Archive for April, 2012

What is Arkansas barbecue?

Friday, April 27th, 2012

So how does one define Arkansas barbecue?

When I took on the task of writing the online introduction for the Arkansas portion of the Southern BBQ Trail (www.southernbbqtrail.com), I came to the conclusion that there are too many cultural influences and styles of barbecue in this state to come up with a single definition.

“Arkansas is a fringe state, not solely a part of any one region,” I wrote. “It’s a state that’s mostly Southern but also a bit Midwestern and a tad Southwestern. Northwest Arkansas is far different from southeast Arkansas. Northeast Arkansas doesn’t have much in common with southwest Arkansas.”

I concluded that we’re a state of contradictions that regularly confounds outsiders.

The introduction ended liked this: “Define Arkansas barbecue, you say? Impossible. Just hush your mouth and eat, the Arkansan will tell you.”

In preparing their book “The Slaw and the Slow Cooked,” James Veteto and Ted Maclin met at one of this state’s most famous barbecue establishments, Craig’s in DeValls Bluff, in June 2009.

Here’s how they described the experience: “Driving with the windows down along old Highway 70, the smell of wood smoke let us both know that we were close. Craig’s is a small white clapboard building from the 1940s with red trim and two entrances, a legacy of the restaurant’s segregated past.

“As Maclin pulled into the parking lot with his nine-month-old daughter, the scent of smoke and the crunch of white gravel under his tires awoke memories of his own childhood. Once inside, they found a table near the door (one of only a few in the restaurant), and when Veteto arrived the conversation turned almost immediately to barbecue — the spiciness of the sauce, sliced versus chopped pork, wet versus dry ribs — intertwined with discussion of the history of this restaurant.

“Craig’s is a sit-down restaurant, but not in the sense of fine linens and hors d’oeuvres. In fact, the walls of the establishment can only be described as worn and perhaps a little dirty, but not in an unsanitary way. The short menu is at the back of the room above a counter just outside of the kitchen.

“There is no cash register in sight, and every once in a while an African-American waitress emerges from the kitchen to take orders and money, deliver food to hungry customers or bring back change from beyond.

“By listening closely when the kitchen door flips open or while visiting the bathroom, one can usually hear the gentle beats and inspired singing of soul or gospel music. While we were there as many people ordered food to go as stayed to eat inside. A woman took our order at the table rather than having us order at the counter — as is common at many fast-food restaurants. And make no mistake — though the food arrived on paper plates rendered translucent by the grease, this was no fast food.”

In a chapter of “The Slaw and the Slow Cooked” that’s devoted to the history of barbecue in the Mid-South, South Carolina-based food historian Robert Moss describes another of this state’s historic barbecue joints, McClard’s in Hot Springs.

“Barbecue was perfect for roadside stands,” he writes. “All the operator needed was some hickory wood and a pit dug in the ground. The cooked meat was simply wrapped in brown paper or placed between slices of bread, so it was cheap and easy to serve. At first, most roadside barbecue stands were seasonal operations and sold food for take-away only. Often, proprietors of other roadside businesses like gas stations or general stores started selling barbecue as a sideline, and some found the sideline pursuit more profitable than the original enterprise.

“McClard’s, the legendary barbecue joint in Hot Springs, is a classic example. Alex and Gladys McClard owned the Westside Tourist Court near Hot Springs National Park. In 1928, they added a barbecue pit so they could sell slow-cooked goat, beef and pork to their guests. According to the McClard family, the fourth generation of which still operates the restaurant today, Alex and Gladys acquired a secret sauce recipe from a tourist court resident who couldn’t pay the $10 he owed for two months’ lodging.

“Fueled by that distinctive red sauce, which has a tomato-paste base and plenty of fiery pepper, barbecue sales took off, and before long the McClards were selling to non-lodgers as well. It was the era of Prohibition, and their barbecue attracted the business of some of the country’s most notorious gangsters, including Lucky Luciano, Meyer Lanksy and Al Capone, who ran bootlegging operations out of Hot Springs.

“In 1942, McClard’s moved into a whitewashed stucco building. For many years, it operated as a drive-in, complete with carhops and a jukebox that broadcast over an AM band so diners could listen to music in their cars. The carhops are now gone, and goat is no longer on the menu. But McClard’s sliced beef, sliced pork and pork ribs are favorites of both local residents and visiting celebrities, including former President Bill Clinton, who lived just down the road as a boy.”

Moss writes that Arkansas’ barbecue tradition goes back almost two centuries.

“As in Tennessee, barbecues arrived in Arkansas and Mississippi with the very first settlers,” he says. “In 1821, just a year after it was created and 15 years before Arkansas was admitted to statehood, Phillips County held its first Fourth of July celebration where ‘several beeves were roasted whole and served in barbecue style.’ The description of Josiah H. Shinn, who chronicled the event in his 1908 history of Arkansas, suggests that a little whiskey might have been present as well.”

Shinn wrote: “The Phillips County barbecue was held near a spring in the neighborhood, where a fine quality of Kentucky mint had taken hold, though why the mint patch should be immortalized I cannot say. There must have been some beverage of very strong parts, though of this the record is silent.”

W.B.R. Horner, a Virginia native and early east Arkansas settler, presided over the Phillips County barbecue until his death in 1838.

“It didn’t take long for politicians to recognize that community barbecues, with their unparalleled power to pull people together from all over a county, were ideal platforms for electioneering,” Moss writes. “Campaign barbecues became commonplace in the 1830s, and as they grew larger and became more frequent they were increasingly put on not by the candidates themselves but by groups of supporters, who arranged the venue, purchased the food and drink and advertised the events in newspapers. Such activities were part of the early formation of political parties in Southern states, and barbecues became an important forum for political discourse in the region.”

An 1840 story in the Arkansas Star, during the presidential campaign of William Henry Harrison, noted that the Tippecanoe Club of Little Rock had adopted a resolution to give “a free barbecue to the people of Pulaski County and as many others from the adjoining counties as can conveniently attend.”

A reporter for the Arkansas Intelligencer described an 1846 Fourth of July barbecue near Frog Bayou in northwest Arkansas this way: “The noble steer was immolated at this sacrifice — lambs, shoats and poultry sent up their quotas to this patriotic feast.”

Barbecues in Arkansas in those days often included a mixture of beef, pork, sheep, goats, chickens, deer, wild turkeys and squirrels.

It’s no easy task to settle on a single style of Arkansas barbecue. But, as you can see, the tradition of barbecue in this state is a long, rich one.

Post to Twitter

The Arkansas BBQ Trail

Thursday, April 26th, 2012

The Southern Foodways Alliance, an organization based at Ole Miss that does much to shine a spotlight on Southern food, has launched its Arkansas BBQ Trail, a collection of oral histories.

Arkansas is part of the larger Southern BBQ Trail, which can be found at www.southernbbqtrail.com.

I was honored to be asked by the folks at SFA to write the introduction for our state. I’m in good company.

Other introductions were written by Jake York for Alabama, Tom Freeland for Mississippi, John Shelton Reed for North Carolina, Robb Walsh for Texas and James Veteto and Ted Maclin for Tennessee — great Southern writers and thinkers all.

Veteto and Maclin are the men responsible for the book mentioned in the previous Southern Fried blog post — “The Slaw and the Slow Cooked.”

Arkansas is the sixth state for which there are oral histories. The Southern BBQ Trail is a work in progress, so other interviews will be transcribed over time.

For now, these Arkansas interviews are featured on the site:

– Kyle McClard of McClard’s Bar-B-Q in Hot Springs

– Robert Craig of Craig’s Bar-B-Q in DeValls Bluff

– Chris Dunkel of Stubby’s Bar-B-Q in Hot Springs

– Chris Newman of The Rack Pack competitive team and catering operation in Jonesboro

– Jim, Nora and Barry Vaughn of J&N Barbecue in Bono

– Carolyn Johnson of Big Johnson’s (a restaurant) and Little Johnson’s (a barbecue trailer) in Wynne

McClard’s and Craig’s are the two most famous barbecue joints in the state.

Stubby’s is also well known (I walked over there for ribs after watching the Rebel Stakes earlier this spring).

The others are not as well known, but the Southern BBQ Trail seeks to shine a light on all types of pitmasters and barbecue establishments.

Let’s take them one at a time.

The website says of McClard’s: “McClard’s Bar-B-Q was founded in 1928 by Gladys and Alex McClard, who started their business by smoking goats, not hogs. Gradually, goat was phased out, and pork, as well as beef, made the menu.”

I hate it that goat was phased out. I love to partake of cabrito when I visit my wife’s relatives in far south Texas.

