Archive for June, 2015

Ben Elrod: Part 4

Tuesday, June 30th, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The shock waves were felt in neighboring Arkansas.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Ben Elrod: Part 3

Monday, June 29th, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Elrod responded bluntly: “No.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Then, Ouachita called once more.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Ben Elrod: Part 2

Friday, June 26th, 2015

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

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

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

Life as a student in Arkadelphia centered on the campus.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Ben Elrod: Son of south Arkansas

Thursday, June 25th, 2015

I usually have far too many projects on my plate.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Elrod’s family had roots deep in south Arkansas.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Leaving home

Monday, June 22nd, 2015

I walked out of my childhood home for the final time this morning.

I knew this day was coming, but that doesn’t mean it was easy.

As my sister and I sat in the offices of the title company across from the Clark County Courthouse early on this Monday morning, I looked at the papers that showed my parents had purchased the house in the Ouachita Hills neighborhood of Arkadelphia in the spring of 1961.

I was not yet two years old.

In other words, it was the only house I knew as a boy.

What’s now Ouachita Baptist University had begun developing the wooded hills near what’s known locally as The Bluff (it overlooks the Ouachita River) in the late 1950s for faculty housing. Indeed, most of the houses when I was young were occupied by Ouachita faculty members, coaches and administrators. My father and mother were Ouachita graduates, but they didn’t work at the school. They ran a business downtown.

I didn’t realize it as a child, of course, but I was living in a special place where my neighbors included a noted musician, a talented playwright, a famous basketball coach, a philosopher, a writer, a theologian, the state’s lieutenant governor and more. It was the kind of neighborhood you would be unable to find up the road in Malvern or down the road in Camden. It was the kind of neighborhood that could only be found in a college town.

And there was much more than intellectual capital. What a playground this neighborhood was. It was just a short walk to the Ouachita River and Mill Creek, where I could wade, throw rocks and fish. There was a pond across the street to fish in and an old barn to hide in. Ouachita had cattle and horses in the pastures in those days. So even though we were in the city limits, it was like living in the country. It was the best of both worlds.

In the winter, the abundant hills in the neighborhood provided the perfect venue for sledding when there was the occasional south Arkansas snow.

In the spring, floods on the Ouachita River provided opportunities to look for turtles and snakes in places we might not otherwise find them.

In the summer, the Little League baseball field was an easy bicycle ride away.

In the fall, the huge pecan trees along the river provided the nuts we would use at Thanksgiving and Christmas (if I would pick them up, my dad would shell them). And the practice field for my beloved Ouachita Tiger football team was just down the street, giving me a place to hang out after school as a water boy until I had my own team’s football practices to attend in junior high and high school.

It’s human nature to look back on things with rose-colored glasses, but there really was a Mayberry element to that neighborhood where everyone knew each other and socialized together. Most of us even attended the same church, the First Baptist Church of Arkadelphia.

I lived in a dorm the entire time I was a student at Ouachita, but I could come home each afternoon to check my mail, deliver dirty laundry and wind down for a few minutes before returning to my job at the newspaper.

When Melissa and I were newlyweds and short on funds (I had moved back to Arkansas after several years in Washington, D.C.), she sometimes would say: “Would you like to spend the weekend at your parents’ home?”

That meant that we didn’t have the money to eat out, but we knew we would eat well in Arkadelphia. Mom would fix the side dishes inside while Dad would fry crappie, smoke a turkey or grill burgers or steaks outside.

And our boys — now ages 22 and 18 — enjoyed nothing more than weekends spent with their grandparents at 648 Carter Road.

In bed late at night when the house was quiet, you could hear the trains as they crossed the Ouachita River. We promised our oldest son that if he would become potty trained, his grandmother would take him on a real train trip (it was a short Amtrak jaunt from Arkadelphia to Texarkana). On the night before that trip, Austin couldn’t sleep because he kept hearing trains. Each time he would ask if he had missed his train to Texas.

We realized the day when my parents could no longer remain in the house would arrive. As my father’s dementia and other ailments took hold, we were forced to move them to a facility in Little Rock. Even though neither of us lived in Arkadelphia, my sister and I hung onto the house. After all, there was more than 50 years’ worth of “stuff” to clean out and for the longest we had neither the time nor the will to take on the task.

We left the water and the electricity on, and I occasionally would spend nights there after broadcasting Ouachita football games in the fall.

I held out the hope that I could renovate the house as a weekend writing retreat. Finally, Melissa convinced me just how impractical that plan would be.

