Archive for the ‘Favorite Arkansans’ Category

The breakfast club

Wednesday, March 16th, 2016

It’s shortly past 7 a.m. on a Wednesday, and Don Allen is sitting at his usual spot.

They call it the Round Table, and it’s in the corner of the state Capitol’s basement cafeteria in Little Rock.

Allen, 85, is the patriarch of the Round Table, a legendary breakfast spot where politics, sports and personalities have been cussed and discussed for decades.

Allen became a regular at the table in 1972 when he joined the staff of then-Gov. Dale Bumpers. He can be found in the same seat most weekday mornings, having arrived by 5:20 a.m.

“They let me in the back door,” he says.

When Allen began coming to the Capitol basement for breakfast, legislators such as Rep. John Miller of Melbourne and Rep. Lloyd Reid George of Danville ruled the roost at the Round Table.

On the large lazy Susan in the middle of the table, brass nameplates for Miller and George state that their seats are “reserved in perpetuity.” The nameplates were purchased by Little Rock attorney George Jernigan, a former chairman of the Arkansas Democratic Party and a former chairman of the Little Rock-based Political Animals Club.

“When someone dies, we move the nameplates from the actual table to the lazy Susan,” Allen says.

George, a noted raconteur, was born in 1926 in his grandparents’ house at Centerville in Yell County and grew up at Ola. He graduated from Hendrix College and then became a coach and teacher at Fourche Valley, Ola, Morrilton and Gillett. George later borrowed enough money from his father and grandmother to open a butane gas company at Danville, where he was elected mayor.

George first was elected to the Arkansas House of Representatives in 1962 and served a total of 28 years. He would celebrate the final day of legislative sessions by wearing overalls, a sign that it was time to go back to the farm in Yell County. George died in February 2012 at age 85.

Miller, who lived in Izard County for 84 of his 85 years, was a 1949 Arkansas State University graduate who worked in his family’s retail business before spending four years as the Izard County clerk. He later opened an insurance agency, a title abstract business and a real estate brokerage.

Miller was elected to the Arkansas House in 1958, the start of a 40-year legislative career. He soon became recognized as the expert on the state budget. Miller died in June 2014.

There’s one other nameplate on the lazy Susan. It belongs to former Rep. William K. “Mac” McGehee of Fort Smith, who was elected to the Legislature in 1996 and was found dead of natural causes in his apartment in the Capitol Hill Building adjacent to the state Capitol just before the 1999 legislative session. McGehee was given his “reserved in perpetuity” spot because he had the current lazy Susan made by the Riverside Furniture Co. in Fort Smith and then flew it to Little Rock in his private plane.

“It’s a lot bigger than the old lazy Susan,” Allen says matter of factly. “George Jernigan gave us the old one, but it was hard to reach.”

The lazy Susan has not only bottles of barbecue sauce, hot sauce and pepper sauce but also jars of homemade jams, jellies and preserves that legislators bring and leave there. Jars of honey and sorghum molasses also are dropped off from time to time.

The table was constructed by the staff of Arkansas Secretary of State Bill McCuen, who later was imprisoned for corruption in office. McCuen died of cancer at age 57 in 2000. Before his election as secretary of state in 1984, he had served as a public school teacher and principal at Hot Springs, as the Garland County judge and as state land commissioner.

McCuen put his signature on most everything at the Capitol during his decade as secretary of state and had a soft spot for those who sat at the Round Table. The new table — the smaller version used in earlier years now sits on the other side of the cafeteria — was made out of leftover plywood from a Christmas display.

Capitol observers thought the Round Table’s days were numbered in November 2014 when Arkansas voters approved an ethics amendment that would no longer allow lobbyists to buy breakfast for legislators. For years, top lobbyists would put money in the pot to fund the breakfast activities. Legislators who were invited to sit at the table simply went through the line, got what they wanted and had their purchases recorded in the spiral-bound notebook that rested next to the cash register.

Ron Harrod is a longtime lobbyist who became a regular at the Round Table after being appointed in early 1983 to the powerful Arkansas Highway Commission to replace James Branyan of Camden. Harrod, a Dumas native, was an insurance agent in Prescott at the time.

“When the ethics amendment passed, we decided to shut down the table,” Harrod says. “But you know what? Not a single legislator complained about having to buy breakfast. We found out that it was about the fellowship rather than the food.”

He then adds (with a smile for the benefit of the legislators at the table): “We’re not allowed to buy them breakfast, although one of them could buy me breakfast. To this day, not a single legislator has offered to buy my breakfast.”

There are still two brass nameplates on the table for living legends.

One belongs to Allen, who became the executive vice president of the influential Arkansas Poultry Federation in 1976 and held the job until 2000, when he retired and was replaced by former state Sen. Morril Harriman. When Mike Beebe became governor in January 2007, Harriman resigned from the Poultry Federation to become Beebe’s chief of staff, a job he held for Beebe’s entire eight years as governor.

The other nameplate belongs to Tim Massanelli, a native of the community of Goat Shed in Lincoln County. Massanelli worked on his family farm, ran a liquor store and managed a coin-operated machine business during the early years of his career. In 1973, at the suggestion of state Rep. G.W. “Buddy” Turner, he became the parliamentarian for the Arkansas House of Representatives and served for 38 years until retiring in 2011.

Massanelli worked with 19 speakers, seven governors and more than 1,000 House members. He was replaced by Buddy Johnson, who began working for the House in 1985 after having served as a reporter for United Press International. Johnson joins the breakfast group on this Wednesday morning, trading barbs easily with Allen and Harrod.

Massanelli’s nameplate has a spelling mistake. It says that his chair is “reserved in perpeturity.” The regulars decided to leave the plate just like it is so they could give Massanelli a hard time.

Allen tells stories of past legislators such as the late state Rep. Bobby Newman of Smackover, who Allen says would order three soft eggs each morning and then sop up all the yolk with his toast. Then there was the legislator who irked the late Zelma Maxenberger, who managed the cafeteria for a quarter of a century. The legislator, who shall remain nameless, would loudly ring a bell for service prior to the official opening time of 6 a.m. Told by the management that no coffee would be served to those at the Round Table until 7 a.m. if he didn’t stop ringing the bell, the offending legislator was banned from the table.

