Archive for January, 2011

The Slovak Oyster Supper

Thursday, January 27th, 2011

Men from across Arkansas will head to the Grand Prairie by the hundreds again Friday night for the annual Slovak Oyster Supper, one of this state’s great traditions.

I’ve attended the oyster supper on the final Friday night in January most years since moving back to Arkansas from Washington, D.C., in 1989.

It’s usually quite cold as the line snakes out of the parish hall at the Church of Saints Cyril and Methodius and continues for hundreds of yards outside.

Technically, the oyster supper is a fundraising event put on by the Knights of Columbus. Through the years, though, it has become much more than that. It’s one of those landmark rural events in Arkansas, right up there with the Grady Fish Fry each August and the Gillett Coon Supper early each January.

I’ll long remember taking then-Gov. Mike Huckabee to his first Slovak Oyster Supper.

“You need to understand what you’re getting into,” I explained to him on the drive over to Prairie County. “It’s an all-male event. There are no women. Most of the men in the line will be dressed in camouflage. They will be loud. Some of them will be drinking to stay warm in that line.”

Huckabee dived in like the political pro he is — walking up and down the line, slapping folks on the back, discussing the almost-completed duck season.

A free piece of political advice for you officeholders and aspiring officeholders from someone who has done a bit of political consulting in the past: Don’t sneak in a back door, sit down and then eat with the group who came over with you from Little Rock. And don’t ever wear a suit.

Regardless of how cold it is, stand outside in the line. Visit with the boys. Don’t be afraid to tell a joke. Buy plenty of raffle tickets once you get inside.

And know that when you’re inside that crowded hall, the sound will be deafening.

Here’s the pot of gold at the end of the line: You’ll receive a plate of fried oysters and french fries. You also will get a cup filled with raw oysters.

The oysters are fresh.

They’re good.

And the servers will give you plenty to eat. You won’t go away hungry.

I always say that my favorite event in the summer is the Grady Fish Fry and my favorite event in the winter is the Slovak Oyster Supper.

Even though Slovak is just a few miles from Stuttgart, it’s in Prairie County rather than Arkansas County. My grandfather, who died in 1980 at age 96, was once the Prairie County judge. During those years as county judge, he often would make what was then a long trip from his home in Des Arc in the northern part of the county to Slovak in the southern part of the county.

He came to know those families with their strong European roots and even took on the difficult task of spelling their names correctly in county records.

Slovak had been founded in 1894.

“Various Slovak fraternal and nationalistic organizations, such as the National Slovak Society, translated advertisements promoting the favorable agricultural areas of Arkansas into the Slovak language at presses in Pennsylvania, Ohio and Illinois,” Jamie Metrailer writes in The Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. “Following such advertisements, the Slovak Colonization Co. was organized in 1894 in Pittsburgh by Peter V. Rovnianek. The company bought 3,000 acres of Arkansas land for settlement in the southern portion of Prairie County. This site was planned for an agricultural community on untouched grassland and included 160 acres in the center of the tract for a township.”

In the fall of 1894, 25 families arrived by rail at DeValls Bluff from the northeastern United States, where they had struggled as farmers and coal miners. They then took wagons to their new home, which originally was known as Slovactown or Slovaktown. The first church was constructed in 1900.

“By 1909, about 50 families had settled in Slovactown,” Metrailer writes. “Most of these families were Slovak, but a few were Bohemian and Russian. This community built another church, the Church of Saints Cyril and Methodius, around 1914, and yet the congregation still did not have a parish priest. In the absence of a priest, men of the Miklik, Matoske, Konecny and Dolny families conducted services. By 1910, the Slovaks stopped cutting prairie hay and began farming rice as the region experienced the economic boom associated with the introduction of rice. By 1916, rice was the mainstay crop of the community.”

The rice industry remains important to this day.

The first resident priest, Father Louis Glinski, arrived in 1917. By 1925, there were about 60 farm families in the community. That number had increased to almost 90 families by 1948.

“In the early 1950s, an estimated 500 citizens of Slovak descent lived on farms in or around Slovak,” Metrailer writes. “During this time, businesses also came to include crop-dusting, seeding and private flying businesses. During the 1950s, Father Frank Janesko acted as clergy for the community. Janesko was raised in Slovak and came from a family of the original settlers to the area. The Slovak community continues to be largely defined by farming, kinship and religion.”

Farming, kinship and religion.

That’s a nice way to put it.

The Slovak Oyster Supper combines all of those traditions on the final Friday night of each January.

And just think: It will be warmer than usual this year when you’re standing in that long, long line.

Arkansas goes broke

Wednesday, January 26th, 2011

The New York Times on Sunday published an article with the headline “The State That Went Bust.”

In case you’re wondering, that state was Arkansas.

Here was the subhead: “In 1933, Arkansas went ‘plain, flat broke.’ The fallout — on roads, spending and image — lasted for decades.”

And here was how the article by Monica Davey put Arkansas’ history into context as states across the nation deal with huge budget deficits: “As the states dream up budget plans for a new year, some find themselves staring at deficits in the billions of dollars, vanishing federal stimulus funds, mounting health care costs, their own struggling cities and a canyon of underfunded pension liabilities ahead.

“That — meshed with images from the European debt crisis — has led some to begin fretting about the possibility, however remote, that a state, unable to pay its bills, might tumble into default. Some policymakers have begun quietly discussing whether states should be allowed to seek bankruptcy protection, a legal status granted to qualifying taxation districts, towns, cities and counties but not to entire states.

“Yet plenty of experts on municipal bonds and government finance — who view as alarmist the notion that a state may default on its obligations — note that it has been decades since any state actually defaulted on its bonds, or, in their view, even came close. As it happens, the most recent such collapse occurred during the Great Depression when Arkansas found itself, in the words of one state historian, ‘plain, flat broke.’ There are familiar threads then and now, not least of all the overlay of a national financial slump.”

It just so happened that I was having an unhealthy but delightful breakfast Monday morning with Justice Robert L. Brown of the Arkansas Supreme Court. Justice Brown is a distinguished jurist and a great writer, having received his bachelor’s degree from the University of the South (Sewanee), his master’s degree from Columbia University and his law degree from the University of Virginia.

The University of Arkansas Press recently published his book “Defining Moments,” which explores how Arkansas governors since Sid McMath have acted in times of crisis. He explores McMath’s battles with the Dixiecrats, Francis Cherry’s attempts to label an opponent a Communist, Orval Faubus’ actions at Little Rock Central High School in 1957, Winthrop Rockefeller’s reaction to the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Dale Bumpers’ battles against political corruption, David Pryor’s fight against the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Frank White’s endorsement of creationism, Bill Clinton’s education reforms, Jim Guy Tucker’s Medicaid reforms and Mike Huckabee’s education reforms.

Brown, who worked for both Bumpers and Tucker, lamented the fact that the Times article, while accurate in its depiction of Arkansas’ past, didn’t do enough to talk about how well the state currently stacks up against other states when it comes to fiscal issues.

The article did go this far: “For the record, Arkansas 2011 is not facing the level of economic misery of some other places. State officials are predicting a slight rise in revenue. Some leaders are talking of cutting the sales tax rate on groceries. And the state owes 2.6 percent of its spending — among the lowest in the country — to debt interest.

