Press boxes and Pryors

I’ve attended two fun, uplifting events the past two days.

Yesterday, the David and Barbara Pryor Center for Arkansas Oral and Visual History at the University of Arkansas announced that it’s moving the KATV collection of videos to the Arkansas State Library.

The library is in the building on Capitol Avenue in downtown Little Rock that once housed the Dillard’s corporate headquarters. That building has been beautifully renovated for state offices, including those of the Arkansas Economic Development Commission and the Arkansas Science and Technology Authority.

The gift from KATV to the Pryor Center was announced in May 2009. But the priceless video collection had remained in the damp KATV basement on Main Street, where conditions are not the best for the preservation of old tapes. Those tapes will now be stored in a climate-controlled environment where they can be preserved and digitized during the next several years.

Today, I stood outside War Memorial Stadium as the new $7.3 million press box was dedicated. It’s a thing of beauty, especially for those of us who once toiled as sportswriters in the old facility. And for those who continue to live in fear that the University of Arkansas will end its association with the stadium, it was nice to hear UA athletic director Jeff Long call Little Rock the “gateway to the south and east” for the state’s flagship institution.

I’ve long contended that Little Rock games, while producing less revenue than Fayetteville games, ultimately strengthen the university as a statewide entity.

Frank Broyles forgot that when he attempted to end the tradition of playing football games in Little Rock. Relationships were damaged with people with last names such as Stephens and Ford. To Long’s credit, he has worked hard to rebuild those relationships.

At the same time, though, the members of the War Memorial Stadium Commission had the obligation to continually upgrade the stadium. Thank goodness for Gary Smith. Appointed by then-Gov. Mike Huckabee to the commission in 2003, the tenacious Little Rock businessman took on the stadium as a personal crusade. New scoreboards, video screens, playing surfaces, seats, restrooms and concession stands have all come about under Smith’s watch.

Gov. Mike Beebe, remembering the Great Stadium Debate, said it’s nice to see northwest Arkansas and central Arkansas working together better than they have in past years. This project was an example of that improving relationship with Long and Smith working closely together throughout the planning and construction of the press box.

The 1948 stadium has never looked better. Little Rock attorney Kevin Crass, a member of the War Memorial Stadium Commission, called it Miracle on Markham III.

I was fortunate to be in the stands with my family when the Razorbacks defeated LSU in Miracle on Markham I in 2002.

I was fortunate to be in the stands again with my family when the Razorbacks defeated LSU in Miracle on Markham II in 2008.

And I’ve watched with interest as Smith has brought about Miracle on Markham III.

I’m ready for football season. I hope to head out to War Memorial Stadium after work on Monday and Tuesday nights for part of the 2010 Arkansas High School Kickoff Classic. I hope to be back out there on Friday night of next week for the Salt Bowl game between Benton and Bryant. Last year, that game set the record for the highest attendance for an Arkansas high school football game. If the weather stays like this, last year’s record could be broken.

I’m sure I’ll look around the stadium next week and marvel at all that has been accomplished.

So what do yesterday’s Pryor Center event and today’s War Memorial Stadium event have in common? Several things:

– Both events were opportunities to show off newly renovated facilities in the heart of Little Rock — the old Dillard’s corporate headquarters and the stadium. While there are obvious examples of neglect (the city’s refusal to save historic Ray Winder Field remains the sharpest burr in my saddle), my overall impression is that Little Rock remains progressive.

– Both events reflected well on the new leadership at the university’s Fayetteville campus. I’ve been impressed with the job Long has done as athletic director. They say you never want to be the guy who replaces the legend, but Long is making the kinds of moves that are necessary in a world that’s far different from the one athletic directors faced in the previous century. Meanwhile, I laughed until my eyes watered during the Pryor Center event as Chancellor David Gearhart spoke. I must tell you that Gearhart is rapidly becoming one of my favorite people in Arkansas. What a great decision it was to make the Fayetteville native the chancellor. Too often in this state, we feel obligated to do “nationwide searches” and bring in people from elsewhere with lots of titles — people without a sense of history or place when it comes to Arkansas. Sometimes the best choices for these leadership positions are right here if only we would realize it. Gearhart is an example of that. The longer he’s chancellor, the more marvelous things he will do for the university.