“Sometimes we have 14 or 15 people sitting over here at one time,” Allen says. “I have to tell you that the idea of lobbyists buying off politicians with a meal is pure BS. This has simply been a way for us to get to know each other through the years.”

Harrod says: “Most of these legislators have someplace where they go for coffee back in their towns. This is just the Little Rock version of what they have back at home.”

Many of the traditional spots where Arkansans gathered for breakfast and political talk in the 20th century are gone. One notable example was the Sno-White Grill at Pine Bluff, which closed last year and was replaced by an Italian restaurant. Sno-White was founded in 1936, one year before Walt Disney produced his first full-length animated classic, “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.”

The Pine Bluff institution closed when Bobby Garner decided to retire at age 79. Garner would arrive at 5:30 a.m. six mornings a week with the restaurant opening at 6 a.m. Among the coffee-drinking regulars, there were 6 a.m., 7 a.m., 8 a.m., 9 a.m. and even 10 a.m. shifts.

While the state Capitol has the Round Table, Sno-White had the famed Back Booth. It was a large booth with political posters covering the walls behind it — “I’m for Arkansas and Faubus,” “John McClellan for Senate,” “Dale Bumpers for Senate” and even “Monroe A. Scharwazlose, Democratic Candidate for Governor, The Law and Order Candidate.”

Schwarzlose, who raised turkeys in nearby Kingsland, ran for governor in the Democratic primaries of 1978, 1980, 1982 and 1984.

Kelley-Wyatt’s in Batesville had its Round Table, where Independence County politicians gathered for years. The restaurant closed for a time but reopened last fall.

Jerry’s in Fayetteville, long a breakfast gathering spot near the Washington County Courthouse, is gone. But a well-known restaurant up the road in Springdale lives on. In 1944, Toy and Bertha Neal began serving meals in Springdale. Neal’s Café still opens at 6 a.m. seven days a week and is a political gathering place for the northwest corner of the state. It fact, its political cachet increased when owner Micah Neal was elected to the Arkansas House of Representatives in 2012. Toy and Bertha Neal were Micah Neal’s great-grandparents. Micah’s father, Don Neal, later ran the restaurant in the landmark pink building.

In Conway, Bob’s Grill on Oak Street downtown has the motto: “If it happens in Conway, it’s talked about at Bob’s Grill.”

Away from the state Capitol in Little Rock, the breakfast spot for politicians was once the Coachman’s Inn, a hotel owned by famed financiers Jack and Witt Stephens. It stood where the downtown post office is now located. In 1983, Skip Rutherford left the staff of U.S. Sen. David Pryor and moved to the private sector to work for Mack McLarty, the chief executive officer of Arkansas Louisiana Gas Co. Rutherford missed politics and wanted an excuse for those with a strong interest in the political game to gather and talk about what was going on in Arkansas. He asked some friends to join him one morning at the Coachman’s for breakfast. Judge William J. Smith was invited to talk about former Gov. Orval Faubus and the 1957 Little Rock school desegregation crisis. Afterward, those in attendance agreed to meet again and bring friends to what they decided to call the Political Animals Club.

At first, the Political Animals Club’s membership was limited to people who were not running for or holding elective office. When Rutherford announced in 1987 that he was going to run for the Little Rock School Board, he stepped down as club chairman. The Political Animals Club had moved its meetings from the Coachman’s Inn to the Little Rock Hilton (now the Clarion) on University Avenue by that time. Jernigan took over as the second chairman in 1987 and was succeeded by his law partner, Russ Meeks.

The fourth Political Animals chairman was Bob Lyford, who was the general counsel for the Arkansas Electric Cooperative Corp. During Lyford’s tenure, the club often held its 7 a.m. breakfast meetings in the ornate conference room at the AECC headquarters in southwest Little Rock. In January 2007, Lyford handed over the chairmanship to Steve Ronnel, a Little Rock businessman who had worked in the White House during the Clinton administration. Ronnel switched the meeting times from breakfast to lunch as people’s habits changed and fewer people wanted to show up at 7 a.m.

The Coachman’s has long since been replaced by downtown’s Capital Hotel (also owned by the Stephens family) as the breakfast gathering spot of choice for lobbyists who are looking for something a bit fancier than the basement of the state Capitol. Most mornings now find several tables at the Capital Hotel filled with lobbyists and legislators (who presumably are paying for their own meals).

Though breakfast meetings of the Political Animals Club are now a rarity, there are smaller breakfast groups that meet on a regular basis to talk politics. Rutherford is a member of two such groups. One group began meeting in 1991 at a now-defunct downtown Little Rock restaurant known as Hungry’s. The group later met in North Little Rock at Roy Fisher’s Steak House, also now defunct.

For years, Fisher’s waitress Mary Daniell, who died in February 2011 at age 71, would trade good-natured insults with a group whose regulars included Rutherford, then-state Sen. Bill Gwatney, former Little Rock bank executive Gene Fortson and longtime North Little Rock political gadfly Walter “Bubba” Lloyd Jr.

Members of the group and even the waitress would tease Gwatney because of his family money, especially when he would order a staple of the Fisher’s breakfast menu known as “the working man’s breakfast.”

“That’s as close as you’ll ever come to being a working man,” Daniell would tell the automobile dealer.

Gwatney was the chairman of the Arkansas Democratic Party in the summer of 2008 when he was murdered at state party headquarters by a lone gunman, who was killed later in the day during a shootout with the police. No reason for the murder was ever discovered.

Soon afterward, Rutherford said of the breakfast group: “We had no regular schedule. It was just when somebody sent a notice out. It was always a long breakfast, talking about politics, sports, current issues. Those conversations were great because Gwatney would unload on any issue. Politics was a common ground. When I was state party chairman, I used to say in speeches that my best achievement was making sure Bill Gwatney ran as a Democrat and won as a Democrat.”

After taking a break following Gwatney’s death, the group began meeting again. The members now gather at the Red Door at the foot of Cantrell Hill in Little Rock.

Rutherford also is a member of a Saturday group organized by Little Rock businessmen Bill Booker and Graham Catlett.

