Archive for the ‘Favorite Arkansans’ Category

Bumpers: A senator remembered

Wednesday, January 6th, 2016

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

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

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

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

He would pace.

He would wave his arms.

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

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

I was taking notes.

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

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

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

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

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

Arkansas Democrat Washington bureau,” I answered.

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

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

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

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

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

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

I had to make a decision.

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

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

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

I never wrote the story that day.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Everything changed on a Friday night that spring.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here’s how the conversation went:

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

“No, he left about an hour ago.”

“Do you know where he went?”

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

“Do you know when he will return?”

“No, he didn’t say.”

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

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

No answer.

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

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

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

“No, he hasn’t.”

“Do you have any idea when he might?”

“No, I don’t.”

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

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

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

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

If only he had known the full story.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We’ll never see another one quite like him.

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Red: Born to coach

Tuesday, January 5th, 2016

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

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

Barry Switzer was a product of Crossett.

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

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

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

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

I could go on and on.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Parker always felt he was betrayed by Pell.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hayes was dismissed the next day.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Parker accepted.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He was born to be a coach.

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

 

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The Buddy Benson legacy

Friday, September 11th, 2015

We will honor the legacy of the late Buddy Benson in Arkadelphia on Saturday night shortly before the Tigers of Ouachita Baptist University take on Southeastern Oklahoma.

It’s entirely fitting that Ouachita officials chose this game to change the name of A.U. Williams Field to Benson-Williams Field. That’s because it was against Southeastern Oklahoma that Buddy Benson got his first victory as a college head coach in 1965. And it was against Southeastern Oklahoma that he achieved his 100th victory.

Benson’s 162-140-8 record in 31 seasons as the head coach at Ouachita is remarkable when one considers how poor the facilities were in those years and how little money he had to spend on his program. Benson rarely had more than two or three full-time assistant coaches. Most high school coaching staffs in the state were larger than what Benson had to work with at Ouachita.

Still, he produced 16 all-America and more than 200 all-conference players. Almost all of his players graduated, moving on to success in business, medicine, law, education and other professions.

Dozens of them will be at the stadium Saturday night to see him honored.

I wrote a lot of what follows after the coach’s death in April 2011, but it’s worth repeating.

Buddy Benson’s recruiting strategy was based on quality rather than quantity, not only physical quality but also mental and moral excellence. His players knew they were expected to do well in class and were expected to graduate in four years.

Sitting in the den of his Arkadelphia home one day, I asked him why he had stayed at Ouachita for decades despite the lack of funding and the crumbling facilities.

He answered: “There’s just something special about this school. You can see it in the students and feel it when you walk around the campus. We have a high class of individuals going to school here. If a kid can stick it out with us for four years, he will end up being a pretty high-class person himself.”

Former Ouachita President Dan Grant called Benson “a dream coach for a small private university. I taught for 22 years at Vanderbilt, and the chancellor would have given his right arm to have a coach with Benson’s record of accomplishments.”

Former Ouachita President Ben Elrod said: “I never thought of Buddy Benson working for me or, for that matter, for Ouachita in the years that I was president. He had his own inner compass, which he consulted for his sense of direction as a coach and as a man. The results verified the accuracy of the compass in the quality of his life. We were friends who respected each other.”

I was raised just down the street from the Ouachita stadium and practice field. From the time I was old enough to walk, fall afternoons were spent watching my beloved Tigers practice.

I was in awe of him.

Here’s how Arkansas Democrat sports editor Fred Morrow put it in a column after the Tigers won a share of the Arkansas Intercollegiate Conference championship in 1975: “His athletes are going to go to class. They’re not going to abuse (or even get caught using) tobacco or alcohol, and they’re going to keep their hair nice and neat, and they’re going to say yes sir and no sir. Oh, they’re also going to receive degrees.”

Benson was fond of saying, “I’m not running a popularity contest.”

