Archive for the ‘Books’ Category

Lee Wilson’s Delta empire

Tuesday, June 12th, 2012

I’ve written on the Southern Fried blog before about my fascination with Lee Wilson & Co., which once operated one of the largest cotton plantations in the world, helped shape life in northeast Arkansas and remained in the same family for almost 125 years.

If you have an interest in the history of the Arkansas Delta, you should read Jeannie Whayne’s book “Delta Empire,” which was released last year by the Louisiana State University Press.

Whayne, a history professor at the University of Arkansas, is an expert on the Delta, having written “A New Plantation South” and having edited “Sunnyside: Evolution of a Plantation in Arkansas, 1830-1945” along with “Arkansas Delta: A Land of Paradox.”

More than just the story of Robert E. “Lee” Wilson, “Delta Empire” is in many respects the story of Southern agriculture from the late 1800s through the early 1950s.

Lee Wilson inherited 400 acres in Mississippi County following his father’s death in 1870. He expanded that initial inheritance into a 50,000-acre lumber and cotton operation, buying swampland for as little as 50 cents an acre, draining it, selling the harvested cypress and other bottomland hardwoods and turning it into cotton fields.

Whayne had considered doing her dissertation on the Wilson plantation in the 1980s but says “an encounter with a snake in the basement of a Mississippi County jail convinced me to look elsewhere for a dissertation topic. No company records existed, or so it seemed at the time, and a county official indicated that county records were unavailable to me.

“Oscar Fendler, a longtime attorney representing the Wilson family, gained me entry to the basement of the county jail so that I could examine the records discarded there. Thus began an adventure that Fendler, who died a few years ago, never tired of recalling, though he only heard the story from me — I think.

“The jailer held a flashlight, a guard stood by with a rifle as two black prisoners in jail jumpsuits picked up the books and held them in the light for me to examine. Finding nothing of interest, I noticed another stack of books across the room and started to move toward them. Years later it occurred to me that the entire charade — aside from the snake which slithered by at that moment and could not have been choreographed — was intended to discourage me. It worked. I chose another topic.”

Before entering that basement, Whayne had visited the company offices in the English Tudor-style town of Wilson and had come up empty in her search for records.

Following the release of “Arkansas Delta: A Land of Paradox,” Whayne was participating in a book signing event at Mary Gay Shipley’s wonderful That Bookstore In Blytheville. Whayne was approached during the event by Mike Wilson, who asked her to write a history of Lee Wilson & Co.

“I had some understandable misgivings,” Whayne writes. “Any book I wrote, I explained to Mike, would be critical of certain aspects of the company’s operation. He insisted he understood that and believed that it was important to cover all aspects of the company’s history. He wanted the unvarnished truth, and I came to understand that he meant what he said.”

Mike Wilson donated company ledgers to the University of Arkansas archives. The real breakthrough came with the discovery of company correspondence files.

“Mike called me some time in the late 1990s to tell me that when workmen removed a malfunctioning air conditioning unit to replace it, they discovered a false wall and a room full of boxes,” Whayne writes.

Those papers also were donated to the university.

Mike Wilson died suddenly in 2008 while Whayne was working on the book. His brother Steve, his sister Midge and Mike’s son Perry continued to work with Whayne. Meanwhile, the late Dr. Eldon Fairley of the Mississippi County Historical Society rescued those county records from the basement of the jail.

In October 2010, it was announced that the Wilson family was selling the company. In December of that year, it was revealed that Gaylon Lawrence Sr. of Sikeston, Mo., and Gaylon Lawrence Jr. of Nashville, Tenn., had paid an estimated $150 million for Lee Wilson & Co.

An era had ended in the Arkansas Delta.

Lawrence Jr. is known in the Nashville area as the owner of Tennessee Bank & Trust. The father and son own four other banks in Missouri and Arkansas. Their diversified Lawrence Group even purchased U.S. Air Conditioning Distributors, which had almost $600 million in annual sales and operations.

The Lawrence Group owns more than 165,000 acres in Arkansas, Missouri, Mississippi, Florida, Illinois and several other states. Everything from cotton to soybeans to citrus is grown on that land.

The Lawrence purchase of the Wilson estate stands as one example of the trend toward investors holding agricultural real estate as part of their portfoilios, Whayne writes.

“Most of these people have little understanding of agricultural production or appreciation for the local communities,” she says. “Lawrence himself, a banker (with Tennessee Bank & Trust of Nashville) who holds agricultural lands from California to Florida, including part of the old Delta Pine & Land Co. in Mississippi, does possess some connection to southeast Missouri and northeastern Arkansas. His family has roots in Sikeston and at some point acquired ownership of Farmers Bank & Trust in Blytheville. The latter connection shadows an earlier association with Lee Wilson, who became a director of Farmers Bank & Trust in 1932.

“Lawrence’s purchase of the Wilson estate mirrors a larger trend among investment firms acquiring agricultural lands, purchases that made sense during the economic crisis which began in 2007. While residential and commercial real estate prices plummeted, agricultural lands rose in value, in tandem with the rise in agricultural prices.

“Investment firms like the Winchester Group of Champaign, Ill., and TIAA-CREF, the college pension fund, have increased their holdings in agricultural lands as a way to offset the declining value of other kinds of real estate.”

The trend of Delta farms becoming part of corporate portfolios followed other major changes in the region.

“With fewer farmworkers needed, the population of the county began to decline after World War II, falling from 80,286 in 1950 to 70,055 in 1960 to 51,979 in 2000 (after Whayne had finished work on her book, the 2010 census figure for Mississippi County came in at 46,480. That means the county has lost 34,000 residents in the past six decades).”

She continues: “While industrial jobs began providing some alternative sources of employment, they were late in arriving and remain insufficiently robust enough to offset the decline in farm labor jobs made obsolete by the advent of scientific agriculture. Only the northern end of the county has exceeded expectations, largely for two reasons. First, given the higher incidence of land ownership and the ability of even landless famers there to gain at least some personal property, they were the least likely of any population in the county — or elsewhere in the Delta — to depart.

“Second, the placement of the Air Force training base in Blytheville provided an anchor which sustained a population base. When the government closed the base in the early 1990s, things looked bleak for a while but then Nucor moved into the area just east of Blytheville in the mid-1990s and turned things around.”

Whayne notes that as sharecroppers left the Delta, plantation owners “burned or bulldozed their tenant houses and planted cotton or soybeans on their foundations in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s. Although plantation agriculture had some prominence in north Mississippi County — particularly east of Big Lake with Wilson’s Armorel operation as merely the most prominent example — small farmers also operated there and remained in place. As they struggled to stay alive in the capital-intensive economic environment confronting farmers, whether big or small, they served as a ready labor force as Nucor and allied industries moved into the region in the 1990s.”

Whayne worries that investment firms and portofolio managers will have little inclination to improve the quality of life for those who live in these areas.

“Unlike local planters who have established long-standing relationships with the men who lease their lands, portfolio planters will be interested only in the bottom line,” she writes. “When the enterprise becomes strictly a business transaction, lessees potentially become expendable. … As out-of-state investors looking to maximize their profits, they will have even less interest in the environmental consequences of burning rice stubble or the overuse of certain potentially harmful chemicals.”

Only time will tell whether the move toward more corporate farming and out-of-state ownership will be good for the Arkansas Delta. Regardless, those interested in the region and its history will enjoy “Delta Empire” as Jeannie Whayne recounts a part of our state’s history that has come to an end.

Charlotte Schexnayder: Salty Old Editor

Thursday, June 7th, 2012

I wasn’t surprised that the room was packed even though it was the middle of the day on a weekday. People had come from across Arkansas to hear Charlotte Tillar Schexnayder speak at the Clinton School of Public Service in Little Rock.

She has had that kind of impact on our state and its people during her 88 years.

I’ve known Charlotte in several of her roles.

As a young newspaperman, I came to know her as the person who ran (along with her husband Melvin) one of the best weekly newspapers in the South.

Later, as a political reporter and as a member of the governor’s staff, I knew Charlotte as a leading light in the Arkansas Legislature.

She’s the epitome of a gracious Southern lady — but with a tough streak; governors and others learned the hard way never to underestimate her — and an Arkansas institution.

Her new book from Butler Center Books in Little Rock — titled “Salty Old Editor — An Adventure in Ink” — makes for fascinating reading.

“She’s a treasure,” says former President Clinton. “I’m so grateful I’ve had the chance to know her, work with her and be her friend.”

Former U.S. Sen. Dale Bumpers calls her “one of those too rare people who not only cares about what’s right and wrong in the world but spends a lifetime trying to do something about it. Together, she and her late husband Melvin were the bedrock of their community, the Delta and the entire state.”