“Bill and I began having brunch on Saturdays at Buster’s in the early 1980s,” Catlett says. “We later began meeting at Copper Grill at 8 a.m. each Saturday, and the group grew. Our meeting places move seasonally.”

One of the regulars is Little Rock Mayor Mark Stodola.

“By 9 a.m., all the world’s problems are solved,” Catlett says.

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Mr. Downtown Little Rock

Monday, March 14th, 2016

The original version of this story ran in Talk Business & Politics magazine.

Jimmy Moses grew up steeped in the history of Little Rock, especially its downtown.

His great-grandfather, Herman Kahn, moved to Little Rock from Frankfurt, Germany, in 1870. Kahn and his sons, Sidney L. Kahn Sr. and Alfred G. Kahn, were involved in banking and real estate development.

Sidney Kahn developed the Prospect Terrace neighborhood in Little Rock.

Herman Kahn’s best-known development was the Marion Hotel, which was among the most famous businesses in Arkansas for much of the 20th century.

Construction on the Marion began in 1905. It was the tallest structure in the state from when it opened in 1907 until 1911. The hotel closed in early 1980 and was demolished to make way for the Excelsior Hotel (which later became the Peabody and then the Marriott) and the Statehouse Convention Center.

The 500-room Marion had green carpets, bellboys in green uniforms and a marble fish pond in the lobby. The hotel was named after Herman Kahn’s wife, Marion Cohn Kahn.

The Marion billed itself as the “Meeting Place of Arkansas,” and the state’s top organizations held their conventions there. Its bar was named the Gar Hole and featured a mounted alligator gar. Visitors to the Marion through the years included Eleanor Roosevelt, Harry Truman, Douglas MacArthur, Helen Keller and Will Rogers.

Within walking distance of the Marion, Moses’ family operated the music and electronics store Moses Melody Shop on Main Street. The business was established shortly after World War I by Moses’ grandfather, Grover Cleveland “Cleve” Moses, and operated for almost six decades until falling victim to downtown’s decline in the late 1960s.

During the 1960s, the store had what was known as the Color TV Lounge where customers could watch color television. There were soundproof glass booths for listening to records, and there were live Saturday radio broadcasts by radio station KALO that featured local bands. Jimmy Moses worked in the store as a boy.

Moses describes downtown Little Rock as “being in my DNA.”

He remembers the days when customers would come into Moses Melody Shop in droves. Down the street, the Marion Hotel lobby was filled at all hours. Downtown Little Rock was the place to be.

By the time Moses left for college at Washington and Lee University in the mountains of southwest Virginia, the capital city’s core had begun its long, slow decline.

Moses sits by a window in the Little Rock Club on the 30th floor of the Regions Center in downtown Little Rock and looks out on the city that has been central to his career. He’s now in his 60s and thinking about his legacy. He says he wants to be remembered as someone who helped transform Arkansas’ largest city back into a place where people “want to live” rather than fleeing to the suburbs in Saline, Faulkner and Lonoke counties.

“Little Rock is at a crossroads,” Moses says as he gazes down on the capital city. “We’ve done a lot of good things to set the stage for growth, but I’m not sure that our leadership has fully embraced the concept that we can be great.”

Those who compare the relatively slow growth of Little Rock to Austin or Nashville can become depressed when thinking about the city. But those are state capitals of far larger states that also are the homes of world-class universities and bustling music scenes. They have amenities that Little Rock will never have.

Little Rock looks far better, though, when compared to Southern cities such as Birmingham, Ala., and Jackson, Miss.

In 1950, Birmingham had a population of 326,037, more than triple the size of Little Rock at the time. Birmingham was the same size as Atlanta (331,314) in 1950. By 2010, Birmingham’s population had fallen to 212,237. While Birmingham was losing population, Little Rock was growing from 102,213 residents in 1950 to 193,524 residents in 2010. With a population that’s expected to surpass 200,000 during the next year, Little Rock is now the same size as Birmingham rather than a third its size.

Jackson, meanwhile, had a population of 202,895 in 1980, far larger than Little Rock’s population of 159,151 at the time. The current population of Jackson is about 170,000. The cities appear to be headed in opposite directions. In Mississippi, for example, Bass Pro Shops and an outlet mall chose to locate in the suburb of Pearl. In Arkansas, Bass Pro and an outlet mall chose Little Rock rather than a city in the suburbs.

Moses points out that public projects continue to complement private investments in downtown Little Rock. In addition to construction of a new Broadway Bridge, work is proceeding on the $68 million renovation of the Robinson Center. The city has committed $20 million to the Little Rock Technology Park downtown, and voters recently approved a bond issue of $35 million for upgrades to the Arkansas Arts Center, the MacArthur Museum of Arkansas Military History and MacArthur Park. The bonds will be paid back over 30 years with collections from an increased hotel tax.

During the past year, other parts of town have seen the opening of a $23 million transmission operations center for Entergy Corp., a new Southern region operations center for the regional energy transmission organization Midcontinent Independent Systems Operator, a $52 million facility in southwest Little Rock for Federal Express and a major expansion of Dassault Falcon Jet adjacent to the city’s airport.

Dr. Dean Kumpuris, a longtime member of the Little Rock Board of Directors, says: “We’re headed in the right direction. The strongest thing we have going for us is a group of people willing to roll up their sleeves, identify the problems and then attack those problems.”

Kumpuris describes the decision to place the technology park downtown as “an absolute winner for everybody.”

Jimmy Moses and business partner Rett Tucker remain atop the list of those “willing to roll up their sleeves, identify the problems and then attack those problems.”

After obtaining his bachelor’s degree from Washington and Lee, Moses earned a master’s degree in urban planning from the University of Florida. He was working for the planning firm Hodges Vines Fox & Associates in 1981 when Little Rock turned to the firm for suggestions on what to do with a downtown that had been gutted by so-called urban renewal. Most residents and many businesses had moved out.

In Moses’ words, downtown “barely had a heartbeat.”

It would be years before his vision began to be achieved, but Moses was an early proponent of attracting full-time residents back downtown.

In July 1982, Moses joined forces with Rick Redden and John Allison to launch Allison Moses Redden Architecture, Interiors and Planning. Allison Moses Redden later became AMR Architects Inc. when Moses and Allison began new firms. Moses teamed up with fellow Little Rock native and Washington and Lee graduate Tucker to form what’s now Moses Tucker Real Estate.