“After 1933, Arkansas officials eventually restructured their debt, under pressure from unhappy bondholders who had filed suit. But the fallout would leave its mark for years.”

Indeed, when I was working in the governor’s office, there was a great deal of internal opposition at the state Capitol to passing the massive bond issue in 1999 to rebuild our crumbling interstate highways. Since 1933, there had been a built-in aversion to going into debt.

Davey quoted two of my favorite Arkansas historians, C. Fred Williams of the University of Arkansas at Little Rock and Ben Johnson of Southern Arkansas University at Magnolia.

In an attempt to pull Arkansas out of the economic doldrums and Arkansans out of the mud, state government pushed road building efforts throughout the 1920s. Local road districts borrowed money. When a number of the districts ran into trouble paying off the debts, the state stepped in to help.

Then came the Great Flood of 1927.

Next came the Crash of 1929 and the resulting Great Depression.

Add to that a drought that decimated the state’s cotton crop.

Davey wrote: “By some historians’ estimates, the state owed half its annual revenue to debt payments, and others say the payments were even higher. At one point, the state’s treasurer reported that Arkansas’ general revenue fund showed a balance of $4.62, Dr. Johnson said, and by 1933, Arkansas could not make its bond payments.”

Williams told the Times writer that 1933 “was a good lesson, one of those things that’s hard to learn about debt until it happens to you. But it also held back ambitions.”

Davey concluded: “Whatever political wind had rolled in with so much excitement (and borrowing) in the 1920s turned the other way. New leaders promised to retrench. They adopted rules that required more approval for any borrowing. One state leader even briefly entertained a plan to end the state’s support of education after eighth grade as one more way to save, Dr. Johnson said.

“In the eyes of John A. Dominick, a professor of banking and finance at the University of Arkansas, a series of financial struggles — including the experience of 1933 — has created an unwritten tenet that still ripples through the state’s culture: Never spend more than you have.”

Justice Brown and I share a propensity for focusing on the good things about our state since so many others focus on the negative. Justice Brown, in fact, has gone so far as to refuse to mention in his speeches our state’s supposed inferiority complex.

What we both regretted is that a national audience did not have a chance to read about the 1945 passage of one of the most masterful pieces of legislation in the state’s history, the Arkansas Revenue Stabilization Act.

During Gov. Ben Laney’s first year in office (the new governor from Magnolia became known as Businessman Ben), what’s now simply known as Revenue Stabilization was passed by the Legislature. The act requires the state to prioritize spending in categories. Category A includes the things that must be funded, Category B contains items that are not as high a priority and so on.

When state revenues fall short of projections, items in lower categories simply aren’t funded. In fiscal year 2010, for example, as the Great Recession battered states across the country, Arkansas funded 100 percent of Category A and just 54 percent of Category B.

This innovative model has prevented Arkansas from experiencing the problems of most other states. The model makes it relatively simple to adjust to changes in state revenues.

Think how much better off California would be with its own version of the Arkansas Revenue Stabilization Act.

Arkansas learned its lesson the hard way during the Great Depression.

“Perhaps the largest protection against a repeat of Arkansas 1933 is the simplest: states have straightforward — if not always politically palatable — ways to pay their obligations if problems arise,” Davey wrote. “They can raise taxes or cut spending. Arkansas had those options too, but its costs had grown monstrous (for a while, the state had among the highest per capita debt in the nation), and the prospect of new taxes seemed impossible at a moment when per capita income was among the lowest in the country and the state’s revenues were rapidly shriveling.”

During the current legislative session, you will hear a lot of complaining about how much tighter budgets are now than they were when Gov. Mike Beebe took office in 2007.

But look around the country at what other state legislatures are facing. In a national context, Arkansas shines as a model of fiscal responsibility and restraint.

Part of the credit for that must go to the governor and the legislators who worked at the state Capitol in 1945 during the waning days of World War II.

Preserving Arkansas

Friday, January 21st, 2011

I had mentioned in an earlier post my plans to attend the 30th annual awards banquet of the Historic Preservation Alliance of Arkansas.

I came away from that banquet inspired, and not only because I was able to spend several hours with some of my favorite people in the state (wherever David and Barbara Pryor are, for example, is a good place to be).

It was nice to see Bill Nolan of El Dorado accept the Parker Westbrook Award for Lifetime Achievement on behalf of his mother, Theodosia Murphy Nolan. There were too many award winners to detail in a single post, but I wanted to shine the spotlight on a few of the projects.

The city where I live, Little Rock, was honored along with Thomason & Associates for its citywide preservation plan. The plan was funded by a federal Preserve America grant and matched by local resources.

A local steering committee of 14 people put in countless hours of work to help consultant Phil Thomason understand the most important preservation issues facing the city. There were representatives on the steering committee from the Quapaw Quarter Association, the Little Rock Historic District Commission, the Arkansas Historic Preservation Program and the Capitol Zoning District Commission. Along the way, three public meetings were held to discuss preservation issues and obtain input from Little Rock residents.

The Little Rock Historic District Commission adopted the preservation plan in October 2009, and the Little Rock Board of Directors approved the plan a month later. The HPAA calls the final product “a well-organized, informative document” that has been “instrumental in increasing interest in preservation projects within the city of Little Rock. The combined efforts of the city of Little Rock staff, the Historic District Commission and Thomason & Associates have resulted in Little Rock being one of the only cities in the state to have a completed citywide preservation plan. As the largest city and the capital of the state, it is important for Little Rock to implement a preservation plan to help encourage preservation throughout the state.”


Little Rock can and should set an example for other cities across Arkansas.

Some of the other notable projects included:

— The restoration of the National Bank of Commerce building in Paragould by Harry Truman and Linda Lou Moore. H.T., a well-known attorney, purchased the 1923 building in 2009. He was determined to do something to give downtown Paragould a boost. H.T. and Linda Lou were given the Excellence in Personal Projects Award for their efforts.

The HPAA describes it this way: “He is an amateur historian and wanted to make a difference in his community. He has put a great deal of love, time and money into a building that had been inappropriately altered over the years and has now brought it back to life. Although some contractors recommended sandblasting the exterior, Moore ordered environmentally approved cleaning solvents to be gently used to address the muck and grime that had grown on the structure. On the south side of the exterior, the exposed brick was cleaned.”

The west mezzanine of the bank, which was originally the board room, now houses H.T.’s personal office and provides a place for him to display his extensive collection of political memorabilia.

The top floor of the building, which housed the predecessors of Moore’s law firm from 1923-64, has loft apartments. H.T. and Linda Lou are hopeful those apartments will bring increased vibrancy to downtown. The building is now the site of numerous charity events.

— The Jones House documentation and restoration project in Fayetteville, which was given the Outstanding Achievement in Preservation Education Award. When Fay Jones joined the faculty of the School of Architecture at the University of Arkansas — just four years after graduating — he designed a home for his family. The house, which was completed in 1956, is on the National Register of Historic Places.

“The first building bearing the architect’s mature style, it is an icon of Ozark Modern architecture,” the HPAA notes. “Since Jones’ death in 2004, the house has received only deferred maintenance. As a result, some areas of the house were in particular need of repair. The School of Architecture, named in 2009 to honor Jones, spearheaded a course of action to preserve the house and to make it an accessible structure for learning about Fay Jones.”

A group of architecture students led by professor Gregory Herman performed projects that included reconstruction of the terrace balustrade and a full documentation of the house.