Former U.S. Sen. David Pryor calls her a “powerful force for equality, fairness and justice. Her life has been an epic story of how one person can make a difference. She is a true public servant.”

Charlotte is a former president of the Arkansas Press Women, the Little Rock professional chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists, the National Federation of Press Women, the Arkansas Press Association and the National Newspaper Association.

She also was the first female president of the Dumas Chamber of Commerce.

She has always been a pacesetter.

In the late 1940s, Melvin and Charlotte Schexnayder found themselves living in the pine woods of east Texas at Marshall. Melvin had accepted a job in early 1948 with the Texas & Pacific Railroad as a chemical engineer.

“His job involved analyzing oil and water samples for steam engines,” she writes. “I always dreaded the possibility that he might dislocate his lame shoulder when he climed the company water tanks for samples.

“More often, he was in the company laboratories or on a train going as far as Pecos, Texas — 800 miles away. The job demanded five to six days a week on the road, leaving us miserable with little home life.

“Mother came to visit in Marshall in the summer of 1948. Melvin drove her 1937 Plymouth there, and on the back was a coop of chickens from Tillar. We had a flat tire on the way, and a man who stopped to help us was much amused. However, we thought the fried chicken was very tasty that summer.

“My solution while Melvin was constantly traveling was to read and keep our domicile, all the while missing the news business. Occasionally, I traveled with him and particularly remember the dust storms in west Texas. Neither of us was content away from the other.

“In late summer, we received a telegram from W.M. Jackson, owner of the McGehee Semi-Weekly Times. He asked if we would come to McGehee as editor and advertising manager. Melvin had never sold advertising but had done well in business courses in graduate school. Tired of his constant traveling, we said to one another: ‘Let’s try the newspaper business for a year.’

“Little did we then realize, it would last a half-century.”

Southeast Arkansas had no bigger advocate during that half-century than Charlotte Schexnayder.

She was born Christmas Day 1923. Her father was Jewell Stephen Tillar, the son of Dr. Stephen Olin Tillar and Fannie Harrell Tillar, pioneer residents of southeast Arkansas. They had come over from Selma in Drew County to help found the town of Tillar as the St. Louis, Iron Mountain & Southern Railroad laid its track south from Little Rock in 1870.

Stephen Olin Tillar had fought for the Confederacy in the Civil War. He was captured and imprisoned near Chicago.

“When he was released, he walked home barefooted and was so emaciated that his family did not recognize him,” Charlotte writes. “He studied medicine and became a practicing physician. My father was born on Dec. 19, 1886, and was the youngest of his family.”

After working for the newspaper in McGehee, Charlotte and Melvin bought the Dumas Clarion.

Charlotte says they learned the following lessons during their years in McGehee:

— “Manage with one-boss rule editorially. A showdown with a composing room foreman who sought to direct all operations quickly taught me that I had to control content and deadlines. I made editorial decisions and always faced the consequences.”

— “Believe in your community, and the people will join you. Many coummunities depend on their newspaper publishers/owners for leadership.”

— “Plain hard work exceeds inspiration, probably in proportion of 90-10.”

— “Never leave to others some job you should do. A staff will seek to excel when the editor-publisher sets the standard.”

— “Listen for the little stories. They often are the most compelling because they touch the human heart. I once gained wisdom from interviewing a 90-year-old who said: ‘When ah walks, ah walks slow; when ah rocks, ah rocks easy; and when ah worries, ah goes to sleep.'”

— “Expect broadly flung daggers. I didn’t cause trouble but was blamed for reporting it. Many would rather blame the messenger than the culprit. Moreover, it seems more fun to fire at the messenger.”

— “Remember that you are writing current history and make every effort to get it right.”

— “Rely on some humor during tough times. It’s the best antidote.”

 — “If the job isn’t fun, find another. I looked forward to every day. I was the eternal optimist; Melvin, the pragmatist. Together we knew how to set goals and reach them.”

Charlotte tells how her mother walked into the Dumas newspaper office for the first time and asked, “Are you sure you want this place?”

Charlotte and Melvin’s son John was just five months old at the time.

Tillar was 13 miles south. Dumas had 2,512 residents with the Missouri Pacific railroad tracks splitting its four-block business district.

“Climate control, virtually unheard of in small newspaper plants, was relegated to window and oscillating fans for cooling and an overhead butane gas heater for heating,” Charlotte writes. “It was drafty in winter we found, as we stood looking it over in late January 1954. We suspected the building could be much more uncomfortable in summer because of extra heat from the single linotype, metal-casting typesetter.

“Weekly newspaper offices were notoriously messy, and this was no exception. Stacks of exchange newspapers were piled in a corner, while metal single spindles held important copy waiting to be sent to a typesetter.”

Did they really want this place? Her mother’s question rang in Charlotte’s ears.

“We thought of the people who wanted us,” she writes. “Perhaps the desire for our very own newspaper obscured our vision of the surroundings, and we foresaw a great adventure. Melvin and I looked at one another, instead of at the plant, and affirmed, ‘We really do want this place.'”

At that point, Charlotte could not have foreseen a future political career.

In the 1970s, she became the first woman appointed to what was then called the state Board of Pardons & Parole.

She says her experience on the board led her to believe “I might bring energy, perseverance and my varied experience to the political scene. I found naysayers; I often had as a women who broke barriers. But I reasoned that a citizen legislature, as in Arkansas, would include members with potential conflicts of interest because of primary occupations. Since legislators were part time, serving in biennial sessions, one had to depend on personal wealth or employment.”

When she announced in 1984 that she would run for the Legislature, no one dared oppose her. Charlotte was already a legend in her district.

At the state Capitol, though, she still had to prove herself during that first session in 1985.

“As a newspaper editor, I was treated with obvious wariness, a bit of suspicion and even a tinge of distrust by a few,” Charlotte writes. “With quiet dignity and hard work, I tried to overcome those attitudes. There was one huge advantage, however. No one dared to offer a shady deal; I owned a newspaper.”

Veteran state Rep. Bill Foster of Keo, who had served in the House since 1961, once told her: “I was determined to dislike you. You were a newspaper editor. But it took me only a week to change my mind.”

During her first week in the House, Rep. Geno Mazzanti of Lake Village approached Charlotte and said, “No one expects much of a freshman representative. Just sit and listen and you will be fine.”

She replied: “You obviously don’t know me very well. I am not a sideline sitter, and I always have plans.”

Charlotte says she believes in the people of the Delta, and they believe in her.

“I have drawn strength from them and my forebears, beginning with my childhood in Tillar,” she writes. “Tiny towns can launch fulfilling and diverse careers such as mine. The seed for the dream was planted in my childhood.”

What a life she has lived. And she still has more to give.

Arkansas is a better place because Charlotte Tillar Schexnayder is among us.

“The Slaw and the Slow Cooked”

Wednesday, April 25th, 2012

I’ve referred earlier on the Southern Fried blog to a wonderful book published last year by the Vanderbilt University Press with the intriguing title “The Slaw and the Slow Cooked: Culture and Barbecue in the Mid-South.”

The book is a collection of essays. Those essays approach the subject of barbecue in this region from an almost academic standpoint.

When I say “academic standpoint,” I don’t mean to imply that the writing is boring.

It’s anything but.

What the essays do have are plenty of footnotes and references to guide the reader who wants to learn as much as possible about the Mid-South barbecue culture.

“Indeed, barbecue is not merely the process or the paraphernalia of grilling, or the meaty burnt ends that result, but a choreographed dance, from woodlot to smokehouse to mixing bowl to platter to picnic table, bar, roadside diner or juke joint,” Gary Paul Nabhan writes in the book’s foreward.

Nabhan is the author of two dozen books on various scientific and literary subjects.

“Prospective barbecue aficionados are selected early by their fathers, mothers, aunts or uncles and nurtured for many years, until their predilection for a certain balance of smoke, sour, sweet and meat is finely honed,” Nabhan writes. “They may not be able to verbally describe how to reach that perfect balance, but they definitely know when it has been achieved or when some gargantuan effort seems to have missed the mark. Satisfaction with barbecue is a lot like pregnancy — either you are or you aren’t.

“Someone recently wondered aloud to me, ‘Why in the world would anthropologists and historians, linguists and ethnozoologists, theologians and evolutionary biologists be consumed by the topic of barbecue?’ What other American food and its preparation are so strongly linked to the distinctive identities of so many American cultures?

“We are what and where we eat, but we are also how we prepare our most beloved foods. And who we prepare it with. And who we eat it with. And who we leave out beyond the smokehouse, who longingly wishes they were in there with us, no matter how stifling hot and claustrophobically congested it may be. No other American food is imbued with such symbolism, such smoke, such spirit.”

I agree.

There is a spirit there.

