soon brought him back to Atlanta where Broyles served as the head coach’s right-hand man for a decade. Many Southern football fans felt that Broyles would hang around until Dodd retired and then become the Georgia Tech head coach.

Broyles was restless, however. He wanted to lead his own program and try out his own ideas. He took the Missouri job.

Arkansas, though, was the place where he really saw potential. His vision, in fact, went beyond the football field. He once told me that the smartest move the university made in his early years there was when it offered broadcasts of Razorback games free to any radio station in the state that wanted them. Prior to that, a number of people in west Arkansas followed Oklahoma football, a number of people in south Arkansas followed LSU football and a number of people in east Arkansas followed Ole Miss football. Having one of the largest radio networks in the country united the state.

Broyles continued to make us proud on the national stage after retiring from coaching following the 1975 season. Broyles and play-by-play man Keith Jackson of ABC Sports became the best college football crew on television.

Broyles also proved to be as savvy as an athletic director as he had been as a football coach, raising millions of dollars to improve athletic facilities for multiple sports and moving Arkansas from the Southwest Conference to the Southeastern Conference in the early 1990s.

No wonder the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette named him Arkansas’ most influential sports figure of the 20th century.

No wonder David Bazzel created the Broyles Award to honor the top college assistant coach in the country. Think of those who played and/or coached under Broyles — Barry Switzer, Jimmy Johnson, Joe Gibbs, Johnny Majors and on and on.

Still, Broyles’ most important accomplishment was that he made us proud to be from Arkansas at a time when we most needed it.

Finally Winthrop Rockefeller became governor in January 1967 after 12 years of Faubus.

Johnny Cash and Glen Campbell hit it big on the national stage.

And Frank Broyles’ Razorbacks kept winning football games — lots of them.

Even though the end result was an excruciating 15-14 loss to the hated Longhorns, we were proud that what was known as the Game of the Century was played on Arkansas soil in 1969. I was 10 years old and still recall that gray December afternoon.

As a state at that time, we were just more than decade removed from the embarrassment of 1957. Arkansas also had lost the highest percentage of population of any state from 1940-60.

Frank Broyles helped us to believe in ourselves again.

I didn’t fully understand that at age 10.

I do now.

He was a giant in his field. Yes, he was born in Georgia. But he became one of us and was never ashamed to be known as an Arkansan.

Thank you, Coach Broyles. You were the right man at the right time for Arkansas.

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Dr. Everett Slavens

Monday, June 5th, 2017

I had the honor of speaking Saturday in Arkadelphia at the memorial service for one of my college professors, Dr. Everett Slavens. Here are my remarks:

The older I get, the more I realize how blessed I was as a boy.

I grew up in a college town. Not only was it a college town, it was this town — Arkadelphia — a place small enough for everyone to know and care for each other.

I took it for granted as a boy, but because of the existence of two four-year institutions of higher education, the Arkadelphia in which I was raised in the 1960s and 1970s was far different from other towns its size in south Arkansas.

What’s now Ouachita Baptist University began developing the wooded hills near the Ouachita River in the late 1950s for faculty housing. My family moved into that neighborhood when I was just a year old, and Ouachita Hills was the only neighborhood I knew growing up. Most of those in the neighborhood were faculty members at Ouachita with a few Reddies from what’s now Henderson State University sprinkled in.

My mother and father were Ouachita graduates, yet we were different from our neighbors since my parents ran a business downtown rather than being employed at Ouachita or Henderson. Our family friends included a noted composer, a talented playwright, a famous basketball coach, a well-known football coach, writers, philosophers, theologians and even the state’s lieutenant governor.

You couldn’t get that in a Malvern or a Camden.

It was just a short walk to the Ouachita River and Mill Creek, where I could wade and throw rocks. There was a pond across the street to fish in and an old barn to hide in. Ouachita had cattle and horses in the pasture across the street from our house in those days. So even though we were inside the city limits, it was like living in the country, albeit a country filled with highly educated, articulate and interesting people.

Dr. Everett Slavens was a piece of the tapestry of my blessed boyhood. He was an integral part of a special place at a special time.

In a story published shortly after his death last month, Dr. Randall Wight, a current Ouachita faculty member, described him as “a profile in courage, a figure of lore.”

Dr. Wight went on to say: “He arranged his life so that nobody felt sorry for him. For generations of students and colleagues, his name conjures a Ouachita not lost in the mists of time.”

One of the things that characterized those talented men and women on the Ouachita faculty was a sharp wit and a brilliant sense of humor. Dr. Slavens’ wit was razor sharp.

Yes, Everett Slavens was blind, but indeed we never felt sorry for him because he didn’t feel sorry for himself. His blindness, in fact, was not something I really noticed as Dr. Slavens would walk through our neighborhood.

At least I didn’t pay much attention to it until my freshman year at Ouachita when both Johnny Wink and Tom Auffenberg — two other witty members of the Ouachita faculty — somehow convinced gullible new students that Dr. Slavens really could see.

“It’s all an act,” Auffenberg would state flatly. “Watch how easily he makes his way around campus. No one truly without sight could do that.”

One Ouachita professor might pull my leg.

But two?

Surely both Wink and Auffenberg wouldn’t both joke about such a thing.

And surely Dr. Slavens wouldn’t be in on the joke, refusing to provide a straight answer to anyone with the courage to ask.

My doubts increased one warm spring afternoon on the first floor of the former World War II-era barracks that only Ouachita could pass off as a classroom building. My friend Wayne Fawcett from Cabot — now the public school superintendent at Paris — decided he would show up to answer the roll and then quietly climb out the window so he could be at Oaklawn Park in Hot Springs that afternoon in time to take advantage of a hot tip on the third race.

With Wayne halfway out the window, Dr. Slavens tilted his head in that direction and said: “Mr. Fawcett, if you need to leave, you’re free to use the door.”

Embarrassed, Wayne sat back down in his seat and never missed class for the remainder of the semester.

I understand that type of thing happened more than once through the years.

What a teacher he was, this man who refused to let blindness be an obstacle.

I might have been a communications major, but all of my electives were in history and political science. It was an all-star cast of historians at Ouachita in those days — Cole, Coulter, Granade, Auffenberg, Slavens. In baseball, that would be known as depth on the mound. Schools five to 10 times the size of Ouachita couldn’t claim such depth in their departments. I soaked up every opportunity to hear their lectures. And I’m a better person because I did so.

As one of Everett Slavens’ former students, I’m here today to tell you that Johnny Wink and Tom Auffenberg were right. He could see.

Here’s what Dr. Slavens could see:

He could see the potential in his students, many of whom came from small towns in Arkansas, Texas and Louisiana and had never really been exposed to the wider world around them.

He could see that opening up these new worlds to them would improve their lives in the decades ahead.

He could see that forcing them to defend their positions and rely on facts rather than emotions would make the world of work an easier place for them to navigate.

He could see that he was truly making a difference in their lives.

With each passing year, we lose more and more of those men and women who were so influential in the first 22 years of my life, the years I spent in Arkadelphia.

I’ll always appreciate what they did for me and thousands of others.

Well done, Dr. Slavens.

Well done, good and faithful servant.

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Cafeteria fare

Thursday, May 11th, 2017

On his way back to Waco, Texas, following an Easter weekend visit to Little Rock, my oldest son stopped at Bryce’s Cafeteria in Texarkana for lunch.

It’s a stop he has been making most of his life.

My wife is from south Texas (Kingsville, Alice, Corpus Christi). On trips to visit her relatives, we usually timed our departures so we could eat at the venerable Texarkana restaurant, which closed its doors at the end of April after 86 years of serving customers.

When I was a boy in Arkadelphia, Hot Springs was usually the first choice if we were going out of town for a special meal.

If shopping and doctors’ visits were involved, Little Rock was the destination.

But to change things up from time to time, my parents would choose Texarkana since both of them loved eating downtown at Bryce’s.

Downtown Texarkana was a busy place in those days. That was before restaurants and retailers moved north to Interstate 30. Shoppers from southwest Arkansas, east Texas, northwest Louisiana and southeast Oklahoma flocked to downtown businesses such as the Belk-Jones and Dillard’s department stores.

Earl Jones Sr., who was born in North Carolina where the Belk chain was founded, moved to Texarkana in October 1947 to open Belk-Jones.

Meanwhile, William T. Dillard, who had been born at Mineral Springs in 1914, opened his first store at Nashville in Howard County in February 1938. He sold the Nashville store in 1948 and moved his family to Texarkana after purchasing a 45 percent interest in Wooten’s Department Store. In 1949, Dillard purchased the remaining 60 percent of Wooten’s.

