Archive for July, 2009

An exciting prospect for Pine Bluff

Friday, July 17th, 2009

They used to call Louis Ramsay “Mr. Pine Bluff.”

He could just as easily have been called “Mr. Arkansas.”

Mr. Ramsay, who died in January 2004 at the age of 85, was a remarkable Arkansan. He was the only person in Arkansas history to have served as president of both the Arkansas Bankers Association and the Arkansas Bar Association. He was elected president of Simmons First National Bank in 1970 and served as chairman and chief executive officer from 1973-83. He helped make Simmons the statewide banking powerhouse it is today.

Mr. Ramsay was also a chairman of Arkansas Blue Cross & Blue Shield and served from 1971-81 on the University of Arkansas Board of Trustees. I could go on — chairman of the University of Arkansas Foundation, chairman of the Arkansas Science and Technology Authority, head of the 1986 Arkansas Sesquicentennial Celebration Commission.

He had been a Razorback quarterback in 1940 and 1941, earned medals for air combat service during World War II, joined the Pine Bluff law firm of Coleman & Gantt after graduation from law shcool and became a partner after only one year.

You get the point.

His daughter, Joy Blankenship, has long led downtown revitalization efforts in Pine Bluff.

Joy’s son, Drew Blankenship, is now an attorney for the state Department of Education. Drew is married to Pine Bluff native Ginny Blankenship, the research and fiscal policy director for Arkansas Advocates for Children and Families.

And Ginny, in her spare time away from work, is now leading the kind of effort that Louis Ramsay would have taken on were he still with us.

A bit of background: Those who have followed education reform in this state are aware of the amazing job the KIPP Delta College Preparatory School has done in Helena-West Helena. Scott Shirey, who has nursed the KIPP School since birth, is now hoping to expand the charter school concept across the Delta.

A request for proposals has been issued to open a second KIPP school in Pine Bluff, Blytheville or West Memphis. With state Sen. Steve Bryles going to bat for for Blytheville, Ginny decided to lead the effort for Pine Bluff. It’s a friendly competition. Bryles, one of the state’s better legislators, wants to eventually see KIPP schools in all three Delta cities. So does Shirey.

But where will the next one go?

“I am trying to build a coalition of as many people as possible who want to see this school come to Pine Bluff,” Ginny told me Friday over breakfast at the Ozark Family Restaurant in Little Rock (I guess we should have been at Sno-White in Pine Bluff).

KIPP has a nationwide network of 82 public charter schools with a track record of getting minority children from low-income families into college. In a state where 36 percent of black children never graduate from high school, KIPP offers hope.

In 2008, 86 percent of the KIPP students in the eighth grade at Helena-West Helena scored proficient or advanced on the state benchmark exam in math. That compared to 23 percent in the Helena-West Helena School District. I could provide many similar statistics.

In Pine Bluff, which has been bleeding population in recent years, that are at least two former school facilities that could be used for a KIPP school

“This would be an amazing opportunity to bring new life to Pine Bluff and give hundreds of kids a chance at a better life,” Ginny said.

Ginny, though, needs help from those who live in Central Arkansas and Southeast Arkansas. Go to http://vhblankenship.googlepages.com/coalitiontobringkipptopinebluff to learn more. She can’t do it alone.

Ginny, a 1994 graduate of Pine Bluff High School, needs your support. So do the kids in Pine Bluff.

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UALR Trojan football

Thursday, July 16th, 2009

Speaking of more residential facilities at UALR (see below post), one prominent Little Rock business leader is reported to have said: “Little Rock needs a full-fledged university. And in this part of the country, you’re not viewed by most of the public as a full-fledged university unless you have students living in dorms and a football team.”

UALR has students living in dorms these days, and it appears those numbers will be growing.

So what about that football team?

Consider the fact that UALR is in a conference — the Sun Belt Conference — with nine schools already playing football at the NCAA Division I level. Those schools are Arkansas State, Florida Atlantic, Florida International, Louisiana-Lafayette, Louisiana-Monroe, Middle Tennessee, North Texas, Troy and Western Kentucky. The conference champion earns a berth in the New Orleans Bowl.