Because I hail from south Arkansas, my favorite essay in this collection is by Justin Nolan, who grew up in El Dorado and went on to earn his doctorate and become an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Arkansas.

Nolan’s essay is titled “Piney Woods Traditions at the Crossroads: Barbecue and Regional Identity in South Arkansas and North Louisiana.”

He begins his piece by describing a visit to Karl Brummett’s store just off U.S. Highway 82 on the eastern outskirts of El Dorado.

“Down from the hills of the Ozarks comes the native son,” Brummett says to Nolan.

“Yessir!” Nolan replies. “And thanks for taking time out for a local boy.”

Brummett says modestly, “Now, I know very ltitle about barbecue, but I’ll tell you what I do know.”

“In a sense, Brummett is right, of course,” Nolan writes. “Few people claim to know much of anything about barbecue down here in southern Arkansas, where I was born and raised. Partly this is because the region is known a bit more for its Louisiana-based flavors and soul food — neither of which, however, excludes barbecue, it might be noted.

“El Dorado, my hometown of 22,000, occupies the center point of Union County’s broad, gently rolling pine forests. Driving south from Fayetteville, the swift blue-green streams of the upcountry had given way to the flooded forests and gumbo backwaters of the low country somewhere near Gurdon.”

Nolan notes that his career has long been inspired by the great cultural anthropologist Charles E. Thomas, “who depicted the slow burn of cultural loss and modernization in ‘Jelly Roll,’ his ethnographic account of an African-American community in a small rural mill town north of El Dorado.”

The mill town to which Nolan refers is Calion.

The book, first published in 1986, has just been reissued by the University of Arkansas Press.

Residents of Jelly Roll lived in houses owned by the Calion Lumber Co. Thomas, who was a professor of anthropology at Washington University in St. Louis for 17 years, returned to his family’s Calion Lumber Co. in 1975 and has run the company ever since.

The UA Press spring catalog says the book combines Thomas’ “unique perspective as both an academician and the grandson of the sawmill’s founder. Thomas conducted extensive interviews covering three generations among the 84 households forming the community.”

Like Thomas, Nolan understands the region and its people.

“My father’s parents and their relatives have deep roots here, and my mother became an acculturated insider after moving to El Dorado in 1957,” he writes. “My mission, as an anthropologist, was clear — I would revisit these Pine Woods, with hopes of discovering something perhaps unseen in ordinary life, something meaningful about social relationships through a binding food tradition we celebrate and fancy ourselves to have mastered. That tradition, of course, is barbecue.”

He comments on the similarities between those who live in north Louisiana and those who live in south Arkansas.

“Folks in north Louisiana, just 15 miles south, share a cultural affinity with south Arkansas,” Nolan writes. “A cultural connectivity can be seen in the culinary traditions, which erase the boundaries, momentarily, betwixt the cup and lip.”

While I’ve long believed that the Delta has this state’s strongest barbecue tradition, Nolan points out that the barbecue tradition in the Piney Woods runs “deep and wide, and like a fair number of culinary mainstays originating in these rolling pinelands, it yields much more than a flavor; it brings forth stories of kinship, solidarity and survival.”

He outlines how the Piney Woods are a crossroads, “a place in the world where black and white people have coexisted for many decades, where social boundaries exist mainly in the background of everyday life, where class lines are more evident in neighborhood architecture than social convention, and where Southeastern and Southwestern cultural traits interpenetrate to form a mosaic that’s just subtle enough to overlook unless you’re seeking to describe it.”

Nolan adds: “The Piney Woods, in some ways, constitute an ambivalent Southern culture. While clearly Southern, this country is neither upcountry nor coastal, neither Eastern nor Western. Aspects of many different ethnic and regional groups are visible among the colorful threads of its history and tapestry. Like the famous watery bayous of south-central Louisiana’s Cajun country, the Piney Woods are a swirl of peoples whose memories make up an amalgam, stroked by Southern history, seasoned through hard times, change, chance and choice.”

Nolan says Brummett is known throughout south Arkansas and north Louisiana for his brisket, pork ribs and smoked sausages. While barbecue in the Delta is always pork, you can see the “crossroads” influence with Nolan’s mention of brisket and smoked sausages. Those are barbecue staples more commonly associated with Texas.

Nolan quoted one pitmaster as saying, “You can tell you’re in timber country straightaway. All you gotta do is see what meats they serve. Mostly oak-smoked, hickory too, sweet sauce but not that sweet, I tell you, and don’t let the slaw trip you up. Most folks aren’t inclined to put slaw on the sandwich bread, and it’s sometimes creamy — and then other times, it’ll pucker you right up. Keeps you on your toes, I guess you’d say.”

Like I said, a crossroads.

Nolan says the region’s barbecue can be viewed as a “blend of Texas and Eastern styles, and as such it is decidedly different from neighboring regions. While I cannot claim the mandate to judge my home region’s slow-smoked flavor, no self-respecting resident would deny that it’s delicious.

“Like other regions of the American South, a culinary pride of place is alive and well along the Arkansas-Louisiana border. Typical barbecue menus in the Piney Woods showcase beef brisket, sliced or chopped; smoked pork, sliced or chopped; sliced pork tenderloin; pulled pork shoulder; pork ribs (beef ribs are served at home mainly); pork sausage; and smoked chicken.”

An elderly pitmaster near Magnolia explained it this way: “It’s a melting pot here. Black, white, east, west: everything comes together in our barbecue. You got the Cajun spices and sweet ribbon cane from Louisiana, a hint of vinegar from the east, the sweet tomato sauce — that’s ours!

“The beef brisket’s so popular around here and chili notes that I suspect must come from Texas, along with their pinto beans. We’re pretty tolerant around here. In fact, I think we’ve been adopting a bit of this and that from each other all along.”

Nolan concludes: “Piney Woods barbecue is perhaps undiscovered by the outside world, but for these long-timers, that’s just as well. While Piney Woods barbecue may not ring a bell in the mind of American food geographers, its hallmark feature is its inclusiveness, it’s shape-shifting habit of incorporating neighboring flavors from the Southeast, Louisiana and Texas.”

It’s the barbecue I was raised on.

Ed Bethune’s life of adventure

Thursday, April 5th, 2012

Former U.S. Rep. Ed Bethune has been making the rounds in recent months, talking about his book “Jackhammered: A Life of Adventure.”

I don’t do a lot of book reviews on this site, but I can tell you that Bethune’s book is well worth the time you’ll invest in reading it.

Bethune’s parents divorced when he was 8. He’s quick to admit that he was a “problem child” who often found himself in trouble during his formative years in Little Rock.

Bethune was sent to his mother’s hometown of Pocahontas, the thinking being that he would be easier to control in a smaller town. Bethune now says the move “saved my life.”

After graduating from Pocahontas High School in 1953, Bethune joined the U.S. Marine Corps and served for three years. He met the lady who would become his wife and later his most valuable campaign asset, Lana, when both were students at what was then Little Rock Junior College.

Lana was the daughter of famous Arkansas Democrat state Capitol reporter George Douthit.

Ed was 23 and Lana was 21 when they married.

Lana’s painting, titled “The Snotgreen Sea,” adorns the cover of the book.

Ed Bethune went on to earn a business degree and a law degree from the University of Arkansas. He served for four years as an FBI agent and then became a prosecuting attorney in Searcy.

He writes in vivid detail about being involved in Winthrop Rockefeller’s attempt to reform Arkansas politics in the 1960s.

How could anyone who loves Arkansas political history resist his account of a 1968 attempt to remove Conway County Sheriff Marlin Hawkins from office?

Gov. Rockefeller had obtained a legal opinion that said Hawkins was not qualified to hold office. The governor’s aides asked Bethune to escort the new sheriff that WR had appointed, 83-year-old Ralph Childers, to Morrilton.

“By the time Childers took the oath of office in Little Rock, news of his appointment had already reached Conway County,” Bethune writes. “The governor received reports that Marlin’s supporters were gathering around the county courthouse in Morrilton. Some were armed, and they were saying to anyone who would listen that they were not going to let Ralph Childers serve as sheriff of Conway County.

“They intended to block any attempt by him to enter the courthouse office of Sheriff Hawkins. Mr. Childers was willing to go to Conway County, but everyone agreed he needed an escort to help him navigate his way through hostile crowds and make comments to the press explaining why he was sheriff and Marlin Hawkins was not.”

Childers and Bethune boarded a single-engine plane at Central Flying Service in Little Rock and landed at a small grass airfield west of Morrilton.

Bethune describes the scene they found in town: “By the time we got to the courthouse there were well over 500 Hawkins supporters milling around. Most were on foot, and quite a few were armed. They were carrying pistols, rifles and shotguns and making no effort to conceal the weapons. Many others were sitting in their cars and trucks, armed and ready.”

