Archive for August, 2011

College football: Week 1

Tuesday, August 30th, 2011

It’s finally here.

I’m talking about football season.

And I’m catching up for lost time.

On Saturday afternoon, my youngest son and I drove over to historic Quigley-Cox Stadium in Little Rock to watch Arkansas Baptist College open its season with a 24-16 loss to Joliet Junior College from Illinois. Despite the defeat, it was evident that the state’s only junior college football program has made vast improvement since starting from scratch in 2007.

Congratulations to Arkansas Baptist president Fitz Hill, athletic director Charles Ripley and head coach Richard Wilson for doing what many said couldn’t be done.

That’s not to mention how good the pork chop sandwich we bought at the concession stand was. I always have my priorities straight.

On Monday, I was among the more than 700 people who listened intently as Arkansas head coach Bobby Petrino addressed the season’s first meeting of the Little Rock Touchdown Club.

What a difference two years makes.

When Petrino addressed the club two years ago, he was wound tight; a bit distracted even.

On Monday, he was loose, funny and fun. It’s clear he likes this team and where his program is headed.

On Monday night, I went out to War Memorial Stadium for parts of two high school football games as Parkview defeated Mills and Pulaski Academy defeated Central Arkansas Christian.

I’ll be back out at the stadium tonight for the second evening of the annual Kickoff Classic. It’s a nice way to start the high school football season.

On Thursday night, I’ll likely catch Henderson against UCA on the new purple-and-gray turf of Estes Stadium in Conway.

On Friday night, it’s back to War Memorial Stadium for the Salt Bowl between Benton and Bryant. That will be followed by a quick drive to the KARN studios in order to co-host the high school scoreboard show for another year.

On Saturday, I’m going down to Monticello to watch UAM host Arkansas Tech.

If it all works out, that means I’ll be at games on six of the first eight days of the season. That’s not a bad way to celebrate my birthday week.

For a third consecutive year, I’ll make predictions on this blog each week for all of the college programs in the state.

Here we go with Week 1:

Arkansas 51, Missouri State 17 — The goals for these first three games of the 2011 season are to be 3-0, get the starters at least a half of work each Saturday, get the backups plenty of work and avoid injuries if at all possible. One has to wonder if games against Missouri State, New Mexico and Troy will properly prepare the Hogs for their Sept. 24 contest at Alabama. Arkansas and what’s now Missouri State first played in 1911. The schools most recently played each other two years ago. Arkansas has won all six meetings between the two schools — four of them in Fayetteville and two in Little Rock. Enjoy your first tailgate party of the season because the game will be decided well before halftime.

Illinois 36, Arkansas State 22 — Having been in Jonesboro for two days last week, I can tell you that Hugh Freeze has created excitement across northeast Arkansas as the new head man at Arkansas State. When Steve Roberts was the head coach, Arkansas State had a way of playing better than expected in these early season “money games” (just ask Texas A&M). I think the Red Wolves will do the same under Freeze. Ron Zook’s team is pretty good, though. The Illini ended the 2010 season with a 38-14 romp over Baylor in the Texas Bowl. Illinois is 51-27-4 when opening the season at home. Look for an Illinois victory — but one that has to be earned — as Zook begins his seventh season at the school.

UCA 38, Henderson 24 — The Bears would be wise not to take the Reddies lightly. Henderson won a share of the Gulf South Conference championship last season. Coach Scott Maxfield has his program at Arkadelphia right where he wants it. As for the Bears, they return 10 offensive and seven defensive starters off a squad that went 7-4 in 2010. If Nathan Dick has a good year at quarterback, UCA should contend for a Southland Conference championship.

UAPB 28, Langston 13 — The Delta Classic at War Memorial Stadium is always fun. It’s not Grambling coming to town this year, but the UAPB band will still put on a tremendous show despite not having its biggest “band rival” playing across the way. Whether the football team also puts on a good show is yet to be seen. Monte Coleman has gone 13-20 in three years as the UAPB head coach. The Golden Lions return six offensive and six defensive starters. They should be OK on Saturday as they step down in classification to battle an NAIA school. Langston is coming off a 6-4 campaign in which it missed the NAIA playoffs for the first time in three seasons.

Harding 30, Southern Arkansas 21 — Harding would seem to have the upper hand to start the season even though the Bisons are on the road. Bill Keopple has gone 4-16 in his first two seasons at the helm in Magnolia. The Muleriders are going to be better this year than they were when they went 1-9 in 2010, but it’s likely to be later in the year before the progress is evident. Harding seems poised to make a run for the first Great American Conference championship.

Arkansas Tech 20, UAM 10 — I’ll go with yet another road team as play begins in the new Great American Conference. Tech rarely has a down year under Steve Mullins (who is 89-61 at the school). But last year was one of those down years as the Wonder Boys struggled to a 4-7 record. To add to the frustration, Mullins kicked quarterback Rico Keller off the team at the end of spring practice. UAM, however, has even more of a building job. Hud Jackson, the former UCA assistant, headed south following the resignation of former Boll Weevil head coach Gwaine Matthews. Jackson brought three other former UCA assistants with him. They take over a program with just five returning starters. Seventeen players who participated in spring practice aren’t around due to problems with their grades. Jackson will get this program turned around, but you’ll need to give him two or three years.

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Hot catfish at Grady

Friday, August 19th, 2011

For the 56th time, they held the Grady Lions Club Fish Fry under the big trees of the Ned Hardin pecan grove.

It’s always held on the third Thursday in August. Always.

It was cooler than usual last night.

The crowd seemed bigger than it had been in recent years.

The fried catfish, fries, hushpuppies and sliced watermelon were as good as ever.