Michael Barone and Grant Ujifusa once described Texarkana in the “Almanac of American Politics” as the heart of “populist country, a place where farmers producing cotton and other crops felt themselves at the mercy of Dallas cotton brokers, Wall Street financiers and railroad magnates who were grabbing all the gains of their hard work. Outside Texarkana, in a landscape littered with small houses and lazily winding rivers, there was little protection from the sun and wind, and precious little ornament; the reservoirs and motels and shopping centers one sees there now are signs of an affluence still only beginning to penetrate what was a zone of subsistence if not poverty.”

Bryce’s fed those who came to Texarkana from the small towns of Arkansas, Texas, Louisiana and Oklahoma. The cooking was consistent, and it was good.

As my son paid his bill that Monday following his final meal at Bryce’s, he told the cashier of his first visit there. Like a lot of smart, high-strung boys, he was slow in getting potty trained. Austin was obsessed in those days with trains and airplanes, and my mother came up with an idea. She told Austin that if he would get potty trained, the two of them would take a trip on a real train.

It worked, though it was a short journey. They boarded an Amtrak train at Arkadelphia and took it only as far as Texarkana. My father raced down Interstate 30 in his Oldsmobile and picked them up at the Texarkana depot. The three of them then had a big lunch at Bryce’s. My parents later told me that Austin slept soundly on the way back to his grandparents’ home.

“We’ve been hearing a lot of stories along those lines,” the cashier told Austin, who’s now 24.

Bryce Lawrence opened his cafeteria in 1931 during the Great Depression. It remained downtown until February 1989 when it moved near Interstate 30 and Summerhill Road on the Texas side of the state line.

A Chicago Tribune writer once declared that Bryce’s “may have better food for the money than anyplace on earth.”

During his 1992 presidential campaign, Ross Perot, a Texarkana native, was asked to list his favorite restaurant in the world. His choice was Bryce’s, of course.

I would always start meals there with tomato aspic (I suspect I was the youngest person to purchase that old-school dish) and finish with egg custard pie in honor of my mother, who enjoyed both.

Jane and Michael Stern, who became famous for the “Roadfood” series of books, once wrote of Bryce’s: “Going through the line takes you past an array of swoonfully appetizing food — food that has made this place famous since it opened for business in 1931. There are more vegetables than most Yankees see in a year — purple-hulled peas, fried green tomatoes, red beans, turnip greens cooked with chunks of ham and a full array of potatoes, cheesy macaroni casseroles, rice casseroles, buttered cauliflower, sauced broccoli, etc.

“Among the main courses, fried chicken is stupendously crunchy and big slabs of sweet ham are sliced to order. For dessert, we like Karo-coconut pie, hot cobbler with an ethereal crust and banana pudding made with meringue and vanilla wafers. The entire experience is a culinary dream, including a smartly uniformed dining room staff (to help old folks and invalids with their trays, and to bus tables) and servers who address all men as ‘sir’ and ladies as ‘ma’am.'”

One of their readers wrote: “I’m not customarily a fan of cafeterias. Multiples of food behind glass covers bring back not-so-pleasant memories of school cafeterias and unappetizing food. But Bryce’s could make a convert out of me. Here everything looks so good that it is hard to make a choice. We were hungry so it was tempting to order one of everything. As it was, we selected a gracious plenty. The fried chicken is very good and still crisp even though it has been sitting under a heat lamp for a while. The turnip greens, black-eyed peas, squash and coleslaw are well-seasoned and delicious.”

Richard Lawrence, the son of Bryce Lawrence, died in February at age 65.

His obituary read in part: “Richard was born in Texarkana, Arkansas. He went to St. James Day School and Allen Academy. He graduated from Texas High School, where he was an outstanding football player and loved his days playing football for Watty Myers. He went on to play college football at Stephen F. Austin University in Nacogdoches, Texas. After that, he earned a culinary degree from Del Mar College in Corpus Christi, Texas. … Richard was best known for his role in Bryce’s Cafeteria, the family business that was started in 1931 by his father, Bryce Lawrence. He worked there tirelessly for most of his life with his brother, Bryce.

“Richard loved and was loved by all his employees, some of whom worked for Richard and his father for more than 50 years. They all loved to call him Big Daddy. Richard adored his family and extended family, especially the time he spent with them at his cabin at Lake Greeson, teaching all his nieces and nephews how to water ski. Richard’s favorite thing was to cook and entertain, which usually meant telling funny stories about himself. But more than anything else he enjoyed spending time with his family at their summer home in Charlevoix, Mich.”

Shortly before Bryce’s closed, Greg Bischof of the Texarkana Gazette wrote about two veteran employees.

“Leo McCoun and Pearlene Jennings loved working for Bryce’s Cafeteria so much they each worked there for more than a half-century,” he wrote. “Even though the cafeteria will see its last tray full of cuisine slide before the cashiers at the end of April, McCoun’s and Jennings’ memories of working there will likely live on as long as they do. For 86 years, one of Texarkana’s most renowned eateries, founded by local resident Bryce Lawrence in 1931, not only pulled off an entrepreneurial miracle by surviving all 10 years of the Great Depression, it went on to become one of the most popular non-franchised businesses in the region, attracting customers from as far away as Dallas.

“Both McCoun and Jennings were not only eyewitnesses but major contributors to that success — as well as being veteran employees long enough to work at both the cafeteria’s original and current locations. For McCoun, born in 1935 and raised in Lewisville, his employment started Nov. 10, 1958, at Bryce’s original setting at 215 Pine St. with a starting income of $15 a week.”

McCoun told Bischof: “Guys got $15 a week while the girls got $12.50. I loved every one of my jobs here. I enjoyed all 58 years because I just liked being around people. Moving to the north side of town was different and a good move because Interstate 30 pulled business northward, but I think I will always like the look of the old place we had at 215 Pine. It just had a vintage atmosphere about it. At the time we were downtown, there was only one other cafeteria nearby, and that was in Wake Village.

“Bryce’s was a popular place the whole time. We had customers from as far away as Nashville, Ashdown, El Dorado, Magnolia, Camden and, yes, even as far away as Dallas. I got to know customers that were as young as five years old. Now they have grown up and have had children and grandchildren of their own. I got to know so many families and customers from all over. I’ll never forget this. I’m 81 years old, and it’s finally time to retire.”

Bischof wrote: “McCoun, who was 23 years old at the time, began as a pot washer, which he did for three years before becoming a silverware roller for another three years. He eventually became a dining room cleaning attendant as well as an occasional meat slicer in the customer serving line. He still performed both those tasks when the cafeteria made its move from 215 Pine St. to its current location near Interstate 30 in February 1989. Starting in 1996, McCoun became the dining room manager.”

Jennings began working at Bryce’s in May 1965.

“As a 17-year-old Macedonia High School student, she was looking for part-time work as a waitress during the summer of 1965,” Bischof wrote. “Upon graduating the following year, she went full time and made a career of it.”

Jennings told the newspaper: “I started out getting paid $17 a week as take-home pay, which came in a brown envelope. We had an upstairs as well as a downstairs dining room, and we helped customers carry their trays upstairs. I stayed with Bryce’s because I just liked the place, all the friendly customers and the employees. Waitressing was my only job. I loved both locations, but I do miss going up those stairs downtown. I think I got to know hundreds, maybe thousands, of customers through the years.”

Mother’s Day was the busiest day of the year, followed by Easter.

“Both of those holidays drew the crowds,” Jennings said.

Bryce’s is gone, but at least we still have Franke’s at two locations in Little Rock.

But death also has rocked the Franke family of Little Rock. Bill K. Franke died in Little Rock just 12 days after Richard Lawrence died in Texarkana.

Franke’s obituary noted that he “spent the majority of his life serving Arkansas food to Arkansas people at his family business, Franke’s Cafeteria. He was known for his strong presence and was the definition of honor and integrity. … A man of many hobbies, he loved most what nature had to offer. Astronomy, hunting, fishing, cooking and riding motorcycles were among his favorites.”

The death came just more than three months after his daughter, Christen Franke, died suddenly at age 37.

Fortunately, Bill’s widow, Carolyn Cazort Franke, and other family members plan to keep the restaurants going.

Here’s how the Franke’s website describes the history of the company: “In 1919, C.A. Franke opened a doughnut shop on Little Rock’s West Capitol Avenue. After a few short years, it became a thriving business, and in 1922, Franke built a large bakery at 111 W. Third St. Soon a fleet of trucks, nicknamed ‘wife savers,’ could be seen delivering fresh baked goods door to door in neighborhoods throughout the city.

