Archive for October, 2009

The Side-Yard Superhero

Thursday, October 29th, 2009

In my travels across Arkansas, I constantly am encouraged by the number and variety of the talented people I meet. There are artists, musicians, writers, photographers and craftsmen of all types. And sometimes you find them in the most unlikely places.

That brings me to Dr. Rick Niece, the president of the University of the Ozarks in Clarksville. I already knew that Dr. Niece was an exceptional college administrator. I had been on his campus several times during my years of work in the governor’s office.

What I didn’t know was that Rick Niece is also a talented writer; that was until he gave me his book, “The Side-Yard Superhero,” a wonderful story of growing up in the tiny town of DeGraff, Ohio.

Dr. Niece says of his writing: “The perfect word in the perfect sentence with the perfect sound and rhythm are my goals in writing. As a writer, word combinations, rhythms and their resonant sounds are important to me. I think that sensation began subconsciously when I was very young. I was born in Oberlin, Ohio, where my father was a music major at the Oberlin College Conservatory of Music. From birth to age four, the years before we moved to DeGraff, I was exposed daily to the wonders of music performed by the conservatory’s orchestra and chorus, as well as within our small rented house from my father’s piano playing and my mother’s singing. I sponged the sounds.

“When I was four, my family moved to DeGraff, Ohio, a town of 900 citizens and a fraternal twin to Lake Wobegone. Life was good for a boy growing up in DeGraff, and my memories of the positive influence the citizens of DeGraff had on me are even better.”

The book was released in February and already is in its second printing. It’s the first in a trilogy Dr. Niece has planned. A second book, “Echoes Can Make No Mistakes,” will recall more of his childhood memories. Additional information on Dr. Niece and his books can be found at

As a boy, Dr. Niece had a 72-customer newspaper route. Along that route, he met Bernie Jones, who was a decade older and confined to a wheelchair due to cerebral palsy. Dr. Niece’s mother called him six years ago to tell him that she had tracked down Bernie Jones, who was living in a nursing home. Dr. Niece went to visit him and then began writing his book.

“It took me stepping back from him for several years to realize what an influence he’d had on my life,” the Ozarks president told an interviewer earlier this year. “He never complained about anything. So, consequently, I disregard all complainers. We all have superheroes in our lives.”

Dr. Niece began his career as a high school English teacher. He later became an assistant principal and a curriculum director. Since entering higher education, he has been a professor, an academic dean, a vice president and now a college president. He even writes poems. Like most good writers, he’s a voracious reader.

“As a reader, I enjoy America’s classic writers: Faulkner, Hemingway, Steinbeck, Fitzgerald, Salinger, Twain,” he says. “The poetry and other writings of William Carlos Williams have also shaped my writing and insights. But I have been influenced the most, interestingly enough, by James Herriot and his books about the small, rural town of Darrowby.  My style and thematic structures are similar to his.”

If you grew up in small-town Arkansas, you’ll likely find many similarities between your hometown and DeGraff, Ohio. You can order the book online from Amazon, Borders and Barnes & Noble. And if you were to drop by the Ozarks campus with the book one day, I bet Rick Niece would offer you a good cup of cofee and sign it for you.

College football — Week 9

Monday, October 26th, 2009

The boycott is over. In fact, we’re begging you to watch the local news on KTHV, Channel 11. We had long bashed KTHV for refusing on most Saturday nights to give the scores of all the Arkansas teams.

During the 10 p.m. newscast this past Saturday, Channel 11 did an about-face. After its two reporters in Oxford, Miss., gave their report on the Razorback loss, the station switched to Mark Edwards in the Little Rock studio. He gave the ASU score. He gave the UAPB score. He gave the UCA score and even showed highlights. And he gave all of the Gulf South Conference scores.

All of that was accomplished even before the other SEC scores were given.

Thank you, Channel 11. There are a lot of us out here interested in all of the Arkansas teams, not just the Razorbacks.

We went 5-3 last week, leaving us 38-21 for the year. We had foolishly climbed aboard the Razorback bandwagon with everyone else in the state following the near miss at Florida. Let’s face it. Ole Miss has more talent right now. And on this day, Houston Nutt did a better job preparing his team than Bobby Petrino.

We missed the Ouachita pick for a sixth consecutive week (do you detect a pattern here?). We knew the UAM-Harding game could go either way, and it went to UAM in a big way.

Let’s get to the picks for this week:

Arkansas 52, Eastern Michigan 14 — If you have been wanting to see the inside of Donald W. Reynolds Razorback Stadium, this might be a good week. It should be an easy ticket to obtain. This is the game when the sports information department announces an attendance about 18,000 higher than the actual attendance. Eastern Michigan from the MAC is 0-7 with losses to Army, Northwestern, Michigan, Temple, Central Michigan, Kent State and Ball State. We’re sorry. No one should lose to Temple and Army in the same season.