Coming out of De Queen High School, Benson was among the most highly recruited running backs in the country. He signed with the University of Oklahoma. Coach Bud Wilkinson’s teams won 47 consecutive games between 1953 and 1957. But Buddy Benson missed his home state and decided to transfer to the University of Arkansas, where he helped lead the Razorbacks to a share of the 1954 Southwest Conference championship, an 8-3 record and a berth in the Cotton Bowl against Georgia Tech.

It was Benson who threw the 66-yard touchdown pass to Preston Carpenter at Little Rock’s War Memorial Stadium to lead the Razorbacks to a 6-0 victory over nationally ranked Ole Miss. The late Orville Henry, the longtime sports editor of the Arkansas Gazette, later would describe what was known as the Powder River Play as the school’s most famous play because it put the Arkansas program on the map and gave the Razorbacks a statewide following.

Following his college graduation in the spring of 1956, Benson was offered a professional contract with the Pittsburgh Steelers. He turned down that offer (NFL rookies made very little back in those days) to try his hand at coaching high school football.

Benson took a job at Lewisville in far south Arkansas, and his first team went 10-1. His second team was 7-1-2, and Benson was being listed as one of the hottest young coaches in the state. He needed to provide for his family, though, and coaching high school sports in Arkansas wasn’t a way to make a good living in the 1950s. He decided to sell automobiles for his father-in-law.

He told the sports editor of the Texarkana newspaper: “I was getting a better deal going into the automobile business. It’s just one of those things. I had the opportunity to go, and I couldn’t pass it up. As much as I like it here, I have to make a living for my family.”

The sports editor Benson was talking to was Wick Temple, who would go on to become a top executive in New York for The Associated Press.

Temple wrote in his column back then: “His was the model small school coaching situation. He produced fine athletes and a fine athletic program. He had a good record and no difficulties with anyone, much less the school board. But he quit. He left what had taken him 10 years of playing and coaching to achieve.”

He poured his heart into being the best car salesman in the South, but he wasn’t happy.

In the summer of 1961, Benson showed up at the annual coaching clinic in Little Rock to look for a job. He wanted to find his way back into coaching. A friend told him that Ouachita’s head coach, Rab Rodgers, needed an assistant. It didn’t pay much, but Benson didn’t care. He found Rodgers and was offered the job. Benson moved to Arkadelphia that summer and never left.

Rodgers decided to get out of coaching following the 1964 season and devote his time to being Ouachita’s full-time athletic director. Benson was promoted to head coach, but it was a risky proposition. Few people believed that Ouachita, a Southern gridiron power in the early 1900s, could win again in football. Benson’s friends told him that he had ruined his career by taking on an impossible task.

The school’s president, Dr. Ralph Phelps, had admitted in a speech to the Ouachita student body a few years earlier that “Ouachita, after having been at the pinnacle of athletic glory, has sunk about as low as a school can go without dropping competition altogether.”

In fact, Ouachita had experienced just two winning seasons the previous 16 years.

Having that context helps you understand how amazing it was that Benson didn’t have a single losing season in his first 12 years as head coach.

He worked his magic quickly. By his second year, the Tigers had captured a share of the AIC championship. Benson did it with players who were a reflection of their leader. They wore suits on road trips, they maintained a clean-cut appearance at all times and they played the game cleanly.

To his face, of course, his players only referred to him as “Coach Benson.”

When they were talking about him, though, they called him The Man.

The Man turned boys into men. That’s why so many of them will be in Arkadelphia on Saturday. They had a strong loyalty to this tough taskmaster who would accept nothing less than their best.

“Suck it up,” he would tell them.

He would remind them of the “difference between pain and injury.”

He would walk up and down the practice field during August two-a-days and chant: “It’s hard, but it’s fair. You had a good home, you should have stayed there.”

The most famous of Buddy Benson’s players, Cliff Harris, said his college coach “taught us to achieve at levels we didn’t believe were possible. At critical moments in my life, I’ve thought of Coach Benson and the things he taught me. It was his influence that allowed me to step it up a notch at those important times.”

