Remembering Ann Vining and Ouachita Hills

I will attend the funeral of Ann Vining today, just nine days before my 50th birthday.

I will make the one-hour drive to Arkadelphia and think along the way about how much my old neighborhood, Ouachita Hills, is changing. It’s still a great neighborhood, but younger folks are moving in.

Mrs. Vining is gone. Other former neighbors are gone. My parents are still with us, but they are no longer living in the home in which I was raised.

In my mind, I still think of the folks around Ouachita Hills as they were when I was a child. Growing up in a college town, it seemed that everyone in the neighborhood (with the exception of my dad and one neighbor, who were downtown businessmen) was Dr. This or Coach That.

Our neighborhood was filled with kids. The Vinings had six — four of them were older and two were younger.

The Vinings also had the second swimming pool in the neighborhood. Bob and Claudia Riley (yes, the former lieutenant governor and his wife) had the first.

In the summer, you spent a lot of time swimming at the Vining home. In the fall, you played football on Sunday afternoons on the Ouachita football field, which is adjacent to the neighborhood. In the winter, when there was an occasional snow, the hilly neighborhood made for a great place to go sledding. In the spring, the Ouachita River would rise and you would explore the flooded areas, being careful not to step on a snake.

Maybe I remember my old neighborhood too fondly. Maybe the trees weren’t really that green in the spring. Maybe the neighbors weren’t really that nice. Maybe it was not really that neat of an experience to be able to walk to a college football game in three minutes and have the head coach and some players come over to your house to play pool afterward. Maybe we really weren’t allowed to ride our bikes and roam the neighborhood until dark.

But I know that’s not the case. Those memories are real. I realize now that I was lucky enough to have a sort of Mayberry RFD (with college Ph.Ds thrown into the mix) childhood, something we all took for granted at the time. My parents, despite a terrible tragedy in their own lives, saw to it that my childhood was a happy one. And Mrs. Vining was, in a sense, one of the den mothers of our neighborhood.

Growing up in a college town, my heroes were not athletes or coaches in some far-off city. They were right there in Arkadelphia — Ouachita basketball coach Bill Vining and Ouachita football coach Buddy Benson. You couldn’t imagine Coach Vining without his wife, Ann. And you couldn’t imagine Coach Benson without his wife, Janet.

Coach Vining led the Ouachita basketball team the whole time I was growing up. Coach Benson led the Ouachita football team the whole time I was growing up. I couldn’t even comprehend a time when they wouldn’t be on the job. Both are now in the Arkansas Sports Hall of Fame.

As a student at Ouachita, I had the honor of handling the radio play-by-play duties for both the Ouachita football and basketball teams. I remember when a Thursday night basketball game in Conway against UCA was called off due to snow. We rescheduled the game for a Saturday afternoon. The roads were still bad, and there could not have been more than 100 people in the Farris Center for the game. It was like a scrimmage.

Ouachita played poorly in the first half, and the Bears built up a huge lead. In a moment of frustration, I said on the air: “I doubt anyone back in Arkadelphia is still listening other than Mrs. Vining.”

The Tigers came back in the second half and made the game close.

I had ridden the bus to the game with the team, so Mrs. Vining knew to call my dorm room as soon as her husband walked into the house.

The phone rang just as I walked in, and she said: “You’re dang right I was still listening.”

To describe Mrs. Vining as feisty when it came to Ouachita basketball would be an understatement. She was her husband’s — and his players’ — biggest advocate.

Coach Vining — and Charlotte, Billy, Amanda, Andy, Molly and Lon –  please know that there are hundreds of us who share at least a small piece of your pain in losing Mrs. Vining.

We learned of the sad news of her passing on Friday, my mom’s 84th birthday. My parents have lived in Little Rock for the past year. I picked Mom up for a birthday dinner Friday. As I went into the Villa to pick up the food, Mom’s cell phone rang. It was Coach and Mrs. Benson calling to wish her a happy birthday. They had remembered. The call brought a smile to her face.

Yes, my old neighborhood is changing, though there is a 100th birthday party planned for Dr. Raymond Coppenger next month.

Mrs. Vining is gone. Mom is now 84. I turn 50 next month. Dad turns 85 in October. Those childhood memories become more precious with each passing day. Time marches on.

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14 Responses to “Remembering Ann Vining and Ouachita Hills”

  1. Ted Barker says:

    very nice – all true. I wish I could be at the service today – how can such a small town be the home to so many heroes?

  2. Bluedog says:

    RIP, Mrs. Vining

  3. AG Wright says:

    Good memories. I grew up with Billy, a couple of years ahead of me and graduated with Amanda from Arkadelphia High.
    I swam in that pool and hung around the house a few times when church groups were there.
    Arkadelphia was a great place to grow up in the 60s and 70s. Might still be but I’ve raised my kids in Benton and the closest grandchild is in Little Rock so I don’t want to be that far away.

    AG Wright

  4. Jeff Root says:

    It was a beautiful service for Mrs. Vining today, and to read your words tonight, Rex, makes a memorable ending for a memorable day. Great stories were told before, during and after the service. Enveloped in many of the Ann Vining stories were stories about Ouachita Hills.