Louisville 28, Arkansas State 24 — This is not a vintage Louisville team. The Cardinals are 2-5 with wins over Indiana State and Southern Mississippi and losses to Kentucky, Utah, Pittsburgh, Connecticut and Cincinnati. Of course, those losses have come to some good teams. The Red Wolves broke a four-game losing streak Saturday night in Jonesboro with a needed conference victory over Florida International. We expect the 2-4 Red Wolves to play well on the road.

Southern University 35, UAPB 31 — It’s good to see the Golden Lions off to a 4-2 start. UAPB had an easy homecoming victory last weekend over a winless team from Florida. Things get tougher this week. This should be an exciting SWAC game Saturday afternoon at Pine Bluff. Southern comes in at 4-3. The wins have come over Central State of Ohio, Tennessee State, Alcorn State and Fort Valley State. The losses have been to Louisiana-Lafayette, Jackson State and Prairie View.

UCA 41, Southeastern Louisiana 36 — The Bears routed Nicholls State in Conway on Saturday. Now a 5-2 UCA squad must go on the road for a Saturday afternoon game at Southeastern Louisiana. Southeastern is 4-3 with wins over Texas A&AM-Commerce, Union College, Texas State in overtime and Sam Houston State. The losses have been to Ole Miss, South Dakota and McNeese State. The loss to McNeese was by one point in Saturday night’s Southland Conference television game of the week. This is a crucial game for the Bears. Stephen F. Austin leads the conference at 3-0. UCA, McNeese State, Texas State and Southeastern Louisiana are all 2-1 in the Southland Conference.

North Alabama 49, UAM 21 — North Alabama is ranked first nationally in NCAA Division II and looks to be on its way to a national championship in the school’s first season with Terry Bowden as coach. We can’t see the Boll Weevils slowing down the Lions on Saturday night in Monticello.

Arkansas Tech 39, Delta State 30 — The 6-2 Wonder Boys get better each week with quarterback Nick Graziano, the transfer from Nevada, leading the offense. Tech routed Henderson in Arkadelphia last Saturday to spoil the Reddies’ homecoming. If the Wonder Boys finish 8-2 with wins over Delta State and Harding, they will be in the national playoffs.

Henderson 32, Harding 28 — This is one of those tough GSC games to figure since both teams are up and down. Henderson is 3-5. Harding is 4-5. Henderson was destroyed by Tech last Saturday, and Harding was routed by UAM. Frankly, your guess is as good as mine as to how things will go in Searcy on Saturday afternoon.

West Alabama 21, Ouachita 20 — As mentioned, we have missed our Ouachita picks for six consecutive weeks. The Tigers won the three times we picked them to lose. They lost the three times we picked them to win. So we will pick them to lose while hoping they win. Got it? Ouachita is 5-3 and coming off a victory. West Alabama is 5-4 and coming off a devastating loss to a West Georgia team that had not won a game in two years. This is another tough game to figure.

Southern Arkansas 24, Incarnate Word 17 — The 2-5 Muleriders only lost by a touchdown at Delta State. They get better each week. They play a non-conference game this weekend against a first-year program on the road.

The Arkansas college challenge

Tuesday, October 20th, 2009

Good news came from the Arkansas Department of Higher Education earlier this month. The number of students enrolled in Arkansas colleges and universities this fall is at an all-time high. The total of 165,201 students is up 6.3 percent from 2008 and an amazing 17.2 percent from four years ago.

Jim Purcell, the state’s higher education director, put it this way: “Especially in these difficult economic times, we believe that students see the value of education more than ever, and along with increases in enrollment, we hope to see corresponding increases in retention and graduation rates.”

Nine of the 11 four-year public universities experienced enrollment increases. Arkansas Tech led the way with a 10.8 percent increase in the number of college students. The University of Arkansas at Monticello had a 9.3 percent gain. The University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff was up 7.9 percent. The University of Arkansas at Fort Smith was up 7.3 percent. The University of Arkansas at Little Rock was up 6.7 percent. Arkansas State was up 6.4 percent. The University of Arkansas at Fayetteville was up 3.4 percent. Only Henderson and the University of Central Arkansas had fewer students enrolled among the public four-year schools.

Some of the most amazing growth continues to occur among the two-year schools. Mid-South Community College at West Memphis, under the strong leadership of Glen Fenter, is up 29.3 percent. Pulaski Technical College is the largest two-year scool with 10,258 students. That’s 12.8 percent more college students than last year. Northwest Arkansas Community College has 8,034 students, up 11.5 percent.

Jim Purcell, however, hits the nail on the head when he mentions retention and graduation. Getting more students enrolled in college is good. But that’s only part of the equation as this state seeks to advance economically.