“Kyle McClard, pitmaster and Gladys and Alex’s great-grandson, represents the fourth generation to work in the family business in Hot Springs,” the website states.

Interviewed in the building on Albert Pike that has housed the restaurant since 1942, Kyle McClard said of the sauce: “They think it not too — too spicy; it’s not too vinegary. It doesn’t have very much of a vinegary taste to it. The recipe is actually still locked in a safe in a bank downtown.”

The website says of Craig’s: “Robert Craig is carrying on the tradition that was started by his father, Lawrence Craig, a former cook on a Mississippi River boat, and his uncle Wes. The Craigs opened Craig Brothers Cafe in the segregated South of 1947.

“Three generations have supplied many satisfied customers with a variety of smoked meats, most notably smoked and sliced pork sandwiches slathered with a sauce made with hints of apple and bell pepper. Their signature sauce was developed over the kitchen table of the Craig family home.”

Robert Craig told the interviewer: “My mom was just in the kitchen one day, putting a little bit of this and putting a little bit of that together. And my dad said, ‘Well yeah; it tastes all right.’ And so he obviously introduced it to the public, and it has been skyrocketing ever since.”

The website notes that Robert Craig has been working at the restaurant alongside U.S. Highway 70 “from the age of three or four. Eventually, he went to college, but in 1997, Robert accompanied his father to the Smithsonian Festival of American Folklife, where Lawrence Craig’s barbecue was being celebrated as a Delta tradition.

“Today, Robert oversees the operation of Craig’s in partnership with his cousin, as well as long-time family friends, the Sirats.”

The website says of Stubby’s on Central Avenue in Hot Springs: “In 1952, Richard Stubblefield Sr. opened Stubby’s Bar-B-Q. In 1976, the Dunkel family moved from New York to Arkansas. A year later, they purchased Stubby’s Bar-B-Q.

“Chris Dunkel has been a part of the team at Stubby’s ever since, doing everything from waiting tables and working the pit to making Stubby’s distinct sugary-sweet sauce.”

Dunkel described Stubby’s barbecue this way in an interview: “It’s a meld between Tennessee and Texas because you have both the beef influence and the pork influence. And, of course, we do it better than both states, so they come here to enjoy it.”

The website states: “Chris’ business sense coupled with the restaurant’s prime location across from the Oaklawn racetrack has ensured a long and successful run. The restaurant was rebuilt after a pit fire in 2007 but has enjoyed continued success.

“They make a sweet tomato-and-vinegar sauce that they serve with beef, pork, ham, ribs and chicken. Specialties of the house include pit-smoked potatoes and pots of beans.”

Newman’s Rack Pack at Jonesboro will cater almost any type of event.

The website states: “Chris Newman has been raising hogs his entire life. He grew up on a farm in the southern Missouri Ozarks where his parents parlayed their experience raising quality pork into a thriving business with Newman Farms heritage Berkshire hogs.

“Chris still helps with the family business, although his time is mostly spent in Jonesboro, where he is co-conspirator in the Rack Pack, an award-winning barbecue team and catering company.

“Chris brings with him an understanding of where the food he produces comes from and how the different ways of raising and slaughtering hogs can affect his end result. His experiences have offered a unique perspective on barbecue that includes everything from the hoof on the ground to the sandwich on the plate.”

Newman told an interviewer: “When you grow up on a hog farm, you’re always exposed to barbecue, I guess. So that’s been a lifelong thing for me.”

If you love rural barbecue joints as much as I do, the photo on the website of J&N Barbecue at Bono — a shack with the wood piled at the side of the building — will make you hungry just looking at it.

“After suffering a back injury, Jim Vaughn made the shift from mechanic to barbecue pitmaster and opened J&N with his wife, Nora, in 1996,” the website states. “The couple had provided smoked meats and sides for community gatherings for years, so opening a restaurant didn’t seem like too much of a jump. Their small red-and-white trailer has been serving the greater Jonesboro community ever since.

“Barry Vaughn is Jim and Nora’s grandson and the third generation to work at J&N. Barry does most of the barbecuing these days, smoking everything from ribs to butts. He also smokes wild game — turkey, deer and even raccoons — for local hunters. Jim and Nora have attended coon suppers all their lives, so it wasn’t long before smoked raccoon became a J&N tradition.”

Vaughn said of his grandparents in an interview last year: “This is all they do. They eat and live barbecue. They’re here six days a week from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., so there ain’t much life other than barbecue for them.”

The website says of Big Johnson’s and Little Johnson’s at Wynne: “It was 1972 when Carolyn Johnson, a farm wife, decided that she wanted to work outside the home. She answered an ad in the paper that brought her to Chuck’s Barbecue in Wynne, and within a couple of years, she and her late husband purchased what is now called Big Johnson’s. The family always worked the restaurant. She recalls that two generations have napped on the chest freezer in the back.

“In 2003, Carolyn suffered grease burns on a large part of her body while working at the restaurant. Her employees doused her with yellow mustard to help with the burns until medical help arrived.

“She was out of service for two years. Today, Carolyn has taken a back seat, and her son and grandchildren run the day-to-day operation of not only Big Johnson’s but also a Johnson’s Fish House and Diner and the barbecue trailer, Little Johnson’s.”

She told an interviewer last year, “We make our own barbecue sauce and then for the hot, hot barbecue sauce we add cayenne red pepper to it. … We make our own slaw. It has mustard and mayonnaise, black pepper, sugar and that’s it.”

Go to the Southern BBQ Trail website if you want hours of enjoyable reading. Just be prepared to get hungry in the process.

Post to Twitter

“The Slaw and the Slow Cooked”

Wednesday, April 25th, 2012

I’ve referred earlier on the Southern Fried blog to a wonderful book published last year by the Vanderbilt University Press with the intriguing title “The Slaw and the Slow Cooked: Culture and Barbecue in the Mid-South.”

The book is a collection of essays. Those essays approach the subject of barbecue in this region from an almost academic standpoint.

When I say “academic standpoint,” I don’t mean to imply that the writing is boring.

It’s anything but.

What the essays do have are plenty of footnotes and references to guide the reader who wants to learn as much as possible about the Mid-South barbecue culture.

“Indeed, barbecue is not merely the process or the paraphernalia of grilling, or the meaty burnt ends that result, but a choreographed dance, from woodlot to smokehouse to mixing bowl to platter to picnic table, bar, roadside diner or juke joint,” Gary Paul Nabhan writes in the book’s foreward.

Nabhan is the author of two dozen books on various scientific and literary subjects.

“Prospective barbecue aficionados are selected early by their fathers, mothers, aunts or uncles and nurtured for many years, until their predilection for a certain balance of smoke, sour, sweet and meat is finely honed,” Nabhan writes. “They may not be able to verbally describe how to reach that perfect balance, but they definitely know when it has been achieved or when some gargantuan effort seems to have missed the mark. Satisfaction with barbecue is a lot like pregnancy — either you are or you aren’t.

“Someone recently wondered aloud to me, ‘Why in the world would anthropologists and historians, linguists and ethnozoologists, theologians and evolutionary biologists be consumed by the topic of barbecue?’ What other American food and its preparation are so strongly linked to the distinctive identities of so many American cultures?

“We are what and where we eat, but we are also how we prepare our most beloved foods. And who we prepare it with. And who we eat it with. And who we leave out beyond the smokehouse, who longingly wishes they were in there with us, no matter how stifling hot and claustrophobically congested it may be. No other American food is imbued with such symbolism, such smoke, such spirit.”

I agree.

There is a spirit there.

Because I hail from south Arkansas, my favorite essay in this collection is by Justin Nolan, who grew up in El Dorado and went on to earn his doctorate and become an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Arkansas.

Nolan’s essay is titled “Piney Woods Traditions at the Crossroads: Barbecue and Regional Identity in South Arkansas and North Louisiana.”

He begins his piece by describing a visit to Karl Brummett’s store just off U.S. Highway 82 on the eastern outskirts of El Dorado.

“Down from the hills of the Ozarks comes the native son,” Brummett says to Nolan.

“Yessir!” Nolan replies. “And thanks for taking time out for a local boy.”

Brummett says modestly, “Now, I know very ltitle about barbecue, but I’ll tell you what I do know.”

“In a sense, Brummett is right, of course,” Nolan writes. “Few people claim to know much of anything about barbecue down here in southern Arkansas, where I was born and raised. Partly this is because the region is known a bit more for its Louisiana-based flavors and soul food — neither of which, however, excludes barbecue, it might be noted.

“El Dorado, my hometown of 22,000, occupies the center point of Union County’s broad, gently rolling pine forests. Driving south from Fayetteville, the swift blue-green streams of the upcountry had given way to the flooded forests and gumbo backwaters of the low country somewhere near Gurdon.”