A young Steve Barnes was there to cover the story for KTHV-TV, Channel 11. It was getting late in the afternoon, and Barnes needed to file a story. He asked Bethune and Childers if they would go to the front door of the sheriff’s office and let him shoot some film.

As Bethune neared the sheriff’s office, a young officer jumped out with a sawed-off shotgun, stuck it into Bethune’s stomach and said: “Halt, I’m fixin’ to shoot you.”

“The rookie cop was shaking and his voice was squeaky and shrill,” Bethune writes. “His jittery eyes, only a foot or so from mine, told the story. He was the one with the gun, but he was scared to death. As he pushed the gun harder into my belly, I realized that my life depended on the wiring between the rookie’s brain and his trigger finger, and I did not like the odds.”

Now, that’s good writing.

In 1972, Bethune was the Republican nominee for attorney general against Jim Guy Tucker.

“It was one thing to get rid of the Old Guard by electing Winthrop Rockefeller, but once Orval Faubus was gone, there was no compelling need to vote for Republican candidates,” Bethune writes. “If a living, breathing Democrat was on the ballot for state or local office in Arkansas in 1972, a Republican candidate for that office had no chance to win. Arkansas, a reliably Democrat state since Reconstruction, was not about to open the door for Republicans. Nevertheless, we needed candidates to fight the good fight.”

Bethune carried three counties — Pulaski, White and Searcy. Tucker carried the other 72.

Six years later, Bethune shocked the Arkansas political establishment when he upset Democrat Doug Brandon in the race for Congress in the 2nd District with 51.2 percent of the vote. Bethune carried only three of the nine counties in the district but piled up large margins in Pulaski, White and Cleburne counties.

Bethune served three terms in the House before making an unsuccessful 1984 race against U.S. Sen. David Pryor in which the GOP candidate received 42.7 percent of the vote.

Bethune was chairman of the Arkansas Republican Party from 1986-88. He returned to Washington after George H.W. Bush’s 1988 election as president when Lana was offered the job of social secretary for Vice President Dan Quayle.

Ed Bethune quickly became known in the nation’s capital as the go-to lawyer for Republicans who found themselves in hot water — people like Newt Gingrich and Tom DeLay.

In June 1990, Ed and Lana Bethune set sail in Salute, their 31-foot sloop. Their plan was to cross the Atlantic Ocean to Portugal.

The sea had other ideas.

“It was going to be a long night, seven more hours to sunrise,” Bethune writes. “Our little ship tossed about, left to right and up and down. She turned first one way and then another. Every five minutes or so an enormous wave would lift us skyward, and when we reached the top, perched on the crest of the wave, our boat would fall sideways off the crest of the wave and crash, and shudder, against the trough of the wave. The fall of 25 feet felt like a thousand.”

Eventually, the couple was rescued by a U.S. Coast Guard helicopter crew.

“As we flew away, I saw Salute with the life raft attached,” Bethune writes. “She was still rolling violently with her mainsail collapsed over the side, hanging into the water. I felt sad that we were leaving her, but it was the right decision.

“We lost everything that was on the boat. Lana had tied a waterproof pouch around her waist that held our cash, our credit cards and our driver’s licenses. That, and the clothes on our back, were all we salvaged.

“Salute was now just another speck of white in a sea of large whitecaps; she blended in and soon was lost to sight. It was easy to see why it is so hard for search pilots to find a small sailing vessel in a stormy sea, even when they have exact coordinates fixing the position. Our dream of sailing across the Atlantic was also gone, but we took it in stride; after all, we were safe. We would live to see our children and loved ones again.”

So what about the book’s unusual name?

“A jackhammer is easily the most annoying, distracting racket-making device known to man,” Bethune writes in the preface to the book. “It creates a noise level of 130 decibels — equal to a rock concert, according to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. Rock concerts occasionally produce a discernible melody. Jackhammers do not. Sometimes it takes such a racket to get our attention.”

The sailing trip in which Bethune almost perished got his attention. It forced him to reflect on his past and think about his future and how he practiced his faith.

Back to politics for a moment.

During a speech last month to the Political Animals Club, Bethune talked about what he described as two great upheavals in Arkansas politics. One happened in the 1960s. The other appears to be happening now.

“The battle to build a two-party system began in the 1960s when independents, Republicans and right-thinking Democrats coalesced to defeat the Old Guard machine of Orval Faubus,” he told those at the meeting. “That victory — the first great upheaval in Arkansas politics — cleared the way for a new generation of political leaders, Democrats and Republicans. For the first time since Reconstruction, women, African-Americans, thousands of good people got a chance to participate in government. It was the most important political development of the 20th century.

“Under Gov. Rockefeller’s leadership our prisons were reformed, corruption and illegal gambling were rooted out of Hot Springs, there was transparency in government and election laws were reformed. It was the death knell of the Old Guard and the beginning of the modern Republican Party of Arkansas. But those of us who became Republicans back then had a long road ahead of us.

“When I filed for Congress in 1978, there was not a single elected Republican official in the entire 2nd District of Arkansas — not even a constable or a justice of the peace. Congressman John Paul Hammerschmidt was in office, but we had only one elected member in the entire Arkansas Legislature.

“Today, some 40 years later, Arkansans are shedding their long allegiance to the Democratic Party. The trend is undeniable. Imagine a graph of the past 40 years depicting Republican officeholders in red and Democratic officeholders in blue. The red line would be going up, up, up and the blue line would be going down, down, down.

“Since my election in 1978, Arkansans have elected hundreds of Republicans to local and county offices and scores of members to the Arkansas House and Senate. As we near the November election, Republicans are within a few votes of taking charge of one or both chambers of the Legislature for the first time in 138 years.”

Bethune returned to Arkansas from Washington in 2009, and finishing this book became his priority. It’s a captivating read.

For sale: That Bookstore in Blytheville

Tuesday, February 21st, 2012

She began by quoting the famous verse from Ecclesiastes: “To everything there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven.”

Instinctively, I knew what was coming from Mary Gay Shipley, owner of a Delta oasis, That Bookstore in Blytheville.

“It is now time for change,” she wrote. “It has been a privilege to serve you all these years. I am proud of the role That Bookstore in Blytheville has played in the life of our community.

“It is my sincere hope that someone or some group will come forward and continue TBIB in some fashion. I am not going anywhere and would be happy to help a new owner transform TBIB into their own vision.

“I believe the next few years will be exciting for independent booksellers who embrace the multiple reading formats and who are located in areas with a strong ‘buy local’ economy. It would be a fun challenge, if only I were a decade younger.

“And so I am ready to turn loose of That Bookstore in Blytheville and spend more time with my family. Thank you for the wonderful times.”

Will a buyer be found in the next several months?

I wish I were more optimistic.

Earlier this month, I wrote on Southern Fried about the death of McCormick Book Inn in Greenville, Miss., which closed its doors last November after 46 years in business.

In the post about McCormick Book Inn, I revised my Great Mid-South Bookstore Tour to cut out Greenville. It, of course, still included a stop in Blytheville.

Now, we may lose another Delta treasure.

It was Jerry Seinfeld who once said that a bookstore “is one of the only pieces of evidence we have that people are still thinking.”

Mary Gay turns 68 next month. I understand. She’s tired, I suspect.

It’s just like Hugh and Mary Dayle McCormick in Greenville.

Running a small business in a struggling Delta town is no easy proposition, no matter how special that business might be.

In 2009, TBIB was nominated for the Publishers Weekly Bookseller of the Year award.

Here’s part of the store history Mary Gay wrote in her submission: “In 1976, I opened the bookstore in my hometown of Blytheville because I saw a need. With only a tiny library and no place to buy books, a bookstore that would encourage reading and book conversations became my dream. My goal was, and still is, to create a good bookstore, not merely a store good enough for Blytheville, but a good bookstore.

“That goal is my inspiration and it is the mission that keeps us moving forward today. I believe that the person who does not like to read is the person who has yet to discover the right book. Because of that philosophy, bookselling at That Bookstore in Blytheville is very hands on. Our job is to help each person find the right book. Our passion is making readers by connecting people with books. Despite the market changes over the years, putting good books in the hands of readers keeps us excited and in love with our work.

“The economy in Blytheville has been marginal during most of our bookselling years. We have always operated in a community with both a low literacy rate and a low median income. When our local U.S. Air Force base closed in 1992, one-fourth of the population (and a greater percentage of our real readers) left. While TBIB has never generated high-volume profits, the store has grown from an original $3,000 investment to what it is today. We own our building and have no debts.”

Mary Gay has been a master at staying in touch with her customers. There’s a newsletter, regular email reminders, a nice website, traditional advertising and the underwriting of book-related programs on powerhouse public radio station KASU at Jonesboro and on AETN, the statewide public television network.