– Both events were attended by people I’ve known for years, reminding me how nice it is to live in a small state where you know people. And reminding me that whether it’s a David Gearhart from Fayetteville or a David Pryor from Camden, Arkansas produces some smart, articulate leaders.

Back to the KATV video collection and the Pryor Center: The KATV collection has been called the finest collection of tapes at any local television station in the country. I described it earlier as “priceless.” For those of us who love Arkansas history, even that is an understatement.

Hats off to former KATV general manager Dale Nicholson, former news director Jim Pitcock and current news director Randy Dixon for not allowing old tapes to be discarded, as was the case at so many stations. There are 24,000 hours of tapes.

That’s right — 24,000 hours.

Thanks also to David and Barbara Pryor for establishing this unique center for preserving Arkansas history.

“The sheer scale of this irreplaceable, one-of-a-kind archive of Arkansas visual history is unprecedented in our state,” said Kris Katrosh, the Pryor Center director.

Here’s how the university’s news release put it: “A decade ago, when David and Barbara Pryor learned that another local news affiliate had discarded its entire catalog of aging archival tapes in the city dump, they embarked on a campaign quite different from their usual political one. Their goal: To ensure the preservation of KATV’s more than 24,000 hours of videotape containing film and video footage of Arkansas history, the most comprehensive archive of its type in the state and one of the largest in the nation. To put the size of this collection into context, it would require almost three years of viewing around the clock simply to watch the entire KATV collection.”

The Pryors had made a significant donation in 1999 to establish the center. Since then, more than 500 interviews with Arkansans of all types have been recorded. Those efforts will continue.

Check out the website at http://pryorcenter.uark.edu and make an online donation while you’re at it.

The leadership of the Pryor Center describes its mission in these words: “It’s a great honor and huge responsibility to be entrusted with our state’s treasure: its history. It is our goal to collect and preserve the most diverse and compelling collection of Arkansas oral and visual history, and to share it with our state and the world. We’re off to a good start by using high-definition video cameras, building an extensive digital archive and placing the collection on our website.

“We are recording stories and documenting events all across the state of Arkansas. We talk to people about their childhood challenges, their family fortunes and misfortunes and the experiences that shaped their character. We step into the lives and times of the individuals we interview, and we leave with a deep appreciation of who they are and how they helped impact our state, our country and sometimes our world. These in-depth interviews help preserve our Arkansas heritage.”

I have too many outside interests. My wife begged me not to agree to serve on any additional boards. I told her I would learn to say “no.”

Two days later, David Pryor called to ask me to serve on the Pryor Center Board of Advisors.

I was honored.

And you just don’t say “no” to David or Barbara Pryor.

I said “yes,” of course.

I’m glad I did.

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One Response to “Press boxes and Pryors”

  1. rexnelson says:

    One addition: While stating that Little Rock is generally a progressive city, I must make note of the first letter to the editor in this week’s edition of the Arkansas Times.

    The letter is written by David McCreery of Little Rock and starts this way: “In case you haven’t noticed, our city is a pigsty. Drive down Cantrell Hill, past Austin Brothers, past Junior Deputy to LaHarpe Boulevard and all one will see is litter. It’s a disgrace and it was a disgrace last spring during the Little Rock Marathon.”

    As one who drives Cantrell each day to and from work, I could not agree more. Week after week, I ran over the same piece of plywood in the right lane going down Cantrell Hill. At the bottom of the hill, dead limbs actually reached out into the road. Trash is everywhere along the right side of the road as one heads into downtown on one of the city’s busiest streets.

    The writer is correct. It’s a disgrace. Progressive cities don’t look like this — Rex

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