Another former player, Jim Crane, said: “One of the proudest accomplishments in my life is to have played four years for Coach Benson. He was a constant in my life. I could always count on him to be there, and he always took care of his boys. He was The Man and my friend. I am a better man for his presence in my life. I loved him as my second father.”

Speaking of second fathers, I wrote this on the day Buddy Benson died, less than two months after I had lost the other major influence in my life, my father: “On the night my father died — as I waited at the Little Rock nursing home for the funeral home personnel to arrive from Arkadelphia and pick up his body — the first call I received on my cell phone was from Coach Benson.

“‘Are you all right?’ he asked me ‘Do you need me to come up there?’

“‘No sir,’ I replied. ‘I’ll be OK.’

“You see, he had taught me long ago to ‘suck it up’ in tough times. I have no doubt, though, that he would have been in the car headed to Little Rock within minutes had I said I needed him.”

Just as he was there for his former players, he was always there for me.

That’s why there’s nowhere I rather be Saturday night than the newly named Benson-Williams Field.

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Ben Elrod: Part 4

Tuesday, June 30th, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The shock waves were felt in neighboring Arkansas.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Ben Elrod: Part 3

Monday, June 29th, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Elrod responded bluntly: “No.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Then, Ouachita called once more.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Ben Elrod: Part 2

Friday, June 26th, 2015

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

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

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

Life as a student in Arkadelphia centered on the campus.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Ben Elrod: Son of south Arkansas

Thursday, June 25th, 2015

I usually have far too many projects on my plate.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Elrod’s family had roots deep in south Arkansas.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Albert Pike and the Sam Peck

Wednesday, June 10th, 2015

It was 1929, the year the Great Depression began, when the Albert Pike Hotel opened in downtown Little Rock.

As it turned out, that wasn’t the best time to be opening a hotel, but the Albert Pike would reign as one of the state’s best-known hotels for decades. In 1971, Little Rock’s Second Baptist Church bought the hotel for $740,000 and transformed it into a residence hotel. It was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1978. Now in private hands, it remains a residential facility for those ages 55 and older.

The block on which the hotel was built once had been occupied by a house constructed in 1827 for Robert Crittenden, the secretary of the Arkansas Territory. The Crittenden House was among the first brick residences in Little Rock. Facing financial problems, Crittenden attempted to trade the house for 10 sections of undeveloped land, hoping the brick home would become the site of the territorial capitol. Foreclosure followed Crittenden’s death in 1834, and the house was sold to Judge Benjamin Johnson, whose heirs later sold it to Dr. E.V. Dewell.

Dewell, in turn, sold the house to Gov. James P. Eagle, and it was the official governor’s residence from 1889-93. The Crittenden House was razed in 1920.

The 175-room Albert Pike was constructed at a cost of almost $1 million. The hotel was built in the Spanish Revival style, which was popular in California. It featured tiled roofs, exposed beams, decorative tile, iron work and stained-glass windows. The building is Little Rock’s only remaining major example of Spanish Revival architecture.

At the time the Farrell Hotel Co. opened it, the Albert Pike was considered to be among the finest hotels in the South. Architect Eugene John Stern designed two main wings of eight stories each that extended toward Scott Street and were connected across the back by a 10-story section. Above the entries were terra-cotta medallions with heraldic shields and the initials “AP.”

The two-story main lobby was overlooked by a mezzanine that featured a custom-made Hazelton Brothers grand piano designed to match the building’s interior features. Hazelton Brothers Piano Co., established in 1840 by brothers Henry and Fredrick Hazelton in New York City, was one of the premier piano manufacturers of the period.

The owners decided to name the hotel after Albert Pike, a prominent lawyer who had died in 1891. Pike, a central figure in the development of Freemasonry in the state, was a poet, a writer and a Confederate commander in the Indian Territory during the Civil War.

In 1976, the residence hotel received a $2.4 million loan from the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development for infrastructure improvements. The building was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in November 1978. In late 1985, it was purchased by a privately held corporation based in Jonesboro. The new owners continued upgrades to the interior, including restoration of what’s known as the North Lounge in 1994.