— The work of the Reed’s Bridge Preservation Society at Jacksonville, which received the Outstanding Service in Neighborhood Preservation Award. The Battle of Reed’s Bridge was part of the Little Rock Campaign of 1863. A 6,000-man Union division under the command of Gen. John Davidson tried to cross Bayou Meto on the way to Little Rock. They battled 4,000 Confederate soldiers under the command of Gen. John Marmaduke. Reed’s Bridge was burned, and Marmaduke’s men prevented Union troops from crossing the bayou.

Last September, the battle was re-enacted on two days. The HPAA says, “Without the efforts of the Reed’s Bridge Battlefield Preservation Society, the event would not have been such a resounding success. For the re-enactment, the members of the society garnered the support of several public and private organizations, organized extensive media coverage and produced high-quality materials to continue educating the public about the significance of the site. The attention that this program drew will aid in the continued preservation and appreciation of the site whose protection is threatened in this day of urban sprawl.”

— The efforts of Lakresha Diaz to create the Oakland-Fraternal Cemetery cell phone tour. Her work to increase awareness of the cemetery received the Outstanding Achievement in Preservation Education Award.

Due to the large number of soldiers dying in Little Rock hospitals and the problem of overcrowding at Mount Holly Cemetery, the city of Little Rock in December 1862 purchased the 160-acre Starbuck Estate to use as a new cemetery. The cemetery was outside the city limits at the time. It now forms the southern boundary of the Hanger Hill neighborhood, where Diaz owns the historic Edward Reichardt House.

Oakland-Fraternal Cemetery actually consists of seven cemeteries — Oakland Cemetery, National Cemetery, two Confederate cemeteries, Fraternal Cemetery for the city’s black residents and two Jewish cemeteries (the Reformed Jewish B’nai Israel Cemetery and the Orthodox Jewish Agudath Achim Cemetery).

Diaz did research that gained the cemetery complex a spot on the National Register of Historic Places. She wrote a guide to the cemetery containing 73 biographical sketches and created a website. She then obtained grants from the Arkansas Humanities Council and the National Endowment for the Humanities to fund the cell phone tour.

— The Washington County Courthouse restoration in Fayetteville, which received the Excellence in Preservation Through Restoration Award for a large project, and the Selma Rosenwald School restoration in Drew County, which received the same award for a small project.

The Little Rock architectural firm Polk Stanley Wilcox received recognition for its work on the Washington County Courthouse, which was designed by Charles Thompson and constructed in 1904-05.

According to the HPAA, “One of a number of county courthouses designed by Thompson, this building is an excellent example of the Richardson Romanesque style. Unfortunately, the exterior and interior had been compromised by inappropriate repairs, modernizations and replacement of materials.”

Sheilla Lampkin and Bob Ware were recognized for their efforts to save Drew County’s only Rosenwald School, which was built in 1924. The two-room school cost $2,275 with $500 coming from the local black community, $1,075 coming from public funds and $700 coming from the Rosenwald Fund. The restored building now houses the Selma Community Center.

Preservation efforts have increased dramatically since the HPAA was formed three decades ago. Last week’s event was proof that these efforts aren’t limited to just one part of the state. More and more Arkansans, it seems, are coming to the realization that tearing things down (which for decades was the Arkansas way) isn’t always the best approach.

Italians of the Delta

Wednesday, January 19th, 2011

Paul V. Canonici was born of Italian immigrant parents in the heart of the Mississippi Delta — Shaw to be exact.

After being educated in the public schools of Shaw, Canonici headed to the north shore of Lake Pontchartrain to study with the Benedictine monks at St. Joseph Seminary in Covington, La.

He also studied at St. Meinrad Seminary in Indiana.

Canonici obtained a master’s degree from Notre Dame and his doctorate in sociology from Mississippi State. He was ordained to the priesthood in 1957 and was the superintendent of Catholic schools in the state of Mississippi from 1970-83.

After leaving that post, Canonici became the founding pastor of St. Francis of Assisi parish in Madison, Miss. Following his retirement in 1999, he devoted much of his time to researching and writing the book “The Delta Italians.”

The book provides an in-depth account of the lives of the Italian immigrants, their children and grandchildren in the Delta regions of Arkansas and Mississippi.

In an earlier post, I discussed the Chinese immigrants to the Delta. Far more than Arkansas towns to the west, Delta towns along the Mississippi River were melting pots. There were the Jewish merchants who came up the river from New Orleans and down the river from St. Louis. There were the Syrians, the Lebanese and the many other immigrants who used Ol’ Man River as their artery to travel into the American heartland.

Places such as Chicot County became the home of Italian immigrants, Chinese immigrants and others whose ancestors continue to contribute to their communities. Canonici writes extensively about the Sunnyside Plantation, which was near Lake Village.

A New York speculator named Austin Corbin had purchased more than 10,000 acres in far southeast Arkansas in the late 1800s. He consolidated several plantations in the area and named Sunnyside after an earlier plantation that had been established in the 1830s.

Corbin soon found that he was short of labor. Cotton is a labor-intensive crop, and there weren’t enough people to farm the huge plantation. So Corbin entered into an agreement with the mayor of Rome, Prince Ruspoli, to bring 100 Italian families to Sunnyside each year for five years.

The first party of more than 500 Italians reached the plantation in late 1895. Corbin died in 1896, but another group of Italians arrived in January 1897.

Canonici says his book is “based on the premise that Italians who went to the Sunnyside Plantation, and subsequently to other plantations in the Arkansas and Mississippi Delta, had similar characteristics and experiences. … Italians who settled on Delta plantations were mostly from central Italy, with a few from the northern provinces. Most were experienced farmers in a well-structured farming system called mezzadria.”

Under this system, extended families lived under one roof on land that belonged to the man known as the padrone. They shared the harvest with the owner of the land.

“They worked hard and lived simply, but generally there was sufficient food to sustain the family,” Canonici writes. “There was a saying in the Marche region that one might work himself to death but he did not starve to death. Their reason for leaving their native soil was to search for a better life. Many crossed the Atlantic with the intention of returning and would have returned if they had had the means.”

Canonici notes that unlike some cultures, where the men came first for several years, Italians immigrated as family units.

“Once in the Delta, the extended family maintained close ties but no longer lived and worked under the same roof,” he writes. “Most had become indebted to Delta planters before they arrived because they had been forwarded travel and living expenses. They began as tenant farmers, and although disillusioned by the living conditions they encountered, they continued to work hard.

“Italian settlers in the Delta had large families, an advantage for farmers who wanted to save money and improve their lifestyle. They formed their own social and religious communities, retained their Italian language through the first generation in America and remained faithful to their Catholic faith. They married among themselves, and there was minimal divorce.

“Once in the Delta, the Italians struggled to free themselves from debt. Those who were unable to pay off their debts sometimes escaped in the dark of night to avoid foreclosure. Families made numerous moves in search of the better life. Eventually many saved sufficient money to free themselves from tenant living. Some established themselves on their own farms, some found work in cities in the North, East and West, a few returned to Italy. Most did eventually find the better life they sought, although not in the exact model of their dreams.”

Canonici recounts a visit to the historic Hyner Cemetery near Lake Village that he made late on the afternoon of Sept. 7, 1994. It was his first visit to the cemetery, which is about six miles north of the bridge that connects Mississippi and Arkansas.