Last spring, my sister retired following a career in public education and began what turned out to be a new full-time job: Cleaning out the house in Ouachita Hills. She did the bulk of the work. I’m not sure I would have been able to do it. I would have wanted to read every old newspaper clipping and save those things that really aren’t worth saving.

Thanks, Lynda, for your hard work.

I sat in my chair at home in Little Rock yesterday morning, reading the two newspapers I get each Sunday and drinking good, strong coffee from Louisiana. In the background, I had on one of the few television programs I watch, “CBS Sunday Morning.”

Steve Hartman, the network’s modern-day Charles Kuralt, had a piece about moving his father out of the house in Toledo, Ohio, that had been in his family since the 1950s. I don’t remember his exact words, but his ending to the story went something like this: “A house with no one in it is no longer a home. It’s just a house. What endures are the memories and the lives that were touched by those who once lived there.”

I thought of those words as I drove from Little Rock to Arkadelphia early this morning.

I thought of my father, who has been gone for four years now.

I thought of my mother, who will turn 90 in August.

I thought of my older brother. He got to grow up in that house for less than three years before leaving this earth in 1964 when he was nine and I was four.

I met my sister at 7 a.m. for breakfast at the Cracker Barrel in Caddo Valley. We sipped our coffee after the meal and didn’t say much. Neither of us looked forward to the real estate closing, though we knew it was something that needed to be done.

We signed the papers shortly after 8:30 a.m. My sister stayed to visit with the real estate agent, and I made one last trip to the house.

I walked through the kitchen where I ate most of my meals, the den where I spent so many nights in front of the fireplace watching sports events on television, the living room where we would place our Christmas tree and open gifts on Christmas morning.

I walked for the final time into the recreation room my father had added to the house, the one that had the pool table and hosted hundreds of Ouachita students and others through the years.

I walked into my parents’ bedroom, the bedroom I once had shared with my brother and my sister’s bedroom.

Then, I took my key off the chain, laid it on the kitchen counter, took a long look and shut the door before the memories could totally consume me.

It was time to say so long to 648 Carter Road.

I stepped into the carport where my dad once had parked his big Oldsmobile, started my car, drove slowly around the circle and then headed for U.S. Highway 67, Interstate 30 and the office.

The tears didn’t clear until somewhere east of Malvern.

 

 

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The Albert Pike and the Sam Peck

Wednesday, June 10th, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Allsopp also wrote five books.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The grand hotels

Tuesday, June 9th, 2015

The early 20th century was a time for building hotels in downtown Little Rock. Most of the hotels opened during that period — the Marion, the Lafayette, the Albert Pike and the H. Grady Manning — are no longer being used as hotels. The Frederica (built in 1913 and later called the Sam Peck) now does business as the Legacy Hotel but doesn’t generally get good reviews.

The Lafayette houses offices and condominiums. The Albert Pike is a residence hotel. The Marion and Manning are long gone, imploded on a cold Sunday morning in February 1980 to make way for the Excelsior Hotel.

What’s now the city’s most famous hotel — the Capital — was opened in 1877, though the building didn’t begin as a hotel. The building was constructed in 1872 for offices, shops and apartments.

“In the second half of the 19th century, after the end of the Civil War, Little Rock was a growing river port and rail station,” Sharolyn Jones-Taylor wrote for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. “There was already an upscale hotel on the river, the Metropolitan, so William P. Denckla, a wealthy New York railroad tycoon, saw a business opportunity in creating a place to nurture commerce in the capital city. Denckla purchased the land on which to build from Arkansas Supreme Court Justice George C. Watkins. In the spring of 1872, construction began. After Watkins’ death in 1872, just as the building was nearing completion, Denckla sold the complex of stores, offices and ‘bachelor quarters’ back to the judge’s heirs. It lay diagonally across from the Metropolitan Hotel and directly across from Little Rock City Hall.

“One of the hotel’s most notable features is the prefabricated cast-iron façade that is part of the original construction (though it has been added to since). This architectural detail was built outside the state — where is not known for certain — and shipped to Arkansas. The building was designed and constructed to accommodate the façade, which is not only decorative but a vital structural element as well. Though not originally built as a hotel, the Denckla Block became one in 1877 after the Metropolitan burned on Dec. 14, 1876. The manager of the Metropolitan, Col. A.G. DeShon, was instrumental in leasing the Denckla Block as a home for a new hotel, persuading its agents at the time of the need for a grand hotel in the capital city.”