In May 2013, BSR Trust of Little Rock and Montgomery, Ala., completed the purchase of the 130-unit apartment building. Empire Corp. of Knoxville, Tenn., was hired to perform additional renovations.

The Arkansas Historic Preservation Program notes: “The main significance of the Albert Pike Hotel lies not in the site on which it stands nor in the man for whom it was named; rather the real significance lies in its vivid reflections of a bygone time and an architecture appropriate for that time. The Albert Pike was built in the year of the great crash, but as near as the crash and Great Depression were, the time was still the Roaring Twenties when the hotel was built. It was still a time of spending, speculation and naïve economic optimism. The lavishness of the hotel’s architecture is a kind of social art reflecting that time of high living so soon to end.”

By the time the Albert Pike was built in 1929, the Hotel Frederica had been going strong for more than a decade. Businessman Fred Allsopp chose the corner of Capitol Avenue and Gaines Street in downtown Little Rock to construct a five-story building in 1913 with one bathroom on each floor. The rates were $2 per night for a room, $20 per month and 50 cents for meals.

Allsopp had been born in 1867 in England (the country, not the town in Lonoke County). His family moved to Arkansas — Prescott to be exact — when he was 12. He began selling newspapers and by age 16 was setting type for the Nevada County Picayune. He applied for a job at the Arkansas Gazette in Little Rock when he was just 17 and was hired. Allsopp started work in the mailroom but was ambitious and quickly moved up the ladder. After learning shorthand and typing, he was transferred to the business office as a stenographer and subscription clerk. Allsopp would write letters, keep files in order and take dictation. He later moved to the newsroom. After several bad experiences as a reporter, he returned to the business department.

James Newton Smithee became the majority owner of the Gazette in May 1896 and appointed Allsopp as the newspaper’s secretary and assistant business manager. Allsopp moved up to business manager and was asked to stay on when a new group of owners came along in 1899. Judge Carrick Heiskell of Memphis bought the newspaper in 1902 along with sons John and Fred. Allsopp became a minor stockholder, though the Heiskell family later would buy back his shares.

“Allsopp developed a reputation for his penny-pinching ways,” Dennis Schick wrote for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. “He insisted on keeping advertisements on the front page long after that went out of style. He dragged his feet on virtually every new proposal, from daily and color comics to going to a seven-day publication. But in 1906, the newspaper added a Monday edition, becoming a seven-day-a-week publication, and the newspaper added color comics in 1908, a first in the state.

“A lifelong lover of books, Allsopp recognized that he had a book-publishing opportunity within easy grasp with his newspaper’s printing department and bindery. In addition to publishing books, he collected them and opened a bookstore, Allsopp & Chapple, the leading bookstore in Little Rock.”

Allsopp also wrote five books.

In 1935, Sam and Henrietta Peck bought the Hotel Frederica and immediately began to make changes. Bathrooms were added, as was a sixth floor of suites. The Pecks lived on the fifth floor, and the hotel’s name was changed to the Sam Peck Hotel.

In 1938, the Pecks hired architect Edward Durrell Stone to design an art deco annex. Stone, who had been born at Fayetteville in 1902, would go on to become one of the most famous architects of the 20th century.

“The youngest of three children, Stone attended Fayetteville’s public schools but was not a serious student,” Robert Skolmen wrote for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. “His mother encouraged his talents for drawing and building things and allowed him to have a home carpentry shop. At age 14, he won first prize in the countywide birdhouse competition, the judges of which included an architect and the president of the University of Arkansas.”

Stone attended the University of Arkansas from 1920-23 and then moved to Boston, where his brother was an architect. Stone was hired as a draftsman by Henry Shepley, one of the city’s leading architects. Stone later attended the Harvard Architectural School and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, though he never graduated. He headed to Europe for two years in 1927. When Stone returned to the United States, he settled in New York, working on projects such as the Museum of Modern Art and the Goodyear House. He was the chief of the planning and design section of the U.S. Army Air Forces in World War II.

