Remembering Bill Downs

Bill Downs didn’t always tell the truth.

I have proof of it.

In 2004, Downs wrote a book called “The Fighting Tigers: The Untold Stories Behind the Names on the Ouachita Baptist University World War II Memorial.”

I asked him to autograph the book for me in December of that year, and this is what he wrote: “To Rex Nelson, the only OBU student I have ever had who wrote so beautifully that I never found anything to correct.”

He probably didn’t know that I’m a pack rat. Somewhere, hidden in an old box, I’m sure I have some of my college papers that Downs marked up with his red pen. Trust me, he always found plenty to correct.

Downs, who died Saturday at age 87, was one of those tough taskmasters that we all should be lucky enough to have. His students loved him for that very reason: He was tough.

He knew they would never achieve perfection, but he could still demand it.

Anyone who took a class at Ouachita under Bill Downs, who taught at the school for 41 years, came away a much better writer at the end of the semester.

Though Downs was tough, he was never someone to be feared. That’s because his enthusiasm was infectious. He was the very definition of the lifelong learner, someone who was learning right along with us.

As a college student, I yearned to be a success in the media world. I constantly was amazed at the nationally known writers, editors and broadcasters that Downs was able to get on the telephone — this was long before the age of the video conference — to speak to our classes. These were the people I wanted to emulate. And those media celebrities had learned what those of us as students already knew — it was hard to say “no” to Downs.

Downs, who earned his master’s degree and his doctorate from the famed University of Missouri School of Journalism, had begun his career in public relations in Little Rock. But when Ouachita called, he accepted the challenge of bringing a first-class communications program to the small school in southwest Arkansas. He would be able to teach, write and continue his PR work. At Ouachita, you see, faculty and staff members must wear many hats.

Downs teamed up with the late Mac Sisson, who headed Ouachita’s news bureau and sports information department, to form one of the most formidable PR teams this state has ever seen.

Coming out of high school, I had determined that I would go somewhere other than Ouachita (Vanderbilt or Ole Miss to be exact) since everyone was assuming I would attend Ouachita. It was an easy assumption to make since my mother, father and sister were all Ouachita graduates and since I had grown up surrounded by Ouachita faculty members in the Ouachita Hills neighborhood of Arkadelphia. I was dead set on going against the grain, however.

At Arkadelphia High School, I was friends with Bill Downs III. We did a weekly radio show together and served on the staff of the school newspaper. We both had starring roles in the senior class play. Bill III let me know that his father, who was already a journalistic legend by that time, wanted to visit with me.

The elder Downs put no pressure on me. He calmly let me know that I would be welcome should I choose to attend Ouachita and that he would work with me daily to achieve my goals. Sisson took the same approach.

Appreciating the lack of a hard sell, I made the decision late that spring to stay in Arkadelphia for college. It turned out to be one of the best decisions of my life with Downs and Sisson as mentors.

“Trust no one. Assume nothing.”

That was Downs’ motto for aspiring journalists, and it’s advice that has served me well through the decades.

It has been 37 years now since I graduated from Ouachita. My career has allowed me to cover everything from the Kentucky Derby to the Super Bowl to national political conventions, presidential inaugurations and State of the Union addresses. It has allowed me to be in the Oval Office with three consecutive presidents. These are the kinds of things I dreamed of as a college student.

Bill Downs never stopped believing in me. He continued to offer advice and suggestions, and fortunately I was wise enough to take that advice.

Several years after graduation, I was moderating a panel on which he sat. In an effort to be informal, I referred to him as Bill.

After the meeting was finished, he said to me: “You know, I believe that’s the first time you have ever called me Bill. I want you to know that I prefer Dr. Downs.”

He said it, of course, with a smile on face.

But, you know, I never could bring myself to refer to my mentor as Bill. He was always Dr. Downs to me. I considered it a sign of the deep respect I had for him.

By the way, there was a another part of that inscription in “The Fighting Tigers.”

He wrote: “Thanks for being my friend and colleague.”

Colleague. Friend.

I couldn’t have asked for anything better.

About two years ago, as Downs’ health began to decline, he called me with a request. He asked me to speak at his funeral.

I’ve often thought the past couple of years about what I could say when this day arrived. How do you sum up a renaissance man who was not only a talented author and teacher but also was involved in woodworking, acting, editing newspapers in the summer and even lobbying the Arkansas Legislature on issues important to the press?

How do you do that in just a few minutes?

I realized that I had received my final assignment from Bill Downs, and it was the most difficult assignment of all.

It’s not easy to sum up a man as bright, as complex and as full of life as Downs was during the decades I knew him.

So I return to words I’ve already used to summarize what he meant to this old newspaperman.

Mentor. Colleague. Friend.

I’ll add one more word: Inspiration.

You see, Downs did far more than teach me how to write. He taught me how to live an interesting, fulfilling life.

I can just picture Mac Sisson and Bill Downs teamed up again, giving heaven one heck of a PR team.

— 30 — Dr. Downs.

I’ve completed my final assignment. It’s time for you to pull out your red pen.

Post to Twitter