During the 20th century, no hotel in Little Rock was more important than the Marion. Construction began in 1905, and the Marion was the tallest structure in the state from when it opened in 1907 until 1911. The Marion was built by Herman Kahn, a shrewd businessman who had moved to Little Rock from Frankfurt, Germany, in 1870. Kahn’s great-grandson, Jimmy Moses, has been a driving force behind developments in downtown Little Rock in recent years. Herman Kahn and his sons, Sidney and Alfred Kahn, were involved in banking and real estate development. Sidney Kahn developed the Prospect Terrace neighborhood of Little Rock.

When it opened, the 500-room Marion had green carpets, bellboys in green uniforms and a marble fish pond in the lobby. The hotel had been named after Herman Kahn’s wife, Marion Cohn Kahn. It billed itself as “the meeting place of Arkansas,” and top organizations held their conventions there. Its bar was named the Gar Hole and featured a mounted alligator gar. Visitors to the Marion through the years included Will Rogers, Helen Keller, Douglas MacArthur, Harry Truman and Eleanor Roosevelt.

On June 10, 1949, Truman addressed those attending the reunion of the 35th Infantry Division at the Marion. He said of the reunion: “I didn’t want to miss this one, particularly because it was in Little Rock. I have had some wonderful times here. I remember one time, in the Marion Hotel, it was my privilege to be the guest of Mrs. Hattie Caraway when she was running for re-election. I never had so much fun in my life as I did then. And Mrs. Caraway, who is still in Washington, enjoyed herself immensely.”

Writer Richard Ford, who won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction for his 1996 novel “Independence Day,” once lived in Room 600 of the Marion. Ford was born in Jackson, Miss., in 1944. His father had a heart attack when Ford was 8 and died when Ford was 16. Beginning in 1952, Ford spent summers in Little Rock with his maternal grandparents. Ford’s grandfather, Ben Shelley, was the hotel manager.

“It created for me a nice sense of comfort because I knew everybody,” Ford said in a 2013 interview with the Arkansas Times. “Everybody was family: all the bellmen, all the telephone operators, all the front office people, all the cooks, all the waitresses, all the waiters. And yet all around that little island of home-like experience, there were all these people coming and going, day in and day out, people I would never see again. I could lie in my bed, and I could hear the buses coming and going from the Trailways bus station. Down behind the hotel, I could hear the Missouri Pacific switch cars. I could hear voices out on the street. I could hear sirens. I never thought of it as lonely.”

The Marion sometimes was referred to as the “real state Capitol” since legislators congregated there during legislative sessions, cutting after-hour deals and forging compromises. During its final decades of existence, the Marion was owned by Southwest Hotels Inc. H. Grady Manning expanded Southwest to include hotels in Little Rock, Hot Springs, Memphis, Kansas City and Vicksburg, Miss. In Little Rock, Southwest owned the Albert Pike, Lafayette and Grady Manning hotels in addition to the Marion.

The Grady Manning Hotel, which had opened in 1930, originally was known as the Ben McGehee Hotel. It was designed by architect Julian Bunn Davidson and was owned by Benjamin Collins McGehee. In Hot Springs, Southwest owned the Arlington and Majestic hotels. Only the Arlington continues to operate as a hotel.

The Lafayette opened in 1925 and was among the state’s best-known hotels until its closure in 1973. Now known as the Lafayette Building, it houses offices and condominiums. It was added to the National Register of Historic Places in September 1982.

Little Rock was experiencing a growth spurt during the 1920s, and an entity known as the Little Rock Hotel Co. decided to capitalize on that growth with a new hotel. A.D. Gates of St. Louis was the company president, and John Boyle of Little Rock was the vice president. The 10-story structure, which has a full basement, was designed by St. Louis architect George Barnett.

The Lafayette opened on Sept. 2, 1925, with 300 fireproof guest rooms. The rooms, which featured private baths with running water, rented for $2.50 per night. The building’s exterior featured elements of the Renaissance Revival style of architecture with its decorative terra cotta detailing, arched windows on the top floor and a projecting copper cornice. The interior public spaces were designed by decorator Paul Martin Heerwagen.

The Great Depression hit the hotel business particularly hard, and the Lafayette closed in 1933. The building remained vacant until a housing shortage caused by an influx of soldiers at Camp Robinson increased the demand for hotel rooms and apartments. The Lafayette was purchased by Southwest Hotels and reopened on Aug. 23, 1941. The number of guest rooms was reduced from 300 to 260. A coffee bar and lunch counter were added with an entrance off Sixth Street.

An Arkansas Gazette article the day after the opening said: “Guest rooms, suites and efficiency apartments are the newest, freshest and most livable rooms in the city, high above the street, light and airy.” The newspaper described the coffee bar as “truly the most beautifully decorated and artistically designed coffee bar in the state.”