Nolan notes that his career has long been inspired by the great cultural anthropologist Charles E. Thomas, “who depicted the slow burn of cultural loss and modernization in ‘Jelly Roll,’ his ethnographic account of an African-American community in a small rural mill town north of El Dorado.”

The mill town to which Nolan refers is Calion.

The book, first published in 1986, has just been reissued by the University of Arkansas Press.

Residents of Jelly Roll lived in houses owned by the Calion Lumber Co. Thomas, who was a professor of anthropology at Washington University in St. Louis for 17 years, returned to his family’s Calion Lumber Co. in 1975 and has run the company ever since.

The UA Press spring catalog says the book combines Thomas’ “unique perspective as both an academician and the grandson of the sawmill’s founder. Thomas conducted extensive interviews covering three generations among the 84 households forming the community.”

Like Thomas, Nolan understands the region and its people.

“My father’s parents and their relatives have deep roots here, and my mother became an acculturated insider after moving to El Dorado in 1957,” he writes. ”My mission, as an anthropologist, was clear — I would revisit these Pine Woods, with hopes of discovering something perhaps unseen in ordinary life, something meaningful about social relationships through a binding food tradition we celebrate and fancy ourselves to have mastered. That tradition, of course, is barbecue.”

He comments on the similarities between those who live in north Louisiana and those who live in south Arkansas.

“Folks in north Louisiana, just 15 miles south, share a cultural affinity with south Arkansas,” Nolan writes. “A cultural connectivity can be seen in the culinary traditions, which erase the boundaries, momentarily, betwixt the cup and lip.”

While I’ve long believed that the Delta has this state’s strongest barbecue tradition, Nolan points out that the barbecue tradition in the Piney Woods runs ”deep and wide, and like a fair number of culinary mainstays originating in these rolling pinelands, it yields much more than a flavor; it brings forth stories of kinship, solidarity and survival.”

He outlines how the Piney Woods are a crossroads, “a place in the world where black and white people have coexisted for many decades, where social boundaries exist mainly in the background of everyday life, where class lines are more evident in neighborhood architecture than social convention, and where Southeastern and Southwestern cultural traits interpenetrate to form a mosaic that’s just subtle enough to overlook unless you’re seeking to describe it.”

Nolan adds: “The Piney Woods, in some ways, constitute an ambivalent Southern culture. While clearly Southern, this country is neither upcountry nor coastal, neither Eastern nor Western. Aspects of many different ethnic and regional groups are visible among the colorful threads of its history and tapestry. Like the famous watery bayous of south-central Louisiana’s Cajun country, the Piney Woods are a swirl of peoples whose memories make up an amalgam, stroked by Southern history, seasoned through hard times, change, chance and choice.”

Nolan says Brummett is known throughout south Arkansas and north Louisiana for his brisket, pork ribs and smoked sausages. While barbecue in the Delta is always pork, you can see the “crossroads” influence with Nolan’s mention of brisket and smoked sausages. Those are barbecue staples more commonly associated with Texas.

Nolan quoted one pitmaster as saying, “You can tell you’re in timber country straightaway. All you gotta do is see what meats they serve. Mostly oak-smoked, hickory too, sweet sauce but not that sweet, I tell you, and don’t let the slaw trip you up. Most folks aren’t inclined to put slaw on the sandwich bread, and it’s sometimes creamy — and then other times, it’ll pucker you right up. Keeps you on your toes, I guess you’d say.”

Like I said, a crossroads.

Nolan says the region’s barbecue can be viewed as a “blend of Texas and Eastern styles, and as such it is decidedly different from neighboring regions. While I cannot claim the mandate to judge my home region’s slow-smoked flavor, no self-respecting resident would deny that it’s delicious.

“Like other regions of the American South, a culinary pride of place is alive and well along the Arkansas-Louisiana border. Typical barbecue menus in the Piney Woods showcase beef brisket, sliced or chopped; smoked pork, sliced or chopped; sliced pork tenderloin; pulled pork shoulder; pork ribs (beef ribs are served at home mainly); pork sausage; and smoked chicken.”

An elderly pitmaster near Magnolia explained it this way: “It’s a melting pot here. Black, white, east, west: everything comes together in our barbecue. You got the Cajun spices and sweet ribbon cane from Louisiana, a hint of vinegar from the east, the sweet tomato sauce — that’s ours!

“The beef brisket’s so popular around here and chili notes that I suspect must come from Texas, along with their pinto beans. We’re pretty tolerant around here. In fact, I think we’ve been adopting a bit of this and that from each other all along.”

Nolan concludes: “Piney Woods barbecue is perhaps undiscovered by the outside world, but for these long-timers, that’s just as well. While Piney Woods barbecue may not ring a bell in the mind of American food geographers, its hallmark feature is its inclusiveness, it’s shape-shifting habit of incorporating neighboring flavors from the Southeast, Louisiana and Texas.”

It’s the barbecue I was raised on.

Post to Twitter

Northwest Arkansas: A hot travel destination

Monday, April 23rd, 2012

It was a thrill to see Bentonville on the Travel & Leisure magazine list of Hottest Travel Destinations of 2012.

Bentonville was right there alongside Sri Lanka, Toronto, Abu Dhabi and Hamburg (the one in Germany, not the one in Ashley County).

“Until now, Bentonville has been famous for one thing: It’s the home of big-box retailer Walmart,” Stephen Wallis wrote for Travel & Leisure. “But Alice Walton, youngest heir to the empire, is using a large share of her wealth — estimated by Forbes at $21 billion — to transform the region into a world-class cultural destination.”

Wallis called the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art “an audacious gamble that a large-scale arts institution can thrive in the Ozarks.”

As I wrote in the previous Southern Fried blog post, it’s a gamble that seems to be paying off based on attendance for the museum’s first five months of operation.

“To hedge her if-you-build-it-they-will-come bet, Walton hired architect Moshe Safdie to design the museum, set on 120 wooded acres just outside town,” Wallis wrote. ”He created a series of gently curving pavilions hovering dramatically around and over ponds fed by natural springs.

“Walton also approached 21c Museum Hotels — which put Louisville, Ky., on the art-world map — about opening a property in town. Designed by Deborah Berke, it’s due next January.

“Her biggest investment may be the collection itself, bought at often eyebrow-raising prices and covering the full sweep of American art, from colonial portraitists Gilbert Stuart and John Singleton Copley to 19th-century masters Winslow Homer and Thomas Eakins, with a splash of contemporary art (Andy Warhol; Roxy Paine; Jenny Holzer) thrown in.

“The museum is already being touted by some as a countrified Guggenheim Bilbao — and Walton herself as a latter-day Morgan or Frick, digging deep into her pockets and dreaming big. This may be enough to attract culture seeekers from around the country, if not the world.”

I have only one quibble with Travel & Leisure’s assessment: It should have been northwest Arkansas, not just Bentonville, listed as being among the world’s hottest travel destinations.

I have no doubt that the people who come to visit Crystal Bridges will venture down to Rogers, Springdale, Fayetteville and even places such as Tontitown to eat and shop.

I say that after having recently spent a delightful couple of days in Fayetteville.

I stayed for the first time at the Dickson Street Inn, a two-building complex that has been remodeled into a 10-room inn. The main house, an 1894 Victorian, has eight of the rooms. An adjacent building houses the other two rooms.

Go to the online reviews at www.TripAdvisor.com and you’ll find sometimes brutal assessments of hotels, motels and bed and breakfast inns across the country. Reviews of the Dickson Street Inn are almost all positive.

Here’s an example: “Dickson Street Inn far exceeded my expectations during a recent trip to Fayetteville. The historic home converted to a B&B may look like a traditional inn from the outside, but it is so much more. The rooms are well appointed with comfortable beds and updated bathrooms.”

Here’s another: “My friend and I were early for a matinee performance at Walton Arts Center so decided to go for a short walk. We came upon this place and decided to stop in to check it out. Was I ever glad we did. We visit Fayetteville frequently and have stayed at various places. Unfortunately, after staying here for a weekend getaway with a group of friends, I will never be happy staying anyplace else, and certain weekends (i.e. football, parents, graduation, etc.) are booked solid far in advance. Everything was perfect.”

My two-night stay was just as advertised. After hearing Ernie Dumas interview former U.S. Sen. Dale Bumpers at an event on the Fayetteville square, several hours were spent late on a Friday afternoon at one of my top places in Arkansas to browse, the Dickson Street Bookshop.

Located at the corner of Dickson and School for more than three decades, the used bookstore is a classic.