I checked my old calendars and was able to determine that this was the 15th time in the past 16 years that I’ve been to Grady on the third Thursday night in August. The only fish fry I missed during that stretch was in 2004. I was Gov. Mike Huckabee’s representative on the board of the Delta Regional Authority at the time, and we were interviewing candidates in a Memphis hotel that day for the DRA’s chief operating officer’s job.

I’ve written before that my favorite annual winter event is the Slovak Oyster Supper and my favorite annual summer event is the Grady Fish Fry. Both are rural Arkansas traditions.

Bubba Lloyd was behind the wheel last night. I figure that if you’re headed to a catfish supper in southeast Arkansas, you at least ought to have a Bubba driving.

First-time attendees Blake Eddins and Randy Ensminger joined us for the trip south.

More than one person remembered Blake from his days as a Razorback basketball player for Nolan Richardson.

Randy, meanwhile, is a member of the board of the Southern Food & Beverage Museum at New Orleans, and we found a fading sign that we’re hopeful the Hardins will donate to the museum. It advertises sorghum, sweet potatoes, pecans, cane syrup — all things Southern.

I have a feeling that Blake and Randy will be back at this event next August. They took it all in — the prisoners waiting tables, the prison band playing, the politicians making the rounds, the folks from all over southeast Arkansas visiting with each other and enjoying themselves.

As always, we visited at length with Sen. Mark Pryor, who also makes it a point not to miss this event.

It’s like something out of a movie. If you have any doubts that the South still lives, all you have to do is show up at the Hardin pecan grove on the third Thursday night in August and erase those doubts.

They start serving the fish each year at 4 p.m. They stop at 8 p.m. In between, hundreds of people make their way through the line and watch the amazing hushpuppy machine (constructed years ago from salvaged farm equipment) drop the batter (two hushpuppies at a time) into the hot grease.

My love for south and east Arkansas — areas of the state that are losing population and often are overlooked by the so-called opinion makers — is evident to those who read this blog. There are fine people and rich traditions in these areas of our state.

I attended the fish fry on a day that had started on a bright note. While having my first cup of coffee, I read in the newspaper that W.O. Prince is reopening his classic Riverfront Restaurant and Fish Market where U.S. Highway 70 crosses the Cache River at Biscoe.

For years, one of my regular stops on the old highway to Memphis was the place known to the locals simply as W.O.’s. You would turn down the gravel road to your right just before crossing the Cache River bridge when heading east. You would order your supper in the bait shop. You would then walk down to the boat that floated on the Cache. They would bring the food down the hill to you. The steaks were as good as the catfish.

They’ll serve lunch on Friday, Saturday, Sunday and Monday from 11 a.m. until 2 p.m.

They’ll serve dinner each Friday and Saturday from 5 p.m. until 9 p.m.

They’re supposed to open today. I’ll make a road trip soon.

In thinking about east Arkansas landmarks such as W.O.’s and the Hardin pecan grove, I go back to the points I made in a newspaper column earlier this week. I see nothing on the horizon that leads me to believe that the population shift in this state from the east and the south to the north and the west will slow anytime soon.

People go where the jobs are. It’s that simple.

Grady is in Lincoln County. Biscoe is at the edge of Prairie County (my mother’s home county) just before Monroe County begins on the other side of the Cache. Places such as Lincoln, Monroe and Prairie counties have been losing population since the end of World War II, when the mechanization of agriculture meant that thousands of sharecroppers and tenant farmers were no longer required. Monroe County, in fact, lost more population than any county in Arkansas during the previous decade — 20.5 percent.

The rural-to-urban trend, of course, is a nationwide trend. It’s hard to believe that rural America now accounts for just 16 percent of the nation’s population.

Mark Mather of the Population Reference Bureau put it this way in a recent interview: “Some of the most isolated rural areas face a major uphill battle, with a broad area of the country emptying out. Many rural areas can’t attract workers because there aren’t any jobs, and businesses won’t relocate there because there aren’t enough qualified workers. So they are caught in a downward spiral.”

Here, however, is the thing most of those who write about and comment on the population shifts in Arkansas miss: The forests of south Arkansas and the farmlands of east Arkansas remain vital to our state’s overall economy.

I would contend that they’re about to play a bigger role than ever.

Here’s why:

– The latest projections show that the world’s population will increase from about 7 billion people today to 9.5 billion by 2050.

– That population increase means that net agricultural production will have to increase by 60 to 70 percent during the next four decades just to satisfy the need for food and energy.

– More than 37 million acres of arable land are displaced annually by population growth, making key agricultural areas such as Arkansas more important than ever in our interconnected global economy.

– Extreme weather conditions in 2009 and 2010 across Russia, China and Southeast Asia helped drive U.S. grain and cotton prices to record highs. Because of predictions of even higher prices for corn and wheat, along with record demands for soybeans and cotton, U.S. farmers planted 10 million more acres this year than last year. Arkansas is in a prime position to take advantage of these trends.

– Low cattle inventories, the grain shortage and revised trade agreements have pushed milk, meat and egg prices to record highs. Due to this and the high grain prices, U.S. farmland values have increased an average of 5 to 7 percent despite the recession. That means that land in the Arkansas Delta is becoming more valuable rather than less valuable.

– Advances in technology are making the production of alternative fuels more feasible, another factor in betting that the value of the pine woods to the south and the row-crop areas to the east will increase in the coming decade.

– In what’s increasingly an urbanized state, the farming, livestock and forestry sectors still account for 260,000 Arkansas jobs. That’s more than one of every six jobs in the state.

– Agricultural products account for 12 percent of the state’s gross domestic product. That compares to 6.94 percent for the Southeast United States as a region and 5.52 percent for the nation as a whole.

– Agricultural workers in Arkansas receive more than $9.5 billion in annual wages and salaries.