The interior of the hotel was repainted. The lobby ceiling was stenciled and painted by John Oehrlie, a Swiss mural painter. Oehrlie and his crew redecorated the hotel in eight months, spending three months of that time working on the lobby ceiling. Oehrlie had been Heerwagen’s foreman in 1925, so he was familiar with the hotel. The Civitan Club, Kiwanis Club, Optimist Club and Lions Club all began having meetings at the hotel. The Missouri Pacific and Rock Island railroads had ticket offices in the lobby. There also was a telephone answering service, a coin shop and a beauty parlor. The Gaslite Club opened in the basement and remained in business until the 1960s.

There was another remodeling effort in 1953 as the hotel’s owners tried to keep up with the growing number of motels and tourist courts on the highways leading in and out of Little Rock. Mechanical, electrical and plumbing updates were made. The interior décor was changed to incorporate a red-and-white color scheme. It wasn’t enough. The Lafayette closed on Nov. 23, 1973. The Gazette described the hotel as the “victim of more modern competition, one-way streets and no parking facilities.”

In the early 1980s, the investment banking firm Jon R. Brittenum & Associates purchased the building and began renovations. Witsell Evans & Rasco of Little Rock was hired as the architectural firm. Baldwin & Shell of Little Rock was the general contractor. Federal historic rehabilitation tax credits were used, and company officials said they were prepared to spend up to $6.3 million on the renovations. The renovation effort began in the fall of 1983 and was completed in December 1984. The black-and-white marble floors in the lobby were repaired, the red gum walls and columns were stripped and finished, the kitchen on the first floor was enlarged and new elevators were installed.

The Little Rock firm Designed Communications, owned by Suzanne Kittrell and Becky Witsell, was hired to research and document the original decoration and then re-create it. A team of six women — Witsell, Kittrell, Ovita Goolsby, Kathy Worthen, Susan Purvis and Susan Leir — spent almost a year repainting the ceiling.

In January 1986, Brittenum & Associates filed for bankruptcy a day after Jon Brittenum had filed a personal petition for protection from creditors. State securities regulators earlier had alleged in a complaint that the firm misappropriated $3.3 million in customer funds. Brittenum’s personal Chapter 11 bankruptcy petition showed that he and his wife owed more than $17 million. In 1989, Brittenum pleaded no contest to theft by dececption charges.

Brittenum’s 1984 project had focused on the exterior, the lobby, the top three floors and the mechanical systems. A company known as American Diversified Capital Corp. of Costa Mesa, Calif., announced plans in late 1984 to do work on the floors that Brittenum was not using, but little was done. Tower Investments of California began efforts in 2005 to create condominiums and office space. Tower completed its renovations in 2008, but the Great Recession slowed condominium sales.

With downtown revitalization efforts gaining steam in Little Rock, Tower sold the building in January 2014 to Chad and Jessica Gallagher of De Queen and Scott and Deborah Ferguson of West Memphis. The two couples said they planned to make the lobby a major gathering spot once more.

In the next installment, we’ll pay a visit to the old Albert Pike and Sam Peck hotels.

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Catholic fare

Wednesday, June 3rd, 2015

While I’ve attempted to visit as many independently owned restaurants across the state as possible through the years — especially those in rural areas — one thing I’ve not done is take in most of the historic annual events that are associated with Catholic parishes.

Though there’s not a large Catholic population in Arkansas, these are among the most storied and anticipated events in our state.

In fact, the annual supper at St. Joseph Church in Center Ridge bills itself as “the original spaghetti supper.”

In 1929 — the year the Great Depression began — Benedictine nuns were looking for a way to raise money for school supplies. They wound up raising $40 by selling pasta suppers for 25 cents per plate. That cost included homemade wine, by the way. The homemade wine is a thing of the past, but there’s still homemade Italian sausage and spaghetti produced for a March supper and a June summer picnic.

“It’s not only the taste of the food,” Theresa Paladino told the Arkansas Catholic in 2013. “It’s the hospitality, the friendliness and the heritage of fourth and fifth generations that makes it the best. We don’t have a set sauce recipe. Everybody just brings their own and dumps it in the pot. I’ve seen years when it rained, and people in line stood there and got rained on. One year the transformers blew, and people ate in the dark. People have sat in their cars to eat. Before we were on city water, the wells almost ran dry because we boiled so much pasta. But the Lord always made sure we had enough.”

Parishioners start making the sausages in January. It’s a family tradition for those in the area, which was settled decades ago by Italian Catholics. The two dinners combine to serve more than 3,000 people each year.