“TBIB understands that we sell a product offered free only a block away at the public library and often available at Walmart for about the same price we pay our suppliers,” Mary Gay wrote. “As a result, we are heavily dependent on customer service. But what is good customer service? For TBIB, customer service is about more than pleasantries and waiting on people immediately. It is about more than knowing our products. For us, service centers on knowing our customers.

“Books are very personal, and our business is to get to know our customers and embrace their reading choices and event interests. We serve with a positive mindset, and no matter who the bookseller might be, our customers know they are always speaking to another book lover.”

Awards earned by the store through the years include the Arkansas Business of the Year award from the Arkansas Times in 1996, the Chilcote Award for Extraordinary Service from the Arkansas Community Foundation in 1998, the Outstanding Philanthropic Corporation award from the Arkansas Community Foundation in 2002 and the Main Street Merchant of the Year award from Main Street Arkansas in 2006.

TBIB is in a former jewelry store location at 316 West Main St.

“That Bookstore in Blytheville specializes in Southern writers and books on Southern culture, with emphasis on the work of Arkansas writers,” Tom Williams writes in the online Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. “A champion of literacy, Shipley also uses the store to promote reading among local schoolchildren. Children’s reading materials — and education toys and games — are located in the homey back room, complete with a stove and wooden floors. The back room also hosts reading groups, musical performances and author signings and readings. Authors sign their names on a series of wooden chairs; they often read from their work while seated in a rocking chair.”

A real highlight for me came back in 1993 when Mary Gay allowed me to sign a chair following the publication of my biography of Hillary Rodham Clinton, “The Hillary Factor.”

Williams notes how amazing it is for so many authors to visit a town the size of Blytheville.

He writes: “Locals may view the plethora of writers who visit Blytheville as fairly common, but it is quite remarkable when one considers that, since the early 1980s, the Mississippi Delta town of Blytheville has become a much-visited spot by writers from large and small publishing houses.

“Lacking the diversity and size of such cities as Jackson and Memphis — or the literary atmosphere of a university town like Oxford, Miss. — Blytheville hosts at That Bookstore at least one signing or reading per week with audience members from town as well as the surrounding areas, including nearby Jonesboro and the Missouri Bootheel. Among the hundreds of writers who have read or signed at That Bookstore are Bill Clinton and Hillary Rodham Clinton, along with John Grisham.”

Mary Gay told Dan Broun in the 2008 publication “Ducks, Documentaries & Design” (a look at the creative economy in Arkansas): “We are still in business because of John Grisham.”

TBIB was among a handful of bookstores to have Grisham, an Arkansas native who at the time was unknown as a writer, for a signing following the publication of his first novel.

He has rewarded Mary Gay by returning time after time through the years to sign his books.

“The signings attract visitors to Shipley’s establishment from throughout the Southeast, and the autographed copies the author leaves behind are shipped all over the country,” Broun writes.

Broun titled the chapter on TBIB “The Divine Secrets of That Bookstore in Blytheville: How an Independent Bookstore Survives in the 21st Century Marketplace.”

He began the chapter this way: “When most authors announce their book tours, you can usually guess the stops: the big cities, of course, like New York, Boston, Chicago and Los Angeles, and perhaps some college towns with literary bents like Charlottesville, Ann Arbor or Berkeley. So you might be surprised to find your favorite author scheduling a stop in little Blytheville.”

Unless a buyer for TBIB can be found this spring, famous authors will no longer be stopping in Mississippi County.

Yes, things change. That doesn’t mean I have to like it.

Death of a bookstore

Tuesday, February 7th, 2012

The message was posted to this blog back on Nov. 11.

It was a busy time for me, and frankly I missed the message when it first appeared.

It was from Mary Dayle McCormick in Greenville, Miss., and it contained sad news.

“Rex: It has been a little more than a year since we traded notes,” she wrote. “I have some news that I’m afraid you won’t like. After 46 years of business, McCormick Book Inn is closing. Our last day of business will be Nov. 30, 2011. Hugh is retiring, and there’s not another Hugh in the family. So if you want to visit one more time, come quick. And yes, the place is for sale.”

Dang it.

I missed it. I would have made a special trip in November had I known.

I would have lingered in the store, visiting with Hugh McCormick, Mary Dayle’s husband. I then would have gone to the historic cemetery next door and wandered around (pausing, as always, at the Percy family plot) before finishing with dinner at Doe’s.

Great independent bookstores are becoming a rarity, especially in small towns in the rural South.

When I was growing up in Arkadelphia, we had Adams Bookstore on Main Street, where I would spend hours at a time. It’s long gone.

Now, McCormick Book Inn — that Delta treasure — is a memory.

Hugh McCormick once described it this way: “Our floor squeaks under worn rugs and the wooden bookshelves sag a bit. The rocker by the fireplace is often occupied by a regular browser, and our ‘bookstore smell’ is authentic.”

And Southern Living once described the place like this: “People come from all over the Delta to visit Greenville’s McCormick Book Inn, with its terrific collection of what they like to call deltalogy. Half the draw is owner Hugh McCormick, who not only recommends great books but also knows everything about everybody in the Delta. He also has a wicked sense of humor.”

The store’s website noted that “books may be 10 percent cheaper at one of those big fake friendly places, but you receive our genuine bookstore ambience and management’s rants/intelligent insults only at McCormick Book Inn.”

You have to love a place that promises “intelligent insults.”

I first wrote about McCormick Book Inn on this blog back in May 2010.

Mary Dayle wrote back: “We love hometown folks, but it’s a particular thrill when y’all come in from all over the place with news of the outside world, despite bringing in y’all’s otherwise ignorance of the Truth As Mr. Hugh Sees It. Come back. The coffee is still on, the chairs haven’t fallen apart and we look and smell about the same. Hugh might even let you buy a book after his lecture.”

The back of the bookstore was a museum devoted to Greenville and its rich literary heritage.

I miss it already.

Here’s how The Associated Press led off its story in November: “A neighborhood gathering place, the only spot in Greenville to get a Sunday New York Times, a stop for visiting writers and tourists and a Greenville Main Street landmark since 1965 is shutting its doors.”

It was indeed a neighborhood gathering spot. I didn’t know their names, but there were always regulars who would be sitting in the chairs when I would stop in, usually late in the afternoon during the years I was working for the Delta Regional Authority and killing time until a dinner meeting at Doe’s.

This is part of what Wally Northway wrote about the store’s closing on the Mississippi Business Journal blog: “Once hailed as one of the nation’s great centers for literature, Greenville’s cultural heritage has sustained yet another big blow with the announcement that McCormick Book Inn will shut its doors. … The privately owned bookstore has been a gathering place for both writers and readers since 1965. Now, an important bridge between Old Greenville and New Greenville will be no more.

“I grew up right down Main Street from McCormick’s in the 1960s. A quick bike ride, and I was immersed in literature and history. I just loved everything about the place. I never had more than a quarter in my pocket, but the McCormicks were so gracious and kind. I was always encouraged to come again. And I did. I wanted to learn more about these prominent local writers and artists and their work. Bern and Franke Keating? Ellen Douglas? Shelby Foote? The Carters? Who were these people?”

Northway said it was “painful to see” the hurt in Hugh McCormick’s eyes when he said that if things didn’t change, the store wouldn’t survive.

Northway went on to write: “One of Greenville’s most dubious decisions was rejecting Delta State University. City leaders said they didn’t want the college riffraff. The city of Cleveland was more forward thinking, and it should come as little surprise that its public school children surpass the rest of the Delta academically. They have a great repository of knowledge and culture right down the street, just a quick bike ride away. Meanwhile, Greenville cannot even keep a little private bookstore open. It is, I feel, a barometer. The city is going nowhere but backward.

“I remain an avid reader today. I also have a deep, abiding love for my hometown. A lot of the credit for that goes to the McCormicks and their store. Thank you Hugh and Mary Dayle McCormick for your passion and commitment to seeing Greenville move ahead while honoring its past.”

Sadly, you can knock Greenville off the list of stops for my Great Mid-South Bookstore Tour.

Here’s how you now do it:

1. Start here in Little Rock with the excellent breakfast at the Red Door at 8 a.m. Head up Cantrell Hill for the 9 a.m. opening of WordsWorth Books & Co. and spend an hour in the store.

2. Drive to Blytheville for a late lunch at Dixie Pig and then spend an hour or two in the afternoon at Mary Gay Shipley’s Arkansas landmark, That Bookstore In Blytheville, which has been downtown since 1976.

3. Head to Memphis. Spend the night out on Mud Island at The River Inn at Harbor Town and have dinner there at Paulette’s. Have breakfast the next morning at The Arcade on south Main Street (an old Elvis hangout). The Arcade has been around since 1919 when it was opened by Greek immigrant Speros Zepatos. After breakfast, go over to Burke’s Book Store, which opened in 1875. That’s right — 1875, not 1975. The store is now in the funky, artsy Cooper-Young neighborhood.