Moses Tucker’s efforts to bring residents downtown included development of the Arkansas Capital Commerce Center in 2002, the First Security Center in 2004, 300 Third Street in 2007 and the River Market Tower in 2009. The company has worked with hotel developer John McKibbon to bring four new hotels to the River Market District.

Moses Tucker later expanded its efforts to Main Street to transform the 1912 Blass Building into the Mann on Main. The popular Italian restaurant Bruno’s Little Italy was reborn in the complex.

Farther south on Main Street, Moses Tucker has joined forces with Cromwell Architects Engineers to bring life back to the building that housed the Arkansas Democrat from 1916 until the early 1930s. The building, designed by noted Arkansas architect Charles Thompson, later housed a furniture store and the Lido Cafeteria. The top floors have been vacant for more than 25 years.

In the River Market District, the company partnered with the Central Arkansas Library System to develop the Arcade Building, which is home to the upscale restaurant Cache, the Ron Robinson Theater and other offices and businesses.

On East Capitol, Moses Tucker tore down the former Arkansas Louisiana Gas Co. headquarters and replaced it with the MacArthur Commons apartment complex. In November, the 59-unit, three-story building was sold for $10.5 million to MacArthur Commons LLC, led by David R. Thompson. The project, which was completed in September, was already 97 percent occupied at the time of the sale.

During the summer, Moses Tucker broke ground on the 36-unit Legion Village apartment complex on nearby Rock Street with additional plans to renovate the former M.M. Eberts American Legion Post building and an adjoining structure.

In October, Moses Tucker announced that it had teamed up with the Cromwell firm to develop a 3.5-acre area east of Interstate 30, near the Heifer International headquarters. Cromwell plans to transform a 50,000-square-foot warehouse into a mixed-use development and add 20,000 square feet to the building. About a third of the facility will house Cromwell’s Little Rock offices. Moses Tucker will handle the management and leasing of the complex. For now, the area, which already includes Lost Forty Brewing and Rock Town Distillery, is being billed as East Village.

“Forty years ago, when we built our building at Markham and Spring streets, the area was in need of a major redevelopment effort,” says Dan Fowler, Cromwell’s director of finance and business development. “Our building, along with investments in the Camelot Hotel, Excelsior, Stephens Building and Capital Hotel, created a vibrant district within the core of our city. We hope to do the same east of I-30.”

Cromwell CEO Charley Penix says that the addition of restaurants and apartments to the area could lead to “the new River Market.”

Moses also envisions an area that mixes retail, restaurants and residents, leading to activity 24 hours a day.

“In northwest Arkansas, you have had the Walton family and the Tyson family provide direction and vision,” Moses says. “We don’t have one dominant family here. But we do have a chance to be a great city. What we have to realize is that we’re not finished. We have a lot of work ahead of us.”

Moses also has turned his attention to the neighborhood where he’s having lunch on this day, which is now being called the Financial Quarter.

Almost 5,000 people work in the high-rise Simmons Tower, Regions Center, Union Plaza, Bank of America Plaza and Stephens Building. A large number of those workers drive into downtown Little Rock five mornings a week, walk from parking garages into their buildings and don’t come out again until walking back to their cars at the end of the day for the drive to places such as Bryant, Conway and Lonoke.

Moses Tucker took a first step with almost $1 million in improvements to the first and second floors of the Regions Center, which it manages.

A volunteer design cooperative known as studioMAIN has worked for more than a year on a plan to revitalize the Financial Quarter, which is bordered by Sixth Street on the south, the Arkansas River on the north, Main Street on the east and Broadway on the west.

Both Jimmy Moses and Rett Tucker describe the neighborhood as “tired” and in need of renovation.

Once lively bank lobbies are now empty as more people do their banking online.

The first phase of a three-part plan for the Financial Quarter will include a so-called pop-up event designed to show what the neighborhood could be, better branding and the addition of street furniture, painted crosswalks, hanging banners and landscaping.

The second phase will involve the redesign of existing plazas and bank lobbies in an effort to draw people out of their offices for dining and shopping opportunities.

The third phase will include plans for building out the Financial Quarter, including the replacement of surface parking lots with high-rise housing projects and adjoining parking decks.

During a meeting of stakeholders last year, Moses recalled how desolate the River Market District once was and told those in attendance that the River Market area started with far fewer assets than the Financial Quarter.

Asked to list three top objectives for Little Rock during the next decade, Moses says:

— “Transforming the University of Arkansas at Little Rock. It needs to be to this city what Vanderbilt University is to Nashville. There’s no reason that UALR can’t be nationally recognized. To be a great city, Little Rock needs a great institution of higher education. Hiring the right person to succeed Joel Anderson as chancellor is critical to the future of this city. We must have someone who understands the role of an urban university and can build on what Joel has done.”

— “Continuing redevelopment of the city’s core. We’re creating a sense of place down here, and it’s important that we don’t lose momentum. Seeing what’s going on downtown has given people a sense of pride in the city. It’s time to accelerate that process.”

— “Building the brand of Little Rock. We need people across the country to recognize Little Rock as a city that’s on the right path. For instance, I like the fact that UALR is now simply branding its athletic teams as Little Rock. UALR has no meaning to people outside of Arkansas. Little Rock, however, means something.”

Moses is convinced that UALR needs a significant presence downtown. He thinks the university should find a way to partner with the Little Rock Technology Park, which is trying to develop a research-technology corridor along Main Street.

“If I were the new chancellor, the first directive I would issue would be that UALR must have a satellite campus downtown and that it must be aligned with the tech park,” Moses says. “Even if the project takes 20 years to complete, it’s important that we do it. We already have the law school, the Clinton School of Public Service and the Arkansas Studies Institute downtown. If we could somehow add more UALR departments to the mix, we could have a real intellectual powerhouse that would attract more young, talented people to live downtown. There are certain things that we simply have to do if we’re going to be great as a city, and this is one of them.”