“In 1924, Franke opened the original Franke’s Cafeteria at 115 W. Capitol. The cafeteria was near the major department stores and businesses in downtown Little Rock, and the eatery prospered in this vital commercial area of downtown. A separate dining room was opened around the corner at 511 Louisiana and shared the same kitchen, preparing food for both locations. C.A.’s son, W.J. Franke, worked with his father and eventually became the second generation to run the cafeteria. W.J.’s son, Bill Franke, learned the business from his father and took the reins as the third generation to run the cafeteria in 1983.

“In 1960, the original cafeteria closed its doors but not before inspiring newer locations around the state. Franke’s has had many locations, including Hot Springs, Fort Smith, North Little Rock’s McCain Mall and Little Rock’s University Mall. Today the cafeteria has come full circle with a location on West Capitol in the Regions Bank building and our newest addition, the Market Place location on Rodney Parham.

“Some of Franke’s menu items are legendary, led by the eggplant casserole and egg custard pie. The sliced roast beef, candied sweet potatoes, hand-breaded fried okra and Karo-nut pecan pie continue to be customer favorites. Most recipes have remained unchanged from the originals and are often the subject of recipe duplication debates. The food line at Franke’s, with its array of cold dishes, steaming meats, assorted vegetables and mouthwatering desserts, has kept customers coming through the doors for many decades.

“Franke’s success and longevity are due to consistently serving good food at reasonable prices, a long history of staff who have served the people of Arkansas with a full heart and loyal customers who have become a part of our family. As an Arkansas tradition, Franke’s offers more than just a home-cooked meal. It’s a place for older generations to remember and a home for younger generations to begin making memories.”

I eat lunch often at the downtown Little Rock location and always study the framed black-and-white photo of Capitol Avenue looking west toward the state Capitol. It was taken decades ago. You can see the Franke’s sign on the left and the sign for the Capitol Theater on the right. There’s also a framed gavel that was used by Lee Cazort when he was the Arkansas House speaker in 1917, the Arkansas Senate president in 1921 and the state’s lieutenant governor from 1929-31 and 1933-37.

Cafeterias were once common across the state. My family often would eat in the 1960s at a downtown Arkadelphia cafeteria called Homer’s.

Now locally owned cafeterias are becoming hard to find.

Bryce’s is but a memory. Here’s hoping that Franke’s will flourish for many years to come.

 

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The farkleberry

Thursday, May 4th, 2017

The farkleberry is a shrub that can be found from the East Coast to Texas. It can grow to a height of almost 25 feet and has black berries that birds feed on.

Curtis Morris writes in the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture: “The shrub is nearly unknown today.”

So why does it have its own entry in the state encyclopedia?

If you don’t know the answer to that question, you’re likely not old enough to remember Gov. Orval Faubus and editorial cartoonist George Fisher.

Faubus, who served as governor from 1955-67, helped clear brush along a state highway in Franklin County one day for what’s now referred to as a “photo op.” Lou Oberste, a writer and photographer for what later would become the Arkansas Department of Parks & Tourism, shot photos of the governor, who was dressed in overalls and carrying an ax.

Faubus had grown up in Madison County in the Ozarks and claimed to know the identities of most of the trees and bushes native to Arkansas. Along the highway that day, he pointed out redbuds, dogwoods and other trees he wanted saved.

After hearing about the publicity stunt, Fisher decided to draw cartoons showing Faubus with a farkleberry, whose wood was considered worthless.

Fisher grew up at Beebe and died in 2003 at age 80. He has been described by Arkansas Democrat-Gazette editorial cartoonist John Deering as a man whose work “influenced and helped define Arkansas politics for a generation. He created a series of visual metaphors and themes that were widely associated with the politicians he caricatured and became a part of Arkansas political folklore. Fisher focused primarily on political, social and environmental issues.

“Fisher was born on April 8, 1923, near Searcy to Charles W. Fisher, a tree nursery owner, and Gladys Fisher. His mother died when he was five, and his father raised Fisher’s two brothers, sister and him. Fisher grew up in Beebe, where he attended school and started the Beebe Grammar School News. Fisher’s father was an avid reader and encouraged his son’s interest in drawing. He suggested an idea for Fisher’s first published carton, a sketch lampooning Gov. Homer Adkins.

“Fisher attended college in Beebe for a year while serving in the Army Reserves. He left college in 1943 after being called to active duty. While stationed in England, he attended drawing classes at the Municipal College of Art at Bournemouth and drew cartoons for his regiment’s newspaper. In Bournemouth, he met art student Rosemary Beryl Snook. While serving as an infantryman in the Battle of the Bulge, Fisher maintained a sketch diary of his fighting experiences. After the war, in 1946, Fisher married Snook and returned to college.

“His first cartooning experience was with the West Memphis News, run by World War II veterans determined to fight the abuses of Arkansas’ machine politicians. At the time of his hiring in 1946, Fisher wrote news stories in addition to drawing cartoons. The paper’s staunch reformist stance led to threats of lawsuits from the local political machine.”

The newspaper at West Memphis was shut down in 1949, and Fisher moved to Little Rock to begin a commercial art service. He approached Robert McCord at the North Little Rock Times and offered to draw political cartoons. McCord accepted his offer. Soon, the Arkansas Gazette and the Pine Bluff Commercial were reprinting some of the cartoons, giving Fisher a statewide audience.

“Fisher and his wife created a syndicated television show, ‘Phydeaux and His Friends,’ featuring puppets they sculpted,” Deering writes. “The puppets appealed to children, and the show’s political satire delighted adults. Local political figures, including Faubus, made guest appearances. Although Fisher initially supported Faubus, he quickly concluded that Faubus was an opportunist. Fisher’s most famous Faubus cartoon showed the governor addressing a Legislature of Faubus look-alikes in a biting commentary on his influence on state government.

“In 1972, the Gazette published Fisher’s cartoons several times a week. By the time he was hired as the paper’s editorial cartoonist in 1976, Fisher’s name was synonymous with the Gazette’s. Many of his cartoon symbols have become icons. He popularized the farkleberry bush in an account of a bizarre meeting of Faubus with state highway workers. As the story goes, Faubus stopped at a site where workers were clearing brush to demonstrate how it should be done. He named all the native plants, including the obscure farkleberry.”

So it was that the farkleberry came to be identified with the Faubus administration.

Faubus later called the walking path behind his Huntsville home the Farkleberry Trail.

When the Arkansas chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists began looking for ways to raise money for college scholarships, it decided to put on a stage show that would lampoon newsmakers. The inaugural show was held in 1967 (Winthrop Rockefeller’s first year as governor) and was known as the Farkleberry Follies. The follies were held every other year during legislative sessions through 1999.

Last month, the Political Animals Club of Little Rock held a program to mark the 50th anniversary of that first show. Veteran Little Rock advertising and public relations executive Ben Combs, who played Faubus, was joined by former Arkansas Senate chief of staff Bill “Scoop” Lancaster, who played Congressman Tommy Robinson. Lancaster brought back his Robinson character for the luncheon.

“We had some great Arkansas political characters to use as script material through the years,” Combs says. “These types of shows often are called gridiron shows, but the lawyers were already using that name. We came up with Farkleberry Follies for that first show, and it stuck.”

The show would sell out from Wednesday night through Saturday night. Combs says the tradition was for local elected officials to be seated up front on Wednesday nights followed by members of the Legislature on Thursday nights, the governor and other statewide constitutional officers on Friday nights and the members of the state’s congressional delegation on Saturday nights.

“We liked to put them up front so the other people attending could see their reactions when we made fun of them,” Combs says.

A driving force behind the Farkleberry Follies was Leroy Donald, who died in 2009 at age 73 after a long career as a writer and editor at the Arkansas Gazette and later the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. Months in advance of the Farkleberry Follies, people such as Lancaster and Combs would gather with Donald for long nights of eating, drinking and script writing.

Combs says the goal was to “skewer the inflated egos of the political class with skits and songs.”

In his book “Inside the Arkansas Legislature,” Lancaster gives an example of the writing that made the show memorable: “The Arkansas Senate is like a fine bottle of Montrachet while the House is like a pitcher of Miller Lite — warm Miller Lite.”

The show was held at what originally was the Olde West Dinner Theatre and is now Murry’s Dinner Playhouse in southwest Little Rock. There was a political connection since the theater, which was new in 1967, was owned by Ike Murry, who served two terms as the state’s attorney general from 1949-53 when Sid McMath was governor. Murry ran for governor in 1952 and finished last in a field of five in the Democratic primary. He later became a regular at the weekday luncheons hosted for years by Little Rock financier Witt Stephens. Politics often dominated the discussions at those luncheons, where cornbread was always on the menu.

