Archive for May, 2010

Ike and the Greatest Generation

Wednesday, May 5th, 2010

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Ike stuck.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The similarities with my own father are almost eerie.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

They truly were part of the Greatest Generation.

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

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Atop Petit Jean Mountain

Tuesday, May 4th, 2010

I look to the west from my downtown Little Rock office on this clear spring day and have a good view of the old Hotel Sam Peck, now the Legacy.

It was the Sam Peck that Winthrop Rockefeller first called home when he came to our state in 1953, a refugee from a highly publicized divorce and the constant scrutiny that anyone with the name of Rockefeller was forced to live under in Manhattan.

Rockefeller, a far different man from his brothers, had withrawn from Yale University after three years and gone to the oil fields of Texas to serve as an apprentice roughneck. He later would tell friends that it was one of the happiest periods of his life.

In 1937, at age 25, the man who later would become known in our state simply as WR returned to New York and went to work for the Socony-Vacuum oil company. Another happy period would be his Army career during World War II. He had enlisted as a private more than 10 months before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. By the end of the war, he was a lieutenant colonel who had seen action at Guam and Okinawa.

“Rockefeller’s years after World War II were not happy ones,” Tom Dillard writes in the online Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. “Still working at Socony-Vacuum, he chaffed at the restrictive lifestyle expected of him and his siblings. A heavy drinker known for his playboy lifestyle, Rockefeller often frequented chic cafes late at night with a movie star on his arm. He abruptly married an attractive blonde divorcee named Barbara “Bobo” Sears on Valentine’s Day in 1948. Soon they were the parents of a son, Winthrop Paul Rockefeller, but the marriage dissolved within a year.”

So it was that he fled to Arkansas at the invitation of an old Army friend from the state, Frank Newell. And it was into the Sam Peck he moved. Within a year, Rockefeller had purchased a large tract of land atop Petit Jean Mountain and set out to create a model ranch and, ultimately, change an entire state.

In a letter to his son, Rockefeller would write: “While we lived comfortably with that which we inherited and earned, we had the responsibility to see that these resources were also used wisely in the service to our fellow man.”

Years later, in 2003, Winthrop Paul would write: “I know I was lucky to be born a Rockefeller, but I am luckier to have been born Winthrop Rockefeller’s son. Dad’s greatest gift to me was not my last name but my first, becuase with that name, he left me a great heritage, and at the same time, an equally great challenge to follow his vision and shape my own, but always to serve, and do so with love.”

I was atop Petit Jean Mountain on Saturday for the Winthrop Rockfeller Legacy Weekend at the Winthrop Rockefeller Institute.

It was, in so many ways, a remarkable day as friends and associates of the late governor gathered at a spot he so loved to discuss his contributions to this state.

I was driving on Arkansas Highway 154 on Saturday morning, leaving the flat pastures along the Arkansas River and beginning that climb up the mountain. I remembered something that John Ward, the former aide to and biographer of the governor, once told me on another visit to Petit Jean.

“I never come up this mountain without a bit of a sick feeling,” John said. “That’s because I often was driving up here to deliver bad news to the governor.”

In many respects, Petit Jean was the capital of Arkansas during the four years Rockefeller served as governor from 1967-71. He preferred Winrock Farms to the state Capitol and would spend days at a time on the mountain, entertaining visitors not only from across the state but around the world. A landing strip on Petit Jean made access easy as Marion Burton and others would fly the governor to wherever he needed to be.

Where he needed to be and where he wanted to be often were different things. He wanted to be at Winrock Farms, with his prized Santa Gertrudis cattle and the majestic views of the Arkansas River Valley below.

“He wanted to make this a showcase so the world could see what could happen in Arkansas,” Justice Bob Brown of the Arkansas Supreme Court told those in attendance at Saturday’s event. “He was economic royalty, and this was his citadel.”

Judge Brown, whose father was the Episcopal bishop of Arkansas, remembers a 1967 visit by the archbishop of Canterbury. He particularly remembers how anxious the archbishop was to meet this scion of John D. Rockefeller who had abandoned New York and moved to a rural, impoverished place called Arkansas.

In 1967, of course, Rockefeller was in his first year as governor. It wouldn’t be until the end of his four years in office that the long list of his contributions began to be noticed. And only now, decades later, is the full impact of what he did to change this state being fully examined.

At lunch Saturday, I sat next to William “Sonny” Walker of Atlanta, the man whom Winthrop Rockefeller had hired in 1967 to head the state’s economic opportunity office. At the time, Walker was believed to be the only black man in the cabinet of a Southern governor. Joining us at lunch was one of his sons, former state Sen. Bill Walker, who now serves in Gov. Mike Beebe’s cabinet as head of the state Department of Workforce Education.

“They just didn’t do that back then, and they certainly didn’t do it in the South,” the elder Walker said of Rockefeller’s decision to appoint a black man to a top government position. “I had some of the same ideas that Rockefeller had. I just didn’t have the money he had.”

Dorothy Stuck, the former Marked Tree newspaper editor who would become one of Rockefeller’s close friends, added: “It just amazed me how quickly he came to understand what we needed in this state.”

Even before becoming governor, Rockefeller had helped fund voter registration drives in order to enfranchise black Arkansans. He underwrote an organization known as the Election Research Council, which trained lawyers to root out ballot fraud.

“He opened the Capitol’s front door and let a fresh wind blow through,” Stuck said.

Walker advocated the hiring of black state troopers. He felt that having black troopers would send a positive message to other blacks. As governor, Rockefeller made it happen.

Rockefeller also set out to reform the Arkansas prison system, which Judge Brown described as “a cesspool.” The judge considers that effort a part of Rockefeller’s commitment to civil rights.

“Let’s face it,” Judge Brown said. “Most of the prisoners were African-Americans.”

On the Sunday after the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. had been assassinated just across the river from Arkansas in Memphis, Rockefeller joined black ministers on the front steps of the state Capitol. He joined hands with those ministers as a crowd of almost 3,000 people sang “We Shall Overcome.”

You must remember that this was 1968. It was the South. And Rockefeller was on the ballot that year.

“I don’t think he knew the words to the song, but he was there,” Walker said. “That’s what mattered.”

No other Southern governor would make such a gesture.

“That was his defining moment, without question,” Judge Brown said.

Legislative defeats were common for the governor during the 1967 and 1969 legislative sessions. Stuck said those defeats hurt Rockfeller more than he would let on.

“But he never gave up,” Judge Brown said. “That was the thing about him. And ultimately the things he had stood for prevailed.”

If one thing was clear as the Winthrop Rockefeller Legacy Weekend ended, it was that Rockefeller’s 1953 decision to come to Arkansas was among the defining events in the 20th century for our state.

“Although he didn’t live to see it, the seeds he planted have come to fruition,” Stuck said. “What happened here radiated out across the country.”

In April 1971, with Dale Bumpers having moved into the Governor’s Mansion, Rockefeller was presented a silver plaque that was described as being from “the black people of Arkansas.”

This is what it said: “Governor Winthrop Rockefeller, an inspiration to the young, a symbol of security for the old, full of love, warmth and compassion; a champion of human rights, brotherhood and dignity, who brought the Rockefeller family tradition to Arkansas and sacrificed time, resources, energy and public office for the causes of unity, justice and equality. Thank you for all you have done, for all you are doing to make our state the Land of Opportunity for all Arkansans. God bless you.”

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