Stone returned to Arkansas after the war, designing buildings such as the University Hospital in Little Rock and the Sigma Nu house on the University of Arkansas campus in Fayetteville. Childhood friend J. William Fulbright even asked him to design a line of furniture, which was manufactured by Fulbright Industries of Fayetteville in the 1950s.

Stone would go on to design such well-known structures as the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, the General Motors building in New York City, the National Geographic Society headquarters in Washington, the El Panama Hotel in Panama City, Panama, and the Stanford University Medical Center in Palo Alto, Calif.

When Winthrop Rockefeller fled New York in 1953 for Arkansas, the Sam Peck Hotel was the first place he called home. Rockefeller, who was among the world’s richest men, was in a sense a refugee from a highly publicized divorce and the constant scrutiny that anyone with the name Rockefeller was forced to live under in Manhattan. He was a far different man than his brothers. He had withdrawn from Yale University after three years and gone to the oil fields of Texas to serve as an apprentice roughneck. Rockefeller later would tell friends that it was one of the happiest periods of his life.

In 1937, at age 25, the man who later would become known in our state simply as WR returned to New York and went to work for the family’s Socony-Vacuum oil company. He didn’t like it. Another happy period would be Rockefeller’s Army career during World War II. He had enlisted as a private more than 10 months before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. By the end of the war, Rockefeller was a lieutenant colonel who had seen action at Guam and Okinawa.

“Rockefeller’s years after World War II were not happy ones,” Arkansas historian Tom Dillard wrote for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. “Still working at Socony-Vacuum, he chaffed at the restrictive lifestyle expected of him and his siblings. A heavy drinker known for his playboy lifestyle, Rockefeller often frequented chic cafes late at night with a movie star on his arm. He abruptly married an attractive blonde divorcee named Barbara ‘Bobo’ Sears on Valentine’s Day in 1948. Soon they were the parents of a son, Winthrop Paul Rockefeller, but the marriage dissolved within a year.”

So he fled to Arkansas and the Sam Peck at the invitation of an old Army friend who was from Arkansas, Frank Newell. His arrival date was June 9, 1953. Within a year, Rockefeller had purchased a large tract of land atop Petit Jean Mountain and set out to create a model ranch. Ultimately, he would change an entire state.

The third and final section of the Sam Peck Hotel was built in 1960. The 49-room addition was designed in the fashion of the motor inns of the era and was intended to capture some of the business that had been lost to the motels being built on the roads leading in and out of Little Rock. Downtown Little Rock was about to begin a long, slow decline, and the Sam Peck declined with it.

The original five-story hotel was renovated in 1984, and the hotel reopened as the Legacy. A number of owners would be involved during the years that followed, and the hotel closed for a time in 1996. Another group of owners performed renovations in 2003. They enclosed the exterior corridor of the motor inn portion and connected it to the original hotel.

I was there with Gov. Mike Huckabee on that June day in 2003 when Lt. Gov. Winthrop Paul Rockefeller re-enacted his father checking into the hotel on the 50th anniversary of that important date in Arkansas history. The lieutenant governor even used the suitcase that his father had carried on that day.

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The preservationists

Wednesday, January 21st, 2015

Earlier this month, people from across the state gathered in Little Rock as the Historic Preservation Alliance of Arkansas presented its annual Arkansas Preservation Awards.

These are my kind of people: Architects, academicians, lawyers, you name it. What they have in common is a love for this state, an appreciation of its history and a determination to preserve those things that have made us who we are as Arkansans.

For decades, Arkansas did a poor job of preserving its past. There’s no need to pretend otherwise.

When you’re one of the poorest states in the country, historic preservation becomes a luxury rather than a necessity.

During the past couple of decades, as the state has become wealthier, Arkansans have done a better job protecting and celebrating their colorful heritage.

The highlight of the awards ceremony each year is the presentation of the Parker Westbrook Award for Lifetime Achievement, named after the alliance’s founding president. No one loves Arkansas and its history more than Parker Westbrook, who has devoted much of his life to preserving the community of Washington in Hempstead County.