– With 49,100 farms on 13.6 million acres, Arkansas ranks 12th nationally in farm receipts, first in rice production, fourth in timber, second in broilers, third in cotton and cottonseed, third in catfish, third in turkeys, fifth in sweet potatoes, ninth in eggs and 10th in soybeans and grain sorghums.

Even as the population of many east and south Arkansas counties declines, their value to the state’s overall economy remains strong. That’s a fact that shouldn’t be lost on this state’s growing percentage of urbanites.

For me, the Grady Fish Fry represents more than a chance to eat fried catfish.

It represents all that is right about rural Arkansas. 

 

 

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Back from the Redneck Riviera

Thursday, August 18th, 2011

Schools have opened across Arkansas, and the flood of Arkansans who make the annual summer trek to the Redneck Riviera has slowed to a trickle.

Oh sure, there are those couples without children (or with grown children) who will go now that things are a bit quieter down on the coast.

But summer is when the big migration occurs. After several years away, our family of four made the trip a few weeks ago. By the size of the crowds, it appeared that Gulf Coast tourism is back following the disaster to bottom lines caused last year by the BP oil spill.

Not wanting to take chances on soiled beaches or unpleasant smells, we were among those last summer who canceled reservations. We had been set to go to Orange Beach in Alabama. We went to Eureka Springs instead.

Two years ago, I was starting a new job. We had no family vacation.

So this was our first family trip to the coast since 2008, the year we had our longest coastal visit. We had begun that vacation by staying a couple of nights at the Treasure Bay in Biloxi. We then spent a week in a house at Gulf Shores, drove east to Destin for three nights and then finished the trip with a Delta Regional Authority planning retreat at the venerable Grand Hotel on the shore of Mobile Bay.

It was a memorable trip that allowed us to visit a number of our favorite places along the coast.

This summer, I was determined not to let anything get in the way of a return trip. We would share a house with my sister, her husband and their daughter at Seagrove Beach in Walton County, Fla.

Our Friday departure was delayed by a morning meeting I had to attend in Conway. Our usual “to the coast” plan is to leave around 10 a.m. and have lunch at the Pickens Store in the old commissary building at the R.A. Pickens & Son plantation just south of Dumas. There’s not a better plate lunch in southeast Arkansas.

Since we didn’t depart Little Rock until almost 1 p.m., I feared it would be too late for lunch once we reached Pickens. So we had lunch at another favorite spot, Bobby Garner’s Sno-White Grill in Pine Bluff.

Due to the late start, we made it only as far as Hattiesburg, staying at a relatively new Holiday Inn at the point where U.S. Highway 49 intersects Interstate 59. There were Arkansas license plates spotted in the parking lot, a sure sign that the Redneck Riviera migration was taking place in full force.

Rather than taking the direct route to Florida along U.S. Highway 98, we headed south on 49 for lunch at Mary Mahoney’s in Biloxi. I’ve written before on this blog that my summer trips to the beach as a child were always to Gulfport or Biloxi.

You see, my father traveled the state for a living. He didn’t want to travel more than he had to. When I would beg to go to the beach, we would go to the closest beach in Mississippi. I didn’t even realize that the emerald water and sugar-white beaches existed a couple of hours to the east.

That said, I’ve always loved the Mississippi coast — its old homes, its live oak trees, its charming towns such as Pass Christian and Bay St. Louis.

I still mourn the fact that Hurricane Katrina six years ago blew so many of those homes away. During the first few years Melissa and I were married, we would head to the Misssissippi coast to stay in one of the cottages at the Broadwater Beach Hotel (still an empty property since being destroyed by Katrina, though it had long since seen its better days by the time the storm hit) and eat seafood at McElroy’s (which also never returned to its Biloxi location after the storm).

On my childhood trips to the Mississippi coast, Mary Mahoney’s was the “special night out” place for dinner.

We’ve continued that tradition with our own children. Since a summer schedule that was far too busy didn’t allow for any nights in Biloxi before or after our week in Florida, a Saturday lunch at Mary Mahoney’s would have to suffice.

Rest assured that the food at lunch is just as good as dinner always is. In fact, our boys thought it was the best meal of the trip. As always, Bobby Mahoney was there to make sure everything was running properly And I had my fill of the stuffed flounder.

Here’s wishing the Mississippi coast continued success in its recovery from Katrina.

What about the food over on in Florida’s Walton County?

The first night found us on the side porch of George’s in Alys Beach, a pleasant way to start our Florida visit.

After buying groceries at WaterColor’s large Publix store, there was a lot of cooking at the house.

There were also some trips out, though.

I love going to get coffee and newspapers each morning — one morning it was the Modica Market at Seaside (with a New York Times purchased next door at Sundog Books). There was a morning trip to the Fonville Press at Alys Beach (which has decent coffee drinks but unfortunately appears to have done away with the books and newspapers).

On other mornings we visited Amavida Coffee in Rosemary Beach and Flip Flops in Seagrove Beach for beignets.

We bought seafood for the house from the Goatfeathers market in Seagrove Beach and liked it so much that we drove over to Santa Rosa Beach one day for a seafood lunch at Goatfeathers Restaurant.

It was decided that we would spend at least one day viewing the crowds and the traffic jams at Panama City Beach (we called it our “tacky day,” and it included 36 holes of miniature golf).

A trip to Panama City Beach calls for dinner at the famed Capt. Anderson’s (which says it serves more seafood than any restaurant in Florida), but I suggest you get there by 4:30 p.m. if you’re impatient like me and don’t like to wait.

I’ve never made a secret of the fact that my favorite freshwater fish to eat is crappie (smallmouth bass, on the other hand, is the species I most like to catch). My favorite saltwater fish is pompano, and the grilled pompano at Capt. Anderson’s was superb.

The “special night out” we always try to have was spent this year eating dinner at the Caliza Pool at Alys Beach. It was an early birthday gift for Melissa. The prices were high, but the atmosphere was incredible and the food was worth the cost.

