It was one of those pieces of news that hits you right between the eyes and almost knocks you out.
I had just finished a pleasant Friday lunch with former Razorback basketball player Blake Eddins at a favorite barbecue joint — the White Pig in North Little Rock — and stopped by the offices of the Arkansas Sports Hall of Fame.
Jennifer Smith, the administrative assistant there, asked: “Did you hear about Stanley Reed?”
I had, of course, heard that Stanley had not been selected Thursday as president of the University of Arkansas System. He was among the four finalists for that job. I also had heard rumors that it came down to Stanley and Donald Bobbitt before the UA Board of Trustees went with Bobbitt, a former dean of the Fulbright College of Arts and Sciences at the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville.
Unfortunately, that’s not what Jennifer was talking about.
She handed me a printout of the breaking news story.
It began this way: “Stanley Reed of Marianna, the former Arkansas Farm Bureau president who had applied for president of the University of Arkansas System, died in a one-vehicle crash Friday morning, according to police. The accident occurred on U.S. Highway 64 east of Augusta.”
The accident, in which Reed’s vehicle suddenly swerved off the road and hit a tree, occurred shortly before 10 a.m.
It was shocking news.
This marks the 15th anniversary of the day Mike Huckabee took over as governor of Arkansas. That was my first day of what would turn out to be a 13-year government career after leaving journalism.
During the almost 10 years I spent on Gov. Huckabee’s staff, we had few better friends than Stanley Reed. When I was Gov. Huckabee’s campaign manager in 1998, Stanley consistently went to bat for us. It’s amazing how much things can change in 13 years. In 1998, it was still rare to find a leader in east Arkansas who would openly support a Republican for governor, especially in a race in which the Democratic nominee was from east Arkansas.
Stanley never wavered in his support.
In December 2003, Stanley defeated David Hillman of Almyra to become president of the Arkansas Farm Bureau Federation. He served that organization with distinction.
He also served with distinction after Gov. Huckabee appointed him to the UA Board of Trustees in 1998. He was the board chairman from 2006-08.
Stanley would have turned 60 on Aug. 1. That’s far too young to lose such a leader in a state like ours, which needs all the leaders it can get.
In a statement yesterday after he was interviewed for the UA president’s job, Stanley said: “The quality undergraduate and graduate education I received at the University of Arkansas’ Fayetteville campus has given me tremendous personal opportunities for service and has prepared me to be successful in many endeavors.”
Stanley graduated as the salutatorian of T.A. Futrall High School in Marriana in 1969. He received his bachelor’s degree in agricultural engineering from the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville and later graduated from law school there. Each time, he graduated with the highest of honors.
As an undergraduate, he was Mr. Everything — president of the Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity, president of the Interfraternity Council, president of the Cardinal XX Honorary Society, etc.
In 1976, Stanley made the highest score on the state bar exam.
I have no doubt Stanley could have been among the region’s top attorneys. However, it didn’t take the farm boy long to determine that farming was in his blood.
He had much rather be in the fields raising cotton than toiling in a law office.
Stanley invited me last July to join him for lunch at Jones Grocery in Haynes, a community on Arkansas Highway 1 in Lee County between Marianna and Forrest City.
Haynes had a population of just 150 people in the 2010 census (down from 214 in the 2000 census), but it’s surrounded by some of the most fertile farmland in the state.
The tables were almost full as I walked in the door just past 11 a.m. Stanley had saved me a seat.
The plate lunch on that Thursday morning featured sliced pork. Five plastic tables seating eight people each took up much of the store. There were a few groceries on the shelves that lined the walls, but the store had become mostly a good place for lunch.
The farmers chowing down that day ranged in age from their 20s to their 70s. They talked about the lack of rain, soybeans that were becoming stressed by the dry conditions, pigweed that was beginning to show up in the fields.
Stanley wanted me to hear all of that. He loved the world of farming, and he enjoyed opening that world to others.
The 25 farmers were in the store not only to eat lunch but also to hear updates from employees of the University of Arkansas Division of Agriculture. The standard dress was jeans and boots. Stanley, who often attended meetings in Little Rock in a suit, had his farmer’s outfit on that day.
These obviously were men who had just come from the fields and would return to the fields once the briefing had concluded. That gathering reminded me how important agriculture is in Arkansas, home to some of the world’s best producers of food and fiber.
We’re a state with 33 million acres devoted to crops, livestock and forests. When the forestry sector is included, there are 270,000 Arkansans whose jobs directly or indirectly depend on agriculture. They receive more than $9 billion in annual wages, resulting in about 15 percent of the state’s total labor income.
With 46,000 farms, Arkansas ranks in the top 12 nationally in total farm receipts. We’re the country’s leading producer of rice and rank in the top five in cotton and grain sorghum production and the top 10 in soybean production. We’re a leading poultry and cattle producer. Arkansas, in fact, ranks 21st or higher nationally for the production of 19 commodities.
Stanley could quote those statistics and many more by heart. In addition to his Farm Bureau service, he was a past chairman of the Arkansas Soybean Promotion Board, had served five years on the board of Cotton Incorporated and had served on the State Support Committee for Cotton Research.
In a January 2009 statement on the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives that honored Reed as he left the UA Board of Trustees and the presidency of Arkansas Farm Bureau, Rep. Mike Ross said: “Amid all of these professional successes, anyone who knows Stanley understands that his most treasured role in life is that of a husband to Charlene; father to Haley, Nathan and Anna; and grandfather to three grandchildren. Carrying on in true Reed family tradition, Stanley’s son Nathan continues to work with him on the family farm. Stanley Reed will long be considered one of Arkansas’ finest and a best friend and advocate for agriculture.”
Indeed, Stanley spread the word of Arkansas agriculture on trade missions to Cuba, Taiwan, South Korea, Mexico, Japan, Brazil, Turkey, Peru, Panama, Russia and Rwanda.
Stanley was anxious to introduce me to Nathan that day in Haynes. He was so proud his son had followed him into farming. Father and son farmed almost 6,000 acres together.
After lunch, I climbed into Stanley’s vehicle to tour the farm. We left Haynes and drove east on Arkansas Highway 131 toward the St. Francis River. Thousands of acres of soybeans, cotton and rice were on either side of the road. Crowley’s Ridge provided a brief interval of trees. On the other side of the ridge, the land flattened again and the crops were planted as far as the eye could see.
I remember another lunch with Stanley. It was on Friday, Dec. 4, 2009, and he was in town for the Farm Bureau convention. We met at the Capital Hotel, and Stanley talked about a possible race for the Republican nomination for the U.S. Senate.
It didn’t seem to me that his heart was in it.
That’s why I was surprised six days later when Stanley announced he would run. He said at the time: “We need to go ahead before Christmas to get our fundraising going. We’ll have two or three weeks here to get our canvass campaign organized.”
Within weeks, he admitted he had made a mistake and dropped out of the race.
Yesterday, as he visited with reporters in Little Rock, he talked about elevated blood pressure and sleepless nights during that abbreviated campaign.
He went back to farming after getting out of the Senate race. And after yesterday’s decision by the UA Board of Trustees to go with someone else as president, he was back at work on the farm this morning. He reportedly was on farm business when today’s accident occurred.
Friends say he was at peace with the board’s decision.
We’ve lost one of our best and brightest.