Past winners of the award include such well-known Arkansas figures as Richard Mason, David Pryor, Jane Ross, Dorothy Moore and her son Robert Moore Jr., Charles and Becky Witsell, Theodosia Murphy Nolan, Bobby Roberts and Bill Worthen.

This year’s honoree was my friend Ruth Hawkins of Arkansas State University, who has done more to preserve important sites in the Arkansas Delta than anyone I know.

Here’s how the event’s program described Ruth: “For Dr. Ruth A. Hawkins, historic sites are the key to the future of the Arkansas Delta. The list of historic landmarks and preservation projects in which Ruth has played a significant role in the Arkansas Delta is unparalleled.

“Ruth knows that distinctive history draws people and dollars. Years ago she began working to protect and preserve the natural beauty of the east Arkansas landscape through the National Scenic Byways program. Under the federal byways designation received in 1998, Crowley’s Ridge Parkway became eligible for interpretive markers and other improvements. A segment of the Great River Road in Arkansas was also designated a National Scenic Byway in 2002 through Ruth’s efforts.

“ASU’s Arkansas Heritage Sites program was developed beginning in 1999. Under Ruth’s leadership, the program has grown to encompass seven historic sites that illustrate many facets of Arkansas’s rich history and culture, including the Hemingway-Pfeiffer House in Piggott, the Southern Tenant Farmers Museum in Tyronza, the Arkansas State University Museum and the historic V.C. Kays House in Jonesboro, Lakeport Plantation in Lake Village, the Rohwer Japanese-American Relocation Center near McGehee and the historic Dyess Colony and boyhood home of Johnny Cash in Dyess. Ruth also serves as the executive director for Arkansas Delta Byways, the regional tourism promotion association for the 15-county Delta region. Dr. Hawkins and the Arkansas Heritage Sites program gained national recognition in 2008 with an honor award from the National Trust for Historic Preservation.”

Ruth worked closely with the Sam Epstein Angel family of Lake Village and secured the 1859 Lakeport Plantation home as a gift to ASU. Six years and more than $9 million later, the state’s only remaining antebellum plantation home on the banks of the Mississippi River was opened to the public.

Ruth wasn’t finished, though.

“Everyone thought that the Lakeport project would be Ruth’s crowning achievement, but it’s the Johnny Cash boyhood home and the Dyess Colony that now take the cake,” the program said. “The Cash home and the Dyess Colony administration building opened to the public in August. Dyess city offices are now in the administration building, the center of a redevelopment plan for the town of Dyess.

“Ruth sees preservation as not just a tool through which to teach history but as an economic development catalyst as well. Since 1999, the Hemingway-Pfeiffer House in Piggott has served not just as a museum but as a draw to the community. Piggott has seen nearly a 75 percent increase in state tax revenues from travel and tourism expenditures. Similar growth is projected for Dyess. The Cash boyhood home is expected to bring 50,000 visitors annually who spend about $10 million in the region and create more than 100 tourism-related jobs.”

Ruth is not shy about approaching famous people for help.

She brought in George Takei, who was interned in Arkansas as a child, to record the audio tours for Rohwer.

She has attracted the likes of Rosanne Cash, Loretta Lynn, Kris Kristofferson, George Jones, Reba McEntire and Willie Nelson to the annual Johnny Cash Music Festival in Jonesboro.

She teaches courses in ASU’s doctoral program for heritage studies and is the author of one of the best Hemingway books out there, “Unbelievable Happiness and Final Sorrow: The Hemingway Pfeiffer Marriage.”

Throw in her work for the Historic Preservation Alliance of Arkansas, the National Trust for Historic Preservation and the Arkansas History Commission, and you get a sense of how busy she is.

Among this year’s other honorees were:

— The William F. Laman Public Library System of North Little Rock, which received the Excellence in Preservation through Rehabilitation Award in the public sector for its work to restore the vacant post office on Main Street in downtown North Little Rock. The 1931 Georgian Revival structure was designed by noted Arkansas architect Charles Thompson.