4. Drive to Oxford, Miss., and have lunch at the Ajax Diner on the square, Eli Manning’s favorite spot to eat. Spend a large part of the afternoon at Square Books, which was opened in September 1979 by Richard and Lisa Howorth.

5. Go to Greenwood, Miss., from Oxford and spend your second night on the road at The Alluvian in downtown Greenwood. It’s one of the top hotels in the South. Have dinner at Lusco’s (make sure to get the pompano). After breakfast the next morning at the hotel, spend time just down Howard Street at Turnrow Book Co. Have lunch at The Crystal Grill before leaving Greenwood.

6. Head to Vicksburg and check into Anchuca, a classy bed and breakfast inn. Go over to Cedar Grove for dinner for this third night on the road. After breakfast the next morning at Anchuca, spend your morning at Lorelei Books on Washington Street. Have fried chicken for lunch at Walnut Hills before driving home.

If you love independent bookstores, fine food and the South, make this four-day trip.

We mourn the passing of McCormick Book Inn while wishing Hugh and Mary Dayle the best in retirement.

Long live WordsWorth, That Bookstore In Blytheville, Burke’s Book Store, Square Books, Turnrow, Lorelei and all the independent bookstores like them.

Sporty: When Lightning Struck The Outhouse

Thursday, February 2nd, 2012

My timing was good.

I was just returning to my office Tuesday afternoon following a meeting on the other side of the Arkansas River when I ran into longtime family friend George Baker in the parking lot.

Coach Baker had been to my office to deliver me an autographed copy of his new book, “When Lightning Struck the Outhouse.”

The book is a tribute to the late Ralph “Sporty” Carpenter, one of the most colorful, quotable men to ever coach in this state.

You can order the book online by going to

I’ve often written how fortunate I was to grow up when I did, where I did. My father was in the sporting goods business in Arkadelphia, and our closest family friends, hunting companions and fishing companions tended to be the coaches at Ouachita Baptist University and Henderson State University.

At Ouachita, there were giants such as Bill Vining, Buddy Benson, Bob Gravett and Jake Shambarger.

At Henderson, there were giants such as Duke Wells, Jim Mack Sawyer, Sporty Carpenter, Don Dyer, Clyde Berry, Billy Bock and Bobby Reese.

There were strong, talented women who were, in retrospect, true pioneers in the field of women’s sports — Carolyn Moffatt and Tona Wright at Ouachita and Delores Brumfield White, Betty Wallace and Jane Sevier at Henderson.

What a time, what a group of coaches.

Coach Carpenter had nicknames for almost everyone. I was Rexall.

To this day, I love it when an old friend knows to call me Rexall.

And, to this day, I find myself telling “Sporty stories” on an almost daily basis.

I’m so glad Coach Baker finished this book. It brings back a lot of memories.

“This book has been a labor of love that, in retrospect, came easy to me,” Coach Baker says. “I drew from 16 years of daily contact with Coach Carpenter. I also garnered the thoughts of his friends, players and opponents.

“We laughed long and hard almost every day. We passed along inside jokes that only he and I understood, most of which I cannot repeat in the interest of decorum. We traveled the world. We won and lost and suffered the outrageous slings and arrows of disgruntled fans. We tasted the sweet wine of victory, and we left an indelible mark in the annals of small college football that is remarkable.”

The preface to the book is written by Jim Bailey, the sportswriter I grew up wanting to be.

Living in Arkadelphia, I lived and breathed Arkansas Intercollegiate Conference sports, and Jim chronicled the AIC for the Arkansas Gazette, the newspaper that was in our driveway each morning.

Jim writes: “In a recent conversation, I asked George if he’d always planned to write about his favorite coach. He said no.

“‘Coach Carpenter died in 1990,’ he said. ‘Over the next few months, even the next few years, people would ask about the funny things he said and did, like jumping on the Southern Arkansas mule mascot after Henderson beat SAU. I guest that’s what started me to thinking seriously about a book. And the deeper I got into it, the more fascinating it became.

“‘And the more I learned about him, I realized how kind and considerate he was, how many people he helped without ever saying anything about it. For example, I knew he helped a lot of former players find jobs, either in coaching or something else. And especially how intelligent he was. He enjoyed being mistaken for a clown.'”

Jim adds: “I met Sporty Carpenter in 1967 after he had joined the coaching staff of Henderson, his alma mater, as an assistant to Clyde Berry. Sporty walked over to me, stuck out his hand and said: ‘Hey, Scoop, Ralph Carpenter.’ Five or 10 minutes later, he had everyone in the room laughing. He always used his formal name in introductions, although I don’t recall anyone addressing him as Ralph.

“He grew up in Hamburg (‘the Burg,’ he usually called it), served in the Navy and played center and guard for Henderson before starting a succession of high school coaching jobs. Duke Wells, athletic director and former Henderson coach, spotted potential in Carpenter. When a coaching vacancy occurred in 1970, Sporty was appointed head coach, obviously with Wells’ approval.

“‘Sporty always liked for peole to underestimate him,’ Wells said a few years later when the Reddies were pretty much dismantling the AIC. ‘But he never fooled me.’

“Carpenter was head coach for 19 seasons, 1971-89. His first two years were rebuilding chores. His teams went 119-76-5 with five conference titles.”

Jim writes that by the 1989 season, Coach Carpenter was “desperately ill, even to a layman’s eye. He coached the team that fall, though.”

Coach Baker calls it “the most courageous thing you could ever imagine. You know, Coach Carpenter always worked hard, daylight to dark, meetings, practices, but when the football staff was out eating dinner or something, Coach Carpenter would not allow anyone to mention football. Outside the office and the field, we weren’t supposed to talk shop. Coach Carpenter thought 23 hours of football a day was enough.”

I was worried when I became the sports editor of Arkadelphia’s Daily Siftings Herald as a college freshman. Anyone connected with the rivalry between Ouachita and Henderson knows how heated it is. It’s the small college version of Alabama-Auburn. People in Arkadelphia live it 365 days a year.

As sports editor, I covered both schools, and I was determined to do it well. In a small town where everyone knows each other, folks knew I had bled purple and gold since birth. I had grown up one block from Ouachita’s football field, running the sidelines at Tiger games since I was old enough to walk.

I was a student at Ouachita. I was part of the Ouachita broadcast team on radio. But I was also covering the Reddies.

How was Coach Carpenter going to treat me?

He was, of course, going to treat me like a professional, but not without plenty of good-natured ribbing in the process.

I had written a profile of Ouachita’s head coach, Buddy Benson, in which I pointed out that Benson had played at the University of Arkansas for Bowden Wyatt and that Wyatt had played at the University of Tennessee for the legendary Gen. Robert Neyland. That, I contended, made Benson a direct football descendant of Gen. Neyland.

Coach Carpenter began referring to Coach Benson as The General.

Each time I would show up at a Henderson practice, Coach Carpenter would say something along the lines of: “What is The General up to today?” Or “did The General send you over here to spy on us?”

My most memorable moments with Coach Carpenter came when gathering quotes after a game.

Once, after a Reddie tailback had fumbled late in a crucial game at home, Coach Carpenter described him to me as a “triple threat — a threat to the opposition, a threat to us and a threat to himself.”

I wasn’t there for the famous game in Monticello in 1977 when Coach Carpenter stated that “lightning struck the outhouse and we were in it.”

Charlie Boyd, a Lake Village native who’s now a Little Rock attorney, was on that team.

“We had just gotten beat by UAM at their place, and the dressing room for the opposing team was around an indoor pool,” Boyd says. “I recall being next to Coach Carpenter when the reporter asked him what happened and can attest, under oath, that his answer was just what the title of the book says it was.”

I was there four years later when the Boll Weevils again upset a nationally ranked Henderson team.

In fact, Henderson was 7-0 coming into the game and ranked No. 1 nationally in the NAIA.

UAM won, 27-16.

The Reddies would end up losing three games that fall.

Coach Carpenter told me after the loss to the Boll Weevils: “Rexall, it was a total waste of time. We would have been better off to stay home, parch peanuts and watch Barbara Mandrell on the TV.”

My close friend Mike Dugan of Hot Springs spent a decade as Henderson’s sports information director. He tells this story: “One of the wonderful moments I enjoyed with Sporty was a basketball trip to Monticello. A notice had just been sent out by the university that at no time should a state-owned vehicle be seen at a location other than what was listed as an authorized destination. As soon as I picked him up that afternoon, he told me to drive to Walmart.

“I protested, but he insisted. So I began a nervous wait while he went inside. When he came out, he threw his package into the back of the car and away we went.