When designing Alys Beach, architects Erik Vogt and Marieanne Khoury-Vogt wanted to make the pool the development’s centerpiece.

Here’s how the Alys Beach website describes it: “Caliza Pool was conceived as a communal space in the timeless tradition of the Greek agora or the Roman piazza and is actually a complex comprising a 50-by-100-foot main pool, a separate family pool, a 75-foot lap pool and a spa whirlpool. Throughout, exquisite architecture is punctuated with arched colonnades, private cabanas, fountains, lush landscaping and views of the Gulf of Mexico from an elevated terrace.

“Caliza means ‘limestone’ in Spanish, and the main pool terrace is completely paved in Dominican limestone. This main pool is a 100-foot-long ellipse and is one of the largest saltwater pools in the world. … The dining loggia is centered on an open-air bar decorated with mosaic and Cuban tiles. On each side of the bar are dining areas with tables shaded by a gallery roof and seating niches built within a thickened wall that is punctuated by wood-screened openings.”

Dinner overlooking the pool is served each Monday through Saturday beginning at 5:30 p.m.

Needing one last seafood fix on the way home, we had lunch at Felix’s Fish Camp, which overlooks Mobile Bay just off Interstate 10.

An Arkansas tradition for those on their pilgrimage to the Redneck Riviera is to honk in the Mobile tunnel on the way to the coast.

We did.

Sad that the vacation has ended so quickly, it’s traditional not to honk on the way home.

We also followed that tradition, silently driving through the tunnel — another vacation done, new memories made.

Please share your favorite spots along the Redneck Riviera with us.

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Touchdown for the Little Rock Touchdown Club!

Tuesday, August 16th, 2011

It was on a Tuesday — June 8, 2004, to be exact — that I met David Bazzel for lunch at Ciao in downtown Little Rock.

Yes, I keep my old calendars.

I was working in the governor’s office at the time. David, as is still the case, had his fingers in multiple pies.

Neither of us needed anything else to do, but there was something we agreed on that day — Little Rock was hungry for a football club that would meet weekly during the fall.

In fact, Little Rock was one of the largest Southern cities without a high-profile football club that would bring in outside speakers, earn media attention and allow folks to celebrate a sport that borders on religion in this part of the country.

I don’t know that you can say the Little Rock Touchdown Club was born over pasta that June day, but it’s as good a starting point as any.

Fortunately, David took the ball and ran with it.

On Aug. 25 of that year, a small group of Little Rock football enthusiasts met in the private room that’s just off the main dining room of the Little Rock Hilton to formally start the club.

On the ballroom level of the Hilton, the first official meeting of the Little Rock Touchdown Club was held on Monday, Sept. 13, 2004.

We met each week through the first Monday in December. Each week, the crowds grew. We held the club’s first awards banquet on the evening of Dec. 16, 2004.

Seven years later, the club is among the most successful organizations of its type in the country. It outgrew the Hilton ballroom that first year and has called the Embassy Suites home since 2005.

Earlier this afternoon in the lobby of the Metropolitan Building in downtown Little Rock, David announced the 2011 lineup. It might be the best yet.

The club again will meet for lunch on Mondays at the Embassy Suites in west Little Rock. The lunch buffet will open at 11 a.m. each week, and the program will begin at 11:50 a.m.

Bobby Petrino will kick things off Aug. 29. Two years ago when the Arkansas head football coach spoke, almost 700 people were in attendance. With the excitement levels as high as I’ve ever seen them in Arkansas, it should be another full house this year.

Here’s the rest of the schedule:

Sept. 6 — Gene Stallings, who won a national title as head coach at Alabama in 1992 and now lives in Paris, Texas. This is the one meeting that won’t be on a Monday since that Monday is Labor Day. It will be on Tuesday.

Sept. 12 — Bobby Bowden, the legendary former head coach at Florida State. This is the one meeting that won’t be at Embassy Suites. It will be at the Peabody Little Rock.

Sept. 19 – Lloyd Carr, the former Michigan coach who led the Wolverines to the national championship in 1997.

Sept. 26 — Barry Lunney Jr. and Tony Cherico, the former Razorback stars who are now on the coaching staff at Bentonville High School.

Oct. 3 — Pat Dye, the former Auburn head coach. This will be Dye’s third appearance in Little Rock. He might just be my favorite speaker in Touchdown Club history.

Oct. 10 — Hugh Freeze, the new Arkansas State head coach who first spoke to the club last year (as Red Wolf offensive coordinator) on the day Steve Roberts was dismissed.

Oct. 17 — Jeff Long, the Arkansas athletic director who has done an excellent job during his tenure of reaching out to the Central Arkansas business community.

Oct. 24 — Larry Lacewell, the former Arkansas State head coach who is one of the funniest men I know.

Oct. 31 — Clint Conque, the UCA head coach who is now the winningest head football coach in school history.

Nov. 7 — Johnny Majors, the former Pittsburgh and Tennessee head coach who will be addressing the club for the second time.

Nov. 14 — Mark Mangino, the former Kansas head coach who received nine national coach of the year awards following the 2007 season.

Nov. 21 — Mark Schlabach, a national college football columnist for ESPN.com who has covered college football for two decades.

Nov. 28 — Brothers Jay and Chris Bequette, both former Razorbacks.

Football clubs have a long tradition in this country, especially in the South.

The Touchdown Club of Washington, D.C., for example, was formed back in 1935 by Arthur “Dutch” Bergman, who had played football with George Gipp at Notre Dame (and would go on to coach the Washington Redskins in 1943). He would later manage RFK Stadium in Washington, where I watched many great NFL games during the years I lived on Capitol Hill.

The Touchdown Club of Washington held its first awards dinner at the venerable Willard Hotel in 1937 and began calling its awards the Timmie Awards in 1946.