Here’s how the Fayetteville Flyer described it a few years ago: “With an estimated 100,000 used books lining the tall floor-to-ceiling shelves (and sometimes in tall stacks in available corners), the Dickson Street Bookshop is one of the best independent used bookstores in the country. Visitors to the area are amazed at the incredible selection of used and out-of-print books and the unique maze-like layout, the dim lighting and the dusty smell that has become a staple of Dickson Street. … The Dickson Street Bookshop buys used books for cash or for store credit, and all transactions are done with paper and pen instead of computers and cash registers.

“There is no membership program. No Starbucks inside. Just a whole lot of books, and a lot of loyal customers, some of whom have been frequenting the store for its entire existence.

“In addition to the estimated 100,000 books kept inside the store, an additional 50,000 books are kept in storage, just waiting for their time on the shelves of the bookshop. The store sells an estimated 800-900 books a week and has somehow managed to stay open on Dickson Street during a time when dozens of retail establishments have come and gone in what has become more a restaurant and bar entertainment district than a downtown shopping area.”

I purchased a copy of John Gould Fletcher’s history of the state, “Arkansas,” for only $27.50. Published in 1947, the book was in excellent condition. I considered it a steal.

Fletcher, the famed poet and essayist who earned a Pulitzer Prize in poetry, drowned himself in a pond at his west Little Rock estate during a bout with depression just three years after publication of the book.

Writing for the online Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture, historian Ben Johnson of Southern Arkansas University says “Arkansas” served for many years as the “most readable and accessible history of the state but attracted little attention elsewhere.”

I took the John Gould Fletcher book to the wooden deck that the Dickson Street Inn shares with the Dickson Street Pub and read several chapters while enjoying the glorious spring weather.

I had visited Crystal Bridges the previous day.

I had spent the previous evening with friends on the deck of Herman’s Ribhouse, which has changed very little since it opened in 1964. It became a favorite haunt back when I was a newspaper sportswriter. Ask me my top spots for hash browns, and I’ll tell you Herman’s and the Waffle House.

The next morning began with a leisurely breakfast at the Dickson Street Inn while reading the weekend Wall Street Journal. A brisk walk to the Fayetteville square followed so I could visit the Fayetteville Farmers’ Market, founded in 1974 and ranked among the top such markets in the country.

The remainder of the morning was spent at the annual meeting of the Arkansas Historical Association, and the afternoon was spent at Baum Stadium watching the No. 3 and No. 11 college baseball teams in the country square off.

Perfection.

Throughout my visit, I thought that Crystal Bridges might just be the draw that will open the floodgates, allowing visitors from across the country and around the world to enjoy all this part of the state has to offer.

For example, I hope a number of them will drive over to spend a night or two in Eureka Springs, which I’ve always considered a far more authentic, relaxing place to spend leisure time than the choked roadways of Branson.

While trying not to stereotype anyone, I do suspect that Eureka Springs will hold more appeal than Branson for the types of tourists who spend money to fly across the country to see art museums.

Or how about combining art museum visits with fly-fishing on the White River?

There have been dozens of published reviews of Crystal Bridges already, and most have been positive.

Writing in The New York Times, Roberta Smith called it “a big, serious, confident, new institution with more than 50,000 square feet of gallery space and a collection worth hundreds of millions of dollars in a region almost devoid of art museums. Much more than just a demonstration of what money can buy or an attempt to burnish a rich family’s name, Crystal Bridges is poised to make a genuine cultural contribution, and possibly to become a place of pilgrimage for art lovers from around the world.”

Let’s hope those world travelers take the time to also enjoy the charms of Fayetteville, Eureka Springs and other parts of northwest Arkansas.

Post to Twitter

Crystal Bridges’ promise

Friday, April 20th, 2012

It was difficult to find a parking place on Thursday morning of last week as I drove through the beautifully landscaped grounds of the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art at Bentonville.

The Arkansas Economic Development Commission, the Arkansas Highway Commission and the Arkansas Parks, Recreation and Travel Commission were holding a joint meeting at the museum.

But that wasn’t the only reason for the lack of parking.

There were church buses from Arkansas and surrounding states.

There were tour buses.

The place was so crowded that visitors were being asked to take a backward trek through the museum in order to relieve congestion.

The lunch line was more than 75 people deep at one point during the middle of the day.

What wonderful problems for a museum to have after five months of operation.

According to Crystal Bridges director Don Bacigalupi, initial projections were for the museum to attract 150,000 to 200,000 visitors in its first year.

It has drawn more than 250,000 people in less than six months. In fact, Crystal Bridges is on pace to be in the top 10 of American museums in attendance.

Let that soak in for a moment.

Think about the many museums in New York, Washington, Chicago and Los Angeles.

Think about the thousands of other museums across the country.

And then savor the fact that a museum in Bentonville, Ark., might make the top 10.

The current issue of Time magazine has Alice Walton on its list of the 100 most influential people in the world.

Richard Lacayo, Time’s art critic, writes: “As a rule, major museums emerge in major cities, places where lots of people and lots of money converge. Alice Walton, 62, didn’t have to care about that rule. As one of the wealthiest women in the world, the daughter of Wal-Mart founder Sam Walton could put her new museum wherever she pleased. Where she pleased was Bentonville, Ark., the town where she grew up.

“She commissioned a handsome ensemble of connected pavilions by architect Moshe Safdie, set around an artificial lake and nestled in woodlands. And she filled them with a phenomenal collection of art, from colonial times on up to the 21st century.

“With the help of advisers, Walton built that collection smartly and aggressively. (Sometimes too aggressively, as with her hot pursuit of art from cash-strapped Fisk University). With Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, she has placed a daring bet that a small town can become a big art-world destination. We’re betting she’s right.”

I’m betting she’s right, also.

Make the short trip from the museum to downtown Bentonville. View the 21c Hotel (the original in Louisville is rated among the world’s great hotels) going up. Now, consider this: Bentonville already is becoming known as more than a place that attracts vendors from around the world. I expect more boutique hotels and bed-and-breakfast inns will follow to cater to the high-dollar patrons anxious to see what all the fuss is about.

Drive along Walton Boulevard today and you’ll see what was the Clarion Inn and the adjacent Boston’s restaurant empty, victims of the recent recession. There are additional empty commercial properties. I don’t think properties such as those will be empty for long.

“The impact of Crystal Bridges has just begun to be felt in Arkansas and in our nation,” Bacigalupi says. “It is wonderful and appropriate that Alice Walton receive this mention in recognition of her vision and ability to transform our views of American art, culture and history.”

Bacigalupi says the museum has been “bombarded” by requests for group tours. That’s what leads me to guess that hotel improvements and expansions can’t be far behind in Benton County.

At the high end, the four-story 21c will have 103 rooms, a fitness center and what promises to be a world-class restaurant. Like the original 21c in Louisville, there will be lots of art — curated, rotating exhibitions along with live arts events. I expect an entire arts district – complete with small commercial galleries and coffee houses with music and poetry readings – to spring up around the square and near downtown during the next five years.

People will come with money to spend on hotel rooms, restaurants and gift items. Bacigalupi told members of the three commissions last week that business at the museum’s restaurant, Eleven, is 50 percent ahead of projections.

There was symmetry in the fact that the three commissions met in Bentonville on the same day that the Winthrop Rockefeller Institute on Petit Jean Mountain began another in a series of events celebrating the 100th anniversary of Rockefeller’s birth.

What on earth do I mean by that? Bear with me a moment.

The late governor’s son, Winthrop Paul Rockefeller, wrote this about his father back in April 2003: “On June 9, 1953, he set his suitcase down in the old Sam Peck Hotel and began a love affair with Arkansas that would last the rest of his life and into mine. When he arrived, Arkansas was one of the poorest states in the union, and many of its citizens could not see how to overcome its hillbilly image and inadequate educational system. I think merely by his presence, Dad made changes in the state’s self- perception.”

I agree.

And merely by its presence, Crystal Bridges is improving our perception of Arkansas.

Back on the day Crystal Bridges opened — Nov. 11 — my friend Warwick Sabin wrote a guest column for The Washington Post in which he noted how the national media felt compelled to mention the museum’s ”unlikely location.”

Sabin, the publisher of the Oxford American (I am a member of the magazine’s board), is a New York native who appreciates Arkansas and the South as much as anyone I’ve ever known.

“With a mix of bemusement, condescension and occasional disgust, outside observers remarked on the treasure trove of fine art that would be far away from the country’s metropolitan areas,” Sabin wrote. “Even when the concept received a nice pat on the head (‘After all, people in the middle of the country should get to see some good art, too,’ Rebecca Solnit wrote for The Nation), there was an underlying sense that this great cultural resource somehow doesn’t belong here — that it is being wasted on hicks who won’t appreciate it and therefore don’t deserve it.