Consider the fact that War Memorial Stadium, which has seen vast improvements under the dynamic leadership of commission chairman Gary Smith in recent years, is looking to put more games in the stadium. A UALR football program would add at least five games a fall to a mix that now includes two University of Arkansas games, the Delta Literacy Classic between UAPB and one of its SWAC opponents, Little Rock Catholic High School home games, the state high school championships, the Salt Bowl between Benton and Bryant high schools and several other high school games.

A bowl game might also be in the works. We’ll have more on that at a later date.

Consider the fact that even more improvements are on the way at the stadium with the construction of a modern press box scheduled to begin at the end of this season.

Consider the fact that with Razorback tickets harder to obtain and more expensive than ever, some marketing experts think there’s a market for other types of college games in the state’s largest metropolitan area.

Consider the increased coverage of Sun Belt games on the ESPN family of networks and the higher profile that a football team would give a university whose campus is removed from the business, commercial and governmental heart of Little Rock.

Consider the fact that some wealthy Little Rock residents have been alienated from the Fayetteville campus ever since the decision to go from three Razorback games each year in Little Rock to just two.

Consider the crowds that a conference match between UALR and ASU would draw.

Consider the crowds that a non-conference game between UALR and UCA would draw.

Consider the fact that UALR’s Chris Peterson, one of the nation’s most talented athletic directors, is an old football guy. Peterson, the son of a hall of fame college coach and athletic director, was an All-American quarterback coming out of high school in Huron, S.D. He played college football at Kansas State and Wisconsin-Milwaukee before signing a free agent contract with the St. Louis Cardinals of the NFL. He was a football coach on the college level for seven years. At Eastern Illinois, he coached current New Orleans Saints head coach Sean Payton.

Consider the fact that since coming to UALR, Peterson has been able to secure gifts of $1.6 million for the school’s baseball facility and $22.4 million for a new basketball arena. You don’t think he can raise private money to start a football program in a football-crazed state such as Arkansas?

It’s certain that nothing will happen until the economy turns around. But once that day comes — and who knows when that will be — Trojan football makes a lot of sense.

What do you think? Would you support a UALR football program?

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The education beat

Thursday, July 16th, 2009

There have been three pieces of education news this week that bode well for this state and its future.

The state Department of Education reported on Monday that for the first time, more than 60 percent of Arkansas students at each grade level scored at or above proficient on both the mathematics and the literacy portions of the state benchmark exams.

The massive amounts of new funding and the more stringent accountability standards enacted since the Arkansas Supreme Court’s November 2002 ruling in the Lake View case are working. Now, we must fight the good fight each legislative session to keep less-than-enlightened legislators from watering those standards down. Eternal vigilance will be required.

On the heels of that news on the general education front came the news Tuesday that UAMS has been awarded almost $20 million from the National Institutes of Health to be part of a consortium of institutions that attempts to translate basic science discoveries into speedier treatments and cures for patients. The UAMS Center for Clinical and Translational Research will occupy 24,000 square feet of the old UAMS hospital building.

On Thursday, meanwhile, the UALR Board of Visitors voted to build an honors residential complex on campus that will house 500 additional students. An upcoming bond issue of between $28 million and $30 million will fund the residential complex and other projects. It’s a huge step forward for UALR.

Nothing is more important to the future of this state’s largest city than the success of its public schools, the continued growth and success of UALR and the continued growth and success of UAMS. It has been a good week.

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Remembering Mr. Jack

Thursday, July 16th, 2009

There’s a great article in Forbes on Little Rock’s Stephens Inc. and how well the company is doing despite the current recession. It tells how Stephens Inc. has increased from 84 to 100 investment bankers in the past year and “aims to double its roster of retail brokers to 200 and hire more analysts and portfolio managers.”

It also recounts how the company has gone from 13 employees to 300 employees in its insurance division the past three years.

It’s good publicity for Little Rock and for Arkansas as a whole. There’s a nice photo of Warren Stephens with the caption: “No leverage, no problems.”

It’s also good for Arkansas when people across the country can hear about the Stephens brothers who founded the company, Mr. Witt and Mr. Jack.

My wife and I were married in October 1989 and moved from Washington, D.C., to Little Rock at that time. I was involved with Mr. Jack in a political exercise. And my wife, who had never even visited Arkansas until earlier that year, was hired to be part of Mr. Jack’s small personal staff on the third floor of the old Stephens Inc. building at Capitol and Scott across from what’s now the offices of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. Mr. Witt’s offices were on the second floor.