Bill Lewis, who was a longtime Gazette reporter, was the local chapter president for the Society of Professional Journalists the year the show began. He’s now 87 and still lives in Little Rock.

“We were attempting to get by on dues of $10 a year, and it was becoming increasingly difficult,” Lewis says. “So I invited the board to my little house at 14 Westmont Circle in Meadowcliff one Sunday afternoon. The board consisted of Marcus George, Robert McCord, Margaret Smith Ross, George Fisher and one or two others I can’t recall. I had been in a gridiron show while working for United Press in Baton Rouge so I proposed that we attempt one in the campaign off years to avoid conflict with the lawyers’ show. We talked about the idea, and everyone seemed agreeable. It was Fisher who came up with the name that afternoon. I was a little dubious, but I was overridden by the others. They thought it was great, and they were right.

“I negotiated with Ike Murry to use the Olde West Dinner Theatre. There were only two performances of the first show, but later we bowed to public demand, and it went up to a full week. The $12 ticket price for the first show included a buffet dinner and an open bar. The show made a ton of money. I hired Betty Fowler, who worked every show thereafter. The last production had a ticket price of $50, and it sold out.

“We rehearsed in the old synagogue on Broadway. The editor of the Benton paper volunteered to direct the show provided he had full control of the script. I reluctantly agreed, but then he began inserting four-letter words that I knew would be destructive. I called his hand on it. He threw down his script and stormed out. I’ve never seen him since. This happened two weeks before the opening. In desperation, I called Margaret Carter at UALR. She agreed. By some miracle, she whipped the show into shape. It was a huge hit. It made so much money that it was decided to open a scholarship fund for students studying journalism.”

Ernie Dumas writes in the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture: “Fisher had a significant role in formulating, producing and performing in the show, which took the name of the Faubus icon. Fisher usually began the show by caricaturing a few of the figures who would be lampooned. … Donald brainstormed and produced each show, rewrote the whimsical skits of others (“funnying them up,” as he described it) and directed the performances. The skits were often built around Broadway show tunes and popular songs, the lyrics altered to fit current public controversies.

“A few peformances proved so popular that they became regular features — Donald as the perennial political candidate Jim Johnson, Gazette news editor Bill Rutherford as University of Arkansas football coach and athletic director Frank Broyles, Arkansas Democrat political cartoonist Jon Kennedy as Sen. J. William Fulbright.”

When Little Rock banker B. Finley Vinson was planning the skyscraper that’s now the Regions Bank building, he wanted a fine-dining venue on the top floor. That became Restaurant Jacques & Suzanne’s. Vinson also wanted a less formal restaurant on the first floor that also would serve as a happy hour watering hole for the downtown business crowd. Public relations executive Ron Robinson suggested to Vinson that the place be called The Farkleberry and that the walls be covered with political cartoons and caricatures of well-known Arkansans.

The Farkleberry operated from 1975-88. Years later, Jack Fleischauer, who headed Arkansas operations for Regions Bank, found the cartoons from The Farkleberry in boxes in a storage room. He thought about throwing them away but decided to ask Skip Rutherford, the founder of the Political Animals Club, if he wanted them. Rutherford, now dean of the Clinton School of Public Service, saved the cartoons. Some of them are on display at the Clinton School and the others are stored at the Butler Center for Arkansas Studies.

In that sense, the fruit of the farkleberry lives on.

 

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Spring at Couchwood

Thursday, April 20th, 2017

It’s time for lunch, but Elizabeth Dober is in no hurry to eat.

She’s pointing to framed black-and-white photos on the walls of the main lodge at Couchwood, the retreat built by Arkansas Power & Light Co. founder Harvey Couch on the shores of Lake Catherine.

Dober is particularly fascinated by a photo of Herbert Hoover that was taken in September 1927 when Couchwood was new.

The Great Flood of 1927 was ongoing, and Arkansas was one of the states hit the hardest. Hoover had run unsuccessfully for the Republican presidential nomination in 1920. President Warren G. Harding later appointed him commerce secretary, and President Calvin Coolidge asked him to lead the federal response to the 1927 flood.

“In 1927, the Mississippi reclaimed three-quarters of its flood plain, devastating Arkansas, Mississippi and Louisiana,” writes historian John Barry. “The statistics recounting the damage are staggering. At its widest, the river created a vast inland sea more than 75 miles across. One could travel the normally dry 70 miles from Vicksburg to Monroe, La., by boat. Not counting the flooding of parts of cities as large as Pittsburgh and Cincinnati, just along the lower river alone, the homes of more than 920,000 people were damaged. The nation’s population at the time was only 120 million.

“Roughly 1 percent — perhaps more — of the entire population of the country was flooded out of their homes; 330,000 were rescued by boat from rooftops, trees, levee crowns and second stories. Hundreds of thousands of homes and commercial buildings were destroyed. No one knows the death toll — the Red Cross claimed it was only 246 but the Weather Bureau said 500, while a professional disaster expert estimated the dead in Mississippi alone at 1,000.

“But the biggest impact of the flood was less on individual communities that were inundated than on America itself. Far more than any other natural disaster, the 1927 Mississippi River flood altered the course of American history. It did this in four chief ways: It revised environmental management, propelled a dark horse to the presidency, altered the political landscape for African-Americans and expanded the role of government in crises.”

Barry writes that the 1927 flood “made Herbert Hoover president of the United States. An enormously wealthy engineer, Hoover developed and owned mines and oilfields in America, Russia, China, Australia, South America and Africa. But for all his wealth, he had no political base. How could he? Hoover had left the United States after graduating Stanford and did not return until the United States entered World War I. He had not even voted in a presidential election until 1920. Nonetheless he wanted to be president. A logistical genius, he had organized American food production and distribution during World War I and fed much of Europe in the immediate aftermath of the war. John Maynard Keynes said he was ‘the only man who emerged from the ordeal (of the peace conference) with an enhanced reputation.’

“He became known as the Great Humanitarian. Using his own wealth, he sought the Republican presidential nomination in 1920. His campaign was mocked, and he received no support. But President Warren G. Harding named him secretary of commerce, and in 1927, President Calvin Coolidge put him in charge of the response to the flood.

“The flood was the biggest story of the year and it lasted for weeks, through several crests, the rescue of populations and recovery planning. Hoover and his staff worked diligently to exploit the coverage; no newspaper was too small. Hoover personally communicated with weekly papers from Arizona and Texas to Washington state, Nebraska and Indiana. In evaluating his strategy, the present-day political commentator James Carville concluded that ‘Hoover had a better press operation than any politician I know today.’ Routinely, the press hailed Hoover as a hero and a savior; a California paper proclaimed, ‘He is the ablest and most efficient American in public life. … In personal fitness for the presidency there is no other American, even remotely, in Mr. Hoover’s class.’

“Coverage like that prompted Hoover to confide to a friend, ‘I shall be the nominee, probably. It is practically inevitable.'”

Hoover indeed captured the presidency in 1928.

Those who are familiar with Arkansas history won’t be surprised to learn that Harvey Couch was among Hoover’s confidants.

Born in 1877 near the Arkansas-Louisiana border in the Columbia County community of Calhoun, Couch took a job at age 21 as a mail clerk for the St. Louis, Iron Mountain & Southern Railway and quickly moved up the ladder.

Writing for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture, Patricia Laster described Couch as the man who “helped bring Arkansas from an agricultural economy in the early 20th century to more of a balance between agriculture and industry. His persuasiveness with investors from New York and his ingenuity, initiative and energy had a positive effect on Arkansas’ national reputation among businessmen. He ultimately owned several railroad lines and a telephone company and was responsible for what became the state’s largest utility, AP&L.”

Laster wrote that Couch’s first job away from the family farm was “to fire the boiler of a local cotton gin’s gas steam engine and bring it up to the required pressure. He earned 50 cents a day. While waiting to hear about his application to the Railway Mail Service, he became a drugstore clerk. His hard work and honesty prompted his boss to assign him the additional task of collecting overdue accounts.

“At age 21, he was hired as a mail clerk on the St. Louis-Texarkana route of the St. Louis, Iron Mountain & Southern Railway and was soon transferred to head clerk on the St. Louis Southwestern Railway. At a water stop, Couch noticed a construction crew raising a pole — not for the telegraph line but as part of a long-distance telephone system. After questioning the linemen, he saw a chance to help bring phone service to places like Magnolia. He paid a colleague $50 to exchange routes so he could clerk the Magnolia-north Louisiana route. Enlisting his brother Pete as crew leader to move and set up poles and a postmaster in Louisiana to become a partner, Couch began the North Louisiana Telephone Co. The line expanded, and Couch bought his partner’s share of the business.