In September 1938, a group of football fans in Georgia formed the Touchdown Club of Atlanta. That club is still going strong after all these decades.

Even though it was formed in 1939, a year after the Atlanta club, I consider the Monday Morning Quarterback Club of Birmingham to be the granddaddy of Southern football clubs because of the enormous amout of charitable work it has done through the years.

The club was started by Birmingham News sports editor Zipp Newman. At the time, polio was rampant, affecting thousands of children nationwide. Club members promoted an annual high school football game to raise money to care for children with polio. More than $3 million was raised through the years for the Crippled Children’s Clinic and Hospital.

In late 1969, that facility became part of the University of Alabama at Birmingham’s medical center. The Crippled Children’s Foundation was formed. In November 2008, the club pledged $8 million for the construction of a new children’s hospital.

Birmingham — where college football is discussed 365 days a year — even has a second club, the Over the Mountain Touchdown Club. That club presents the Bobby Bowden National Collegiate Coach of the Year Award.

Down in Montgomery, meanwhile, 30 businessmen got together in September 1940 at what was then the Jeff Davis Hotel to form the Montgomery Quarterback Club. Bear Bryant of Alabama and Shug Jordan of Auburn would make regular appearances through the years. The club now holds dinner meetings on Tuesday nights during the season.

In 1941, businessmen in Selma formed the Selma Quarterback Club. Despite the loss of population and economic vitality in Selma through the years, the club plugs on.

In neighboring Florida, the Tallahassee Quarterback Club has been around since 1949. It holds dinner meetings and presents the annual Biletnikoff Award to the nation’s oustanding college wide receiver.

Up in St. Louis, the Greater St. Louis Quarterback Club was formed in 1960.

The Touchdown Club of Houston has been around since 1966.

Two hours to our east, the Touchdown Club of Memphis was established in 1975. The club generally meets for dinner on a Monday or a Tuesday at the Chickasaw Country Club.

As you can see, Little Rock was ripe for such a club in 2004.

Metropolitan National Bank will again be the title sponsor (its seventh year) with additional support from the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette’s ARpreps.com and the Crain Automotive Team.

Club membership is $50 per year. Weekly lunch prices are $15 for returning members and $25 for guests. For a $250 annual fee, you will have a reserved seat up front each week and be able to have your photo taken with the speaker.

For a business membership of $1,650, four people will receive admission, lunches, priority seats and photos each week. For a business membership of $2,000, those benefits will go to six people per week.

The club had more than 500 members last season. That gathering in August 2004 in the private room at the Hilton had 17 people in attendance.

Of course, the June luncheon that year had two people in attendance.

Not bad. Not bad at all. It has been quite a ride, and there’s no sign that things are about to slow down.

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Liz, Lyndon and that day in Dallas

Friday, August 12th, 2011

I earlier wrote about my lunch a week ago on Petit Jean Mountain with Christy Carpenter, the new CEO of the Winthrop Rockefeller Institute, and mentioned that I’m doing a profile of her for Arkansas Life magazine.

As a former journalist, I loved the fact that both of Christy’s parents — Liz and Les Carpenter — had been in the newspaper business. Christy and I talked about her mother. In doing research for the profile, I also read a lot about Liz Carpenter.

I wish I had known her.

Born in the historic Texas town of Salado (a community along Interstate 35 that’s now filled with bed and breakfast inns, interesting shops and good restaurants) in the plantation house that had belonged to her great-grandparents, Liz was a sixth-generation Texan who even had an ancestor die at the Alamo.

“We were all Methodists and Baptists and Democrats,” she once said of her childhood years. “I was 17 before I saw my first Roman Catholic and 21 before I saw my first Republican. Both were terrifying experiences.”

The 24-room home where she spent her early years has been a state historic monument since 1936.

When Liz was 7, her family moved to a home in Austin near the University of Texas campus. Liz headed east to Washington following graduation from UT in order to cover the nation’s capital. The year was 1942, and Liz was paid $25 a week by the Tufty News Bureau.

After Les Carpenter was discharged from the Navy, he married Liz in 1944 and they opened the Carpenter News Bureau in Washington’s National Press Building, producing stories for more than 20 newspapers, most of them in the Southwest.

Liz was covering the 1960 Democratic National Convention in Los Angeles when she was asked to join the staff of vice presidential nominee Lyndon Johnson.

“Both Lady Bird and Lyndon asked me to share the adventure of their lives by helping Kennedy and Johnson get elected,” Liz said.

After the election, Liz became Lyndon Johnson’s administrative assistant, accompanying him on trips around the world, writing speeches and dealing with the media.

UPI reporter Al Spivak once said of Liz: “She saw that we got what we needed most — the facts, food and beverages of our choice.”

She was with the vice president in Dallas on Nov. 22, 1963.

It was, in fact, Liz Carpenter who wrote the short statement LBJ gave after exiting the plane at Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland — the plane that carried President Kennedy’s body.

“This is a sad time for all people, and we have suffered a loss that cannot be weighed,” the new president said. “For me it is a deep personal tragedy. I know the world shares the sorrow that Mrs. Kennedy and her family bears. I will do my best. This is all I can do. I ask only for your help and God’s.”

“I cannot really say I wrote those words,” Liz Carpenter would later say. “God was my ghostwriter.”

Liz became the staff director and press secretary for Lady Bird Johnson and worked for the first lady through the end of the Johnson administration.

Christy Carpenter remembers that November day in 1963 well.

She was at Gordon Junior High School in Washington when the announcement came over the public address system that President Kennedy had been shot

“They let us out of school early, and I went with some friends to a church,” Christy said. “We then went to the home of one of my friends to watch the news coverage. I remember my mother coming home late that night. My father was also late getting home since he was still running the news bureau and busy getting stories filed.”