Here’s where Arkansas finds itself as we near the end of 2009:

1. Thanks to the changes brought about by the Arkansas Supreme Court’s Lake View ruling, the state is doing a better job than in past years preparing high school students for college.

2. Thanks to the Arkansas Scholarship Lottery, far more financial aid will be available than in the past for students wanting to enroll in an Arkansas college or university.

3. More students than ever before are entering the higher education system.

Now, we must find ways to ensure they stay there and earn their degrees. It was reported earlier this year that the cumulative six-year graduation rate for public universities in Arkansas was 44.8 percent for the 2002 cohort of students, down 1.2 percent. That kind of drop is not acceptable. For Arkansas to advance economically, it’s going to have to rise far higher than its current ranking of 49th for the percentage of adult residents with college degrees.

The governor and members of the Arkansas Legislature face these challenges:

1. Ensuring that the positive changes that have occurred since the 2002 Lake View ruling remain in place. The standards that have been put in place for students from pre-kindergarten through the 12th grade are starting to produce results. In each legislative session, however, there will be know-nothing legislators who try to water down those standards. If anything, they need to be made stronger so the state’s high school graduates are ready for college.

2. Tying state funding for institutions of higher learning more closely to retention and graduation rates. Arkansas doesn’t need students who enroll as freshmen and then drop out. That’s a waste of limited state resources. We need students who will earn degrees. The competition among colleges and universities must be about more than gross enrollment numbers. Those schools that do a poor job of retention should be punished where it hurts — in the pocketbook.

3. Making sure that funding levels for general education and higher education aren’t cut. The money being generated by the lottery cannot be used as an excuse for cutting the amount of money for education that comes from the state’s general revenue fund and other funding streams. The lottery money is targeted for new scholarships. It’s not intended to be a replacement for funds already being channeled into the education system.

Let’s hope our elected leaders are up to the challenge. In Arkansas, the public policy focus must now be on college retention and graduation.

College football — Week 8

Tuesday, October 20th, 2009

A week ago, we wrote this: “Expect Arkansas to play well for at least three quarters before wearing down in The Swamp. The Hogs won’t embarrass you. They won’t upset the No. 1 team in the country, either.”

They didn’t upset No. 1. But they did play well. They didn’t embarrass you. In fact, they made you proud.

Now, expectations are high as the Razorbacks head to beautiful little Oxford for the match against Houston Nutt’s Rebels. It’s good to see the Arkansas-Ole Miss rivalry getting back to what it was in the days when the two schools played non-conference games against each other. In fact, the late Orville Henry wrote that the most significant play in Razorback history — that 1954 pass from Buddy Benson to Preston Carpenter at War Memorial Stadium — came in a game against Ole Miss. It was that play, Henry believed, that made Razorback football a meaningful statewide entity.

In a recent speech to the Little Rock Touchdown Club, Frank Broyles said one of the most brilliant moves made by John Barnhill in his years as athletic director at the University of Arkansas was to begin giving Razorback football broadcasts away for free to any radio station that wanted them. Prior to that, a lot of people in east Arkansas listened to Ole Miss games on Saturdays. A lot of people in south Arkansas listened to LSU games. And a lot of people in west Arkansas listened to Oklahoma games.

Since beginning SEC football play in 1992, Arkansas has never developed a true rival. LSU has come close at times to being that most hated opponent. But as long as native Arkansan Nutt is at Ole Miss, the Hogs will have their real conference rival.

In the way of a reality check, don’t forget that Arkansas is just 3-3 overall and last in the SEC West with a 1-3 conference record. But due to the improvement witnessed during the past three weeks, it’s safe to say that no team in the country with a 1-3 conference record has a fan base as enthused as the Arkansas fan base.

Last week was a bad week in the picks’ department. We went 3-4, leaving us 33-18 for the year.

Arkansas State let everyone down on a Tuesday night in Monroe. This was a team we thought would contend for the Sun Belt Conference championship. ASU now finds itself 0-2 in conference play going into Saturday’s homecoming game at Jonesboro.

UCA also let us down. The Bears shouldn’t have lost at home to Stephen F. Austin. Two fumbled punts and a blocked punt did them in. Those three plays led to three of the Lumberjacks’ four touchdowns.

UAM laid an egg at West Alabama after we had picked the Boll Weevils to make it three victories in a row. This is a team that can look great one week and horrible the next.

And Ouachita continues to confound us. This team won its first four games and has since lost three straight. We have incorrectly picked the Ouachita game for five consecutive weeks. We picked the Tigers to lose to traditional national powers Valdosta State and Delta State. Ouachita won both games and rose to No. 14 in the NCAA Division II rankings. So we picked the Tigers to beat UAM, Harding and Southern Arkansas. The Tigers lost all three of those games. Ouachita is killing our season average.