“But that couldn’t be further from the truth. Crystal Bridges resides in a region that has come to define American culture, and the South is exactly where our nation’s most ambitious new cultural institution belongs. In fact, the idea that Arkansans would not recognize the value of Crystal Bridges was being disproved before it even opened.”

Sabin then addressed his decision to attend the University of Arkansas after growing up in Manhattan: “Almost everyone I knew outside the South thought I was crazy to move here and even crazier to stay. And, over the years, I have heard plenty of the same uninformed, snobbish ribbing about the South that has been directed toward Crystal Bridges. In response, I’ve spent countless hours explaining to friends the virtues and pleasures of living here.

“This state, with a population of less than 3 million, has a long history of punching above its weight in business, politics and other categories. I believe there are quantifiable reasons why Arkansas has produced a president of the United States and the largest corporation in the world, and if you look closely, you will see that Bill Clinton and Wal-Mart manifest similar qualities — namely, an ability to compete at the highest levels without being pretentious or elitist. This lack of pretension is disarming and often their biggest asset.

“Crystal Bridges brings the same approach to fine art, and this makes it a particularly excellent place to exhibit and appreciate some of our nation’s most notable pieces.”

Sabin ended the guest column with this take on the South: “This region has provided much of what the rest of the world thinks of as American culture. From music to literature to cuisine and other forms of artistic expression, the South has played a unique role in defining our national identity.

“Ask someone from another country to name ‘American’ foods, and they will most likely begin with fried chicken and barbecue. Or ask them to name ‘American’ music, and they will probably say jazz, blues and rock-and-roll. The short list of essential American writers always includes William Faulkner and Tennessee Williams.

“To this day, Southerners experience and perpetuate their culture in ways that most of us take for granted because it is a part of our day-to-day existence. We are surrounded by it, actually. But we don’t often recognize it for what it is. New York and California are where art goes to be feted and marketed. In the South, it is simply part of who we are.”

Bravo, Warwick.

Bravo, Alice Walton.

Less that six months after opening, it’s clear that Crystal Bridges is changing how others think about us (though I’ve never lost much sleep over that) and how we think of ourselves.

Post to Twitter

Up and down the Mississippi to Helena

Thursday, April 19th, 2012

For two consecutive mornings, I sipped my first cup of coffee and discovered that the lead story in the morning newspaper concerned the massive drug trafficking ring that operated out of Helena until recently.

“Drug dealer fell through court cracks” read the headline on the lead front-page story Wednesday morning.

“Drug kingpin in Delta case gets 40 years” read the headline on the lead front-page story Thursday morning.

“Poor ol’ Helena,” people across Arkansas no doubt said as they glanced at those headlines.

I’ve written a lot about Helena on this blog through the years. I’m fascinated by the place. I love its history and its culture. I have a number of friends who live there and work daily to try to restore some of its past glory.

I can point to several positive changes that have occurred there during the past decade.

“Since the 1980s, Helena has seen a steady stream of factory closings and job losses and an exodus of residents who could afford to move,” said a recent cover story in Arkansas Business. “In their wake, they left blighted buildings, a countywide poverty rate above 32 percent and police corruption that allowed a drug culture to operate with impunity.

“With some 70 alleged or confessed criminals out of the picture, a lively nonprofit community has even more latitude to continue work that Mayor Arnell Willis calls ‘pivotal’ for the city’s economy and quality of life.”

Among the positive developments has been Helena’s increased focus on attracting heritage tourists — those Americans who want to see what’s historic, gritty and real rather than spending their vacations at amusement parks or houses on the beach.

Heritage tourists tend to be highly educated and have plenty of money to spend. They’re fascinated by things such as the Delta Cultural Center’s music exhibits and the daily “King Biscuit Time” radio show that broadcasts from there.

They flock to events such as the King Biscuit Blues Festival, which is held each October in Helena.

In addition to capitalizing on its music culture, Helena also can capitalize on its river heritage. It was a popular stopping place for the steamboats that once plied the Mississippi River.

Earlier this month, the American Queen, the world’s largest paddle wheeler steamboat, resumed its travels along the Mississippi River.

Helena’s business and civic leaders should make it a priority to ensure that the city is a regular stop for the American Queen. Six American Queen visits to Helena are planned for this year.

“We need to strike out in new and different areas rather than the same old tired, failed economic development strategies of the past,” says Lee Powell, who heads the Delta Grassroots Caucus. “Tourism is one area where we can do a lot more than we have in the past.”

The 418-foot American Queen completed its training voyage from New Orleans to Oak Alley Plantation in Louisiana on April 10-12. The American Queen, which now is under the management of the Great American Steamboat Co., can carry 436 passengers and will be the only paddle wheel steamer making overnight voyages through America’s heartland.

The boat had spent several years docked in Texas.

“The American Queen has fabulous dining rooms and great food, observation decks to get a view of the natural splendor of the Mississippi and a beautiful music hall where talented musicians perform blues, jazz and other music of the Delta region,” says Powell, who was on the training voyage.

Future tours will focus on areas such as Southern culture, literature and the Civil War.

Tour buses will pick people up at stops along the river and take them into cities such as Helena.

“For a small, economically distressed community like Helena-West Helena, to have more than 400 prosperous tourists spend some time and tourist dollars and learn about the history and culture of the community is a big plus,” Powell says.

The home port for the American Queen will be Memphis.

The U.S. Maritime Administration signed off last year on the sale of the steamboat to the Great American Steamboat Co.

The city of Memphis made a $9 million advance from its U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development loan fund and also worked to complete the Beale Street Landing project at the foot of Beale Street.

Company executives had approached tourism officials in Tunica, Miss., about being the home port for the American Queen. The Tunica folks wanted a prohibition on the boat stopping in Memphis, something Great American Steamboat Co. officials wouldn’t agree to.

“We spent six months in another state working with the economic development authority,” says CEO Jeff Krida. “They struggled with understanding what this business does.”

In exchange for the $9 million, Memphis received a promise that the company will buy 7,000 to 10,000 room nights a year in downtown hotels. The loan will be repaid with the $89 boarding fee each passenger pays at the outset of a trip.

A substantial investor in the venture is AutoZone founder J.R. “Pitt” Hyde’s Pittco Management. Many of the cruises will begin or end in Memphis at an average cost of $500 per person daily.

Wayne Risher wrote in The Commercial Appeal at Memphis of the preparations for the first voyage: “With red, white and blue bunting draped over railings, it was stately as ever on the outside: a gingerbread-trimmed six-decker that has been compared to a floating wedding cake. Inside, the scene was chaotic as a $6 million overhaul entered the home stretch.

“It was like owners of some mythical Delta hotel decided to rebuild, refurbish and redecorate simultaneously. What’s more, they had invited thousands of guests to attend a housewarming and stay for 10 days. … Carpet layers, carpenters, electricians, engineers, IT specialists, sound technicians, housekeepers, cooks and musicians swarmed aboard.

“A crew from Miami turned the purser’s lobby into an impromptu factory. A Latin beat pulsated over the whine of sewing machines and staccato bursts of upholstery guns, repairing and recovering chairs and cushions.

“In the Grand Saloon, patterned after Ford’s Theater in Washington, technicians adjusted a sound board that will serve the Harry James Orchestra, Paul Revere & the Raiders, Gary Lewis & the Playboys and others. Music stands identified the house band: the Steamboat Syncopators.

“Engineers fired up the steam boiler and exercised the ancient, cast-iron pistons that drive a newly reconstructed, 28-foot diameter, 31-foot-wide paddle wheel.”

The Delta Queen, now docked on the Tennessee River at Chattanooga, Tenn., went out of service in 2008. Overnight passenger cruises ended on the Mississippi River at that point.

The Delta Queen is now a floating boutique hotel.

The American Queen was built at the McDermott Shipyard in Morgan City, La., in 1995. It has a retractable pilot house that can lower almost 14 feet in three minutes to allow clearance under bridges.

The American Queen’s previous owners also operated the Delta Queen, completed in 1927, and the Mississippi Queen, completed in 1976.

A cruise beginning today and lasting until April 27 will put the American Queen in Memphis, where rechristening ceremonies will be led by Priscilla Presley. A stop in Helena is planned for the seventh day of the eight-day cruise.

A voyage from Memphis to Cincinnati is scheduled for April 27-May 4.

“From a purely economic standpoint, the American Queen will actually have an even bigger impact than the Delta Queen because it is twice as big,” Powell says. “Steam tours are fairly expensive so we’re talking about large numbers of affluent tourists being unloaded at places like Helena. They can spend a good chunk of money in a couple of tourist stops.”