Her parents attended Kennedy’s funeral. Christy watched the funeral procession from the window of an office building on Washington’s Connecticut Avenue.

Les Carpenter died of a heart attack in 1974. He was only 52.

Two years later, Liz Carpenter moved back to Austin. She bought a home overlooking the Austin skyline and the Colorado River. She called it Grass Roots, and it became her headquarters as she wrote, made speeches and threw wonderful parties.

President Carter brought her back to Washington for one year in 1979 as the assistant secretary for public affairs at the Department of Education.

At her mother’s funeral in March of last year, Christy Carpenter had these memories of her parents: “They were social animals, and that’s part of what made them so successful. They loved to entertain in our modest house on Woodway Lane, which was nestled between dogwood trees, azaleas and the rose beds my father so carefully tended. Lyndon Johnson, Sam Rayburn, Al Gore Sr., lots of Texas congressmen and lobbyists, cabinet members and fellow reporters … would crowd into our small living room. The cocktails and laughter flowed freely, and sometimes deals were made.”

Christy said her older brother and she were trained to “help welcome guests when they arrived and carry coats to the bedroom. No shyness was permitted. We were taught to stick out our tiny hands, smile and say our names so guests could hear.

“Washington was a different town in those days, a small town where Republicans and Democrats were friends and often crossed the aisle to become allies on important issues. A big part of what made that possible was that Washington was a very social town. Republicans and Democrats socialized together constantly.

“In Washington, information is power. At the end of most days, my parents would dash into our house, quickly change clothes and head out to cocktail or dinner parties full of movers and shakers. This was where they developed sources and picked up the stories that they would bat out on their manual typewriters the next day in their office in the National Press Building. Life was exhilarating.

“My brother and I would always get a kick out of going to their office where the sound of teletype machines and the clicking and clacking of typewriters flooded the corridors, and we could read the names of newspapers from across the country that were stenciled on every glass door. You could literally smell the ink and feel the excitement of hurried people scrambling to meet their deadlines. In those days, reporting was romantic.”

You know, I still considered it pretty romantic when I worked in Washington for the Arkansas Democrat in the late 1980s.

I’ve always believed that a sense of humor is important. And I’ve always preferred those who are without pretense.

That’s why I think I would have liked Liz Carpenter.

Here’s how Christy put it in her eulogy: “Being funny went to the core of her being and came completely naturally to her. What a gift. Not only did it endear her to the thousands and thousands of people she made laugh throughout her 89 years, it also reflected her passion for life, her craving for fun and an inner wisdom that recognized that seeing the funny side was an essential ingredient to a happy life. And happy it was for the most part. As we experience the sadness of her loss, everyone should feel comforted that she had a whale of a good time on this earth, and she did it her way.

“Which brings me to another quality — earthiness. She was as authentic as the Texas soil. And she took the lessons she drew from it to the nation’s capital, to the White House, to the shah’s palace in Iran and to the mansions of the rich and mighty. She was the same person in those settings that she was in the shacks of Appalachia where she traveled with Lady Bird Johnson or to the shores of Senegal with Vice President Johnson. Princes, paupers, even thieves — everyone experienced the very same salt-of-the-earth Liz. She was totally without pretense, devoid of snobbery and comfortable in her own skin.”

Without pretense.

Devoid of snobbery.

Comfortable in your own skin.

What marvelous attributes.

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Christy Carpenter takes charge at WRI

Wednesday, August 10th, 2011

In yesterday’s post I mentioned the great visit I had Friday atop Petit Jean Mountain with Christy Carpenter, the new chief executive officer of the Winthrop Rockefeller Institute.

Carpenter, 61, was hired earlier this year to take the institute — one of this state’s gems — to an even higher level. I’m writing a feature on her and the institute for an upcoming issue of Arkansas Life magazine.

A quick primer: Winthrop Rockefeller died of pancreatic cancer in February 1973. That same year, 188 acres that had been part of the Rockefeller ranch on Petit Jean became the home of the Winrock International Livestock Research and Training Center. The center’s goal was to improve animal agriculture, in part utilizing the expertise that had been developed while raising Santa Gertrudis cattle on Petit Jean.

In 1985, the research and training center was combined with two organizations — the Agricultural Development Council and the International Agricultural Development Service — that had been founded by Winthrop’s older brother, John D. Rockefeller III. The three organizations became Winrock International.

With worldwide operations, Winrock International needed its headquarters to be near a commercial airport. So in 2004 it moved to the Riverdale area of Little Rock. Those 188 acres on Petit Jean then reverted to the Winthrop Rockefeller Charitable Trust.

Wanting to use the property to its fullest potential, the board of the trust provided the University of Arkansas System with $53 million to fund a master plan for capital improvements, operations and educational programs. That plan called for the adaptive reuse of 30,000 square feet of existing space, the construction of new lodging facilities and extensive landscaping.

The nonprofit institute was established in 2005. It has its own board, one member of which is Lisenne Rockefeller of Little Rock, the widow of Winthrop Paul Rockefeller, the former lieutenant governor who died of cancer in the summer of 2006.

During its five years of operation, WRI program areas have ranged from agriculture to the environment to economic development to the arts. In 2007, one of the 11 Arkansas Archeological Survey stations relocated to the institute’s grounds.

Here was the problem in the view of some of those associated with the charitable trust: The institute was lacking a clear focus. In trying to be all things to all people, it was spreading itself thin. Simply put, it wasn’t achieving the world-class status the funders desired.

In an attempt to remedy those concerns, the WRI board hired Korn Ferry International, a well-known executive search firm, to find a CEO with nationwide contacts.

Up in New York, Christy Carpenter read the job description sent out by the search firm and decided it fit her abilities and aspirations. At the time, Carpenter was the executive vice president and COO of the Paley Center for Media (previously the Museum of Television & Radio).