This is homecoming Saturday across Arkansas. It’s homecoming at Arkansas State, UAPB, UCA, UAM and Henderson. Expect good crowds on a beautiful fall weekend at Jonesboro, Pine Bluff, Conway, Monticello and Arkadelphia.

Let’s dive into the picks for this week:

Arkansas 35, Ole Miss 27 — The Razorbacks will get it done in Oxford. HDN will run out of fingernails to chew by the end of the game. Ole Miss KAs in starched white shirts, khakis and rep ties — after too much Old Charter in their Cokes — will be heard to say words no one ever expected to hear as they stumble out of the stadium: “Bring back Ed Orgeron.” That’s what happens when a team that was in the preseason Top 10 finds itself at 1-3 in the SEC following losses to South Carolina, Alabama and Arkansas.

Arkansas State 36, Florida International 24 — You’ve played around enough, Red Wolves. You’re 1-4. It’s homecoming. It’s time to begin living up to your potential. Florida International comes in at 1-5 with losses to Alabama, Toledo, Rutgers, Louisiana-Monroe and Troy. The only win was over Western Kentucky. And, even then, the Golden Panthers didn’t beat Western Kentucky as handily as UCA did earlier this season. This should be a good week for Steve Roberts’ team to get well and begin feeling better about itself.

UAPB 49, Edward Waters 17 — When football fans across the state saw the UAPB schedule at the start of the season, they probably asked this question: “Who the heck is Edward Waters?” We’ll tell you. Edward Waters College is a historically black college in Jacksonville, Fla. In 2001, the school began playing football again after a 34-year hiatus. It’s an NAIA school. Whoever schedules the homecoming game at UAPB sure knows how to pick an opponent. The Tigers are 0-7 after losses to Brevard College, Johnson C. Smith University, Alabama State, Fort Valley State, North Greenville University, Webber International University and Concordia College. Homecoming is a huge deal at UAPB. Motel rooms all over southeast Arkansas will be full this weekend. The weather will be perfect. Almost 20,000 people will pack one of the state’s nicest football stadiums. And the Golden Lions will go to 4-2 on the season.

UCA 39, Nicholls State 19 — The Bears should never have let that conference game get away last week. They won’t make the same mistake this Saturday. They will be primed for their homecoming game against a 1-5 Nicholls State team that has lost to Air Force (72-0), Louisiana Tech, Jacksonville State, Sam Houston State and Texas State while beating only Duquesne. UCA Coach Clint Conque played at Nicholls State, where he was a team captain and an All-American linebacker. He was inducted into the school’s athletic hall of fame in 2005. There’s no way he will allow the Bears to overlook this game. 

Harding 24, UAM 21 — Both of these teams have been up and down. So we don’t make this pick with a lot of confidence. A Boll Weevil win at home would not surprise us, in fact. UAM is 3-5 with quality wins over UAPB and Ouachita (along with an expected win over hapless West Georgia). Harding is 4-4 with wins over Missouri Southern, Southwest Baptist, Southern Arkansas and Ouachita. I’ve seen both teams play this year, and Harding appears a little better.

Arkansas Tech 38, Henderson 34 — This could be the best game of the week in the Gulf South Conference. Nick Graziano is having an amazing season for the 5-2 Wonder Boys, who could still make the NCAA Division II playoffs by winning their final three games against Henderson, Delta State and Harding. The 3-4 Reddies have looked good at times, and it’s their homecoming game.

Delta State 21, Southern Arkansas 10 — This is not the Delta State of past years. This team won’t be in the national playoffs. But the Statesmen do have enough talent to win at home against a 2-5 Southern Arkansas team that gets a little better each week.

Southwest Baptist 37, Ouachita 35 — We should give up picking Ouachita games. But we’re committed to picking every Arkansas university every week. We hope the Tigers win every game. We pick, though, on what we think might happen, not what we hope will happen. Who knows? Who really knows?

The joys of Division II

Friday, October 16th, 2009

While many Arkansans are in front of their television sets Saturday afternoon watching Arkansas play Florida in The Swamp, I’ll be at Wilkins Stadium in Magnolia watching the Tigers of Ouachita Baptist University take on the Muleriders of Southern Arkansas University.

There’s no place else I would rather be.

Having grown up in Arkadelphia just two blocks from Ouachita’s A.U. Williams Field, the old Arkansas Intercollegiate Conference played a big part in my life. And it was a wonderful time to be in Arkadelphia. In football, Ralph “Sporty” Carpenter was winning at Henderson and Buddy Benson was winning at Ouachita. Both men are in the Arkansas Sports Hall of Fame. In basketball, Don Dyer was winning at Henderson and Bill Vining was winning at Ouachita. Both of those coaches also are in the Arkansas Sports Hall of Fame. It was a golden era for small college sports in the city.

