Ike and the Greatest Generation

Now that I’ve reached the age of 50, I find myself going to funerals more often.

I suppose that’s a good sign. It shows, I hope, that my family’s deep Arkansas roots have allowed us to make many friends across this state.

But it also shows that we’re losing the men and women of my parents’ generation on a regular basis now.

With my own father in a nursing home and unable to travel, I sometimes find myself sitting where he should have been sitting. Such was the case today as I sat with the honorary pallbearers at a memorial service for Charles Marshall “Ike” Sharp. I shared the pew mostly with men of my father’s generation, but I always appreciate the opportunity to fill in for my dad. I like nothing better than being recognized as Red Nelson’s son.

The man we had come to honor was always Mr. Sharp or Coach Sharp to me. For this post, though, let’s call him what my dad called him — simply Ike.

More than once in recent months, I’ve found my dad either calling me Ike or asking for Ike as the dementia takes hold. Their friendship spanned the decades. It also spanned the miles since the Sharp family lived more than 1,000 miles away in Douglas, Ariz., for 27 years before returning to Arkansas in 1983.

I now count the youngest of the three Sharp children — David, the athletic director at Ouachita Baptist University — among my closest friends. I’ve also known David’s sister Jane and his older brother Paul since they were Ouachita students. 

I stepped outside last night during the funeral home visitation to visit with Paul. We determined that our fathers’ stories are remarkably similar. You know, they really were part of the Greatest Generation.

Both were raised in Arkansas during the Great Depression. Both came from relatively poor families. Both were given the opportunity to attend college at Ouachita and play football. Both met the loves of their lives at Ouachita, women to whom they would remain married for more than half a century. Both became high school coaches when they graduated from college. Both had two sons and one daughter. Both continued to love the sport of football and love Ouachita.

During today’s service, Paul said a perfect day for his father would likely be a fall Saturday when Ouachita won, the Razorbacks won and “that team across the street” (with all due respect to my many friends from Henderson) lost.

Ike was born south of Warren in the Bradley County community of Vick. He was the youngest of three children. His sister was 12 years older and his brother was 14 years older.

“His father had a man who worked with him who had been taken in by the family,” Paul said. “He was about 50 years old at the time of dad’s birth, and he had never been married or had any children. He was a big man, 6-4 and weighing about 350 pounds. He immediately took a liking to my dad. He would bounce him on his knee and take him for walks after work. He was known as Big Ike, and he started calling my dad Little Ike.

The Ike stuck.

By the time Ike started school, his brother and sister had married and moved out. So he was pretty much raised as an only child. However, his dad had seven siblings and his mom had five siblings. Those 12 sets of aunts and uncles would produce 77 first cousins. Paul said his father could name all of them and the families to whom they belonged.

Ike’s father died when Ike was just 7. He was raised by his mother. Life in rural Arkansas was tough during the Depression. It was even tougher with no father at home. Paul said Ike could remember living in 13 places as the mother bounced from job to job. He once attended three schools in the same school year.

“This would make an impact on him at an early age,” Paul said. “It inspired my dad. He knew that when he grew up and had his family, he wanted to find a place to settle down and stay there.”

Paul said two of the happiest years of his father’s childhood were when he was in the eighth and the ninth grades. That’s because his mother had found a job as a cook at an orphanage in Monticello and was allowed to live at the orphanage. That meant plenty of playmates for Ike.

“He saw his first football game in the ninth grade and immediately fell in love with the sport,” Paul said. “He also played in the first game he ever saw. He remembered that they beat Dermott by a score of 6-0.”

During Ike’s senior year at Warren High School, a Warren resident contacted her brother-in-law, who happened to manage the bookstore at Ouachita. She sold her brother-in-law on Ike’s athletic and academic abilities. So it was that Ike Sharp ended up on the Arkadelphia campus in the fall of 1947.

“Dad was able to get a summer job at the lumber mill,” Paul said. “For the first time in his life, he had a little money in his pocket. Toward the end of the summer, he went to his boss at the mill and told him he had decided not to go to college. He instead just wanted to keep working. His boss said, ‘Ike, that’s fine, but where are you going to work?’ He told his boss he wanted to continue to work at the mill. The boss let him know in no uncertain terms that he needed to go to college. Dad was forever grateful for that persuasive talk.”

The similarities with my own father are almost eerie.

As I’ve written before, my father was given a chance to play football at Ouachita for legendary coach Bill Walton. But during the summer, my dad worked for the Chicago Bridge & Iron Co. as it built an aluminum plant near Bauxite. World War II was in progress, and the need for increased aluminum production was considered a national security issue. Dad was paid union wages and suddenly found himself making more than his own father, who doubled as the street superintendent and a fireman for the city of Benton.

My father was offered the chance the continue working for Chicago Bridge & Iron on construction projects around the world. It sounded exciting to him. He had never traveled far from Saline County.

My grandmother, however, had other ideas. She wanted him to earn that college degree. She saw to it that Coach Walton drove him to Arkadelphia for “a visit” and then refused to bring him home to Benton. Stuck in Arkadelphia without the money for a train ticket or a bus ticket, my dad decided he might as well enroll in school and play football.

Dad returned to Ouachita after two years of serving in the Army Air Corps and met my mother after the war. He also met Ike Sharp, who was a freshman football player when my dad was a senior. When my father accepted a coaching job at Newport High School the next summer, it was Ike who found a pickup truck and helped my parents move their few possessions from Clark County to Jackson County.

Ike was introduced to Billie, who would become his wife, on the steps of the Ouachita bookstore. He asked her out on a Friday night. Being quite the romantic, Ike took her to an Arkadelphia High School Football game.

She had agreed to that first date on the condition he would attend church with her on Sunday. Ike had to play a football game that Saturday against the Muleriders from Magnolia A&M and cracked two ribs during the game.

“But on Sunday morning, my dad dressed up in his suit,” Paul said. “He was in pain, but he went to church.”

They went to the sanctuary of the First Baptist Church of Arkadelphia, the same place where today’s memorial service was held. After teaching and coaching in Mountain Home and Prescott, Ike took the job in Arizona. It’s the place where he would raise his family.

Strangely enough, he would discover after moving there that one of those 77 cousins also lived in Douglas.

Ike and Billie Sharp returned to their Arkansas roots in 1983, and Ike worked with my father at Southwest Sporting Goods Co. in Arkadelphia. The Sharps later would serve as dorm parents at Ouachita for a dozen years. They were known by the students as Mom and Pop Sharp.

“Mom helped many a young man with class assignments, and my dad helped keep those Baptist boys in line,” Paul said.

Several of Ike’s former players came all the way from Arizona for today’s service. I’m reminded anew of the impact great teachers and coaches can have on young people.

My father left coaching in 1952 to enter the sporting goods business. But 58 years later, some of his former players still call my home to ask me how he’s doing. One of those former Newport Greyhounds, a doctor in Camden, called just the other night.

They were raised in small Arkansas towns during the Great Depression, but they overcame adversity. They influenced young people in a positive way and raised their own children with a combination of discipline and love. They remained loyal to their wives, loyal to their schools, loyal to their friends and loyal to their churches through the decades.

They truly were part of the Greatest Generation.

If I can be half the man that Ike Sharp and Red Nelson have been, I will consider my life a success.

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