“Couch’s expanding telephone system took him to Athens, La., where he met Jessie Johnson. They married on Oct. 4, 1904. The couple had five children. In 1911, Couch sold NLTC, which had 1,500 miles of line and 50 exchanges in four states, to Southwestern Bell for more than $1 million. Too young to retire, he was determined to build another company. In 1914, at the age of 35, he bought from Jack Wilson the only electric transmission line in the state, which ran 22 miles between Malvern and Arkadelphia. The system ran only at night.

“Sixteen years later, bolstered by hydroelectric dams on the Ouachita River, the company that Couch named Arkansas Power & Light had 3,000 miles of line serving cities and towns in 63 of the state’s 75 counties as well as 3,000 farmers. The company, now called Entergy, serves 2.4 million customers in Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas.”

Couch went on to create Louisiana Power & Light Co. and Mississippi Power & Light Co. He built the country’s first modern gas-fueled power plant near Monroe, La.

On the Ouachita River, he built Remmel and Carpenter dams, forming Lake Hamilton and Lake Catherine (which was named after his only daughter).

His main home and business offices were in Pine Bluff. Laster wrote that the only luxury he allowed himself was Couchwood.

The famous humorist Will Rogers was among those who visited Couchwood. President Franklin D. Roosevelt dropped by in 1936 while he was in Arkansas to help the state celebrate its centennial.

The compound covers 170 acres and remains in the Couch family. Elizabeth Dober is the granddaughter of Harvey Couch. Her father was Harvey Jr., who went by Don. She lives in Little Rock and has helped manage Couchwood for the past couple of decades.

Dober’s mother was from a prominent old south Louisiana sugar-growing family, the Levert family. The Levert Cos., established in 1915, still own a planation mansion near St. Martinville, La., known as the St. John House. The house, constructed of Louisiana cypress and surrounded by giant live oak trees, was built about 1828 by a wealthy planter named Alexandre DeClouet. Jean Batiste Levert and Louis Bush of New Orleans acquired the plantation and the home in July 1885. In February 1887, Bush sold his interest to Levert. The plantation has been owned by the Levert interests since that date.

After graduating from Virginia Military Institute and the Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania, Don Couch went to work for a bank in New Orleans and met his wife in the Crescent City.

In a 2014 story in the Levert family newsletter, Dober said: “I sometimes do feel I am married to Couchwood. … I arrange for repairmen such as plumbers and electricians, but a caretaker nearby meets with them. … I pay all the bills, fill out tax forms and get the paperwork ready for the CPA. I really enjoy the work at Couchwood because I feel like I am helping to preserve it.”

When Arkansas Business devoted much of a 2013 issue to Entergy’s 100th birthday, Dober told the publication: “Electric lights, bridges and promoting Arkansas were among grandfather’s favorite things.”

Dober refers to her grandfather as Daddy Couch, though she doesn’t remember him. Couch died of heart disease in 1941 — two years before Dober was born — in a house named Little Pine Bluff at Couchwood. Following funeral services in the city of Pine Bluff, a special train took his body to Magnolia to be buried adjacent to his parents. Couch’s private train car — named Magnolia — is now on the Couchwood grounds.

Hoover was meeting with Couch in 1927 because Gov. John Martineau had appointed Couch as the flood relief director for Arkansas. The Great Flood of 1927 was followed by the drought of 1930-31. Couch was appointed state relief chairman for that event and worked in Washington to help Arkansas obtain more than $20 million in federal loans for farmers.

“Hoover appointed Couch to the seven-member board for the president’s newly formed Reconstruction Finance Corp., which operated from 1931-56,” Laster wrote. “The RFC was the president’s way of getting the government involved. The new program’s mission was to strengthen confidence, facilitate exports, protect and aid agriculture, make temporary advances to industries and stimulate employment. Couch was one of seven directors of the RFC, and he moved to Washington, D.C., for three years. He served as supervisor of the public works section, overseeing budgets and encouraging the building of water and sewage systems, bridges and electric lines. He and Jesse Jones were the only Hoover appointees to stay on after Roosevelt was elected.”

“Look at Hoover with that tie on,” Dober says while admiring the 1927 photo. “They say he would go fishing in a coat and tie. Daddy Couch offered to take him fishing when he was here, but it was a Sunday and Hoover said, ‘The Hoovers don’t fish on Sundays.'”

There also are framed photos in the main lodge at Couchwood of well-known figures who have visited the compound in the decades since Couch’s death, including former U.S. Sens. Dale Bumpers and David Pryor.

During the 1930s, Harvey Couch would host what he called the Annual Round-Up, bringing together business and government leaders from across the region. A framed program from the March 1938 event gives these directions: “When you come in the big gate, forget all your troubles. Be sure to sign the register. Couchwood is proud of its guests. Go to bed when you like and arise when you please. At meals, take as many helpings as you desire. If you don’t see what you want, ask for it. Stay as long as you like and return soon. Everything is off the record.”

The main lodge has eight rooms and can sleep more than 20 people. A second house named Calhoun was built soon afterward. Its claim to fame is that visitors can fish off the porch. Little Pine Bluff was the next to be constructed, and Remmelwood (Couch’s only daughter, Catherine, married Pratt Remmel) was built after that.

The other four Couch children were boys — Johnson Olin Couch, Don Couch, Kirke Couch and Bill Couch. Catherine Couch Remmel died in January 2006 at age 87, the last of her generation. A fifth generation of the Couch family now enjoys Couchwood with the largest crowds traditionally turning up for the Fourth of July.

When Harvey Couch was presiding over the compound, rumors would spread about the identities of important figures visiting Couchwood. Time magazine reported one year that two visitors had arrived in a plane that landed on Lake Catherine.

The main lodge was designed by John Parks Almand of Little Rock, who was part of the team that designed Little Rock Central High School. Following the school’s completion in 1927, the American Institute of Architects described it as “the most beautiful high school in America.” Almand also designed the Medical Arts Building in downtown Hot Springs, which was the tallest building in the state for almost 30 years after opening in 1930.

“Almand worked in a variety of architectural styles during his 50-year career, including Arts and Crafts, Art Deco, Colonial Revival, Tudor Revival, Gothic Revival and California Mission,” the Encyclopedia of Arkansas said of the architect. “A stickler for detail, Almand recommended the finest materials to his clients and required a high level of workmanship from builders. On more than one occasion, he told a contractor to tear out and replace work that he deemed inferior.”

At Couchwood, Almand used red cedar logs shipped in by train from Oregon.

Harvey Couch later hired sculptor Dionicio Rodriguez to design planters, outdoor seating and even a drink cooler disguised as a tree stump. Rodriguez, a Mexican native, is probably best known for his work on the Old Mill in North Little Rock. Developer Justin Matthews brought Rodriguez to Arkansas in 1932 to work in Matthews’ Lakewood housing development.

“Couchwood offers the best collection of his work in the domestic sculpture category,” said the Encyclopedia of Arkansas. “Helpers built concrete footings for his sculptures, and the underpinnings were made with reinforcing bars, rods, mesh screen wire and rubble, held together with a rough coat of concrete. Metal materials were bound together with wire, not welded. Working outdoors, the sculptor himself applied the surface coat of smooth concrete or ‘neat’ cement, a term for pure Portland cement. To imitate nature, varied textures were created using his hands, forks, spoons or handmade tools. Secretive about his methodology, the nomadic Rodriguez made no preliminary sketches or drawings and did not record the ingredients of the chemical washes used to tint his sculptures.”

Dober delights in showing off Couchwood and talking about “Daddy Couch.”

On display are Indian artifacts uncovered when Lake Catherine was constructed in the 1920s, a wall devoted to AP&L history and even the plaque presented on Harvey Couch Day in Pine Bluff in 1923.

Massachusetts may have the Kennedy compound on Cape Cod, but Arkansas has Couchwood on Lake Catherine.

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The wisdom of Solomon

Friday, April 14th, 2017

Arkansas lost one of its most important civic leaders last month when David Solomon died in Helena at age 100. He was among the last of the Delta Jews.

The first Jews arrived in that booming Mississippi River town in the 1840s. A Torah was borrowed from a congregation at Cincinnati in 1846 to use for the high holidays. In 1867, 65 people formed Congregation Beth El. Now, 150 years later, the era of Jews living and thriving in the lower Mississippi River Delta nears its conclusion.