He says the cruises will “inform people about our region and have an educational as well as an economic impact. People travel on the American Queen from all over the world. They will take back home with them an interest in the Delta region that in many cases will have potential for future returns in our region.”

By the way, data tracking in Mississippi State University’s Mid-South Delta Data Library found that the population of Phillips County, which has been declining steadily for almost 60 years, grew by 4 percent from 2009 to 2010.

The return of Helena as a steamboat stop can only improve that positive trend.

Here’s hoping historic Helena is considered a “must stop” along the river.

It would be nice to be able to say: “Drug dealers like Sedrick ‘Binky’ Trice are out; tourists with lots of money to spend are in.”

Post to Twitter

Jeff Long’s finest hour

Wednesday, April 11th, 2012

There seemed to be something fitting about the fact that I was high atop Petit Jean Mountain at Winthrop Rockefeller’s old ranch when the news leaked out late Tuesday afternoon that Bobby Petrino had been fired as the head football coach at the University of Arkansas.

Rockefeller came to Arkansas in 1953 to escape a failed marriage and the tabloid journalists in New York. During the next two decades he would do as much as any person in Arkansas history to build this state, especially when it came to restoring integrity and fairness to a political system that was in many instances corrupt.

Rockefeller was not a native Arkansan, but he made us proud to be Arkansans as we finally began to escape the long shadow cast by the Little Rock Central High School crisis of 1957.

I thought about Rockefeller as I sat at his ranch Tuesday night watching television coverage of Jeff Long’s news conference in Fayetteville.

Like Rockefeller, Jeff Long isn’t a native Arkansan. He’s an Ohio native who came here with no previous connection to the state or its flagship university. He took on the task of replacing the legendary Frank Broyles as athletic director.

Like Rockefeller, he has made us proud to be Arkansans.

That’s not to say that an athletic director firing a head football coach at the University of Arkansas is on the same level as reforming the state’s political culture. Yet it would be naive not to acknowledge that Razorback football has become a part of who we are as a people.

It can be debated whether that obsession is healthy. What’s not open to debate is that for thousands of Arkansans, their very identity is tied up to some extent in the exploits of teenagers playing football at the University of Arkansas.

Jeff Long realized that the Razorback brand is bigger than any one man.

Once the truth came out, he made the only call he could have made.

In the end, it probably wasn’t even a close call.

I wrote a blog post Monday that said I would fire Petrino if I were Long, but I had a gut sense the university would find a way to keep the egomaniacal control freak who had run the Razorback football program the previous four seasons.

I feared Petrino would be kept because we’re talking about football in the Southeastern Conference, where too often winning is the only thing that matters.

I never dreamed my Southern Fried blog post would be linked to as many message boards and national sports websites as it was. As you might guess, some of those sad souls who spend their days trolling the message boards (let it be noted that many of the people on these boards are good folks, though the percentage of misguided trolls seems high) spewed their vitriol.

For these people, the percentage of victories on the field is all that counts.

There are, of course, downsides to growing older, but I’m glad I’ve reached the age where things like honor, integrity and honesty are far more important to me than the group of teenagers that wins the football game. Thirty years ago, I might have been among the group wanting to keep Petrino.

Long had to consider the reputation of an entire university and, in a sense, a whole state.

The fact he’s being praised nationwide today — the fact that his decision came as a surprise to most observers — is a commentary on the sorry state of college athletics.

In almost any part of the private sector, an employee who consistently lied to supervisors and made a mockery of the hiring process would have been fired without a second thought.

In American sports, though, we’ve become far too accustomed to people refusing to follow what Lou Holtz called the do-right rule.

So let’s accept the praise that’s pouring in from across the country on this Wednesday.

Let’s be proud that people like Jeff Long and David Gearhart work at the University of Arkansas.

Let’s be thankful that members of the UA board backed those men in their decision.

In the midst of a dark scandal, let’s realize that Long’s news conference on Tuesday night was among the high points in the history of Arkansas athletics, right up there in my mind with the Jan. 1, 1965, victory over Nebraska in the Cotton Bowl and the 1994 national championship in men’s basketball.

“Anyone got a hog hat?” Geoff Calkins wrote in the Commercial Appeal at Memphis. “Today, I’d proudly put one on. I’d wear it in support of decency, and of a university that acted like one. I’d wear it in tribute to athletic director Jeff Long, who rose to the moment like few dared to believe he would.

“Long fired football coach Bobby Petrino on the cusp of an important season. And then he walked to the lectern at Bud Walton Arena and explained why he had no choice. He eviscerated Petrino. He laid him out in a way that would have made Steve Atwater proud. He said that Petrino had lied to him and others about his motorcycle accident.”

Calkins, one of the nation’s better sports columnists, ended his column this way: “Long understood his duty wasn’t to the most maniacal fans. It was to the players, and the university, and to the tens of thousands of Arkansas graduates who believe in the place.

“Yes, Saturdays in the fall are wonderful. There’s nothing like cheering for your team. But what’s the point if your team has publicly forfeited its last shred of dignity? What kind of victory is that?

“This is not going to be an easy process for Long or the Razorbacks going forward. It’s a lousy time to find a new head coach. The season Petrino would have presided over this year will become ever more glorious now that it will never happen. Whenever Arkansas loses a game, it will inevitably be Long’s fault.

“So here’s hoping Arkansas somehow wins them all this season. Here’s hoping honor has its just reward. Either way, I’d wear a hog hat proudly. Nothing that happens on a football field can top what happened Tuesday night.”

I could not agree more with Geoff Calkins.

This native Arkansan thus sends this simple message to the Ohio native who chose to move here: “Thank you, Jeff Long. Thank you for renewing my faith in the University of Arkansas. Thank you for making me feel better about college football, a sport I love. Thank you for making me proud to be an Arkansan.”

Back in September, I wrote a post on the Southern Fried blog with this headline: “Jeff Long: Right man at the right time.”

It’s nice, I guess, to get on the bandwagon early.

In a feature on Long for the October issue of Arkansas Life magazine, I wrote: “Long’s office is in the Broyles Athletic Center. He looks out his window and sees Frank Broyles Field at Donald W. Reynolds Razorback Stadium. There’s simply no getting away from the Broyles name. It’s said that you never want to be the person who replaces the legend. Instead, you want to be the person who replaced the person who replaced the legend. Long ignored that axiom.”

We’re fortunate he didn’t mind stepping into those big shoes when he came here in late 2007.

There are those who said, “Petrino deserved a second chance.”

My answer to that is that a man with a long history of being less than honest with his employers got his second chance when Long hired him at Arkansas in December 2007.

As it turned out, Long hired a snake.

On Tuesday, Long cut off the head before the snake could bite him again.

Despite all the damage Petrino has left in his wake, we should wish the man no ill will. I hope he can reflect on his mistakes and heal — physically, emotionally and spiritually. He’s still a relatively young man at age 51.

I dream of the day when he can come back to speak to the Little Rock Touchdown Club and say: “I did you people in Arkansas wrong. I’ve learned from my mistakes. I’m a better man now than I was then.”

As for 2012, I would like to see the first speaker of the fall at the Little Rock Touchdown Club be Jeff Long.

I’ll start the standing ovation. I know everybody will join in. And I know it will go on for a long time.

Even in the crazy world of SEC football, integrity still matters on at least one campus.

Post to Twitter

The Petrino problem

Monday, April 9th, 2012

Back in December 2010, I wrote a blog post titled “Welcome to our family, Coach Petrino.”

Here’s how it started: “With the news during the weekend that University of Arkansas officials and Bobby Petrino have worked out an employment arrangement that runs through 2017, it appears the Razorback football coach has committed himself to this state for the long haul.

“After all, the buyout provisions are perhaps unprecedented, and there’s a noncompete clause with all the other Southeastern Conference schools. Could it be that Bobby Petrino has made the same decision that a famous Georgia native named Frank Broyles made all those decades ago?

“Broyles, who certainly could have returned to his alma mater of Georgia Tech as the head football coach, instead decided that he would be an Arkansan, raise his children as Arkansans and die an Arkansan (though I’m beginning to think Coach Broyles is immortal).

“That’s not to say Petrino wasn’t welcomed previously. He was welcomed with open arms. But many of our state’s residents always had a nagging feeling that the Arkansas job would be a steppingstone to a traditional national college football power — a Texas, a USC.

“Those of us who were born and raised here find ourselves thinking that good things won’t last — we’re too small, we’re too poor, we’re not educated well enough. That’s what we tell ourselves.”

I went on to note that “we enjoyed Lou Holtz, but we always sensed he was passing through. We knew Danny Ford would return to raise his cattle in South Carolina sooner rather than later. Going way back, Bowden Wyatt accepted our gift of a Cadillac and promptly drove it to Knoxville.