Up in northwest Arkansas, St. Joseph Church at Tontitown serves an estimated 7,000 plates of spaghetti during the Grape Festival each August. The event began in 1898 when Italian immigrant farmers — who had left behind the mosquitoes and malaria of the Sunnyside Plantation near Lake Village — decided to have a picnic. Now, fried chicken and pasta are served from Thursday through Saturday. The pasta and sauce are homemade.

Ryan Pianalto, a fourth-generation member of the church, described it best a couple of years ago when he said: “It’s just the best thing ever. You would trade your birthday for the Grape Festival in a minute. … It’s fantastic to use these old recipes. It’s also amazing to hear my great-aunts and uncles talk about how they made it in these five-gallon pots where they would stir it all day long. These days we use a 100-gallon pot.”

Speaking of Lake Village and its Italian heritage, the Our Lady of the Lake spaghetti supper began in 1909. The recipes for the March event have been handed down since then. More than 300 pounds of pasta are produced on the weekend before Washington’s Birthday is celebrated in February. In late February, about 3,600 meatballs are made. Diners have been known to line up by 7 a.m. the day of the event for takeout orders.

You know a place named Little Italy must have a Catholic church and an annual supper. And that’s just the case for St. Francis of Assisi Church in the Little Italy community near Roland, where almost 1,000 diners buy tickets for homemade pasta, sauce and sausages each October. The sausages are cooked in wine, and the salad dressing comes from a recipe that’s a century old. The event, which began in 1927, is almost like a homecoming with people who grew up in the parish coming from multiple states to eat and visit with friends.

The spaghetti dinner at St. Joseph Church in Pine Bluff, which is held each October, dates back to 1934. The meatball recipe has never changed. Almost 11,000 meatballs are produced each year. The work starts weeks in advance.

A Christmas season tradition in Little Rock is the Mancini Sausage Supper. I had the honor of being the main speaker for the event several years ago. My pay was five pounds of sausages. The supper began at St. Joseph Orphanage in North Little Rock. Members of the Knights of Columbus would give the orphans presents, and the children would sing Christmas carols. Sausages were made from Duroc hogs on the St. Joseph grounds, which were descended from Subiaco Abbey litters. The sausage supper now is held at McDonald Hall, which is adjacent to the Cathedral of St. Andrew in downtown Little Rock. Proceeds go to several charities. Those who buy tickets also are asked to bring unwrapped toys.

The event has become so big that Petit Jean Meats at Morrilton now prepares the sausages, though the original recipe is used. More than 300 pounds of sausages are served each year. Another 200 pounds are sold for people to take home. The supper is named for the late Louie Mancini, a longtime member of the Knights of Columbus.

It’s not all pasta and sausage at Catholic events across the state. There’s also:

— Polish fare at Immaculate Heart of Mary Church in the Marche neighborhood of North Little Rock. The annual Polish Karnawal Festival in September attracts more than 1,000 people for gokie (patties of beef and pork), butter potatoes, haluski (braised sweet cabbage, onions and butter) and dumplings. There’s homemade sauerkraut that has been pickled in brine for six weeks and homemade Polish sausages.

— Latino and Vietnamese food at the St. Vincent de Paul Church Festival each September in Rogers. There are 15 food stands offering everything from Vietnamese spring rolls to handmade tamales as this ethnically diverse parish celebrates the start of fall.

— Boston butts, pork loin and barbecued chicken each October for the festival at Blessed Sacrament Church in Jonesboro. Demand for the Boston butts (pork shoulder) is so high that people begin ordering them months in advance. About 800 butts are sold for people to take home.

— Rolls and tamales at Immaculate Conception Church in Fort Smith for the church bazaar on the first weekend in November. The yeast rolls have been made each year since 1970. They’re known as “featherbed rolls.” The tamales, also available at the cultural festival each September at the church, are made from scratch by 60 volunteers.

— No article on food at Catholic events would be complete without mentioning the hot sauce and peanut brittle produced at Subiaco Abbey. There are 600 habanero pepper plants on the grounds. The plants produce 1,500 pounds of peppers, and those are turned into 2,500 five-ounce bottles of sauce. Both red and green peppers are grown. The peanut brittle, meanwhile, is produced in small skillets.

“Somebody once asked me why we didn’t make a mild habanero sauce, and I said: ‘For what?'” Father Richard Walz told the Arkansas Catholic in 2013. “Some of the commercial sauces out there are very, very thin. If you held it up, you could read a newspaper through it. We’re not afraid of someone stealing our recipe because we use way more peppers than most places would think was profitable. And a bag of most peanut brittles is the best advertisement for ours because you see a lot of candy and maybe a peanut here and there. We use more peanuts than any other brittle I’ve ever seen.”

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