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

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

Solomon received his bachelor’s degree from Washington University at St. Louis and his law degree from Harvard. He applied to be a tax lawyer at a large firm in Memphis. When he wasn’t chosen, he came home to Helena to practice law.

His wife, Miriam, was the daughter of Charles Rayman, who operated Helena Wholesale Co. The couple had been married 69 years at the time of Miriam’s death in 2011.

During the first half of the 20th century, the Delta was perhaps the greatest American melting pot outside a major city. There are few towns in Arkansas with as colorful a past as Helena. A historic marker was even placed there by the Mississippi Blues Commission to commemorate this Arkansas city’s place in the history of the blues. The marker reads in part: “Helena was home to a flourishing blues scene that inspired Sonny Boy Williamson and other legendary musicians from Mississippi, including Robert Johnson, Pinetop Perkins, Houston Stackhouse, James “Peck” Curtis and Honeyboy Edwards, to take up residence here in the 1930s and 1940s. They and many others performed at a famous juke joint called the Hole in the Wall. Williamson’s rise to fame began in Helena as the star of KFFA radio’s ‘King Biscuit Time.’ Sonny Boy Williamson was born and laid to rest in Mississippi, and lived in Chicago, East St. Louis, Milwaukee, Detroit and numerous other locales. But Helena was the town he came to regard as home.”

The Arkansas Delta is like many parts of rural America, a place that in some ways never made the transition from the agricultural to the industrial age, much less the technological era. Sharecroppers moved from the cotton fields of the South to the steel mills and automobile factories of the Upper Midwest. They deserted towns such as Helena for the promise of better jobs in cities such as Chicago, Cleveland and Detroit.

With the loss of thousands of sharecroppers across the region came a loss of business for Jewish merchants and professionals. It’s common during the holidays each December to see visitors in rural east Arkansas whose automobiles sport license plates from Illinois, Ohio, Michigan and Indiana. They’re the children and grandchildren of those who left the Delta when their services were no longer needed due to the mechanization of agriculture.

David Solomon witnessed that Delta history firsthand. When Temple Beth El closed in 2006 with fewer than 20 members remaining, David and Miriam Solomon began hosting Friday night services at their home. In December 2009, the Jewish news service JTA distributed an article about those services in which Ben Harris wrote: “The plight of Helena’s Jews is mirrored in scores of communities across the Bible Belt, where Jews first migrated in the early 19th century, generally as peddlers. Those who stuck around opened small businesses, which for a long time provided an ample livelihood.”

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

David Solomon’s death marked more than the loss of a legendary lawyer. We live in an increasingly urbanized state in which the majority of counties are losing population. The small-town lawyers who are leaders in their communities — often serving in the Arkansas Legislature or on prominent state boards (Solomon, for instance, served on the Arkansas Highway Commission) — are becoming harder to find.

I think back to 1985 when I was living in my hometown of Arkadelphia and received a call from H.W. “Bill” McMillan, who had practiced law there for decades and was among the top civic leaders in south Arkansas. He told me that he didn’t expect to live long, handed me a file and asked me to write his obituary in advance. I still consider his request to be one of the premier honors of my writing career. That’s because McMillan was a giant in my community. Four generations of McMillans practiced law in Arkadelphia, beginning with Bill McMillan’s grandfather, Henry, who started practicing before the Civil War and died in 1910 at age 80.

Like Bill McMillan in Arkadelphia, David Solomon was a giant in Helena. He practiced law from his office on Cherry Street until 2015. He was honored by the Arkansas Bar Foundation for 75 years of active practice.

When I speak to civic clubs in towns across Arkansas, I’m often struck by how much smaller the attendance is than it was two decades ago. At some of these clubs, most members are retired, preferring to talk about the past rather than the future.

Where are the Bill McMillans and the David Solomons of the future, the small-town lawyers who will make a difference in their communities and the state?

I hope they’re still out there.

___

All three of David and Miriam Solomon’s sons were highly successful.

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

Rayman Solomon was the dean of the Rutgers Law School in Camden, N.J., for 16 years.

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

At the service honoring David Solomon last month at Beth El, Rayman Solomon and longtime Little Rock attorney John P. Gill spoke.

Here are their remarks:

John P. Gill

It is a privilege and a great honor to stand in this place, which to me is still sacred. To stand under the Star of David in the glass dome above is a thrilling experience. Look up at that star that was so much a part of the lives of Miriam and David Solomon.

I arise to say that the legacy of David Solomon is alive. There is no death to greatness. As the rabbi said, a good name lives forever.

In the “Twelfth Night,” Shakespeare wrote: “Be not afraid of greatness; some are born great, some achieve greatness.” David achieved greatness by living a life suggested in an old Methodist hymn that says “no one can serve God and despise another.” I’m not sure David paid much attention to Methodist singing, but his life followed that principle.

Except for those who attended Vanderbilt and Rutgers, many people will say that Harvard is the finest law school in America. It has produced justices of the Supreme Court of the United States. It has produced White House counsel. It has produced great lawyers on Wall Street. And it has produced a brilliant and dedicated lawyer on Cherry Street. David Solomon brought Harvard Law to Cherry Street.

When Helena called for courage, Helena turned to Mr. Solomon. When Helena called for compassion in action, Helena turned to Mr. Solomon. When Helena called for trust, Helena turned to Mr. Solomon.

It is not a play on words to say that it was the wisdom of Solomon that made him so special. And not just in Helena. People beg the governor of Arkansas to sit on the Arkansas Highway Commission, and the governor of Arkansas begged David to serve on the commission. David never asked for that job. When the largest bank in the state almost went under, David was asked to go to Little Rock and help revive it. But David was dedicated to this community and always came back to Cherry Street, where he brought Harvard Law to businesses and the needy alike. With all of his accolades and honors, it was his legal work for clients who were too poor to pay him that impressed me the most. No one knows how many chickens and sacks of okra he took for fees.

Today’s lawyers take an oath before the Arkansas Supreme Court that was written long before David began to practice law on Cherry Street 75 years ago. But the oath sounds as though it was modeled after the life of David Solomon. Part of the oath says: “I will not reject, from any consideration personal to myself, the cause of the impoverished, the defenseless or the oppressed. I will endeavor always to advance the cause of justice and to defend and to keep inviolate the rights of all persons whose trust is conferred upon me as an attorney at law.”

Last Sunday at an African-American church in this community, it was announced that Mr. Solomon had died. One by one, they stood and said, “He helped me.”

Until the very last days of his practice — indeed on the day his office closed — there were client files for the impoverished, the defenseless and the oppressed. Those files were, and are today, a silent sentinel to the greatness of David Solomon.

Rayman Solomon

“Is Lawyer Solomon there?”

This was the question asked David, Lafe or me when we answered the phone at home during our childhood. The caller was a client or a client’s relative, and they were in distress and needed help. It didn’t matter whether it was dinnertime or bedtime, my father was always ready to counsel them. In thinking about how to describe my father’s life today, I could come up with no better description than his clients: Lawyer Solomon. I believe it captures his essential being and what he valued most.

My father was a lawyer’s lawyer who loved his profession. His love of the law began at Harvard Law School following his graduation from Washington University at St. Louis. He was a brilliant student who had finished high school at 16. He flourished at Harvard and enjoyed both the educational and social life in Boston. He returned home to practice in Helena in 1939. In an office on Cherry Street, he practiced law for 76 years, which appears to be an Arkansas record. His practice was interrupted only by his service in World War II. As a solo practitioner, he handled every type of case, both civil and criminal.

By any measure, my father had tremendous success as an attorney. One of the state’s top trial lawyers, he was invited to join the American College of Trial Lawyers. He was twice selected to serve as a special justice of the Arkansas Supreme Court when the justices all had to recuse themselves. He served in all offices of the Arkansas Bar Association except for president, and he turned down that honor.

There are many more honors and awards and successes I could mention, but what I would like to emphasize is that he was the embodiment of professionalism. That term has become synonymous with civility among lawyers, which he certainly was throughout his career. However, it means more. Professionalism requires mentoring of young lawyers, which he constantly did. It was his way of paying forward the training he received from the two generations of lawyers in practice when he entered the profession. Professionalism also requires public service and pro bono activities. My father did both of these without hesitation. For years he represented pro bono Helena’s hospital and then the Helena Hospital Foundation, which recognized his service when he retired two years ago by naming the Solomon Auditorium at its headquarters. He also served as a delegate to the 1969-70 Arkansas Constitutional Convention.