What a wonderful experience for both of us. While quieter and less public than his older brother, Mr. Jack was one of the smartest, kindest men I’ve ever met. I was only 30 years old at the time. To be able to duck hunt with him, fly several places with him and even drive his brown Mercedes to Brinkley on one occasion was the experience of a lifetime for a guy from Arkadelphia.

People know of the Jack Stephens Center at UALR, the Jack Stephens Spine and Neurosciences Institute at UAMS, the Jack Stephens campus of the Episcopal Collegiate School and the many other world-class facilities he helped fund. But too few know of his keen wit and sense of humor.

My wife was most nervous when she would have to sit at the desk of Mr. Jack’s long-time secretary while the secretary went to lunch. That’s because invariably, in those pre-Internet days, Mr. Stephens would call during that hour and ask: “How’s the market doing?”

Looking up the answer would make my wife sweat bullets, though Mr. Jack was always patient. The payoff for sitting at the desk for an hour would be getting anything left over from Mr. Witt’s famed luncheons downstairs, including the dripping-in-butter Stephens cornbread.

Speaking of cornbread, Warren Stephens’ most recent great contribution to this city would have to be bringing Lee Richardson up from New Orleans to serve as the chef at the Capital Hotel. Lee was a James Beard Foundation finalist this year for best chef in the South.

If you haven’t tried his cooking at either Ashley’s or the Capital Bar & Grill, you’re missing out on some of the best food this state has to offer. We might lose Bobby Petrino from this state one of these days, but by all means don’t let anyone steal Lee Richardson. Good chefs are harder to find than good football coaches.

By the way, the prices at both of the hotel’s dining venues are surprisingly reasonable for the quality of food offered.

I love the fact that the Capital Bar & Grill still keeps the table reserved where Mr. Jack would hang out prior to his death. And knowing that he liked to eat a cheeseburger every night for supper, I can tell you that Lee and his staff serve one heck of a cheeseburger. Warren, your dad would be proud.

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A wealth of tomatoes

Thursday, July 16th, 2009

My favorite roadside fruit and vegetable stand in Arkansas is at the intersection of U.S. 70 and Arkansas 33 at Biscoe.

If you’re traveling to or from Memphis on Interstate 40, just get off at the Biscoe exit and drive a couple of miles south on Highway 33 to the stop sign. You’ll see the roadside stand just on the other side of U.S. 70.

I won’t be stopping as much as I did last summer when I was commuting to an office in Clarksdale, Miss., each week. But a business trip to Wynne last week did allow for a stop (after lunch at Craig’s in DeValls Bluff). And I can tell you that they are flooded with locally grown tomatoes right now and willing to make a deal.

“Are you sure you don’t want to buy an entire flat?” the lady asked.

“We can’t eat that many right now,” I answered, explaining that my wife and youngest son were down in metropolitan McGehee for the state baseball tournament.

“I’ll sell you half a flat for $7,” she said.

It was a deal. Many of the tomatoes are picked within walking distance of the stand. After just a couple of days of ripening in my kitchen window at home, they ended up being the best tomatoes I’ve had this summer. Sorry, Paul Greenberg, but they were even better than the Bradley County pinks I had bought at the produce room of the Green Tree Nursery on Rodney Parham. And those cost $8 for just four big tomatoes.

The cantaloupes are also some of the best I’ve had. Just be warned that during this hot period, your car will smell like a cantaloupe for several more days. So be sure you like the smell.

One warning: Stay away from the cucumbers. I got a bitter batch last summer. I decided to give them another try last week. Again, they were bitter.

Our extensive research on bitter cucumbers (we’re here to serve) has revealed that the  bitterness is the result of stress than can be caused by everything from heredity to moisture to temperature to soil characteristics. Two compounds, cucurbitacins B and C, give rise to the bitter taste.

There you have it. And make sure to use the word “cucurbitacin” in a sentence later today.

Buy the tomatoes. You won’t be disappointed.

Where is your favorite roadside stand this time of year? We’re not talking some fancy “farmers’ market” where people in khaki shorts, madras shirts, Topsiders and no socks pretend they’re “being country.”

We’re talking real roadside stands.

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Kane

Wednesday, July 15th, 2009

You likely have heard by now that the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette is losing one of its finest writers.