As a student in the Arkadelphia public schools, you were either for Ouachita or Henderson. There was just not much in between. You dreaded going to school when your team had lost to the school on the other side of the ravine in football or basketball. And you couldn’t wait to get there when your team had won.

In addition to attending all Ouachita games home and away, I still work in one or two Razorback games a year. And I never miss a Cotton Bowl. But the older I get, the more I appreciate football in the Gulf South Conference. It’s the SEC of Division II without the parking problems, the long lines at the concession stands and the high ticket prices. It’s fun and relaxing at the same time, which is a hard combination to top.

Back on Sept. 29, The New York Times published an interesting story on Division II athletics. It talked about how the presidents of Division II schools once joked about “ticker envy,” the yearning that their scores run along the bottom of the screen on ESPN.

Katie Thomas wrote in the story: “For years, colleges and universities in Division II were defined by what they were not. They were not Division I, with its outsize athletics budgets and national news media attention. They were not Division III, with its reputation for rigorous academics and a ban on athletic scholarships. … Now, members of Division II say they hope they have found their niche by offering a haven from the kind of big-time college athletics that are increasingly seen as overly commercial and exploitative.”

In January, the NCAA is expected to approve a plan to shorten the Division II schedule in 10 sports and cut back on practice time in football by allowing players to report one week later.

Tim Selgo, the athletic director at Grand Valley State in Michigan, told the newspaper: “There’s some authenticity to what’s happening in Division II that you may not see at some universities. Yes, we play highly competitive athletics, but we don’t want our student-athletes’ time consumed by the intercollegiate athletic experience.”

The Divison II football schools in Arkansas are Arkansas Tech, Henderson, Harding, UAM, Ouachita and Southern Arkansas. Four of those six have mascots that are unique in the country. Nowhere else can boast of Wonder Boys, Reddies, Boll Weevils and Muleriders. And those six former members of the AIC all have colorful traditions.

More Arkansans should make an effort to get away from the televison set on a Saturday and try out a game in Russellville, Arkadelphia, Searcy, Monticello or Magnolia. Those games just might be Arkansas’ greatest entertainment bargain.

Pumpkin time in downtown Little Rock

Friday, October 16th, 2009

If you crave pumpkins this time of year, you’re going to enjoy what executive chef Lee Richardson has cooked up at Ashley’s in the Capital Hotel.

What a gift to Arkansas it was when Warren Stephens reached south to New Orleans and convinced Richardson to move to our state. Stephens hired Richardson months before the Capital Hotel reopened, allowing him the time to travel the state and get to know those who own the vegetable farms, the fruit orchards and the dairies.

Richardson and sous chef Cassidee Dabney use local, seasonal products as much as possible. On the menu this week, the chefs thanked these area producers: Armstead Farm, Hardin Farm, Moss Mountain Farm, Arkansas Natural Produce, the Russian Farmer and Falling Sky.

The amazing thing about the transformation of Ashley’s is that the food is better and the prices are lower than was the case before the hotel’s renovation. Knowing that my wife enjoys anything containing pumpkin in October and November, there was no doubt where we would go for dinner this week on our 20th anniversary.

I insisted she order the chef’s pumpkin tasting dinner, which frankly is a bargain at $75. The courses are:

1. Char-grilled oysters with pumpkin. October is a prime oyster month, and Richardson’s New Orleans roots give him good connections to seafood suppliers. He was nice enough to also send out a couple of oysters for me. They were superb.

2. Herb-smoked quail with mizuna and fig

3. Diver scallop with roasted pumpkin and greens

4. Prime beef tenderloin with mashed pumpkin and pecans

5. Artisanal American cheeses with pumpkin marmalade

6 Pumpkin cream with chocolate cremeux on a bitter chocolate sponge cake along with maple ice cream on a pumpkin waffle.

You can also order a three-course meal at Ashley’s for $49. I tried that. I started with smoked trout with lemon dill potato salad and horseradish vinaigrette.  My next course was the venison flank steak with caramelized brussels sprouts, celeriac and shitakes. I finished with the selection of artisanal American cheeses.

Special thanks to my friend Chuck Magill, the hotel’s talented marketing director, for making the arrangements. Chuck was also brought in from New Orleans and is yet another great addition to our state. He worked at the Windsor Court and the Royal Orleans in New Orleans.

Cities far larger than Little Rock have nothing that compares to the Capital Hotel. And they have no chefs who compare to Lee Richardson. In that sense, we are blessed.

Big Margaret — A life lived well

Tuesday, October 13th, 2009

Margaret Harris was not famous. Her oldest son is. But the redheaded lady known around our house as Big Margaret (so as not to be confused with her daughter, Little Margaret) should have been famous. Don’t let the term Big Margaret confuse you. She was not a big woman in the physical sense. It was her personality that was big.