My father never sought political office. The only time I can remember overt political activity was when a racist ran for Supreme Court justice and my father led the east Arkansas campaign of his successful opponent. He served for 10 years on the Highway Commission, the last two of which he was the chairman. Anyone who knows Arkansas knows that is a political position, but David Pryor states in his autobiography that my father’s appointment was a political compromise. Gov. Pryor was able to appoint someone no one could object to and avoid a fight between two people who were campaigning for the position. However, he was no stranger to politicians. My mother used to love to tell the story of their invitation to the opening reception of the Holocaust Museum in Washington. At the reception, my mother wasn’t feeling well and after touring the room, my father said, “Let’s go. I don’t know anyone here.” Just as they started to leave, “Ruffles and Flourishes” played, the room divided and my parents were standing where the foreign leaders entered the room. The last person to enter was President Clinton. As he passed them, he said, “Hello, David. Hello, Miriam.” My mother said to my father: “At least if only one person here knows you, it’s the president of the United States.”

Let me turn to my father as a “Solomon.’ He was very proud of his family, and his family was proud of him. Until last Thursday there had been a Solomon living in Helena for almost 170 years, and my father and his sister, Hannah, were the second generation born here. My grandfather, David, was a farmer and merchant who had five brothers and two sisters. They shared in all things and took care of each other. As my Aunt Hannah and their father used to say, my father was “Mrs. Solomon’s only son” and he was, in fact, the only male of his generation. Like his father and uncles, he took care of all of the relatives. He managed the legal and financial affairs of his widowed aunts, his sister and all of his cousins.

In 1942, my father married Miriam Rayman. She had grown up down the street from him. They both attended Washington University, but they did not really date until my father was in the Army and my mother was working as an occupational therapist in Chicago. After his discharge from the service, my father thought about moving to Memphis to practice. But my mother was pregnant with my older brother, David, and all of their parents and the Solomon uncles wanted them back in Helena. So back they came.

My parents had a 69-year partnership in everything except law, but even there my mother was willing to let my father know what she thought he should do. Neither of my parents were conventional grandparents. My mother was the one who was emotionally probing. It was not that my father did not care or did not pay attention. Quite the contrary. He took great pride in all three of our lives and careers, and those of our wives — Nancy, Carol and Cam. And, of course, he loved hearing about the accomplishments of his grandchildren — Catherine, Hannah, Will, Claire and Jess. He welcomed their spouses into the family with open arms. Both of my parents were wonderful storytellers. They instilled in us the importance and the meaning of family through the stories of the Raymans and the Solomons, which they often told.

We are gathered here in this wonderful building with its magnificent dome with a Star of David at its center, which served as Temple Beth El from 1914-2006 when the remaining Helena Jews could no longer afford the upkeep. The Solomon family was one of the original organizers of the congregation in 1867. My father and mother were instrumental in leading the congregation over their adult lifetimes. My father served many years as president of the congregation and warden of the cemetery. As the Jewish community dwindled, my parents’ devotion to that community did not wane. They opened their house for services and organized holiday gatherings. My father was the last remaining lifelong resident of the Helena Jewish community.

My father also was concerned with the well-being of the entire community. He saw the problems of the Delta as the loss of economic opportunity in the area. Whether in his work as a director of First National Bank or in his volunteer service on various commissions and boards, he sought to bring industry and jobs to Helena and the region. One of his favorite stories concerned the time that a tugboat captain, Jim Walden, showed up at his office to inquire about using land on the river that our family owned. Jim asked my father how much the rent would be. My father told him that he should start his business and if it was successful they would talk about rent. In recognition of his assistance for many years, Helena Marine named its new tug the MV David Solomon. To honor my father’s tireless efforts on behalf of Helena, the community gave him an award dinner more than a decade ago. So many people have stopped David, Lafe and me over the past several days to say how much they will miss my father and then describe how he had helped them.

I would like to mention several characteristics of my father. I have noted that he was incredibly smart. But he also had the most disciplined mind I have ever encountered. At the same time that he had a major law practice, he managed a family cotton business, oversaw a family farm and was involved in banking and other civic projects. He had laser-like focus on whatever he had to do and always managed everything flawlessly. Of course, no description of my father would be complete without commenting on his bow ties. He explained that after having to wear long ties in the Army for three years, he vowed never to wear a long tie again. As David and Lafe can attest, among the hundreds of ties in his closet, there isn’t one long tie.

Finally, people have commented on my father’s wit and his not suffering fools. David, Nancy, Carol and I visited with him three weeks ago, and Lafe and Cam had been here a week before that. It was clear that he was slipping away and had good days and bad. The day after we arrived, he told stories and was thoroughly engaged. The next day, he imagined he was in a moving car. When we told him he was safely in his bed, he got agitated and told us to stop the car. I then decided to go with it and told him I was trying but could not do it. He looked up and said, “I’ve raised three idiot sons. They don’t know how to stop a car.” Clearly, he was not that delusional.

Later that day he said something to Carol and Nancy, and Nancy said: “David, you can see things that others can’t.” He replied with a grin, “That has been true all my life.”

David and Nancy, Lafe and Cam, Carol and I and the grandchildren would like to thank a wonderful group of caregivers who have taken care of my father the past two years. Lelia Johnson, Loyce Corbitt, Peggy Henson, Gretchen Ferebee, Jason Odle and Tommy Gause have provided him care, entertainment and love that made his last years so comfortable.

Several years ago, I saw a son introduce his attorney father for an award. The son ended by declaring, “I can only say that if I ever needed a lawyer, I would call my father.” I would echo that but also say that I could not imagine having a more wonderful father

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Runyonesque track characters

Friday, March 31st, 2017

Steven Crist, who retired last year as editor of the Daily Racing Form, is the son of the late film critic Judith Crist. He studied English at Harvard, joined the staff of the undergraduate humor publication the Harvard Lampoon and fell in love with racing the summer following his junior year.

Several years ago in a story in his alma mater’s alumni magazine, Crist talked about how he went with a friend to a dog track near Boston known as Wonderland. He called it a “charming little place with a festive feeling — the animals, lots of people. … I felt right at home the first night.”

Late that summer, Crist discovered thoroughbred racing at Suffolk Downs and spent every day until the fall either at Wonderland or Suffolk.

I love Crist’s explanation of why he spent his career writing about thoroughbreds and the people who inhabit the tracks where they run: “The stats and numbers stuff is there, plus the animals, the gambling and the weird subculture. The racetrack is … well, like people who ran away and joined the circus.”

I think about that racetrack subculture as the Racing Festival of the South approaches at Oaklawn Park in Hot Springs.

As a college student, I learned to appreciate thoroughbred racing as much as Crist, though our backgrounds are vastly different. He was raised on the Upper West Side of Manhattan and attended Harvard. I was raised along the Ouachita River in Arkadelphia and attended Ouachita Baptist University. But each January through April, I had racing at Oaklawn.

I was the sports editor of Arkadelphia’s Daily Siftings Herald during my college years, and that allowed me access to Oaklawn’s press box and the fascinating characters who inhabited it.

The elevator ride to the press box was narrated by Alex Blattner, who grew up in Chicago, spent a career working for Illinois Bell Telephone Co. and then retired to Hot Springs Village. During the race meet, Blattner worked as an elevator operator and gave memorable descriptions of each floor.

In the press box, I was greeted daily by the “hi ya” of Daily Racing Form correspondent Don Grisham, a Hot Springs native who had watched races through a fence as a child. Grisham, who died in 2014 at age 84, joined the Racing Form in the late 1950s and spent almost 35 years there. He never tired of reminding me that he too had been a Daily Siftings Herald sports editor when he was a student at what’s now Henderson State University.

There were other interesting folks in that press box, some of whom just went by their nicknames. There were the Muldoon brothers, the Beer Man and a couple of silent characters whose names I never knew.

I finished college in December 1981 and went to work in the sports department of the Arkansas Democrat.

Jeff Krupsaw, who has long been the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette’s deputy sports editor, was covering racing in those days. One of my first assignments was to help Krupsaw put together a special tabloid that would run in advance of the race meet. We spent a glorious week driving to Hot Springs prior to daylight each day, conducting interviews during morning workouts and then having big breakfasts at the track kitchen before returning to Little Rock to write.

Just before the 1982 race meet began, Krupsaw accepted a job with the New Orleans Times-Picayune. Wally Hall, who was early in his tenure as Democrat sports editor, called me in and informed me that I would be the newspaper’s chief Oaklawn writer since I had covered the track on an almost daily basis during my college years.

I couldn’t have been happier.