“As we neared Monticello, he began to give me alternate directions and sent me down an isolated highway and through the gates of a cemetery. We left the car, and Sporty got down on one knee to clean the weeds from his parents’ graves. The package contained flowers.

“This was a wonderful, warm side to a man I already knew had a big heart.”

Coach Baker says, “My journey with R.L. ‘Sporty’ Carpenter began in July 1974 and ended with his death in February 1990. What a trip.”

I attended his funeral in 1990 at Arkansas Hall on the Henderson campus. Yes, I’m a Ouachita man to the core. Yet as they rolled his casket down the aisle and the organ played the slow version of “Old Reddie Spirit,” I cried like a baby.

He was quite a man. I miss him still.

Thanks, Coach Baker, for bringing him back to life with “When Lightning Struck the Outhouse.”

“Wild Abundance” — Eating at the hunt club

Thursday, December 22nd, 2011

Yesterday, I wrote about the book “First Shooting Light,” a collection of photos and essays from ArtsMemphis about duck clubs in Arkansas and Mississippi.

I told you that you can buy the book as a late Christmas gift at Bauman’s at Pavilion in the Park in Little Rock.

While you’re at Bauman’s, you might also consider picking up a copy of “Wild Abundance,” which also was published by ArtsMemphis and also was edited by the organization’s president, Susan Schadt.

“First Shooting Light” came out in 2008.

“Wild Abundance” was released last year. It contains beautiful photography by Memphis photographer Lisa Buser.

Here’s the concept: Take some of the South’s best chefs and put them in the region’s top hunting clubs. Team them up with club cooks and members. We all know that food is as important as hunting at these clubs.

Here’s the lineup:

1. John Besh of New Orleans (August, Domenica, La Provence, Luke, et al) visits the Bayou Club, which was founded in 1927 south of Intracoastal City, La. Members hunt ducks, fish for redfish and shoot skeet. One prominent member of the club is Paul McIlhenny, the president of the company that makes Tabasco. Besh joins forces with the club’s cook, Sylvia Hebert Nolan.

Remembering his childhood, Besh writes: “Our form of duck hunting was an arduous one that required commitment, paddling a pirogue for 45 minutes while wearing waders, with a large-headed, gregarious black lab perched in the front along with a heavy bag of decoys.”

2. Alex Grisanti, the chef and owner of Elfo’s in Germantown, Tenn., visits the Blackfish Hunting Club in Crittenden County. He teams up with the club’s cook, Betty Jean Williams, who has been at Blackfish for three decades. Williams grew up the eldest of 10 children in Stuttgart. She has picked cotton, worked in road construction, driven a tractor and driven an 18-wheeler. She has also raised 13 children.

“Cooking and eating are such an important part of hunting for me,” writes Grisanti, whose family has been cooking Italian food in Memphis for a century. “I eat every piece I catch or shoot. I love to cook wild game. We eat all the venison, the ducks, the doves and the crappie. At my hunting club, Caulk Island, a couple of the guys and I cook lunch and dinner every day. It’s a lot of fun. Hunting, fishing and cooking — for me it just doesn’t get any better.”

3. Our own Lee Richardson from Little Rock’s Capital Hotel visits Circle T, a club 13 miles from Stuttgart that’s owned by Chuck Smith of Memphis. At Circle T, Richardson teams up with Kevin Shockency, the executive chef at the Memphis Hunt and Polo Club.

“I spent my youth and, to some degree, found my professional calling at a deer hunting camp in Adams County, Miss.,” Richardson writes. “This place is a long way from the nearest paved road, remote and home to relatively undisturbed herds of deer and wood ducks and the occasional mallard. We had a pretty nice house with running water, some ranges lifted from a hotel in Natchez and plenty of heat. I had always thought of it as a well-outfitted camp. When it came to meals, it was a community affair with a loosely recognized instigator. We were just a bunch of rednecks cooking for ourselves.”

I had the pleasure of trying out some of Lee’s selections on Tuesday night at Ashley’s. And, yes, duck was on the menu.

“Like pork and the squeal, you can use just about everything on a duck but the quack,” he says.

4. Derek Emerson, the executive chef of Walker’s Drive-In and Local 463 Urban Kitchen in Jackson, Miss., visits the Fighting Bayou Hunting Club in the Mississippi Delta near the Leflore County-Sunflower County line. He joins forces with club cooks Rosie Mae Brown and Annie B. Hogan.

The huge clubhouse there can accommodate 40 guests in 18 bedrooms. Peyton and Eli Manning are regular visitors to the club.

“The club members have special rituals,” Emerson writes. “I could tell how much they love the tradition and sharing these customs with each other and their families.”

5. Donald Link of New Orleans (Cochon, Herbsaint, Cochon Butcher and Calcasieu) visits the Grande View Lodge in Creole, La., which is in Cameron Parish in the southwest part of the state. He joins forces there with club cook Blair Zuschlag.

Many of the guides at the club are Cajuns whose families have been raising cattle, farming, hunting and fishing in the area for generations.

“Hunting in the marshes can be a daunting experience if you’ve never done it,” Link writes. “I did as a kid, but it has certainly been a long time.”

6. John Currence of Oxford, Miss. (City Grocery, Boure, Big Bad Breakfast, et al), visits Mallard Rest in Webb, Miss., and joins forces with Vera Williams, the owner of the Webb Diner since 1988. Mallard Rest is owned by Memphis cotton merchant Billy Dunavant and covers 5,800 acres.

Here’s how Currence describes Williams: “Vera Williams cuts an imposing figure for a diminutive, 60-something Delta woman. She wears the look of someone who has fought for more sunrises than she ever thought of enjoying. She speaks softly but with authority. People listen intently when she talks and stand straighter than they normally would when in her presence.”

7. Kelly English of Restaurant Iris in Memphis visits Menasha Hunting & Fishing Club near Turrell. The club was founded in 1902, and the current clubhouse was built in 1974. He teams up with Rebecca Sims, who has lived at Menasha to cook and keep the clubhouse in order since 2003.

“The directions to Menasha read like many others: from the highway exit, wrap around to the service road, turn right at the largest telephone pole, cross the levee with the train tracks and follow the path until you see the camp. I’m sure I forgot about a fork in the road somewhere. That is where the similarities end between Menasha and all other camps trying to cast the shadows that this club does. This is not the converted school bus that I grew up hunting out of in Chipola, La., a little town on the banks of the Amite River in St. Helena Parish.”

8.  Karen Carrier of the Beauty Shop Restaurant & Lounge in Memphis (she began Automatic Slim’s Tonga Club in downtown Memphis in 1991 — it’s a favorite of mine just across the street from the Peabody Hotel — and sold it in 2008) visits Quail Hollow near Coffeeville, Miss. Quail Hollow is Billy Dunavant’s turkey and duck preserve. Carrier joins forces with Emma Lincoln, who operates a catering business in Memphis.

“My first encounter with Emma Mayweather Lincoln was at the Memphis home of Tommie and Billy Dunavant,” Carrier writes. “I was a guest at a gathering to introduce the concept of this fantastic book. As usual, I arrived late, not being able to find the driveway to the house. While I was making my way through the den, the wait staff was passing succulent nuggets that were so moist they melted in my mouth. I wasn’t sure what they were, but I knew I wanted more.”

They were Billy Dunavant’s favorite appetizer — fried wild turkey nuggets with horseradish cream dipping sauce.

9. Martha Foose, the famed Mississippi Delta chef who now lives at Tchula, visits the Ward Lake Hunting Club near Sherard, Miss. She cooks there with Chris Robinson of Memphis. The club covers 6,500 acres.

“On a dim January twilight’s last gleaming, I pulled down the spine of the levee running through the boggy bottoms of the Mississippi Delta,” Foose writes. “I pulled up to a modest camp house overlooking a cypress hole. Piled next to the front stairs were six walking sticks carved with intricate talismans. A sign, I supposed, that I had come to the right place.”

The book is filled with recipes that complement the photos and essays.

Here’s how Chris Camuto described it in Gray’s Sporting Journal: “A New Yorker by birth, I lit out for the South after college, following a romantic, writerly whim I never regretted. This move took me to Chincoteague Island and then Webb Island on Virginia’s Eastern Shore, where waterfowling has roots as deep and tangled as live oak, cedar and cypress.

“The most important consequence of Southern waterfowling, of course, is eating. … This beautifully illustrated cookbook anthology from the lower Mississippi Flyway will probably start out on the coffee table, being admired, and end up in the kitchen, being used.

“Like the best hunt-camp cooking, this book’s wild game recipes combine in stunning ways haute cusine and down-home table fare. You can’t beat the South for that. … (There’s) a bayouful of Deep South chefs who spill insider information on preparing duck poppers, sweet potato-stuffed duck, smothered pork belly, char-grilled oysters, crispy duck pizzette, chicken and dumplings, duck Bolognese and braised venison shanks, along with homespun trimmings like turnip greens, cornbread, fried quail, grits, hushpuppies and blueberry crunch. Anything there you don’t want to eat?”