Here’s how Canonici describes the scene: “Soybean fields border the front and west sides of the cemetery. Fifty yards to the front are the road and the power lines that seem to follow the river. … Across the road, cotton fields are almost ready for picking, a reminder of the early days when these rugged, precious Italians were introduced to the crop that would be their livelihood for posterity. Occasionally a car or truck speeds by, breaking the silence of this holy place that contains the dust and bones of our brave ancestors.

“The sinking sun is surrounded by light clouds, forming a bright, flaming horizon. I am totally imbued by the spirit of Sunnyside as I brush my feet against the sandy loam dust just outside the cemetery gate and gaze on that eternal flame over the horizon. The spirit of the settlers of 1895 cries out to me from every side: ‘Come and see, come and see.’ So I walk past the historic marker, down a cotton row. The cotton stalks brush against my armpits and healthy cotton bolls slap against my legs. I think to myself, ‘What would they say about this crop?’ Then, as the sun sinks completely over the cotton fields of Sunnyside, I hear those voices again. Now they say, ‘Write on, write on, Paul.'”

Write he did.

Canonici produced a volume of more than 200 pages with dozens of historic photographs. The book finally came out in 2003 with a second printing in 2005.

“For years I have wanted to write an account of the experiences of my people, who came from the shores of the Adriatic to settle the swamplands of the Mississippi River, which form the Arkansas and Mississippi Delta,” Canonici remembers thinking during that cemetery visit. “Through the years, I seemed never to have found the time to write, or rather I never took the time to write. How shall I begin? What shall I write?

“I realize that I’ve procrastinated too long. Our original settlers are dead. I do have some taped interviews, begun in the ’70s, of people who were children at the turn of the last century. This task should have been accomplished 30 or 40 years ago when the old-timers were still alive. Nevertheless, there’ll be no better time than today to start. So I begin my account this evening, standing on the dust of those courageous people who paved for us the way to that better life they sought. How sad that most of them never lived to experience the better life.”

The story of the Delta Italians is fascinating. Go to a Delta town such as Lake Village and visit with some of them. They’re rightly proud of their roots.

Off and running at Oaklawn Park

Tuesday, January 18th, 2011

So often, it seems, winter weather plays havoc with the operations at Oaklawn Park in Hot Springs.

It happened again Friday when a frozen surface prevented Oaklawn from opening its 2011 race meet on schedule. The safety of the jockeys and horses must always come first.

They were off and running on Saturday, however, and more than 20,000 people turned out for the festivities.

That’s right — festivities.

The thing that continues to set Oaklawn apart from so many tracks in this country is the fact that a trip to Hot Springs — especially on a Saturday — is an “event” in this state. People get dressed up, invite their friends and discuss on the way to Hot Springs what they’re going to eat for lunch.

Unfortunately, such “event” tracks have become a rare breed across the country.

At Pimlico in Baltimore, for example, they dress up once a year for the Preakness Stakes. But on other days, Pimlico can be a dull, dreary, empty place.

I’ve written on this blog before how I would accompany a friend to Pimlico on fall Saturdays during the late 1980s when I lived in Washington, D.C. On a rainy Saturday, the wind would whistle through the old facility with few people in attendance. A line at the window? There was no such thing.

Pimlico and nearby Laurel recently received an emergency cash infusion just to keep their doors open.

Across the American landscape, countless other tracks have become sad, empty places — mere adjuncts in most cases to adjoining slot facilities.

Oaklawn is different. Yes, the so-called games of skill attract people 52 weeks a year. From January until the middle of April, though, the live racing is still the thing. Charles Cella and his sons will see to that.

One of my favorite books at home is a collection of paintings by Richard Stone Reeves called “Crown Jewels of Thoroughbred Racing.” Reeves’ work is accompanied by essays on various tracks, including an essay on Oaklawn by Hot Springs native Randy Moss.

I’m proud to call Randy my friend. We worked together at the old Arkansas Democrat. We hired Randy away from the Arkansas Gazette — the first major defection in the newspaper war — just after the Arkansas Derby and just before the Kentucky Derby in 1982. The Democrat ended up with three staff members in Louisville on the first Saturday in May — Randy, Wally Hall and yours truly. It was a week to remember.

Randy initially was known for his handicapping abilities but became quite a talented writer. Now, he’s known as a seasoned broadcaster. He can do it all, frankly.

The book was published back in 1997, but much of what Moss wrote then still holds true today. In fact, thanks to the introduction of Instant Racing and those other games of skill, Oaklawn is doing better now than it was 14 years ago.

“No palm trees line the entrance to this racetrack, and its paddock isn’t one of those botanical gardens that make horseplayers want to fold up their Daily Racing Form and splash on suntan lotion,” Moss writes. “It doesn’t have a Phipps or a Hancock on its board of directors. Thomas Jefferson never raced there and overalls outnumber neckties by three-to-one in the grandstand even on Sundays.

“But ask well-traveled horse lovers to recite their favorite racetracks and chances are good that Oaklawn Park will pop up in the conversation. For a little country track in Hot Springs, Ark., on a two-lane road between nowhere and no place, Oaklawn has made quite an impact on the racing world.

“During the track’s rapid rise to prominence in the late 1970s and early 1980s, racing executives from throughout the country and even reporters from Sports Illustrated and The New York Times were dispatched here in hopes of determining what made this unlikely racetrack so special. They usually returned home with a hangover and a stretched-to-the limit credit card, reporting that they couldn’t figure out the secret formula but sure enjoyed the heck out of the search. But without even knowing it, they knew it. The key to Oaklawn has always been simple. The track is one big party.”

You’re right, Randy. That’s indeed the secret to success. It remains fun, even for those who wouldn’t know a thoroughbred from a mule. If you’re only a casual fan of the races, try going to Aqueduct in New York one of these days and then compare it to the Oaklawn experience. Let me know what you think.

“It certainly didn’t hurt the track’s cause that the list of available major-league entertainment options in Arkansas is somewhat limited during the months of January through December,” Moss writes (I can just see that wry smile on his face as he wrote “January through December.”) “Oaklawn was clearly the place to be, and there they were, from every walk of society. Some viewed the races as an important cultural event, and dressed accordingly, but others preferred to wear ballcaps and jeans and sit on an infield blanket rather than a clubhouse chair. Mingling among them were the 10-gallon cowboy hats of Texas ranchers.”

Moss relates the marvelous story of the year when a young governor named Bill Clinton (yet another Hot Springs boy) showed up to present the trophy to the winner of the Arkansas Derby.

A New Orleans writer — with a vintage Nawlins accent — by the name of Ronnie Virgets asked Clinton, “Are you the owner of this horse?”

“No, I’m the governor of this state,” Clinton replied.

Virgets stared at him and then exclaimed: “Why you son of a gun! I’m older than you are!”

“From the politicians to the policemen, these were good-time folks, unlike the hard-core players that populated many big-city racetracks,” Moss writes. “Oaklawn was no architectural wonder, and its naive bettors never were treated especially well by the track or horsemen. But even on a losing day, patrons never seemed to lose sight of the notion that this was fun. People planned junkets for months in advance, and when they arrived in town, they were going to have a good time or deplete their bankroll trying.”

Many of the rich and famous of the thoroughbred racing world would find their way to Hot Springs without really realizing where they were.