I will miss reading Kane Webb’s articles and columns now that he is leaving full-time newspaper work to teach at Little Rock’s Catholic High School for Boys. But the readers’ loss is my family’s gain.

You see, I have a son who will be a junior at Catholic High. And Kane will be teaching a number of classes for juniors.

I have another son at Holy Souls who hopefully will be entering Catholic High in two years. I imagine Kane will also have a chance to teach him.

Kane is the first one to admit he has changed jobs quite a bit in his career. But I have a feeling that he will be at Catholic High for a long time. He’s a graduate of the school, you see. Those who have not attended Catholic High or had a son there cannot truly understand the intense brotherhood that is the school’s hallmark. Heck, I’m a Baptist who attended the public schools and loved it. But I married a Catholic and have two Catholic sons.

I have come to fully understand the feelings of loyalty of the part of those who attend Catholic High.

I’m reminded of Bear Bryant’s line when asked why he was leaving Texas A&M to coach at his alma mater, Alabama: “Momma called.”

When Steve Straessle offered a job to Kane, it was “Momma calling.”

I hope Kane will have time to still do free-lance writing. I’ve accompanied him on the Delta barbecue tour and the Delta tamale tour. There still should be tours for fried chicken, catfish and plate lunches.

And then there’s that grandest of all ideas — the Southern independent bookstore tour — with stops in Blytheville, Memphis, Oxford, Greenville, Greenwood and elsewhere. That’s not to mention the boudin tour in south Louisiana.

Perhaps Kane could even join those of us who are blogging with something along the lines of “Inside Catholic High.” I’m not sure what Father Tribou would have thought of this technology, though. Heck, he never caught onto the idea of air conditioning.

As the sign in the hall at Catholic High says: “If you think it’s hot in here. . . God.”

One thing is certain — when you begin hiring people like Kane Webb, it’s evident that Steve Straessle isn’t simply resting on Father Tribou’s laurels.

Congratulations, Kane. And go Rockets.

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Thank you

Wednesday, July 15th, 2009

A simple “thank you” is in order for the many people who turned out at Little Rock’s White Water Tavern on Tuesday afternoon for the launch party of this blog. If you didn’t know about it, that’s my fault.

If you didn’t know how to find the location, that’s your fault. You could have asked any of the folks standing under the railroad overpass on Seventh Street.

I am grateful to the good folks at The Communications Group for throwing a party (and giving me a job). At first, they were thinking the Little Rock Club. For this blog, it was just not the right fit. Don’t get me wrong. I love putting on one of my Arkansas Derby ties and having lunch at the Little Rock Club while trying not to get salad dressing on a white shirt. Gene Baxter always makes you feel welcome.

For this event, though, I did not want people to say: “Well, I guess I ought to drop by there for 10 minutes on the way home. I should be seen. It will be a networking opportunity.”

To heck with that.

I wanted people to say: “This sounds fun.”

And White Water was perfect for that. To the White Water regulars, I am sorry for the handwritten sign that read: “Last call at 3:30 p.m. due to a private party.”

White Water was featured in Esquire a few years ago, Paul Reyes described by saying that “stuffed mounts — a gopher, a red fox, a weasel and a boar, of course — welcome you to this cabin clubhouse.”

And he gave Sweet Connie a mention.

Paul went on to write: “The local bands that perform here have given up on the delusion of stardom and the hassles of touring, are wont to experimentation and untethered jamming on the makeshift catty-corner of a stage. White Water generates some noise and some riffraff in the neighborhood, but it’s a small price for what it’s done to nurture Little Rock’s grossly underrecognized music scene.”

Amen.

I’ll admit there are days when I want to visit a chain. I’m ready for the salad at Olive Garden. More often than not, though, I try to spend my money (and the company’s money in the case of yesterday’s event) at independent, unique establishments — the kind of places that give Arkansas its sense of place.

Whether it’s White Water on a Friday night or Ashley’s at the Capital Hotel for Sunday brunch, the independents should come first. White Water is one of those places that does much to nurture not only our local music scene but the whole idea of Little Rock being a pretty neat Southern city.