Moses realizes that a new generation is taking on leadership roles in Little Rock. His son Chris was named the president of Moses Tucker in 2013. Chris Moses graduated from Little Rock Central High School and then received a bachelor’s degree in real estate finance from Arizona State University in 2001. After working for Moses Tucker in Little Rock and for firms in Orange County, Calif., and Atlanta, Chris Moses received his master’s degree in real estate development from Clemson University in 2011. He returned to Moses Tucker after earning the advanced degree.

Despite having his son as president of the company, Jimmy Moses has no plans to slow down.

He told an interviewer in 2014: “I’d like to keep doing this for another 25 years.”

Two years after making that comment, he’s busier than ever.

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The sportswriter

Friday, March 11th, 2016

The original version of this story ran in Talk Business & Politics magazine.

It has been 30 years, but I vividly remember that interview in 1986.

The student from the University of Missouri was an Arkansas native and had a knack for the written word. He was back in Little Rock during spring break, and he needed a job with a May graduation looming.

The newspaper business was still robust, and we had plenty of applicants in those days at the Arkansas Democrat, where I served as the 26-year-old assistant sports editor. This particular writer’s stories stood out. He clearly had a future in the newspaper business, and I recommended that he be hired. He came on board late that summer, but I didn’t get to work with him. The newspaper’s mercurial managing editor, John Robert Starr, informed me that I would be headed to the East Coast to serve as the Washington correspondent. I spent the next four years living on Capitol Hill, finally returning to Arkansas for good with a wife I had met in the nation’s capital.

The new sportswriter was named Kane Webb, and he flourished at the Democrat. When I was editor of Arkansas Business, I wound up hiring him away from the Arkansas Gazette as the end neared for that newspaper in 1991.

Webb’s long-form writing skills were a major reason that Arkansas Business was named in 1992 as the best business publication in any market of 1 million or fewer people by the Alliance of Area Business Publishers.

Last October, a lot of Arkansans were surprised when Gov. Asa Hutchinson announced that a former journalist would replace the beloved Richard Davies as executive director of the Arkansas Department of Parks & Tourism. Davies was retiring after having worked for the department for 42 years, serving under eight governors. Few people lasted longer in state government than Davies. And few people in state government were more popular.

Now, the avuncular Davies was being replaced by former sportswriter Kane Webb.

“I’ve known Kane for almost 20 years, and I’ve gotten to know him especially well since he joined our team,” Hutchinson explained. “He has a deep and abiding passion for Arkansas. He has written about more people, places and events in this state than I can count, and he understands how important parks and tourism are to Arkansans. … He’s an outstanding communicator, and I’m grateful for the work he has done as one of my senior advisers.”

Like Webb, Davies was a journalism major in college. He graduated from the University of Arkansas, served in the U.S. Army and was looking for work. Bill Henderson, who headed the department at the time Davies was hired, also had been a journalism major. Henderson gave Davies a job as a writer.

“That was in the days when Gov. Dale Bumpers had put a lot of money into state parks in places like DeGray and Toltec and the Ozark Folk Center, and those places were just coming online,” Davies said. “So I was writing about what the department was doing, and it became more and more administrative and less and less writing. I ended up over at the state parks division for 14 years and back here for another 25.”

The first state park was established atop Petit Jean Mountain in 1923 after the Legislature authorized the commissioner of state lands to accept land donations for parks. In 1927, the Legislature established a seven-member State Parks Commission that had the power to acquire tax-delinquent lands for parks. That’s what happened in the case of the second state park atop Mount Nebo.

Later legislative changes would occur — a revised Arkansas State Park Commission was established in 1937, the State Forestry and Parks Commission was launched in 1953, the State Publicity and Parks Commission was created in 1955 and the current state Parks, Recreation and Travel Commission was formed in 1969.

The current state Department of Parks and Tourism was created in 1971 during Bumpers’ first year in office.

Webb and I met recently for a burger at a place where we’ve shared stories many times through the years, the venerable Town Pump in the Riverdale area of Little Rock. I had never asked him why he initially wanted to be a sportswriter. This time I did.

“Like every other boy who liked the Razorbacks back in those days, I grew up reading Orville Henry in the Gazette,” Webb said. “I decided that’s what I wanted to do.”

He recalls grabbing the Gazette at the family breakfast table in 1976 on the morning when Henry broke the story that Frank Broyles would be retiring as head football coach at the University of Arkansas and devoting all of his time to his job as athletic director.

Webb was born at Hot Springs, where his dad taught English, but he spent most of his formative years in Sherwood. He attended Catholic schools — Good Counsel in Little Rock in the first grade, Immaculate Conception in North Little Rock from the second through the eighth grades and Catholic High School in Little Rock from the ninth grade through graduation. He inherited a love of sports from his father, who would run over to Oaklawn Park during his lunch breaks back in the Hot Springs days and place bets for fellow teachers.

Floyd Webb, the father, also loved baseball. He had been a talented knuckleballer for the famed American Legion team known as the Little Rock Doughboys. The team, which played at Lamar Porter Field and was sponsored by the M.M. Eberts Post of the American Legion, existed from the late 1920s until the 1950s. It was the national American Legion runner-up in 1947, losing to a team from Cincinnati. Floyd Webb came along a few years prior to a Doughboy named Brooks Robinson, who would go on to become a legendary player for the Baltimore Orioles.

Floyd Webb decided that he could make more money for his family selling college textbooks than teaching school. The family lived for a time in Tennessee at Nashville and Memphis before settling in central Arkansas. Kane Webb lived for one year on Little Rock’s Fair Park Boulevard before his family built a home in Sherwood.

In addition to a love of sports, Floyd Webb instilled a love of reading in his son. The teachers at Catholic High also helped inspire him to read and write. Each afternoon after school when there wasn’t a sports practice, Kane Webb could be found at a place called Publisher’s Bookstore, walking the aisles and looking for new books to purchase.

“I went to the counselor’s office at Catholic one day and told him I wanted to be a sportswriter,” Webb said. “I asked him where I should go to college. He said I should go to Missouri. It was that simple. It was the only school to which I applied, and I never set foot on campus until the first day of my freshman year.”

Webb joined the staff of an alternative newspaper on campus as a freshman and began cranking out copy.

He said: “I wrote pretty much every day for the next 30 years.”