Moss relates the story of Cuban-born trainer Laz Barrera remarking that he had never been to Oklahoma. Told that he still hadn’t been to Oklahoma, Barrera replied: “Well, wherever we are, it’s a long way from California.”

What many consider the glory days at Oaklawn began in the late 1970s and lasted until the introduction of casino gambling in Mississippi in the early 1990s.

Moss described it this way back in 1997: “Although great horses still are flown in for the Racing Festival of the South stakes, the crowds and enthusiasm have dimmed somewhat in recent years. The Clydesdales have been replaced by a tractor, the infield critters and wagon rides are gone, the price of a barrel of oil has dwindled by two-thirds, riverboat casinos in Mississippi and Louisiana have taken away many of the celebrants and some fans now stay home for the convenience of watching the track’s races on simulcast screens in Shreveport, Dallas-Fort Worth, Oklahoma City and West Memphis.

“But Oaklawn is still known as the place to be when the last week of the season rolls around, when the dogwoods are in full bloom and the sparkle returns to the old lady’s eyes.”

The old lady has received a remarkably successful facelift since those words were written.

Along came Eric Jackson’s Instant Racing invention.

Along came the other games of skill.

Up went the purses.

An amazing group of Triple Crown winners have won prep races at Oaklawn in recent years.

The buzz in the national media is positive.

For Arkansans who had let Oaklawn drop down on their list of leisure time activities, the track has once more become the place to see and be seen.

I said it last year, and I’ll say it again: I’m not sure that these aren’t the good ol’ days.

Vision (or lack thereof) for Little Rock

Thursday, January 13th, 2011

I’m honored to have been invited to Chenal Country Club in Little Rock for Friday night’s 30th anniversary celebration of the Arkansas Preservation Awards. The event, presented by the Historic Preservation Alliance of Arkansas, should be a nice one as legendary philanthropist and preservationist Theodosia Murphy Nolan receives the Parker Westbrook Award for Lifetime Achievement.

A number of other awards will be presented. I was pleasantly surprised to learn recently that I had been chosen for the Outstanding Preservation Reporting in the Media Award for my efforts to save Ray Winder Field.

I would be less than honest, though, if I didn’t tell you I have mixed feelings.

I appreciate having the efforts of those of us who have worked to save Ray Winder recognized. But I feel I’m being honored for an initiative that failed. And that’s sad.

To be clear, no one at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences has come right out and said there’s no way for part of the park to be saved. On the other hand, I certainly haven’t been given any encouragement. I’ve not found anyone in a position of influence at UAMS who shares my vision.

I’ve written about this subject before, and I won’t go on at length here. To sum up my feelings: UAMS is missing out on a golden opportunity to add something the campus badly needs — green space. Wrap a building around the current field from first base to third base. In left field (if indeed UAMS is successful in purchasing the Ricks Armory property), build up rather than out with that tall building looking down on the diamond.

Can you imagine the uniqueness of looking out of offices and clinics onto a baseball field — one that’s actually used for amateur games. When not being utilized for baseball, UAMS employees could take advantage of a walking trail that would be built inside the fence. The field itself could be used for various employee wellness programs. Think about the possibilities.

UAMS is supposed to be all about promoting good health, right?

I suspect all that will result for now is an ugly parking lot until UAMS can decide what else to do with the property. A great opportunity — one that could draw national media attention and win architectural awards — will have been wasted.

But we’re used to that in Little Rock, aren’t we?

Far too often, we settle for less than the best because of a lack of vision. We talk a good game about being the next great Southern city, but time after time our leaders fall short of the mark, taking the easy way out rather than tackling projects that require imagination, patience and perserverance.

That’s just what Little Rock city government did when it came to Ray Winder. A private foundation had been formed to help the city operate the historic facility for the residents of a place that’s horribly lacking in sports facilities for its youth. But City Hall took the easy way out — sell it to UAMS, take the money and run. Operating a ballpark would have actually taken some work, you see.

I fear we’re facing the same situation with a much newer facility, the 15-year-old Aerospace Education Center. It recently was announced that the nonprofit Arkansas Aviation Historical Society was closing the center because it could no longer afford large annual deficits.

To my knowledge, no one has yet stepped forward to say: “This is an important part of the city’s cultural fabric, and we’ve come up with a creative way to save it.”

As is the case with Ray Winder, that would take some hard work.

Last week, I wrote a column for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette in which I suggested that the embattled Little Rock Airport Commission use the Aerospace Education Center to turn the tide of public opinion and better position Little Rock National Airport in the public’s mind as an economic engine for our state.

Here are four steps the commission should take:

1. Take over the Aerospace Education Center. Allow the Arkansas Aviation Historical Society to sell its collection to pay off debts. Replace the old exhibits with exhibits that tell the story of the work being done adjacent to the airport by Hawker Beechcraft Corp. and Dassault Falcon Jet Corp. Despite layoffs during the Great Recession, these two companies still employ almost 3,000 people in Little Rock. Erect additional exhibits on the companies that operate in the nearby Little Rock Port Industrial Park.

2. Enter into agreements with Hawker Beechcraft, Dassault Falcon, the industries at the port and the Little Rock Regional Chamber of Commerce to help operate the center in exchange for publicizing the work private companies do. Continue to show films in the IMAX theater and operate the domed Episphere planetarium as a way to draw visitors, but focus the exhibits on the economic engine that the airport, the port and the businesses that operate there have become.

3. Work with the Little Rock School District, the Pulaski County Special School District, the North Little Rock School District, Pulaski Tech and the University of Arkansas at Little Rock to ensure a steady stream of people who will come to the facility to learn about the jobs available in the area.

4. Use the center as a marketing tool to attract new businesses. Tell them, “If you put your facility near the airport, we’ll publicize you each day inside the Aerospace Education Center.”

As I noted in the newspaper column, Memphis has done a far better job than Little Rock in marketing its airport as an economic development powerhouse, not just as a place to catch a plane. Memphis now describes itself as America’s Aerotropolis.

“All of this emerged in a haphazard fashion,” Arnold Perl, the chairman of the Memphis-Shelby County Airport Authority, told the Memphis Business Journal last year. “We’ve had these different modes, but they’ve been silos. They haven’t been connected. … To me, aerotropolis is a compelling world brand. It visualizes the greater Memphis region in the 21st century.”

Andy Ashby of the Memphis Business Journal wrote last year: “In 2009, the Greater Memphis Chamber started changing marketing efforts from America’s Distribution Center to America’s Aerotropolis. In fact, it has trademarked the logo and phrase Memphis: America’s Aerotropolis. … Several cities worldwide have seized on the aerotropolis concept for their economic identity. In March, economic development officials from France, including some from Charles de Gaulle Airport in Paris, came to Memphis for a three-day tour of the area’s four transportation modes.”

In addition to having the busiest cargo airport in the world, Memphis boasts five Class I railroads, the fourth-largest inland port in the nation and the third-busiest trucking corridor in the country.

While Little Rock is no Memphis in that regard (remember, we let Fred Smith and FedEx get away), we are the place where Interstate 40 and Interstate 30 meet, we’re on the McClellan-Kerr Arkansas River Navigation System and we’re well-served by Union Pacific. There are some similar distribution advantages.