She was something special.

I made the drive through the mist Monday with three passengers in their 80s from Parkway Village — my mother and the Morrisons — so we could celebrate the life of Margaret Harris, who died last week at age 83. She would have been 84 next Monday.

You may have heard of her oldest son, Cliff Harris. Cliff, in my biased opinion, was the greatest free safety in the history of the National Football League. Playing in five Super Bowls in 10 seasons as a member of the Dallas Cowboys in the 1970s, he forever changed the way free safeties play the game. It’s a travesty he was not inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame on the regular ballot while his mother was still alive to enjoy it. He eventually will go into the Hall of Fame on the old-timers’ ballot. Cliff is already in the Cowboys Ring of Honor. You will see his name when you go to Jerry Jones’ new palace at Arlington.

Knowing what a good athlete Cliff’s father — O.J. “Buddy” Harris — had been at Ouachita in the 1940s, my father was among those who talked Ouachita Coach Buddy Benson into giving Cliff a chance to play college football after Cliff graduated from Des Arc High School in 1966. Four years later, the Cowboys signed Cliff as a free agent.

As the last cut neared in that summer of 1970, I remember what my dad told the family: “Buddy Harris doesn’t think Cliff will survive that last cut. So if we’re going to ever see him in a Cowboys uniform, we better get to this next preseason game.”

We loaded up the family and made the long drive to New Orleans so we could watch the Cowboys play the Saints in old Tulane Stadium. Ten seasons and two Super Bowl rings later, Cliff retired.

Big Margaret’s younger son, Tommy, was more highly recruited coming out of high school than Cliff had been. He signed with the University of Arkansas. And on Jan. 1, 1976, I watched from the stands as Tommy helped break up a shoestring play called by Georgia Coach Vince Dooley just before halftime of the Cotton Bowl. It was the turning point in the game as Frank Broyles won his last Cotton Bowl as the Razorback coach.

My dad always claimed that Little Margaret was a better athlete than either Cliff or Tommy. He loved telling the story of how Cliff made his own high-jump pit in his backyard when the family lived at Hot Springs. Cliff tried all afternoon but couldn’t clear the bar. Little Margaret cleared it on her first try.

My father and O.J. Harris had played football together at Ouachita. Big Margaret, a Glenwood native, was a Henderson student. But she crossed the ravine in Arkadelphia and married a Ouachita football player. My parents and the Harrises became close friends for life.

A great irony occurred when AP&L transferred Buddy Harris from Hot Springs to Des Arc, my mother’s hometown. The Harrises ended up moving into the house next to my grandparents’ home in Des Arc. Arkansas is a small place.

I often would hear the stories of the Labor Day dove hunts that included my dad, Mr. Harris, my older brother, Cliff and Tommy. I was too young to tag along at the time. I wish I could have.

She wasn’t on the dove hunts, but Big Margeret was the glue who held the family together. Mr. Harris would end up losing his vision at a relatively young age due to diabetes, and Big Margaret would care for him for years. She was a saint. In the words of her obituary: “Her devotion to her husband was an inspiration to all those around her.” She had taken those marriage vows seriously — every word.

Margaret had given up a potential signing career to marry O.J. Harris in February 1946. But her voice would continue to bless the churches she would attend through the years. During Monday’s service at the Piney Grove United Methodist Church, there was much talk about her singing abilities.

Her strong voice also was effective in questioning the calls of football officials from the stands. And she wasn’t shy about criticizing a coach — be it Buddy Benson (who attended Monday’s service), Frank Broyles or Tom Landry. Being a redhead myself, I always admired her redheaded feistiness.

And I admired the way she remained so true to her friends through the decades. When my father was in the hospital at Little Rock, she would call our house every day for an update on his condition. She was one of those ladies who make living in Arkansas special.

When the day comes that Cliff Harris is inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, I plan to be in Canton, Ohio. I have no doubt that Big Margaret will be there in spirit, asking “what the heck took you so long?”

College football — Week 7

Tuesday, October 13th, 2009

Well, we gave KTHV-TV, Channel 11, news another try after the Florida-LSU game Saturday night. Readers might remember that we’ve been boycotting all of Channel 11’s local newscasts since last fall due to the station’s stubborn refusal on Saturdays to give the scores of any Arkansas university other than the University of Arkansas.

Being home on a Saturday night in the fall (which is rare) provided an opportunity to see if the station had changed its ways. No luck. No UCA-Northwestern State score. No UAPB-Jackson State score. No Gulf South Conference scores. No more viewership at my house for another year.