— Paula Dempsey and the folks at Dempsey Bakery in downtown Little Rock, who received the Excellence in Preservation through Rehabilitation Award in the private sector for turning a building built in 1948 as an automobile dealership into a modern bakery.

— The Delta Cultural Center at Helena, which received the Excellence in Preservation through Restoration Award for turning Helena’s Temple Beth El into a public events center. The Delta has a strong Jewish heritage, though the number of Jews in the region has declined significantly. Temple Beth El was constructed in 1915 with an imposing stained class dome. The building was designed by Mann & Stern, the same architectural partnership that designed the state Capitol, Little Rock Central High School, the Arlington Hotel, the Fordyce Bath House and other buildings on the National Register of Historic Places. The congregation deconsecrated the temple in 2005 and donated the building to the Delta Cultural Center for public use.

— Charles Witsell and Gordon Wittenberg, who received the Ned Shank Award for Outstanding Preservation Publication for their book “Architects of Little Rock: 1833-1950.” This book from the University of Arkansas Press provides biographical sketches of the architects at work in Little Rock during that period. The authors, both noted architects, profile 35 architects including such key figures in Arkansas architectural history as George Mann, Thomas Harding, Charles Thompson, Max Mayer, Edwin Cromwell, George Wittenberg and Lawson Delony.

— ASU emeritus professor Scott Darwin, who received the Outstanding Achievement in Preservation Advocacy Award for his work to save the V.C. Kays House on the ASU campus. The Tudor-style home was built in 1936 by the school’s founding father and one of its most influential presidents. After Kays’ presidency ended in 1943, he continued working as the school’s business manager. The home faced demolition before Darwin got involved.

— Visit Hot Springs and all of those involved in the creation of the Hot Springs Baseball Trail. They received the Outstanding Achievement in Preservation Education Award for creating a trail of historic markers to celebrate the fact that Hot Springs is the birthplace of spring training for professional baseball. Players ranging from Babe Ruth to Jackie Robinson trained in Hot Springs.

— Jennifer Carman and Donna Thomas of Little Rock, who received the Outstanding Service in Neighborhood Preservation Award for their work restoring homes in the Central High School Neighborhood Historic District. Since 2010, they have completed more than 10 rehabilitation projects and have encouraged others to do the same. In the words of Carman: “If you had asked me 10 years ago why I thought these sorts of preservation projects were important, I might have waxed poetic about architectural styles and beautification and cultural heritage. Today, however, I will tell you that my dedication stems from seeing firsthand the positive changes that rehabilitation can spark within a city or a neighborhood, or even a single residential block. Ultimately, I’ve learned that preservation isn’t really about improving buildings. It’s about improving lives and nurturing communities.”

— Clancy McMahon, who received the Outstanding Work by a Craftsperson Award for his efforts to restore the A.R. Carroll Drugstore in the Washington County community of Canehill. The building was constructed in 1900 and is the last remaining example of the stone buildings that once made up Canehill’s commercial district. McMahon was able to re-create the composition and form of historic soft mortar in the building, which will serve as a community center.

Honorable mentions in various categories went to:

— CareLink, the architectural firm Polk Stanley Wilcox and East Harding Inc. for taking an abandoned building along Pike Avenue in North Little Rock, which had once been a Safeway grocery store, and turning it into a headquarters for the nonprofit organization.

— The state of Arkansas, the architectural firm Hight-Jackson Associates and Baldwin & Shell Construction Co. for their work restoring the inside of the dome at the state Capitol.

— The University of Arkansas at Little Rock, WER Architects/Planners and Kinco Constructors for their work restoring the cemetery at the Rohwer Relocation Camp in Desha County.

— Keith Newton for his craftsmanship in the restoration of the Frank Gibb House in Little Rock. Gibb was an architect, and the home was constructed in the 1890s.

In a state that needs more preservationists and more of a preservation ethos, these people, companies and other entities are all heroes in my eyes.

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John Prock: Man of influence

Tuesday, December 30th, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What about the book’s name?

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

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

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

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

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