Here’s how the head of the Memphis Chamber, John Moore, put it: “People who come to visit the community have to have a first impression and last impression of our community. Those are important to the chamber because we need positive impressions in order to attract attention to our community, to get people to come and recognize our brand and see what we can do for their business.”

What kind of impression will we be making in Little Rock if we allow the Aerospace Education Center to sit empty?

What if we were to use it as the platform to promote the things being accomplished in that part of the state’s largest city?

Does anyone on the Little Rock Airport Commission, which has been bashed so relentlessly in recent weeks, share the vision?



Chinese grocers of the Delta

Wednesday, January 12th, 2011

I attended a meeting of the Arkansas Lottery Commission today. While reading the minutes of the commisson’s December session, I found a reference to a memo from Joe Dan Yee, the chairman of the lottery’s retail advisory board.

Seeing that name made me think about the Chinese grocers of the Arkansas Delta and the Mississippi Delta.

During the four years I worked as one of the president’s appointees to the Delta Regional Authority, I found it fascinating how many Chinese groceries still exist in the region.

Our headquarters was in Clarksdale, Miss., and I occasionally visited Wong’s there.

On the Arkansas side of the river, there was a Fong’s in Marianna and also in Hughes.

The Southern Foodways Alliance at Ole Miss, which does such a marvelous job of documenting the food cultures of the South with oral histories and much more, has transcribed a series of interviews with Chinese-Americans in the Delta.

Those interviews can be found at the SFA website at

Joe Dan Yee of Yee’s Food Land in Lake Village is among those who were interviewed last summer.

“Chinese came to America in the late 19th century in search of the fabled Gam Sahn or Golden Mountain,” the SFA wrote. “When they arrived at the alluvial plains of the Mississippi Delta, all they found was backbreaking agricultural work. First introduced to the region as indentured servants by planters during Reconstruction, these early Chinese sojourners (mostly from the Guangdong or Canton province) soon became disenchanted with working the fields. They moved off the plantations.

“Some left to go back home to China, but others stayed and opened small neighborhood grocery stores. Serving as an alternative to plantation commissaries and catering to the predominately African-American clientele, the Chinese-American grocer was a mainstay in many Delta neighborhoods well into the 20th century.

“Life in the grocery business was by no means an easy living. Early mornings and late nights were normal, as were the stresses of competition from large supermarket chains. Added to that were the stresses that they endured as immigrants navigating the complex socio-political structure of a region that historian James C. Cobb has called the most Southern place on earth. … Though the numbers of Chinese grocers diminish year by year, family stories tell an important history of immigration. They also speak to the formation of a unique food culture in the Mississippi and Arkansas Deltas.”

Joe Dan Yee is described as someone who “bucked the trend of many second- and third-generation Delta Chinese by staying home, after his parents retired, to take over the family market.”

Yee’s Food Land at 605 Main St. in Lake Village is now a southeast Arkansas institution.

The SFA described it this way: “Hanging above the checkout lanes of Yee’s Food Land, you can find an aging photograph of three generations of the Yee family. There is the father and mother who started the store back in the early ’50s and the children who run it today. For more than 50 years, the Yees have owned and operated a grocery store in the Arkansas Delta town of Lake Village. The town may have changed around them, but the Yees still pride themselves on the same hometown service that has kept them in business for so many years.

“What has also remained unchanged is the family commitment to preserving their Chinese heritage. Both Joe Dan and his siblings can speak Cantonese, something his parents insisted they learn growing up. And twice a day you can find them all eating a hot, multicourse Chinese meal (all prepared by his sister, Xing) in the back of their store.”

I love this quote from Joe Dan Yee: “I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been in New York and San Francisco, and everywhere I go they would tell my sister: ‘Bring your brother back in here. We love the Arkansas accent that he has on a Chinese accent.’ So I get a big kick out of that.”

He talked about how Chinese restaurant owners often will come out to his table in New York and San Francisco to hear him speak, noting that “we never heard a Chinese with a Southern accent.”

The SFA noted: “After graduating with a degree in marketing at the University of Arkansas, Joe Dan Yee could have gone to Dallas, maybe gotten a job with a big department store there. He had already interviewed for a job and been accepted, but in the end he gave all that up to go back home to Lake Village to take over the store his father built with his brother, Joe-Joe. He has never looked back.”

Joe Dan was interviewed in August by Kevin Kim. He talked about how his father found his way to Dumas in the 1940s and began working in a grocery store there for a man named Eugene Lee. Eventually, the father found his way to Lake Village.

“Back in the early ’60s there were at least eight to 10 (Chinese) families that were in Lake Village, and there were probably six Chinese stores on Main Street back then,” Joe Dan told the interviewer.

He said that for many years, the store would open at 4 a.m. and sometimes remain open until midnight.

“The city of Lake Village was so busy you couldn’t even walk down Main Street,” Joe Dan said, remembering the hundreds of sharecroppers and tenant farmers who would come into town to shop.

He remembers how the Chinese families in Lake Village would have cases of Chinese food shipped all the way from San Francisco.

“You would split it up between the families and then you would divide the costs between the families,” he said. “That’s how they did it.”

The store hours are now from 8 a.m. until 7 p.m. Monday through Saturday and from 8 a.m. until noon on Sundays.

Joe Dan said his family never has had strong relationships with the Chinese families on the Mississippi side of the river.

“A different culture, you know,” he said. “It’s just like they did their thing and we did our thing. … We never got together and partied that much or associated that much with the Chinese people in Mississippi.”

His favorite Southern meal?

Fried chicken, mashed potatoes and cornbread.

His favorite Chinese meal?

Pepper steak or the Peking duck his mother makes.

Those interviewed in Mississippi included Frieda Quon of Greenville, who grew up in the back of the Min Sang store on Alexander Street, and Raymond Wong of the excellent How Joy restaurant in Greenville, which closed in 2008.

“Today’s consumer of Chinese cuisine may have a refined knowledge of the regional specialties of the country, but back in the early 1960s, a time when even chopsticks were seen as new and exciting, what Americans knew of Chinese food mainly consisted of chop suey and chow mein,” the SFA writes. “Though you could have ordered a plate of either of those dishes at How Joy Restaurant in Greenville, Raymond Wong and his family were proud to serve you other, lesser-known dishes of their Catonese heritage. Opened in 1968 by his parents, Henry and Pon Wong, How Joy was one of the first Chinese restaurants to open in the Mississippi Delta.”

Also interviewed last summer was Luck Wing, who grew up in the Mississippi community of Jonestown, became one of the first Chinese men to attend Ole Miss and went on to open the state’s only Chinese-run pharmacy in Sledge, eventually serving as the town’s mayor. He’s now retired in Oxford.

Finally, there’s an interview with Tony and Monica Li, the owner of Wong’s Foodland in Clarksdale. Their story is an amazing one.

“Born and raised in Hong Kong, they left their comfortable office jobs (Monica was a bank employee and Tony was an industrial engineer) in the late 1980s for the Mississippi Delta to run a grocery store,” according to the SFA. “For about 12 hours a day, seven days a week, you can find them running Wong’s Foodland in Clarksdale, where they have tended shop since 1995. Monica usually keeps the books and helps stock items, while Tony can be found cutting up steaks, chops and roasts in the meat department. This life may not be the American Dream of their youth, but for the Lis it’s all worth it. Operating a grocery story has allowed them to send their children to college.