    There was the hole in the fence that allowed us to play football in the OBU stadium until darkness closed in. There was the drain pipe behind the stands that provided an Olympics-like balancing event. There were too many larger-than-life figures to name in this space. Suffice to say neighbors on each side of our house were equalling intriguing gentlemen with very different personalities: Bob Riley, the extroverted, eye-patched lieutenant governor, and Dennis Holt, the introverted playwright. And, of course, I remember many Ann Vining stories. Fittingly, she was at the top of Ouachita Hills, the point from which she looked after us all.

    Let’s make a pact to record and collect those stories, Rex. While we’re at it, let’s make one more pact since I’ve relocated back into the neighborhood.

    When the Tigers host Valdosta State for the home opener on Sept. 19, park at your house. I’ll meet you in the street and take the three-minute walk to the game with you.

  5. Lisa says:

    Rex, what wonderful memories your words have brought back. I tell people often of the Arkadoo days and how perfect life seemed in our small little town. Your words for Mrs. Vining were so fitting as she was everyone’s den mother! I can remember sitting with a group of girls in the 2nd floor sewing room learning how to macrame, playing Marco Polo in the pool, having sleep overs and waking up to her wonderful breakfast, and so many other wonderful times at the Vining house. Not only was Mrs. Vining a wonderful wife and mother, but she was an example to all of us as a woman of strength, beauty, and grace. She was part of the fabric of our Arkadelphia lives. How wonderful it was.

  6. Jimmy says:

    Rex,

    Thanks for taking me down a memorie lane that I did not live on but maybe lived just around the corner. Mrs. Vining was not only a great advocate to Coach Vining and his players but to all that was good in the world and at Ouachita. I hope our children will know heroes like the ones from our past.

    From a guy that turned 50 over the summer and who has a dad that is already 84, thanks again my friend.

  7. Good idea Jeff! I have LOTS of Ouachita Hills stories! My favorite Ann Vining story was that she was the Ouachita Homecoming queen and was kidnapped by the devious Henderson State Reddies and was kept in a dorm room on Henderson’s campus until rescued! Now days there would probably be some horrible crime involved in that, and back then it was just a terrific college prank. (she knew the Henderson kids from high school)

    And how about waking up on a snow day in Ouachita Hills with no school? I’d have my hot chocolate. get my five layers of clothes on, and head to the top of the Vining’s hill at about 9 am. When I arrived, there were all of the Vining kids already out. “Yeah! We’ve been out since the sun came up! The best hills are these two….and you can sled all the way to the football field from here!”

    Other Ouachita Hill kids stories? The day the kids started jumping off the cable swing behind the Vining’s house, and there were (rumour had it) several emergency room visits…a broken arm, a twisted ankle and more.
    And then there were the “fell off the bluff” stories! Remember them? Mark Coppenger, Neal Summerlin, Doc Phelps. … they were all in sort of club of the brave.

    Look forward to reading other memories.

  8. Eddie Lou says:

    As a young mother raising three children in Arkadelphia, Ann was such a role model for what it means to be a nurturing, loving, good time- managing, strong Christian mother. I listened in awe to her stories about natural childbirth and observed a large family that lived such a fun, sometimes chaotic, but always loving life. Our son, Rob, learned to swim in that pool! Bill will miss her, but have such wonderful memories of their life in those Ouachita Hills!

  9. Great article, Rex! Although I didn’t grow up in those Ouachita Hills, I made frequent visits there during my years at OBU – and felt some of what you have so beautifully described!

  10. Neal Sumerlin says:

    What a great tribute, Rex! It was a great place to grow up. Pam, you’re being far too kind to call my falling off the bluff brave. Stupid and lucky is more like it! My kids still can’t believe I fell off a 150-foot height with no broken bones and only six stitches.
    In the 60s, before my dad defected to Henderson, he would travel with the Ouachita teams as part of his job as sports information director. When the Clements-Kossover basketball team was winning in Kansas City at the NAIA tournament, my mom was increasingly irritated that she was having to paint my bedroom without my dad’s help! I still remember Ouachita-Henderson basketball games as the most exciting sports events I have ever witnessed.
    Ann Vining was a great lady. Heaven’s gained an angel.

  11. Lu Teague Elliott says:

    I also grew up in Arkadelphia but on the “Henderson Side” and always thought it was great to live in a college town. I still give credit for the small town environment, the public schools–teachers that really cared and disciplined us, sitting out on the front porch in the evenings to stay cool and visit with the neighbors in the summer. Arkadelphia was special!!

  12. AllenK says:

    Nice post Rex. I have really been enjoying this blog.

    I did not know Mrs. Vining very well,but I did go to scholl with her son Lon. I was on his baseball team for 2 years,and one year the Vinings had the whole team over for a swim party. When we got ready to go,Coach Vining and Mrs. Vining told us to come back anytime and visit with them. This was close to 30 years ago,but I haven’t forgotten it. You could tell they were sincere about it also.

    The Ouachita Hills neighborhood is still very nice,and some good folks still live over there.

  13. AllenK says:

    school

  14. Dianne says:

    In your column about Mrs. Vining – Enjoyed the mention of
    Dennis Holt – One of my teacher in Malvern and was a good
    friend. thanks – looked like you kew him well.

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