After having had an office in the Mississippi Delta the past four years, I also want to offer this bit of sacrilege: The music heritage of the Arkansas Delta is greater than that of the Mississippi Delta because it is more diverse. Mississippi has done a better job of capitalizing on its heritage with blues tourism, but Arkansas also has great blues musicians. And we have more — a Johnny Cash from Dyess, a Charlie Rich from Colt, a Louis Jordan from Brinkley, an Al Green from Forrest City and on and on. They cover many genres outside the blues.

Thanks for your comment on the first post, Stephen Koch. And thanks for all you do to advance Arkansas’ music heritage. I want to explore this more with you.

To the boss, I am sorry I didn’t make more of a sales pitch in my speech last night. But there was barbecue to be eaten and old friends to visit. In other words, a perfect way to spend a hot Tuesday afternoon in July in a state I love.

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A chance to write

Monday, July 13th, 2009

It seems like yesterday, though it has been almost 28 years.

I had just finished college at Ouachita, and I had also completed my tenure as the sports editor of Arkadelphia’s Daily Siftings Herald. A job in the sports department at the Arkansas Democrat awaited me. So did the chance to live somewhere other than Arkadelphia for the first time in my life. I had been born in Arkadelphia, graduated from high school there and attended college there.

Though I had lived in a dorm rather than at home during my college years, this would be the first time to truly be away from home. My parents followed me to Little Rock that day and helped me move into my furnished apartment at the old Rebsamen Park complex (a new complex is just going in at that location). I would be close to work and plenty of good restaurants, including the Steak & Egg on Cantrell for those late nights after work.

We moved in, and then my dad offered to buy dinner at the Steak & Ale on Cantrell. In 1981, the concept and even those goofy waiters’ uniforms still worked. At about 8 p.m., my parents headed back to Arkadelphia, and I drove down the street to the new apartment and the new life that awaited me.

I knew my parents wanted me to attend law school. The thought bored me to tears. I wanted to write. I wanted to be published. I wanted to attend sports events and get paid for it.

Wally Hall, the newspaper’s relatively new sports editor, had made me promise I would not tell anyone else at the Democrat that he was paying me $230 a week.

“We have people who have been here for years who don’t make that much,” he said.

How could I turn down such an opportunity?

I would leave the paper after a year to go back to Arkadelphia as the editor of the Siftings Herald. I would later return, though, and was Wally’s No. 2 person in the sports deparment when managing editor John Robert Starr called early one Monday morning in the summer of 1986.

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

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

“Well, you need to apply because I have already decided you’re the person I’m sending,” he said.

You didn’t argue with Bob Starr in those days. I did mention how much fun I was having. I had even covered the Super Bowl in New Orleans earlier that year. I told him I had an obligation to Wally.

“Wally will do what I tell him to do,” Starr said in his matter-of-fact way.

He went on to tell me how he had started as a sportswriter for The Commercial Appeal at Memphis and thought it was all he would ever want to do for a living.

“Then,” he said, “I asked myself a question. Do I want to be 50 years old and begging a naked 18-year-0ld kid in a dressing room for a quote?”

It was food for thought.

So I moved to Washington, began covering politics, met the saint who is now my wife and spent four wonderful years on the East Coast before the urge to return to Arkansas got the best of me.

I would have the chance later to be the newspaper’s first full-time political editor during Bill Clinton’s 1992 campaign for president and during his first term. I would appear on national television and radio shows, as everyone in Arkansas with a pen and a press pass got his or her 15 minutes of fame. It was a surreal time to be an Arkansas newspaperman.

I would move to government in 1996 and spend more than nine years at Mike Huckabee’s side before being appointed by the president to work for four years on the problems of the Delta, a region of our country I have come to love.

I have been blessed to never have what I consider a real job.

Now, after 13 years in government, it’s back to the private sector. And there’s this blog as an outlet for the things I want to discuss. Blogs weren’t around back in 1981. But I feel like that 22-year-old all over again today because I have the chance to write.

And, Mr. Starr, if you’re reading up there in that newsroom in the sky, I am almost 50 and not having to beg any naked 18-year-olds for quotes. Not yet anyway.

Dad is in a nursing home here in Little Rock now. Mom lives in an apartment within walking distance of where he is. I hope to keep the house in Arkadelphia.

I just wish Steak and Ale were still in business so I could take Mom to dinner there tonight to celebrate. After almost 28 years, I feel young again.

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