Carpenter comes from good stock. Her parents were two prominent Washington-based journalists, Les and Liz Carpenter of the Carpenter News Bureau. Liz Carpenter went on to work for Lyndon and Lady Bird Johnson and was with LBJ on that terrible day in Dallas when President Kennedy was assassinated. It was Liz Carpenter, in fact, who wrote the short statement Johnson released after being sworn in as president. The note cards on which she scribbled that statement are now in the Johnson Library on the campus of the University of Texas at Austin.

I’ll have more on Liz Carpenter in a blog post later this week.

Christy Carpenter has brought along her husband, actor Robert Walden. The couple has been married for two years.

Walden, 67, is a New York native whose acting career began in 1970 in Roger Corman’s “Bloody Mama.” He’s best known for his role as Joe Rossi on the television series “Lou Grant,” for which he was nominated for an Emmy Award three times.

Walden recently returned to series television in the TV Land sitcom “Happily Divorced,” which premiered in June. He plays the father of the lead character, who is played by series creator and writer Fran Drescher.

Following weeks of shooting the series in California, Walden made the long drive to Arkansas in his new Audi. He joined us for lunch Friday and talked about how delighted he is to be in our state.

Carpenter is hopeful she can somehow plug her husband, who has taught drama at The New School in New York, into a WRI focus on the arts.

For now, Carpenter is getting to know the staff, reviewing the institute’s current programs and beginning to think about how to move WRI forward.

Winthrop Rockefeller began buying land atop Petit Jean soon after moving to Arkansas in 1953. He was determined to develop one of the nation’s premier cattle ranches while also building a place to host noted visitors from around the world. He would buy 927 acres, build an elaborate home, construct six lakes, install an irrigation system that pumped water up the mountain and add a mountaintop airfield that would handle his private jet.

I was reminded of WRI’s potential on a hot Friday afternoon back in June when I paid a visit to Petit Jean. I looked into the clear skies that day and watched as a private jet swooped toward the airport Rockefeller had built. Aboard that plane was David Remnick, the editor of The New Yorker, who was making the one-day trip from Manhattan to Petit Jean to serve as the final speaker at a writers’ summit sponsored by the Oxford American.

I thought to myself that this was the kind of thing that should be happening on a regular basis at WRI: A famous journalist being interviewed by the editor of a respected Southern literary magazine, dozens of writers from across the country listening to their comments and a bunch of Arkansans who had made the drive to Petit Jean to also take part in the event.

Christy Carpenter shares that goal.

Having grown up in a home filled with books and conversations about history, politics and current affairs, she wants WRI to be a spot where problems are discussed and solutions are hashed out.

At the same time, Winthrop Rockefeller’s legacy will be preserved.

Here’s part of what Jeannie Nuss wrote for The Associated Press on the day of Remnick’s visit to WRI: “After Rockefeller died, this land transformed into an agricultural mecca that operated on an invite-only basis. Over the past few years, Rockefeller’s 188 scenic acres circled back as a sort of Camp David for academics. It’s still exclusive, catering to the well-to-do with culinary classes on how to cook vegan and what to prepare for Christmas in July. Farmers plant fresh herbs and blueberries in the garden out back, and private planes land at a tiny airport down the road. But it’s open to anyone who wants to visit, free of charge, every day except Christmas.

“While most Arkansas students won’t get a chance to meet with prestigious writers or scientists, Rockefeller scribe John Ward said the intellectuals’ influence on the state will eventually trickle down to the masses.

“‘To present the David Remnicks of the world, who certainly represent the very best of journalism, is something for people to look at and shoot at,’ said Ward, who was Rockefeller’s marketing and public relations director.

Good luck, Christy.

Arkansas needs WRI to be all it can be. We’re glad you’re here.

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Remembering Rockefeller

Tuesday, August 9th, 2011

I made the winding drive up Petit Jean Mountain on Arkansas Highway 154 last Friday, headed toward what would turn out to be a delightful lunch with Christy Carpenter, the new CEO of the Winthrop Rockefeller Institute.

I never drive up that mountain without thinking about Gov. Rockefeller, my favorite 20th century Arkansas figure.

As the 20th century wound to a close, I was asked by a Little Rock radio show host to list the top 20 events of the previous 100 years as measured by their effect on Arkansas politics.

I ranked the 1957 integration crisis at Little Rock Central High School first, the 1966 election of Rockefeller as governor second and the 1992 election of Bill Clinton as president third.

“What?” the host asked in amazement. “You rank Rockefeller’s election as governor ahead of Clinton’s election as president?”

I explained that without a Winthrop Rockefeller, a Bill Clinton would never have been possible. Neither would have a Dale Bumpers or a David Pryor. You see, Rockefeller’s election in 1966 and his re-election two years later forced the Democratic Party to move away from its segregationist past and make way for a new breed of Arkansas politician. The Jim Johnsons and Marion Cranks were out. The Bumpers and Pryors were in.

Time magazine published a lengthy profile of Rockefeller in December 1966, just weeks before he was sworn in as governor.

The story opened with the famous question and answer from “The Arkansas Traveler.”

“Whar’s this road go to?”

“I been livin’ here fer years ‘n’ I ain’t seen it go no place.”

The article then gave us this brutal assessment of the first five decades of the 20th century in Arkansas: “In a part of the world that had gone no place since the Civil War, the directionless road of vaudevillian fame was far more apt as a symbol of Arkansas’ dead-end economic and political condition than as a sampling of Ozark humor. For all its majestic forests and fertile bottomlands, its bountiful natural resources and the Mississippi on its eastern frontier, the state remained for long decades a kind of limboland.