It still amazes me that the station will work hard to give every high school score possible on Friday nights — no matter how tiny the school — but will not give the scores on Saturdays for universities with thousands of alumni across the state. We’re not asking for highlights. Just scores. It would take less than a minute. Perhaps they believe they are somehow buying favor with the folks in the University of Arkansas athletic department.

I was able to switch over to KATV-TV, Channel 7, and get all of the Arkansas scores from Dale Nicholson The Younger (though they did have the Arkansas Tech-Southern Arkansas score wrong on the screen). At least Channel 7 tries.

We were 4-3 last week on picks, making our record 30-14 for the year. The Razorbacks came through for us against Auburn. The UAPB-Jackson State game could have gone either way in overtime. We had given Jackson State the slight edge as the home team. Congratulations to Coach Monte Coleman and the Golden Lions for their 3-2 start to the season. Both Arkadelphia schools let us down last Saturday.

On to the picks for this week. Unlike Channel 11, we’ll cover all of the Arkansas schools:

Arkansas State 34, Louisiana-Monroe 28 — We still don’t think college football games should be played on a Tuesday evening. But the Sun Belt Conference needs the national exposure. So the Red Wolves play tonight on the road to satisfy ESPN2. Steve Roberts’ team cannot afford to get off to an 0-2 start in the conference. Look for ASU to get it done against a 3-2 Warhawk squad that has lost to Texas and Arizona State while beating Texas Southern, Florida Atlantic and Florida International.

Florida 30, Arkansas 17 — Expect Arkansas to play well for at least three quarters before wearing down in The Swamp. The Hogs won’t embarrass you. They won’t upset the No. 1 team in the country, either. Tim Tebow is playing. That’s all that needs to be said as he goes up against that Willy Robinson defensive scheme.

UCA 37, Stephen F. Austin 24 — Stephen F. Austin won no games two years ago. The school won four games last year. It already has won four games this year in five outings. It won’t be enough against a Top 10 team on its home field. Clint Conque’s Bears will go to 5-1 Saturday night in Conway.

UAM 29, West Alabama 28 — The Boll Weevils have won two straight conference games after starting the season 1-4 overall and 0-2 in the Gulf South Conference. Finally, UAM is looking like the team we were expecting all along. West Alabama won its first three games, lost its next three and then upset Delta State last Saturday. The Tigers are due for a letdown after beating Delta.

Arkansas Tech 48, West Georgia 20 — The 0-6 Wolves of West Georgia are mailing it in at this point. The 4-2 Wonder Boys might be the best team out of the six Arkansas teams in the GSC. Saturday’s game in Russellville won’t be close.

Valdosta State 30, Harding 20 — Valdosta State is having a down year by its standards. The Blazers are 3-3 overall and 2-2 in conference. Valdosta appeared to right the ship at home last week, though, against a talented Henderson squad. Harding is 4-3 overall and 2-2 in conference after back-to-back wins against Southern Arkansas and Ouachita. The Bisons will play well at home but, much like the Hogs in The Swamp, will wear down late.

Ouachita 34, Southern Arkansas 28 — Which Ouachita team will show up? The one that started the season 4-0 with wins over Valdosta State and Delta State? That team found itself ranked No. 14 in NCAA Division II. Or will it be the team that has lost the past two weeks to UAM and Harding? This is a hard team to figure. SAU is 1-5 overall and 1-4 in conference. But it’s homecoming in Magnolia. We expect the game to be close.

Another slice of pie

Thursday, October 8th, 2009

Having worked in the Delta the past four years, my most recent points of reference have been in east Arkansas when it comes to finding good, locally owned restaurants.

One of the nice things about this new job is the chance to also travel west again. On Wednesday, I was in Clarksville for a meeting at the University of the Ozarks. Following that meeting, I accompanied Larry Isch and Mike Smith of the university staff down the road to Lamar for lunch at a place called Sweet Treats.

The plate lunch special for the day was ham and beans, cabbage, fried potatoes and cornbread — all for less than $5. And it was great.

The pie took the cake, though. The pie took the cake? You know what I mean.

I had coconut. Larry and Mike had told me to save room for dessert. They knew what they were talking about.

Thus Sweet Treats in Lamar — you have to get off Interstate 40 and onto U.S. 64 to find it — makes my Top 10 for best pie joints in Arkansas.

Thanks to all of you who responded to the earlier pie post. For the rest of you, it’s time to vote. Where can you find the best pies in Arkansas?

Music in Arkansas

Thursday, October 8th, 2009

The annual Arkansas Blues and Heritage festival began today at Helena-West Helena. Hopefully, the visitors and musicians will survive the heavy rains expected tonight and much of Friday. Fortunately, the forecast is calling for sunny skies on the festival’s final day Saturday.