The newspaper war with the Arkansas Gazette had heated up by 1982, and because there was so much space in the Democrat sports section, I was encouraged to produce feature stories on things that interested me around the track. I was, of course, also writing about the races, but I didn’t have the knowledge and contacts that the Gazette’s Randy Moss had. So I also wrote about people such as Blattner the elevator operator, the track’s veteran shoeshine man, the ladies who worked at the oyster bar and more.

No place harbors more colorful characters than a thoroughbred track.

No place.

I was convinced that I had found a job I would hold onto for many years.

Oaklawn is a particularly special place, a family-owned track in an era of corporate ownership.

“Even before the Civil War, the former pasture where Oaklawn now stands in Hot Springs was home to impromptu races between local farm boys riding their fastest ponies,” Michael Hodge writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. “Today the track is Arkansas’ only thoroughbred horse racing venue and the lone remaining gambling center in a city once known as much for its casinos as for its famous thermal baths. The popularity of Sportsman’s Park, built on the southeastern edge of Hot Springs in the early 1890s, sparked an interest in developing the sport of thoroughbred horse racing in the area. Following the 1903 repeal of anti-gambling laws, Essex Park was built in 1904.

“Charles Dugan, Dan Stuart and John Condon — owners of the Southern Club — decided to build a racetrack on a site closer to downtown. In 1904, they formed the Oaklawn Jockey Club and began construction shortly afterward. The name Oaklawn came from the rural community in which the track would be built, which in turn took its name from what Peter LaPatourel, an early settler to the area, called his home, around which a large stand of ancient oaks stood.

“Oaklawn Park opened on Feb. 15, 1905, and prevailed as the lone remaining horse racing venue by 1907. The original venue reportedly cost $500,000 and could seat 1,500 spectators. It included innovations such as a glass-enclosed grandstand and steam heat, one of the first racetracks in the country with either.”

The Southern Club that was owned by Dugan, Stuart and Condon had its own intriguing history. It was established in 1893 and by the 1930s was known as the place where the visiting gangsters would gamble in the evening. The building, which now houses Josephine Tussaud’s Wax Museum, was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1985.

“At the end of the 19th century, Hot Springs experienced tremendous growth as a health resort and spa,” Eric Segovis writes in the Encyclopedia of Arkansas. “One of the buildings constructed during this period was the private club of Charles Dugan and Dan Stuart, the Southern Club. As early as 1910, the Southern Club ranked among the Spa City’s most popular gambling houses, along with the Indiana and the Arkansas clubs. The Southern Club catered to a diverse clientele of locals and tourists during Host Springs’ heyday as a health resort and gambling center. Among other notable customers, gangster boss Al Capone frequented the Southern Club during the 1920s and 1930s. He became a frequent poker player at the club and always sat at an elevated table, where he commanded a clear view of the entire room. Even his preferred suite at the Arlington Hotel, No. 442, overlooked the club.

“The building’s ownership changed many times. A new owner usually meant changes for the Southern Club’s appearance. In 1927, William Stokley Jackson purchased the building from the widow of the original owner. He expanded it and encased the front of the building in dark Pittsburgh glass that remains visible. Apart from being decorative, this glass served to help Jacobs conceal the gambling that went on within the club. Jacobs was known as the czar of Hot Springs gambling for many years due to his interest in six clubs in Hot Springs — the Kentucky, Ohio, Ozark, White Front, Southern and Belvedere clubs. In the 1940s, the first floor was extensively renovated as Jacobs added a marble staircase. In the 1950s, the city’s first escalator was installed and has been in continuous operation since that time.”

While business at the Southern Club grew, things weren’t going so well further south down Central Avenue. Oaklawn Park ceased racing following the 1907 meet.

Hodge writes: “Anti-gambling sentiments, driven by former Essex Park owner and former state legislator William McGuigan, rose in the form of a bill titled ‘an act to prevent betting in any manner in this state on any horse race.’ The bill was approved on Feb. 27, 1907, and necessitated the closing of Oaklawn at the end of the 1907 season and for a decade after that. The infield of the track continued to be used for other purposes and was the site of the Arkansas State Fair from 1906-14, including a 1910 fair that was attended by former President Theodore Roosevelt.

“By 1914, Oaklawn was owned by Louis A. Cella and his brother Charles, both of St. Louis. The track has remained in the Cella family since then. In 1915, a bill to legalize horse racing and pari-mutuel betting … had passed both houses of the Legislature but was vetoed by Gov. George Washington Hays. The veto was challenged in the courts by local citizens but was eventually affirmed by the Arkansas Supreme Court.

“The aftermath of fires in 1913 caused a downturn in tourism in Hot Springs, fueled by rumors that the city could not accommodate guests as a result of the damage. The persistence of these rumors inspired city leaders to find a way to draw tourists back to the city. In 1916, the Hot Springs Men’s Business League reopened Oaklawn Park by setting a short racing schedule beginning on March 11 under the guise of a nonprofit civic enterprise. Pari-mutuel betting was not allowed, but this did not preclude any unofficial wagering. This 30-day season was a success and led to the reopening of both Oaklawn Park and Essex Park the following year with plans for the two tracks to split a full season. Unfortunately, the newly refurbished Essex Park burned the day after its grand reopening in 1917, thus moving the entire season to Oaklawn and marking the permanent end of racing at Essex.

“Pending litigation and the Men’s Business League sponsorship, along with the banning of pari-mutuel betting, had allowed Oaklawn Park to have races until 1919 when Circuit Judge Scott Wood put forth the opinion that continuing to hold the races was illegal, and the track was again closed. In 1929, another bill made it through both the Arkansas House and Senate, only to be vetoed, this time by Gov. Harvey Parnell.

“Attempts to pass legislation to permit pari-mutuel betting on horse races in 1931 and 1933 failed, but in 1934 a group of prominent Hot Springs citizens and businessmen, including Mayor Leo P. McLaughlin, formed the Business Men’s Racing Association and announced that races would be held in March of that year. The move was inspired by growing interest in the sport of thoroughbred racing and the need to draw more visitors to the city. On March 1, 1934, Oaklawn reopened to a crowd of 8,000 spectators without the consent of the Legislature. Future legal ambiguity was avoided in 1935 with the passage of a bill to permit horse racing with pari-mutuel wagering. This time the bill was signed into law by Gov. Junius Futrell.”

The first Arkansas Derby was held in 1936 with a purse of $5,000.

In 1961, what had been a 30-day season was increased to 43 days.

By the early 1980s, the track was hosting races more than 60 days a year.

A couple of days after I had covered the 1982 Arkansas Derby for the Arkansas Democrat, Wally Hall called me into his office to inform me that the Democrat had lured Randy Moss away from the Gazette. It was the first high-profile Gazette defection of the newspaper war.

Moss and I were born the same year. He grew up in Hot Springs, and I grew up about 35 miles down Arkansas Highway 7, though we didn’t get to know each other until I began covering Oaklawn in college. Moss’ father, Jim, was a pharmacist for 18 years at the downtown Walgreens in Hot Springs before spending 32 years with the Arkansas Department of Health as an investigator. Famed thoroughbred trainer Bob Holthus was a neighbor of the Moss family, and Grisham was a family friend. Holthus would sneak Moss into the track, and by age 13, Moss was helping Grisham make picks for the Gazette.

“That sort of morphed into where I was actually doing the picking for the morning line under Don’s name when I was in the 11th and 12th grade and then in college at the University of Arkansas,” Moss explained in an interview for the Pryor Center’s Arkansas Democrat oral history project. “I kept doing the morning line for the Gazette with Don during that time in college. We had sort of an elaborate system devised. Don’s secretary would call me in the morning for the picks, and they would mail me copies of the Racing Form. I did that for two years in Fayetteville.”

After a semester of pharmacy school in Little Rock, Moss decided he would be bored with the work. He had gotten to know Gazette sports editor Orville Henry, and Henry offered him a job in 1979. Moss dropped out of pharmacy school, much to the chagrin of his father, to write sports for the Gazette. He moved to the Democrat three years later, went to the Dallas Morning News in 1989 and is now a lead analyst for NBC Sports coverage of the Triple Crown, the Breeders’ Cup and other top races.

Damon Runyon, who died in 1946 at age 66, was a well-known newspaperman and writer of short stories. He often wrote about racetrack figures with nicknames like Harry the Horse and Hot Horse Herbie. The term “Runyonesque character” has, in fact, become a part of the American lexicon.

I’ve been fortunate to know some Runyonesque characters at Oaklawn through the years.

May their tribe increase.

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Lacewell: A bug all his life

Friday, October 7th, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I jumped at the opportunity.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lacewell remembers the 1966 season at Oklahoma fondly.

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

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

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

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

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

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