“Arkansas has never been consistently Southern in temperament despite its historic and geographic ties to the Old Confederacy; though it is more Western in the look of the land and its yield, the state has never embraced the West’s expansionist, assimilative outlook. Instead, in the eyes of the world it seemed aimlessly insular, obdurately independent — and comically backward. As then-Gov. Charles Brough boasted 50 years ago: ‘You could build a wall around the state of Arkansas and its people would be self-sufficient.’

“The trouble was — and is — that Arkansans have lived too long behind self-constructed walls of complacency, mediocrity and provincialism. Well into the 1950s, the state ranked at or near the bottom of virtually every index of progress, from literacy to average income to the number of dentists per capita. Though the Legislature in the ’20s dubbed Arkansas the Wonder State and later more modestly renamed it the Land of Opportunity, by the early ’40s the brightest opportunity for young people moving off the farms lay in a one-way ticket to another state. Those who managed to get a good education found little reward for their learning back home; a competent technician could ask higher wages within half a day’s bus ride in almost any direction. State government was hampered at every level by an anachronistic constitution enacted in 1874, which, as Arkansans point out, was ‘two years before Custer’s last stand.”’

If you think that assessment is tough, read on for what Time had to say about 1957: “Then, in 1957, came a great blow to Arkansas’ backwater mentality. Dwight Eisenhower ordered U.S. paratroopers into Little Rock to resolve an unnecessary and uncharacteristic racial crisis over school integration. Overnight the ugly montage of shrieking segregationists, terrified Negro schoolchildren and the dyspeptic protestations of Gov. Orval Faubus became Arkansas’ image to the world. The psychological effect was traumatic. Having previously prided themselves on relatively good race relations, many Arkansans were deeply repelled by the picture that they presented in the unhappy aftermath of Little Rock. It took nearly a decade to germinate, but the seed of change was planted.”

Then, some bright spots.

Time reported: “In the years since, much has altered in Arkansas — all for the better. A groundswell of technological advance, already under way in the late ’50s, has progressed to the point where industry now plays a major role in the economy, population is rising rather than shrinking, about 50 percent of the state’s 2 million people now live in cities and towns and an estimated 30 percent of the population is accounted for by in-migration.

“For its economic and social transformation, Arkansas owes much to a transplanted Yankee whose surname — connoting vast wealth, liberal Republicanism and cosmopolitan interest — once seemed as alien to the state as fine champagne. Winthrop Rockefeller has not only devoted his time and fortune over the last 13 years to improving the quality of life in Arkansas. He has also succeeded almost singlehanded in renovating its political structure. His electoral victory in November was a historic event. He will become Arkansas’ first Republican governor since 1874.”

This New York native, who had arrived in our state in 1953 and helped transform it during the next two decades, made things possible that otherwise would have taken much longer.

What an unlikely savior.

He was good for Arkansas.

Arkansas, in turn, was good for WR.

Here’s how Time put it in late 1966: “Win Rockefeller, at 54, needs Arkansas as much as it needs him. Indeed, his brothers David, 51, president of New York’s Chase Manhattan Bank, and Nelson, 58, governor of New York, both use the same words to describe his incentives: ‘Win found himself in Arkansas.’ Adds David: ‘It was just what he wanted and needed.”’

David Rockefeller said his brother was “basically the nonconformist. He was rebellious against the stereotype of what we are.”

In a note to the three older brothers — John D. III, Nelson and Laurance — mother Abby Aldrich Rockefeller once wrote: “It seems cruel to me that you big boys should make Winthrop the goat all the time. You know very well that the only way to help him is by being kind to him.”

Winthrop dropped out of Yale his junior year, the only one of the five boys not to finish college. He then worked as a roustabout in the Texas oilfields for 75 cents an hour.

He liked people. That included pretty women.

Bobo Sears came along when WR was 35.

Time noted: “Born Jievute Paulekiute in the Pennsylvania coal country, renamed Eva Paul, then Barbara Paul as a show business title, then Bobo by the chic set she moved up to, the comely blonde had been married to Richard Sears Jr., a well-to-do Bostonian who went into the Foreign Service after the war. After first meeting the onetime model and bit actress in a New York restaurant, Win Rockefeller burbled: ‘I saw her and I knew I was gone.”’

They were married at 14 minutes past midnight on Feb. 14, 1948. Their son, Winthrop Paul, was born seven months later. The couple was separated in 1950 and divorced in Reno in 1954 after Winthrop’s move to Arkansas.

Bobo was the daughter of Lithuanian immigrants. She was born in 1916 in Pennsylvania and grew up near the Chicago stockyards and later in Indiana following her parents’ divorce. She was named Miss Lithuania at the 1933 Chicago World’s Fair and went to New York to pursue an acting career. She was divorced from Sears in 1947 and married WR the following year.

Time reported in that 1966 profile of Rockefeller: “Of more lasting pain has been the separation from his only child, Winthrop Paul, now 18, who was also elected to office this fall — as president of his senior class at the Herringswell Manor School in England. Though young Win spends part of his holidays with his father, Bobo won custody of the boy and has had him in European schools for the past three years.”

Fortunately, Win Paul later would spend quality time with his father.

Like his father, Win Paul would die of cancer at far too young an age. It was the winter of 1973 when we lost Winthrop Rockefeller and the summer of 2006 when we lost Win Paul.

Win Paul’s mother, meanwhile, lived to age 91 and died May 19, 2008, here in Little Rock, where she had come to be near her daughter-in-law and grandchildren.

Win Paul said this in 2003 when discussing his father: “I know I was lucky to be born a Rockefeller, but I am luckier to have been born Winthrop Rockefeller’s son. Dad’s greatest gift to me was not my last name but my first because with that name he left me a great heritage and at the same time an equally great challenge to follow his vision and shape my own, but always to serve, and do so with love.”

We’re fortunate the Rockefellers came our way.

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