Having worked the previous four years for the Delta Regional Authority, I’ve learned to love Helena and those who are working so hard to save this historic piece of Arkansas. The annual blues festival is the city’s biggest economic generator. It’s important for the whole region that the festival be a success.

They’ll travel from all over the United States, Europe, Japan, Australia and elsewhere this week to attend the festival. They’ll sit along the levee and enjoy an event that has come a long way since it was a one-day festival in 1986 with musicians playing on the back of a flatbed truck. All up and down Cherry Street, vendors will sell food, shirts, caps and more. Rather than being featured on one of the three stages, some musicians will simply play on the sidewalk for tips. It’s quite a scene.

The visitors will leave Phillips County on Sunday, but the dollars they spent will remain in the local economy.

As always at 12:15 p.m. Friday, “Sunshine Sonny” Payne will host “King Biscuit Time” on KFFA-AM from the visitors’ center of the Delta Cultural Center. Sonny usually does his blues show only on weekdays, but he adds a special weekend show during the blues festival. He’s a living legend. Sonny turns 84 next month. You owe it to yourself to get over to Cherry Street at some point and sit in while he hosts the 30-minute radio show. Aired since 1941, “King Biscuit Time” is one of the oldest daily shows in American radio.

When I worked for Gov. Mike Huckabee, he made it a point to never miss the first day of the blues festival.

You never know what might happen. As Richard Allen Burns wrote in “The Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture: “In addition to storms and occasional equipment failure, each year brings a surprise or two. In 1998, Gov. Huckabee, a Baptist minister, married a couple on the main stage a year after they had met at the previous year’s festival. Huckabee humorously noted the irony of his performing a sacred event on a blues stage, an arena meant for the secular. During another festival, a strong wind knocked over a huge inflated Budweiser can next to the main stage, which organizers repaired as thousands watched. In 1998, the late Luther Allison continued playing as he left the main stage and meandered up and down the levee wirelessly amplifying his guitar licks while photographers and the crowd went wild. The festival attracts people from all walks of life. Despite changes in the music and the occasional nontraditional sounds, as Payne once said, ‘Sooner or later, they all come back to it.”’

I’m often struck by the variety and quality of musicians this small state has turned out through the years. Mississippi does a better job of promoting its musical heritage than Arkansas. But Arkansas’ musical tradition is deeper. While Mississippi is known mostly for the blues, Arkansas adds to its great blues tradition a tradition of mountain music, bluegrass, country, rockabilly and more. From Johnny Cash to Glen Campbell to Charlie Rich to Al Green, the Arkansas musical heritage is far more complex.

The Department of Arkansas Heritage has done a fantastic job developing the Delta Cultural Center. It opened in the city’s 1912 depot in 1990. The visitors’ center a block away at 141 Cherry Street, which contains the studio for “King Biscuit Time,”  opened later. The Delta Cultural Center has gone on to include the 1859 Moore-Hornor House, the Cherry Street pavilion, the Miller Hotel building on Cherry Street and Temple Beth El, the city’s former synagogue.

Downtown Helena is such a unique treasure that the Department of Arkansas Heritage would do well to devote the vast majority of the 9 percent it receives from the one-eighth cent conservation sales tax to further develop these properties and buy additional properties downtown. In an age when more and more people are taking part in heritage tourism — looking for that which is “real” rather than theme parks — the investment makes sense.

I’m happy about a couple of things. One is the fact that the Department of Arkansas Heritage has hired my friend and eminent Arkansas historian Trey Berry as one of its deputy directors. Trey fully understands the significance of downtown Helena.

The other thing I’m happy about is that Lyn and Dana Chadwick, retired educators from North Little Rock, have bought the Edwardian Inn and reopened it. The Edwardian Inn long has been my favorite bed-and-breakfast inn in Arkansas. It closed last October during John Crow’s battle with cancer. John died in May at the too-young age of 66. The Chadwicks, though, have cleaned up the Edwardian and will operate it in the same spirit John did. You ought to head east and spend a weekend with them this fall.

Speaking of music, I have a few questions for you:

What is your favorite music venue in Arkansas? The stage on Cherry Street? A club on Dickson Street in Fayetteville? A spot in Little Rock’s River Market? The Ozark Folk Center in Mountain View? The square in Mountain View? I would be interested in your opinion.

Also, what was the best live musical performance you’ve ever seen in Arkansas and where was it? When I was in high school, it seemed that there were more big concerts at the Pine Bluff Convention Center than there were in Little Rock. The convention center was much newer and could handle more people than old Barton Coliseum. I search my memory for a favorite concert. Forrest City native Al Green has been fun on his visits here to Little Rock. Elton John did a nice job opening Alltel Arena in North Little Rock. Being a person who likes jazz, though, hearing Maynard Ferguson give it all he had on the Henderson State University campus 30 years ago was hard to beat.