“Tony and Monica Li are the face of the third wave of Chinese immigration to the Delta that occurred during the 1960s and ’70s and continues through today. Mainly consisting of the educated middle and upper-middle class of Hong Kong and Taiwan, they arrived in this country not on steamers but on shiny new jumbo jets. For the Li family and many others, they left comfortable lives in their homeland in the hopes of giving their children a better life in the United States. Though they may not have faced the same kind of hardships as those who came before them, life for this middle generation is difficult as they try to maintain the ties with their homeland while forging new ones in America.”

The Chinese of the Delta — a fascinating piece of Southern culture that lives on.

We’ll be back, I promise

Tuesday, January 11th, 2011

New responsibilities as the president of Arkansas’ Independent Colleges and Universities.

The start of a legislative session that will require me to be at the Arkansas state Capitol almost every day.

A huge snow (at least by Arkansas standards) that had me stuck at home on Sunday and Monday.

All of these are reasons why Southern Fried has been taking a break for the past few days.

But for all who have asked, the answer is “yes.” The blog will live on.

There are some new posts planned for the days ahead. I promise.

For now, enjoy the fact that the Southeastern Conference has captured its fifth consecutive national title in football. It’s enough for me to yell War Eagle.

And how about that freshman running back from Little Rock?

Think about it.

The University of Alabama had a native Arkansan (Paul “Bear” Bryant) as its greatest coach ever. Auburn later goes the native Arkansan route with Tommy Tuberville.

Last night, the Tigers’ gem of an offensive coordinator is an Arkansan, their best offensive lineman is an Arkansan, a receiver who scores a touchdown is an Arkansan and the best running back on the field is an Arkansan.

You’re welcome, state of Alabama.

We’ve helped your two top football programs a lot through the years.

Try to stay warm, everyone. It’s cold out there. We’ll talk soon.

Ohio State 31, Arkansas 26 — The morning (mourning) after

Wednesday, January 5th, 2011

Scoop and score.

Scoop and score.

You have to scoop and score!

I found myself muttering that over and over as I went to bed at midnight. I’m sure I was joined by Arkansans in all 75 counties along with Arkansas expatriates across the country.

Oh well.

A lot has been said and written about Southeastern Conference dominance over the Big Ten. After all, Ohio State (with the collapse of Michigan, it’s now by far the premier program in its conference) was 0-9 against the SEC in bowl games. The streak started with a 35-6 loss in the Sugar Bowl to Bear Bryant’s Alabama Crimson Tide on Jan. 2, 1978. The most recent of the nine losses came three decades later — Jan. 7, 2008 — in the same stadium, a 38-24 loss to LSU in the national championship game.

Along comes Arkansas, though, which is now 0-4 against the Big Ten in bowl games since having joined the SEC.

Houston Nutt’s first team in 1998 had that glorious 8-0 start but then lost two of its final three regular-season games to Tennessee and Mississippi State. On Jan. 1, 1999, Arkansas fell 45-31 to Michigan in the Citrus Bowl.

Arkansas made it to the SEC Championship Game in Atlanta in 2002 but was blown out by #4 Georgia, 30-3. That was followed by a truly dismal performance in Nashville as the Hogs lost 29-14 to Minnesota in the Music City Bowl.

Nutt’s 2006 team came into the final game of the regular season with a 10-1 record and a chance to make it to a BCS bowl game. But the Razorbacks lost to LSU, 31-26, at War Memorial Stadium. They then lost 38-28 to No. 4 Florida in the SEC Championship Game (I’m still mad, Reggie Fish) and laid an egg with a 17-14 loss to Wisconsin in the Capital One Bowl on Jan. 1, 2007.

Arkansas doesn’t have a stellar bowl history. Far from it. The school is 12-23-3 in bowl appearances after last night.

But as I sip my second cup of coffee on this cloudy Wednesday morning, things have a bit different feel than they did following the bowl losses to Michigan, Minnesota and Wisconsin during the Nutt years.

In those years, the seasons ended with the thought that perhaps Arkansas just didn’t belong in the top tier of college football.

With Bobby Petrino locked in — he recruits nationally and the university is committed to building facilities that match his aspirations — there’s the feeling now that this program will be back in BCS games, perhaps on a fairly regular basis.

Petrino, the master play caller, had the perfect play called to start the game, and Joe Adams dropped what should have been a touchdown pass from Ryan Mallett.

It was an omen of more bad things to come in the first half.

With the Hogs down by 21 points as the end of that dismal first half approached, you could just hear television sets clicking off across the country.

The Razorbacks cut the margin to 18 points by intermission and then chipped away toward what coulda, woulda, shoulda been one of the great comebacks in school history — one of those games you would tell your grandchildren about.

Here’s how Peter Finney, the aging New Orleans columnist who has seen more Sugar Bowls than anyone in the media, reported it in this morning’s Times-Picayune: “What else can you say. When it looked like Ohio State’s pain, and Coach Jim Tressel’s, might continue for who knows how long, Buckeye Solomon Thomas picked off a Ryan Mallett pass, turning a nightmare into a long-awaited dream. Amazingly, in the final minute, the interception followed a blocked punt that put the Arkansas Razorbacks in position to pull off one of the most unbelievable comebacks in Sugar Bowl history. But the Hogs fell short, 31-26, after being down 28-7 in the first half of a game dominated by two quarterbacks. Terrelle Pryor was a deserving winner, and Ryan Mallett was a gallant loser. They painted a picture of two warriors who kept carrying their teams in different ways.”

Mallett did so much for Arkansas during the past two seasons that it’s truly a shame his college career couldn’t have ended as the man who finished “one of the most unbelievable comebacks in Sugar Bowl history.” Of course, his receivers did him no favors in the first half.

“Ryan has done an unbelievable job with his leadership, his competitive spirit,” Petrino said. “He lifts everyone around him to compete and play better.”

Scoop and score! The Hogs should have been ahead seconds earlier. Mallett should have never been on the field to throw that interception.. I have a feeling I’ll remember that missed opportunity as long as I remember Reggie Fish. It’s probably not healthy.

Arkansas’ 0-4 record against the Big Ten in bowl games likely will lead to snide remarks from the likes of Paul Finebaum in Birmingham. But the Razorbacks were where Alabama and LSU and Florida were not this year — in a BCS game. As stated, you get the feeling they will be back, especially if the coaches in Fayetteville can begin recruiting defensive talent to match the quarterbacks and receivers the Petrino system is sure to attract.

There is plenty to build on.

— We saw the potential of Tyler Wilson at quarterback in the game against Auburn.

— Knile Davis will only be a junior next season. He had 139 yards on 26 carries last night, his fifth consecutive rushing effort of more than 100 yards. Davis rushed for 1,183 yards during the regular season despite having gained only 294 yards during the first six games.

— Kicker Zach Hocker will only be a sophomore next season. He’s the real deal, isn’t he? He kept the Razorbacks in the game with field goals of 20, 46 and 47 yards. He was 56 for 56 on extra points this season and 15 of 18 on field goal attempts. Not bad for a true freshman.