Webb remembers his first day of work at the Democrat: Aug. 6, 1986. His first out-of-town assignment was an American Legion baseball tournament at Memphis. He got the final score wrong in his story. He figured that might be the end of his newspaper career, but no one said anything. In those days, as the Little Rock newspaper war was heating up and both newspapers had large amounts of space to fill, just getting out the paper each night was the goal.

“Being in the sports department at the Democrat was kind of like being in a fraternity,” Webb said. “We were young, and most of us didn’t have families to worry about. Friday nights during high school football season were spent drinking beer on the parking lot after we got the city edition out. We would rush to the box in the middle of the night to buy a Gazette and then count to see if we had more high school scores. It was a war, and we thrived on that. I can remember once going straight from the parking lot to the airport to fly to a Razorback football game. I never went to bed. I realize now how lucky I was to come along when newspaper work was still fun.”

In the fall of 1990, Webb was offered a raise from $20,000 a year to $28,500 to jump to the Gazette. He made the switch.

“I was going to get married, and I needed the money,” Webb said. “In hindsight, it was a stupid decision. It was all about the money. By about May 1991, some of us realized the Gazette wasn’t going to survive.”

Webb moved to Arkansas Business shortly before the Gazette closed in October 1991. He married Fran Jansen of Little Rock the following month.

“Going to Arkansas Business was a key point in my career because it got me out of sports and allowed me to write about other things,” Webb said.

We had desks that faced each other at Arkansas Business, where I was the editor, and we didn’t mind working long hours. Those were exciting times, and there seemed to be big stories every week — the Gazette closed, Bill Clinton was running for president, Witt Stephens died, Sam Walton died.

During the early summer of 1992, I was contacted by the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette and asked if I would be interested in filling the new position of political editor and coordinating the coverage of Clinton’s presidential campaign. I accepted the job, and Webb succeeded me as editor of Arkansas Business.

In 1994, Webb interviewed with Paul Greenberg, the Pulitzer Prize-winning editorial page editor of the Democrat-Gazette. Greenberg hired Webb as his deputy.

“I knew him, of course, but I had never met him,” Webb said of Greenberg. “It was amazing how much freedom he gave me.”

Webb later lived for a short time in Minneapolis, where his wife’s brother resided, and survived what he called “the worst winter of my life.” He also spent a brief time in New Orleans, one of his favorite cities, writing for the Times-Picayune. The vast majority of his career, though, has been in Arkansas.

At the Democrat-Gazette, Webb spent more than a decade writing daily editorials, a weekly column and features for the Sunday Perspective section, which he edited. By 2009, Webb decided that the newspaper business was no longer fun. His father died in May 2009, and Webb said he “lost my ballast.”

Webb did some freelance writing after leaving the newspaper and also accepted an invitation from his friend Steve Straessle to teach journalism, creative writing, American literature, music survey and religion at Catholic High. By 2010, the Democrat-Gazette was calling again, asking Webb to serve as the editorial director of its special publications — Arkansas Life monthly magazine, Sync Weekly and three zoned editions. He set the editorial direction and tone for publications and supervised a staff of more than two dozen employees.

He especially enjoyed the work on Arkansas Life.

“I once had been told that I was a magazine writer trapped in a newspaper writer’s body,” Webb said. “I was just a duck to water when it came to magazines. I loved every part of it — writing, editing, managing the staff. I wanted Arkansas Life to be for Arkansas what Texas Monthly was for Texas.”

When Webb became concerned that he and the Democrat-Gazette management didn’t share the same vision for the magazine, he accepted an invitation to interview for the job of editor of Louisville magazine. Because of his love of thoroughbred racing, Louisville — the home of Churchill Downs and the Kentucky Derby — was to Webb a bit like Mecca is to a Muslim pilgrim. Webb hit it off with the magazine’s owner, Dan Crutcher.

He said of Crutcher: “Dan told me he bought the magazine because he wanted to be able to write longer stories. How can you not love that? My mother and sister had moved to Bella Vista after my dad died. I needed a change of scenery. I just needed to get out of Arkansas.”

Webb transformed the magazine, winning praise from readers and seeing Louisville nominated for national awards. But his father-in-law died, his mother-in-law was aging and his wife and daughter missed Little Rock. So Webb returned to Arkansas once more in the spring of 2014. He began reworking a novel his father had written under the name of F. Spider Webb in 2005. It’s titled “Pool Halls, Parlors and Pawn Shops” and focuses heavily on thoroughbred racing.

Webb also did freelance writing, wrote a column for the website Sporting Life Arkansas, edited a book on the Kentucky Derby and helped out a couple of public relations firms.

The week before Christmas in 2014, Webb received a text from a number he didn’t recognize. It said: “Do you want a job?”

He asked, “Who is this?”

It was outgoing 2nd District Congressman (and incoming lieutenant governor) Tim Griffin, who informed him that Gov.-elect Asa Hutchinson needed a strong writer on his staff. Webb, who had covered several governors as a journalist, was intrigued.

Webb began work Jan. 5, 2015. He and Hutchinson hit it off immediately.

“I was kind of the older guy with gray hair on a relatively young staff,” Webb said. “There was the inauguration, and then we went directly into the legislative session. We were working seven days a week, but I didn’t mind. It was pretty heady stuff for an old sportswriter. During the summer, the governor promoted me to senior adviser, and I began working on projects beyond writing for him. One of those projects was to find a replacement for Richard Davies. We looked outside the state and inside the state.

“I kept going back to something Chuck Magill at the Capital Hotel in Little Rock told me. He said: ‘This is such a peculiar state, and I mean that in a good way. You need someone who knows it well. It would be even better if it were someone who lived somewhere else and then came back to Arkansas.'”

Davies mentioned that Webb himself might be a good fit for the job.

Two interviews that Webb had planned with potential directors were called off, and Webb wrote the governor a memo explaining that he had reached a dead end.

Hutchinson called him in and said, “You’re going to get the job, and I want to announce it right away.”

Webb said the governor “trusted me and knew how much I love Arkansas. I enjoyed my brief time working in the governor’s office. I didn’t mind the hours or the pressure. I’m crazy enough that I want to do it all.”

Webb shadowed Davies for six weeks until Davies’ retirement took effect at the end of November.