“Suddenly, perhaps unexpectedly, it appears (Petrino) may be more Frank Broyles than Lou Holtz. We like that. We like it a lot. It feels good when someone wants to be one of us.”

I was duped.

It turns out we have an out-of-stater we lured to Arkansas with big bucks who produced results but failed to build relationships, grew in arrogance, thrived on secrecy, always thought he was the smartest person in the room, treated some people with contempt and lied to cover up mistakes.

What an icon he could have been. What a tragedy for all concerned.

Here’s how I ended that Southern Fried post back in December 2010: “Coach, you’ve inherited a sacred trust. Politics might divide us, but Razorback football unites us unlike anything else in this state. The Wal-Mart millionaire from Bentonville, the cotton farmer from Eudora, the log hauler from Stamps and the waitress from Osceola all have something in common when it comes to the Hogs.

“We’re glad that after three years here you’ve decided to cast your lot with us for the long haul. You’ll like being an Arkansan. If you don’t believe me, just ask Frank Broyles. They don’t call this the Land of Opportunity for nothing.”

What we have is a heck of a college football coach with deep character flaws. My gut sense is he will stay in his job. If I were in Jeff Long’s shoes (thank goodness I’m not), I would be compelled to find a new coach.

Razorback football is so important to the people of this state (the debate over how healthy that is will be saved for another day) — such a part of our fabric as a people — that the leader of that program must be more than a great coach on the field.

Someone for whom I have respect sent me an email during the weekend that read in part: “We will never be able to push the money and power out of college sports. We’ve let the dog on the sofa, and he isn’t leaving. But we can make college football programs and the people who run the programs accountable.

“I have not seen any reporting on what message a seventh- or eighth-grader will take away from what’s playing out in Fayetteville right now. Kids have to believe in what’s right. Otherwise the slippery slope we’re on today will only lead to something you and I never want to acknowledge might happen in college sports.”

We saw what happened at Ohio State.

Thankfully, we don’t have the NCAA infractions that happened there. As far as I know, the Arkansas football program is clean when it comes to the NCAA and the Southeastern Conference.

We saw what happened at Penn State.

Thankfully, we’re not talking about anything as horrible as someone molesting little boys.

Ohio State, Penn State and Arkansas, however, are all examples of what can happen when The Program becomes bigger than the school.

I wrote a Southern Fried blog post last Monday morning when this story was first breaking about the university’s failure in the area of crisis communications. None of us knew at the time that Petrino was lying to everyone around him.

I guess it was my old reporter’s sixth sense that caused me to believe that something just didn’t smell right. A full 14 hours after the accident, Zack Higbee, the spokesman for the football program, was still refusing to comment. Once a comment did come from the university, it was short and it was vague.

Why hadn’t someone convinced Petrino to allow full details of his medical condition to be released late Sunday night or early Monday morning to clear the air and prevent rumors?

The reason: Everyone was scared to question him or challenge him.

Petrino has received everything he has wanted since coming to Arkansas.

The cost of the glorified new dressing room (called an operations center to make it more palatable to donors) has soared to almost $40 million to meet Petrino’s various demands.

He pulled that veil of secrecy over his football program, a veil that fortunately doesn’t infect other high-profile programs at the university such as men’s basketball and baseball. Behind the veil was a growing sense of hubris.

Winning was all that mattered, right?

The NCAA has a term it calls “institutional control.” While being careful to again point out that there are no NCAA violations here, it seems clear that prior to last week the athletic director and the chancellor were losing institutional control of their football program.

Perhaps the silver lining in this mess is that they will now regain some semblance of control.

The thing that’s most galling about the hubris is that the bills are paid by the hard-working people of this state through their ticket purchases and foundation contributions. Often, they’re people who are paying more than they can really afford because they love their Hogs.

Petrino has given them a winner on the field.

Would it be so hard to show them respect off the field?

Would it be so hard to say on a regular basis, “Thank you. Thank you for entrusting this program to me. I know what it means to you. I’m going to work each day to justify your trust on and off the field.”

Would it be so hard to show some humility and some graciousness?

While the UA didn’t do enough to get the word out last Monday, it did too much on Tuesday with the news conference by the beaten-up Petrino and the big show of his being at practice.

Driving to Conway and back on Wednesday, I listened to the talk radio types praise this “tough, tough man.”

Frankly, it had all seemed a bit contrived to me. The man should have been home getting well. Once we had the details of his injuries, we didn’t really need to see his scarred face.

In retrospect, it’s clear that Petrino was trying to put this story behind him as quickly as possible.

The truth came out, as it tends to do.

So now the UA athletic director — with advice from the chancellor, the system president and members of the board (all capable people) — is faced with a career-defining decision.

Perhaps I’m naive, but I still think a coach can win at a high level, be a tough guy on the field and be a gentleman off the field.

When Broyles was winning at just such a high level in the 1960s, he never lacked confidence. Yet he always remembered that the people who counted were the people in Arkansas’ 75 counties — “the biscuit cookers” as Witt Stephens used to call them. He treated them with the dignity they deserved, and they loved him and his program for it.

There’s an important lesson there for current and future Razorback coaches.

Post to Twitter

Ed Bethune’s life of adventure

Thursday, April 5th, 2012

Former U.S. Rep. Ed Bethune has been making the rounds in recent months, talking about his book “Jackhammered: A Life of Adventure.”

I don’t do a lot of book reviews on this site, but I can tell you that Bethune’s book is well worth the time you’ll invest in reading it.

Bethune’s parents divorced when he was 8. He’s quick to admit that he was a “problem child” who often found himself in trouble during his formative years in Little Rock.

Bethune was sent to his mother’s hometown of Pocahontas, the thinking being that he would be easier to control in a smaller town. Bethune now says the move “saved my life.”

After graduating from Pocahontas High School in 1953, Bethune joined the U.S. Marine Corps and served for three years. He met the lady who would become his wife and later his most valuable campaign asset, Lana, when both were students at what was then Little Rock Junior College.

Lana was the daughter of famous Arkansas Democrat state Capitol reporter George Douthit.

Ed was 23 and Lana was 21 when they married.

Lana’s painting, titled “The Snotgreen Sea,” adorns the cover of the book.

Ed Bethune went on to earn a business degree and a law degree from the University of Arkansas. He served for four years as an FBI agent and then became a prosecuting attorney in Searcy.

He writes in vivid detail about being involved in Winthrop Rockefeller’s attempt to reform Arkansas politics in the 1960s.

How could anyone who loves Arkansas political history resist his account of a 1968 attempt to remove Conway County Sheriff Marlin Hawkins from office?

Gov. Rockefeller had obtained a legal opinion that said Hawkins was not qualified to hold office. The governor’s aides asked Bethune to escort the new sheriff that WR had appointed, 83-year-old Ralph Childers, to Morrilton.

“By the time Childers took the oath of office in Little Rock, news of his appointment had already reached Conway County,” Bethune writes. “The governor received reports that Marlin’s supporters were gathering around the county courthouse in Morrilton. Some were armed, and they were saying to anyone who would listen that they were not going to let Ralph Childers serve as sheriff of Conway County.

“They intended to block any attempt by him to enter the courthouse office of Sheriff Hawkins. Mr. Childers was willing to go to Conway County, but everyone agreed he needed an escort to help him navigate his way through hostile crowds and make comments to the press explaining why he was sheriff and Marlin Hawkins was not.”

Childers and Bethune boarded a single-engine plane at Central Flying Service in Little Rock and landed at a small grass airfield west of Morrilton.

Bethune describes the scene they found in town: “By the time we got to the courthouse there were well over 500 Hawkins supporters milling around. Most were on foot, and quite a few were armed. They were carrying pistols, rifles and shotguns and making no effort to conceal the weapons. Many others were sitting in their cars and trucks, armed and ready.”

A young Steve Barnes was there to cover the story for KTHV-TV, Channel 11. It was getting late in the afternoon, and Barnes needed to file a story. He asked Bethune and Childers if they would go to the front door of the sheriff’s office and let him shoot some film.

As Bethune neared the sheriff’s office, a young officer jumped out with a sawed-off shotgun, stuck it into Bethune’s stomach and said: “Halt, I’m fixin’ to shoot you.”

“The rookie cop was shaking and his voice was squeaky and shrill,” Bethune writes. “His jittery eyes, only a foot or so from mine, told the story. He was the one with the gun, but he was scared to death. As he pushed the gun harder into my belly, I realized that my life depended on the wiring between the rookie’s brain and his trigger finger, and I did not like the odds.”

Now, that’s good writing.