— Punter Dylan Breeding will only be a junior next season. It’s hard to believe he began his college career as a walk-on. Petrino said earlier, “Dylan has had a good year for us. He has kicked some balls in the end zone this year or his net punt would be a lot better. He has changed fields for us. Anytime the game has been on the line, he has come up with a big punt for us.” Breeding played as big a role as anyone when it came to keeping Arkansas in the game last night. His 47-yard punt was downed at the Ohio State 1 in the first quarter. He had a punt to the Buckeye 18 in the second quarter. In the fourth quarter, he had punts downed at Ohio State’s 4 twice. Breeding punted seven times for a 43.7 avearge.

Here’s how John DeShazier began his Times-Picayune column: “The taunt washed over Ohio State prior to kickoff Tuesday night with Hog-headed Arkansas fans chanting ‘SEC! SEC!’ to remind the Buckeyes of an 0-9 record against Southeastern Conference teams in bowl games, hoping the roar might contribute to a physical hiccup or two once the game began in the Superdome. Turns out the Razorback fans — and the Razorbacks themselves — would have benefited more from the use of sticks and stones. A conference name did not harm Ohio State.”

Let’s make one thing clear: No one in the SEC should be ashamed to have Arkansas as a part of the nation’s best football conference. This is a program that’s going to be consistently strong.

I couldn’t say that with a straight face after the Citrus Bowl loss to Michigan.

I couldn’t say it after the Music City Bowl loss to Minnesota.

I couldn’t say it after the Capitol One Bowl loss to Wisconsin.

I can say it this morning.

By the way, the basketball team lost by 33 points down in Austin last night. SEC play opens Saturday against Tennessee.

Bring on spring football.

Arkansas 28, Ohio State 24

Tuesday, January 4th, 2011

OK, call me a homer.

Arkansas 28, Ohio State 24.

Going with my heart?


This game means a lot more to people in Arkansas than it means to those in Ohio.

Going with my head?

That, too.

Arkansas peaked at the right time this year. I truly believe the Razorback offense will be hard to stop tonight.

But bowl games are so hard to predict. It has been more than a month since either team has played a game. It is, in essence, a new season.

So I’ll go back to the part about picking with my heart.

I’m drawn to a quote in this morning’s Times-Picayune in New Orleans. It’s from an Arkansas fan from Redfield, Gabriel Jones: “We’ve come so far. We’re an underdog team from an underdog state. Beating Ohio State would put us on the map, and the sky’s the limit after that. Just to be down here and be part of history, Arkansas history, I wouldn’t take anything in the world for it.”

Think about it: An underdog team from an underdog state.

That says a lot about us as a people, doesn’t it?

For all those decades in the Southwest Conference, we always knew we played in the shadow of the University of Texas. That, of course, made the occasional victories over the Longhorns all that more special.

Now, for almost two decades in the Southeastern Conference, we’ve continued to wear that collective chip on our shoulders, still feeling like the new kid on the block — the child at the back of the class who has yet to be fully accepted by his peers.

Along comes this Petrino fellow. He convinces his players — and then he convinces the rest of us — that Arkansas can be in the top tier of college football year after year.

And he casts his lot with us.

He signs a contract that says to us: “This is going to be my home. It’s where I want to be.”

Hear this from Arkansas defensive end Jake Bequette: “It feels great to be in a BCS game and to play a great opponent in Ohio State. I guess we’re in the club now.”

Hear this from Arkansas linebacker Jerico Nelson: “This is just the next step toward where we want Arkansas to be.”

We’re almost in the club. We’re headed to where we’ve always wanted to be. It’s music to the ears of Arkansans from Eudora to Siloam Springs.

A win over Ohio State tonight would go a long way toward making Arkansas a regular member of that exclusive club.

You see, the Buckeyes have consistently been in the club for decades while Arkansas has just made occasional appearances.

The Bucks started the season ranked second nationally and rose to No. 1 for a week before a 31-18 loss to Wisconsin on Oct. 16. Ohio State has won five consecutive games since then and doesn’t want a repeat of the school’s last visit to the Superdome, a 38-24 loss to LSU in the national championship game three years ago. Big Ten fans also are hoping the Buckeyes can atone for the conference’s 0-5 record (including 0-3 against SEC teams) on Saturday.

Arkansas has never defeated a Big Ten team in a bowl game (those losses came in the Nutt years) and last won a Sugar Bowl on Jan. 1, 1969, against Georgia. I can remember watching Chuck Dicus work his magic that day on NBC.

Here’s how Ted Lewis put it in today’s Times-Picayune: “It’s about gaining national attention for Arkansas for something more than being the home state of Wal-Mart. The Razorbacks haven’t been in the national title mix since the Big Shootout loss to Texas in 1969 and twice were defeated in SEC championship games that would have at least gotten them to the Sugar Bowl. For an ambitious program wanting to be in the same discussion with Auburn, Alabama, Florida and LSU, SEC foes that have participated in the past five BCS title games, this is that opportunity.”

Yes, an opportunity that all of us here in the Land of Opportunity will be following tonight.

Lewis, by the way, picks Arkansas to win by a touchdown, 24-17.

He writes: “A tough week for the Buckeyes ends with their record in bowl games against SEC teams falling to 0-10. Ryan Mallett works over Ohio State’s secondary, and Terrelle Pryor’s performance makes some Ohio State fans wish his suspension was longer.”

Ron Higgins of The Commercial Appeal at Memphis picked Ohio State, 31-27, but I think he did it just to set up this gag: “Terrelle Pryor’s Miller-Digby trophy as the game’s MVP is sold on eBay even before the postgame party gets in full swing in the French Quarter. In accepting the award, Pryor says: ‘I love my teammates. I’d give any of them the shirt off my back — at least the ones that make me an offer.'”

Really, don’t you think most Americans outside of Big Ten country will be rooting for a team symbolized by D.J. Williams rather than one symbolized by the Tattoo Gang?

Williams won the Disney Spirit Award back on Dec. 9 as the nation’s most inspirational player and has received plenty of additional publicity in the week leading up to tonight’s game. You know the Williams story by now.

“Everyone knows that he smiles and loves life,” Petrino said. “And he’s one of those young men that you’re fortunate enough to be around that affects everybody around him in a positive way.”

D.J. Williams vs. Terrelle Pryor?

Yes, I’m picking with my heart.

As far as picking with my head, the New Orleans newspaper listed three Arkansas keys to victory with which I agree:

1. Hammer down with Mallett: “Though Ohio State gives up an average of only 156.2 yards per game passing, the Buckeyes haven’t faced anything like quarterback Ryan Mallett and the Razorbacks’ passing game, which averages 338.4 yards. As long as Mallett is well protected, there’s no reason to believe he won’t have a big game.”

2. Corral Pryor: “Arkansas says it learned its lesson from the big effort that Auburn quarterback Cam Newton had against it. … Terrelle Pryor, in many respects, is similar to Newton. The key to limiting Pryor is keeping him contained and gang-tackling him. Though the Hogs’ defenders aren’t as big as Ohio State’s offensive line, they’re quick.”

3. Pretend it’s another SEC game: “It would be easy for Arkansas to be a little wide-eyed for this game. The Razorbacks have never been to a BCS bowl, and the nation will be looking in tonight with it being the only bowl game. But Arkansas has played in front of big crowds before in the SEC. If the Razorbacks can ditch the jitters early, they should be all right.”

In making college football predictions all season on this blog, I’ve attempted to be an unbiased observer.

Tonight, I’ll put aside my journalistic training and be a fan.

Go Hogs.