Like the reporter he once was, Webb took copious notes on a daily basis.

“It was kind of Richard’s farewell tour as we went to state parks and tourism attractions across the state,” Webb said. “His generous endorsement of me at every stop went a long way in helping me get off to a good start. My first goal is to do no harm because I didn’t inherit an agency that’s broken. Tourism revenue is at an all-time high in our state. I’ve walked into an excellent situation.

“I think we have the best system of state parks in the country, but there’s always room for improvement. For instance, we need to attract more outside investors in our private-sector tourism facilities. We need to convince more people to relocate to Arkansas. We need to have more of a national effort to sell Arkansas to groups such as motorcyclists and mountain bikers. Tourism is no longer the toy department of state government. It’s economic development.”

So how does the writer I first interviewed three decades ago sum up the whirlwind of recent months?

“I’m a lucky man,” Webb said. “I love the fact that old sportswriters are able to do things like this. I like it that I’m the third journalism major to head this department. You know, I’ve always been a sportswriter at heart.”

 

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The boy from Billstown

Tuesday, March 8th, 2016

One of the perks of hailing from southwest Arkansas is being able to correct people when they claim that Glen Campbell comes from a tiny town called Delight.

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

Glen Travis Campbell was born April 22, 1936, at Billstown to Carrie Dell Stone Campbell and John Wesley Campbell. He was one of 12 children.

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

“In 1958, Campbell formed his own band, Glen Campbell and the Western Wranglers. In 1960, Campbell disbanded the group and moved to Los Angeles. He hoped to establish himself as a solo performer but found himself instead to be a sought-after studio musician and guitarist. He worked for a year with the instrumental rock group The Camps (of ‘Tequila’ fame) before recording his first solo record in 1961.”

The rest, as they say, is history.

His 1967 recording of “Gentle On My Mind” hit the charts and earned him Grammy Awards in 1968 for Best Country Vocalist and Best Contemporary Vocalist.

Along came “By the Time I Get to Phoenix” in 1968.

“Wichita Lineman,” “Galveston,” Rhinestone Cowboy” and “Southern Nights” were all huge hits for Campbell during the next few years.

He had a weekly variety program on CBS by 1969.

He appeared in the movie “True Grit” in 1969 and earned a Golden Globe nomination for Best Newcomer.

In 1970, he played the title role in the movie “Norwood.”

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

In his song “Arkansas,” Campbell sings about “Pike County’s sandy loam.”

The first transcribed version of the song that I could find on the Internet had it as “Park County’s sandy lawn.”

I suppose one can be forgiven for not knowing much about Pike County, a largely rural county in an often forgotten corner of the state.

Billstown is about six miles from Delight, and the Billstown schools consolidated with those in Delight at the start of the 1948-49 school year. Since then, Billstown has primarily been a small collection of homes.

Pike County was carved out of two existing counties — Clark and Hempstead — by the Arkansas Territorial Legislature in 1833 and named after explorer Zebulon Pike. In 1836, the year Arkansas became a state, a post office was established at Murfreesborough (later shortened to Murfreesboro).

The population of the county grew: 969 in 1840; 1,861 in 1850; 4,025 in 1860; 3,788 in 1870; 6,345 in 1880; 8,537 in 1890; 10,301 in 1900.

The high-water mark for the county came in 1910 when the census registered 12,565 residents. There were 11,291 residents a century later in the 2010 census.

By the early 1900s, railroad owner Martin White Greeson was lobbying officials to have a dam built on a section of the Little Missouri River known as the Narrows with the goal of preventing flooding downstream.

Greeson had been born in Van Buren County in 1866 and later taught school at Bee Branch and Morrilton. After getting a law degree from Cumberland University in Tennessee, he moved to Prescott in 1888 and joined the firm of Atkinson & Tompkins. He later owned the Murfreesboro-Nashville Southwest Railroad and purchased the Kimberlite Diamond Mining & Washing Co. at Murfreesboro in 1913.

“After pushing the idea at the local level, Greeson took it to the U.S. Congress in the 1920s, where it was repeatedly introduced and repeatedly forgotten,” William H. Pruden III writes of Greeson’s efforts to get a dam on the Little Missouri. “In an effort to facilitate the construction of both the dam and the flood-control project, he had bought some of the land. But the idea remained on the drawing board. Appointed to the Arkansas Flood Control Commission by Gov. Carl Bailey, Greeson continued to advocate for the idea until 1941, when Congress approved the Little Missouri River project and authorized $3 million for its implementation. However, the project was set aside during World War II, and construction did not begin until 1947.

Greeson didn’t live to see the project completed. He died in November 1949 and is buried at Prescott.

The dam was completed in 1950 and dedicated in 1951. It blocks a valley that’s 941 feet wide. The dam is known as Narrows Dam and rises 183.5 feet above the river. It forms Lake Greeson, which covers almost 7,000 acres. Eventually, the people attracted to the county by the lake caused the population losses to end. The lowest recorded population in Pike County after the 1880 census was 7,874 residents in 1960. People had been leaving the county for years as farming declined, the forests were cut down and the mines played out.

“In the early 1900s, practically every settlement in the county had its own cotton gin, gristmill and sawmill,” Doris Russell Foshee writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. “By the 1920s, most of the forests had been cut over, and sawmills were not profitable anymore. In 1930, cinnabar, the principal ore of mercury, was discovered in a six-mile-wide area beginning in east Howard County, extending across Pike County and ending in west Clark County. Companies began to mine this mineral, providing jobs for the citizens of the county. In 1931, mining was done both above and below surface. Cinnabar was extracted from these mines until 1944. Some of the old, abandoned mines can still be seen around the shores of Lake Greeson.

“The first recorded mining of gypsum in Arkansas occurred in 1922. It was mined by open-pit methods. A formation of gypsum is exposed in a narrow belt extending from the Little Missouri River westward into adjacent Howard County. The greatest thickness of this gypsum bed is 12 feet at Plaster Bluff in Pike County. All of the mining occurring now is across the county line in Howard County.”