In 1972, Bethune was the Republican nominee for attorney general against Jim Guy Tucker.

“It was one thing to get rid of the Old Guard by electing Winthrop Rockefeller, but once Orval Faubus was gone, there was no compelling need to vote for Republican candidates,” Bethune writes. “If a living, breathing Democrat was on the ballot for state or local office in Arkansas in 1972, a Republican candidate for that office had no chance to win. Arkansas, a reliably Democrat state since Reconstruction, was not about to open the door for Republicans. Nevertheless, we needed candidates to fight the good fight.”

Bethune carried three counties — Pulaski, White and Searcy. Tucker carried the other 72.

Six years later, Bethune shocked the Arkansas political establishment when he upset Democrat Doug Brandon in the race for Congress in the 2nd District with 51.2 percent of the vote. Bethune carried only three of the nine counties in the district but piled up large margins in Pulaski, White and Cleburne counties.

Bethune served three terms in the House before making an unsuccessful 1984 race against U.S. Sen. David Pryor in which the GOP candidate received 42.7 percent of the vote.

Bethune was chairman of the Arkansas Republican Party from 1986-88. He returned to Washington after George H.W. Bush’s 1988 election as president when Lana was offered the job of social secretary for Vice President Dan Quayle.

Ed Bethune quickly became known in the nation’s capital as the go-to lawyer for Republicans who found themselves in hot water — people like Newt Gingrich and Tom DeLay.

In June 1990, Ed and Lana Bethune set sail in Salute, their 31-foot sloop. Their plan was to cross the Atlantic Ocean to Portugal.

The sea had other ideas.

“It was going to be a long night, seven more hours to sunrise,” Bethune writes. “Our little ship tossed about, left to right and up and down. She turned first one way and then another. Every five minutes or so an enormous wave would lift us skyward, and when we reached the top, perched on the crest of the wave, our boat would fall sideways off the crest of the wave and crash, and shudder, against the trough of the wave. The fall of 25 feet felt like a thousand.”

Eventually, the couple was rescued by a U.S. Coast Guard helicopter crew.

“As we flew away, I saw Salute with the life raft attached,” Bethune writes. “She was still rolling violently with her mainsail collapsed over the side, hanging into the water. I felt sad that we were leaving her, but it was the right decision.

“We lost everything that was on the boat. Lana had tied a waterproof pouch around her waist that held our cash, our credit cards and our driver’s licenses. That, and the clothes on our back, were all we salvaged.

“Salute was now just another speck of white in a sea of large whitecaps; she blended in and soon was lost to sight. It was easy to see why it is so hard for search pilots to find a small sailing vessel in a stormy sea, even when they have exact coordinates fixing the position. Our dream of sailing across the Atlantic was also gone, but we took it in stride; after all, we were safe. We would live to see our children and loved ones again.”

So what about the book’s unusual name?

“A jackhammer is easily the most annoying, distracting racket-making device known to man,” Bethune writes in the preface to the book. “It creates a noise level of 130 decibels — equal to a rock concert, according to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. Rock concerts occasionally produce a discernible melody. Jackhammers do not. Sometimes it takes such a racket to get our attention.”

The sailing trip in which Bethune almost perished got his attention. It forced him to reflect on his past and think about his future and how he practiced his faith.

Back to politics for a moment.

During a speech last month to the Political Animals Club, Bethune talked about what he described as two great upheavals in Arkansas politics. One happened in the 1960s. The other appears to be happening now.

“The battle to build a two-party system began in the 1960s when independents, Republicans and right-thinking Democrats coalesced to defeat the Old Guard machine of Orval Faubus,” he told those at the meeting. “That victory — the first great upheaval in Arkansas politics — cleared the way for a new generation of political leaders, Democrats and Republicans. For the first time since Reconstruction, women, African-Americans, thousands of good people got a chance to participate in government. It was the most important political development of the 20th century.

“Under Gov. Rockefeller’s leadership our prisons were reformed, corruption and illegal gambling were rooted out of Hot Springs, there was transparency in government and election laws were reformed. It was the death knell of the Old Guard and the beginning of the modern Republican Party of Arkansas. But those of us who became Republicans back then had a long road ahead of us.

“When I filed for Congress in 1978, there was not a single elected Republican official in the entire 2nd District of Arkansas — not even a constable or a justice of the peace. Congressman John Paul Hammerschmidt was in office, but we had only one elected member in the entire Arkansas Legislature.

“Today, some 40 years later, Arkansans are shedding their long allegiance to the Democratic Party. The trend is undeniable. Imagine a graph of the past 40 years depicting Republican officeholders in red and Democratic officeholders in blue. The red line would be going up, up, up and the blue line would be going down, down, down.

“Since my election in 1978, Arkansans have elected hundreds of Republicans to local and county offices and scores of members to the Arkansas House and Senate. As we near the November election, Republicans are within a few votes of taking charge of one or both chambers of the Legislature for the first time in 138 years.”

Bethune returned to Arkansas from Washington in 2009, and finishing this book became his priority. It’s a captivating read.

Post to Twitter

Bobby Petrino, motorcycles, crisis management

Monday, April 2nd, 2012

As I write this on a Monday morning, an entire state sits on pins and needles awaiting more details on the condition of University of Arkansas head football coach Bobby Petrino.

I’ve decided to offer some unsolicited advice to the university.

The motorcycle accident that injured Petrino occurred early Sunday evening at about 6:45 p.m.

Arkansas media began reporting on the incident early Monday morning with the first official statement coming not from the University of Arkansas but from Bill Sadler, the long-serving and highly capable spokesman for the Arkansas State Police.

As television stations in Little Rock rushed crews to Fayetteville, the most solid information by 9 a.m. came from ESPN, which was quoting “a source close to Petrino” as having told ESPN college football reporter Joe Schad that the coach was “pretty banged up” and that it could take some time for him to recover.

Meanwhile, a member of the football staff told Chris Low of ESPN that Petrino was “going to be OK” but did suffer injuries in the accident.

The early ESPN reports had the football program’s official spokesman giving the classic “no comment.” This was, mind you, more than 12 hours after the accident.

That’s exactly the wrong approach for an accident involving a man who’s arguably the highest profile figure in the state, including the governor.

Much too late, the university issued a vague statement from the family saying the coach “is in stable condition and is expected to make a full recovery. Our family appreciates respect for our privacy during the recovery and we are grateful for the thoughts of Razorbacks fans at this time.”

Jeff Long, the UA athletic director, was quoted as saying he “would consult with Petrino’s family about releasing more information in the future but said there would be no further details or comment until then.”

I spent almost a decade in the governor’s office as the communications director, and we had far too much experience at crisis communications during those years.

My first day on the job — July 15, 1996 — was a crisis as Gov. Jim Guy Tucker changed his mind about resigning five minutes before Mike Huckabee was to be sworn in as governor.

There were the tornadoes of March 1, 1997, that killed more Arkansans in a few hours than had been killed by tornadoes in all of Bill Clinton’s 12 years as governor.

There were the school shootings near Jonesboro in 1998.

There was much more. In all of these instances, our philosophy was to provide as much solid information as possible as quickly as possible.

As things got crazier by the moment on July 15, 1996, we held regular briefings for the media in the hall outside Lt. Gov. Huckabee’s office at the state Capitol. It was the biggest news story in the nation that afternoon.

In Jonesboro, we set up a media center in the Convocation Center on the Arkansas State University campus and staffed it 24 hours a day for almost a week, holding daily briefings for the media representatives who poured into northeast Arkansas from around the world.

I realize that the UA athletic department is an empire, separate in most ways from the rest of the school.

I realize that the Petrino regime has thrived on secrecy. Most fans, with the “just win, baby” mentality, are fine with that.

I suspect most employees of the athletic department live in fear of angering the temperamental Petrino.

But rumors thrive in a vacuum.

On Sunday night, the chancellor, the UA system president, the governor, somebody should have convinced Petrino’s family that it was in their best interest to have a media briefing at the hospital first thing this morning in order to provide as many details as possible — to be followed with briefings throughout the day.

It comes with being a public figure.

Ironically, I was watching old news clips with my son during the weekend of the March 1981 assassination attempt of President Reagan. Even though the White House press secretary, James Brady, had been shot, the White House was providing constant briefings with men such as Lyn Nofziger and David Gergen stepping in for Brady.

Yes, then-Secretary of State Al Haig stuck his foot in his mouth, but at least the White House was attempting to provide a steady flow of information.

Today, the University of Arkansas could have used a course in proper crisis management.

That said, our best wishes go out to Coach Petrino. Our thoughts and prayers are with you, coach. We wish you a speedy and full recovery.

Post to Twitter