A settlement known as Highland, which was southwest of Murfreesboro, had what was reported to be the largest peach orchard in the country by 1904. There were almost 4,600 acres of trees, and more than 200,000 bushels of Elberta peaches were shipped out in good years. People would come from surrounding states to work the harvest until the orchards began to decline following 1915.

Along with Glen Campbell, Pike County is best known for its diamonds. Murfreesboro became a boomtown for a time after John Wesley Huddleston found diamonds near there in 1906. Another boom period occurred when Wesley Oley Basham discovered the 40.23-carat Uncle Sam diamond in 1924. The realization later would set in that not enough diamonds would ever be found to make diamond mining a viable industry in the county.

Like a lot of Pike County residents, Huddleston was a struggling farmer. Who would have dreamed that he would become recognized as the first person outside South Africa to find diamonds at an original volcanic source? He was simply walking through one of his fields on that August day in 1906 when he saw something shining on the ground.

Huddleston came from a family with deep roots in the county. His grandfather, David Huddleston, had served as county judge for 22 years. A great-uncle had been the sheriff for a decade.

Here’s how Dean Banks tells the Huddleston story for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas: “The grandparents, parents and other members of the large extended family settled along the Little Missouri River a few miles south of Murfreesboro and owned several properties by the 243-acre tract where the diamonds were found. John and Sarah Huddleston’s home farm, 49.26 acres purchased in 1889 for $1,000, lay only a mile from the future diamond field. They also owned about 40 acres beside the field until their growing family evidently prompted them to sell that property. Later, after the birth of the last of their six daughters in 1899, the couple bought another 40 acres in the same area.

“Huddleston was known as one of the many avid outdoorsmen and amateur prospectors of his era, and no doubt he became familiar with the wooded hills and gullies of those 243 acres before he and Sarah paid $2,000 for the big tract in July 1905. The Huddlestons intended to finance the new property not only by farming or other work but also by selling appreciating parcels of land or using the rising value of their home place to secure loans from a well-to-do landowner of the area.

“In August 1906, however, Huddleston found two unusual crystals along a public road running through the new property. Experts in Little Rock and New York City identified them as diamonds, and soon word of the discovery got out. When diamond-mining interests appeared on the scene in September 1906, the Huddlestons accepted $360 cash for an extendable six-month option on the 243 acres at a purchase price of $36,000. Afterward, they signed deed contracts and received payments on principal and interest for almost 10 years.

“In later accounts, Huddleston was presented as an irresponsible son of a sharecropper or a dreamy backwoodsman who received cash for the property and soon squandered it. But actually the couple used the bulk of their available cash to buy clear title to land in Murfreesboro, rural Pike County and adjoining Clark County. In early 1908, the entire family moved to Arkadelphia, the Clark County seat, primarily to give the five daughters the social and cultural benefits of a city. In Arkadelphia, the Huddlestons reportedly enjoyed a life of ease and leisure. John Huddleston soon purchased an automobile and often was seen driving near his old home and the diamond field.”

His wife died in December 1917, and his youngest daughter died in February 1918. Huddleston moved back to Murfreesboro. A 1920 Arkansas Gazette story described him as “a wealthy man, as wealth goes in this remote region.”

Huddleston died in November 1941 and is buried three miles south of the diamond field.

“As wealth goes in this remote region” is a good phrase for what has never been a wealthy part of the state.

“During the Depression, the Civilian Conservation Corps was active in the area, and men from Murfreesboro assisted in CCC projects such as the Albert Pike campground in Montgomery County and Shady Lake in Polk County,” Foshee writes. “With Murfreesboro being a rural area, the majority of people at the time raised gardens. Wild berries and grapes grew abundantly in the countryside, where wild game also roamed. When the men went off to fight during World War II, many women moved themselves and their children to Texarkana or other nearby cities to look for employment, primarily in ordnance plants that were being built in southern Arkansas.”

Murfreesboro never reached 2,000 residents. The 2010 population was 1,641.

Delight, meanwhile, dropped from a high of 539 residents in 1910 (when it was bigger than Murfreesboro) to 279 people a century later.

What’s now Delight originally was known as the Wolf Creek settlement. A post office was established there in January 1832, and the community became a mail stop between Little Rock and Washington in Hempstead County.

One of the first settlers was Samuel Hasley, who purchased 43 acres from the government in what’s now Delight. The Hasley family name has been well known for decades in southwest Arkansas.

In the late 1800s, the Southwest Arkansas-Indian Territory Railroad Co. laid tracks through the area, which accelerated the harvest of Pike County’s abundant timber supplies. R.B.F. Key built a sawmill that began operation in 1897. Dr. William Kirkham, a prominent physician, was given the honor of naming the town in 1904. He chose the name Delight because it’s said that he was delighted to be living in the area.

The Ozan Lumber Co. was the area’s dominant business for much of the 20th century. The company owned 132,000 acres by 1956 and was sold to the Potlatch Corp. in the 1960s. Gravel mining also was common.

As the timber companies cleared the surrounding woodlands, farmers such as Glen Campbell’s father turned to growing cotton in the sandy loam. Like much of southwest Arkansas, Pike County no longer has any cotton acreage. These days, the sandy loam that Glen Campbell sang about has led to pine plantations, pastures for cattle and a state park where visitors can still search for diamonds.

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Bumpers: A senator remembered

Wednesday, January 6th, 2016

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

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

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

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

He would pace.

He would wave his arms.

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

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

I was taking notes.

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

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

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

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

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

Arkansas Democrat Washington bureau,” I answered.

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

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

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

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

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

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

I had to make a decision.

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

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

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

I never wrote the story that day.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Everything changed on a Friday night that spring.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here’s how the conversation went:

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

“No, he left about an hour ago.”

“Do you know where he went?”

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

“Do you know when he will return?”

“No, he didn’t say.”

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

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

No answer.

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

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

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

“No, he hasn’t.”

“Do you have any idea when he might?”

“No, I don’t.”

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

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

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

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

If only he had known the full story.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We’ll never see another one quite like him.

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Red: Born to coach

Tuesday, January 5th, 2016

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

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

Barry Switzer was a product of Crossett.

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

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

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

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

I could go on and on.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Parker always felt he was betrayed by Pell.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hayes was dismissed the next day.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Parker accepted.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He was born to be a coach.

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

 

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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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