I’m hungry now.

Merry Christmas.


“First Shooting Light” — Duck hunting clubs in Arkansas

Wednesday, December 21st, 2011

If you’re looking for a late Christmas gift, you might consider stopping by Bauman’s at Little Rock’s Pavilion in the Park for a copy of the book “First Shooting Light.”

I know.

Bauman’s is a men’s store. But the store has this book, a gorgeous collection of photos and essays published by ArtsMemphis that focuses on duck clubs in Arkansas and Mississippi.

The photographer was Murray Riss, who established the photography department at the Memphis College of Art and taught there from 1968 until 1986.

Frank Schmidt of Guyette & Schmidt Inc., the world’s leading auctioneers of antique waterfowl decoys, says this: “The book reminds all of us who have had such experiences of the comfort of camaraderie in the blind, dogs and calls and the ultimate lure of migratory fowl. You’ll take a nostalgic journey back to those days of brisk early mornings, iridescent sunrises and shadowy figures in flight.”

Here are the Arkansas clubs featured in “First Shooting Light” —

1. 713 in Lee County — Terry McFarland was eating in a West Memphis restaurant in 1999 when he heard someone at the next table talking about “some great hunting near Marianna.” He listened to the directions, called friend Mac McKee and said “meet me in Marianna.” They bought the land.

There are 10 members with a 10-bedroom clubhouse and 1,280 acres to hunt. The book says the club is “perfectly located on the L’Anguille River and the St. Francis Floodway near the north end of the St. Francis National Forest, which is historically one of the greatest hunting areas in the Mississippi Flyway.”

2. Bayou DeView/Section 13 Farms in Woodruff County — The club was founded in 1972 when Bill Wunderlich saw a classified ad in the Memphis newspaper offering 1,800 acres for lease. He recruited 11 friends, and the club was born.

“In the 1960s, this marginal farmland, which was subject to frequent flooding by the bayou, was owned by speculators, who cleared the timber and leased the hunting rights,” the book notes. “When they decided to sell in 1978, the ‘Wunderclub’ members missed the chance to purchase it initially, but the next year the new owners sold them the northernmost 655 acres.”

The 10-bedroom, four-bath lodge was built in 1984. Club members are most proud of cypress trees in the bayou that are almost 1,000 years old.

3. Bear Bayou near Humnoke — The club, located 15 miles west of Stuttgart, was purchased by its current owners in 1983 after having been owned since the late 1940s by the Marks family of Stuttgart.

At the time the book was published three years ago, there were six members from Memphis, two from Little Rock and one from Chicago. The club has 400 acres of flooded timber, a 90-acre fishing lake, a 140-acre rest area planted with millet and 339 acres of rice fields.

The clubhouse, built in 1987, has 10 bedrooms, five baths and a long dinner table that will seat 20 people.

4. Blackfish Hunting Club in Crittenden County — Founded in 1978, the club has 1,500 acres. About 600 of those acres are flooded each season.

The clubhouse has two bedrooms and a bunkroom that can sleep eight people. A featured attraction is a cook known for her fried chicken, pork chops, greens, chicken and dumplings, bean soup and fried peach pies.

5. Circle T near Wabbaseka — The club, which is 13 miles from Stuttgart, was established in 1959 to entertain customers of Central Transformer Corp. of Pine Bluff. It was purchased by Chuck Smith Jr. of Memphis in 1991.

The clubhouse sleeps 22 people and even has an indoor swimming pool. Smith, who was instrumental in convincing Ducks Unlimited to move its headquarters to Memphis, built a nearby home designed by Memphis architect John Jones.

Loud country music is used to wake the hunters each morning before they go hunt the green timber.

6. Five Lakes Outing Club in Crittenden County — This club on Horseshoe Lake has been around since 1901 when a seven-mile strip of land bordering the lake was purchased for $4,000. The club consists of almost 5,000 acres and a clubhouse that was built in 1911.

“Traditions abound here,” the book states. “Special family events are held throughout the year, such as the annual dove hunt and picnic held on Labor Day. … There are many second- and third-generation owners.”

7. Five Oaks Duck Lodge near DeWitt — Owner George Dunklin Jr. is the current chairman of the Arkansas Game & Fish Commission and one of our state’s top conservationists. The club was established in 1983.

The book notes that “Deborah Dunklin Tipton and her brother, George H. Dunklin Jr., attribute their good fortune to lady luck and to their ‘unbelievable maternal grandfather,’ L.A. Black of DeWitt. His great foresight in amassing a tremendous amount of property in the Stuttgart area between 1907 and 1945 made possible the strong Black/Dunklin traditions of farming, hunting and conserving the precious Arkansas Grand Prairie land.”

The club offers hunting on 10,000 acres of flooded timber and fields. In 1983, the family bought the old Paradise Lodge, which had been owned by the Leatherman family and the Memphis Furniture Co., and renamed it Five Oaks.

8. Greenbriar Hunting Club near Stuttgart — Referred to by locals as the Old Winchester Club, the club was founded in 1945 by John Olin of Illinois.

This is the quotation carved into the wood mantelpiece of the clubhouse: “Here time is slow and gracious … a companion, not a master.”

The book notes, “In the earliest days, Olin and his guests stayed at the old Riceland Hotel in downtown Stuttgart and drove out to the Greenbriar lands to hunt, with only tents to protect them from the elements. Later, a clubroom was built in 1955 and a bunkhouse in the ’60s, with the main lodge being added in 1983 and a building to house more bedrooms in 1986. Today, the club comfortably sleeps 20 people with understated luxury in eight bedrooms.”

The owners include the children of Kemmons Wilson, the Holiday Inn founder.

9.  Hatchie Coon Hunting & Fishing Club between Marked Tree and Trumann — The book describes the club as “the oldest operating hunting club in the state of Arkansas and one of the oldest in the Southeast.”

The club was organized by a group of Memphis residents in 1889, though the 700-acre property wasn’t purchased from the state of Arkansas until 1892. In 1898, the club absorbed the Osceola Ducking Club (I love that name) and Oak Donic (another great name).

Hatchie Coon members say the chain of ownership goes like this: God, the native Americans, the French, the United States, the state of Arkansas and Hatchie Coon.

Hatchie Coon has 43 regular members along with junior, senior and lifetime members.

10. Kingdom Come near Stuttgart — The book says owners David Snowden Sr. and David Snowden Jr. of Little Rock view the club as “a refuge, both for the three generations of their family that currently hunt there and for who knows how many generations of ducks.”

The book tells how David Snowden Sr. “moved from Memphis to Little Rock following his graduation from the University of Virginia and his mother’s marriage to George Alexander. Snowden’s love for the outdoors led him to farming under the tutelage of Alexander. Aside from receiving his invaluable instruction, Snowden also was blessed to inherit Kingdom Come upon his stepfather’s death.

“Kingdom Come strikes everyone as a captivating name, and not surprisingly there is a lovely little story attached to its origins. Once upon a time it seems there was a worker on the family land who was helping down at the club. Mr. Alexander’s mother sympathetically (and a bit impertinently) inquired as to whether he was being fed properly by Mr. Alexander. In response, the man said, ‘Miss Teedie, I couldn’t be eating better than if I was in Kingdom Come.'”

11. Menasha Hunting & Fishing Club between Gilmore and Turrell — The original club was founded in 1902 and was sold in 1948 to Mary Kuhn of Marion. Club members leased land from her. She later sold the land to the club.

Duck blinds are located in Stave Lake and Mink Lake on the property. There also are 40 acres known as the Sanctuary that are planted with millet and used as a rest area.

The 11-bedroom clubhouse was built in 1974 after an earlier clubhouse burned.

12. Mud Lake Hunting Club near Hughes — A club on the property was established in 1902 by 10 prominent Memphis sportsmen. Originally consisting of 3,423 acres, the club was sold to the Oswalt family of Hughes in 1941.

The club ceased to exist in 1947 and was brought back to life by Bill Deupree of Memphis in 1997.

Mud Lake covers almost 1,000 acres and is an oxbow of the St. Francis River.

“The fact that the 75-year-old clubhouse was still standing was a piece of good fortune, especially in view of the fact that two earlier ones had burned,” the book states. “The beamed ceiling, large carved fireplace mantel and even the old dining table, chairs and sideboard had somehow survived.”

13. Claypool’s Reservoir (Wild Acres) near Weiner — Wallace Claypool of Memphis bought this land in 1941 as a sanctuary for ducks. He built a reservoir and 20 miles of roads.

The book picks up the story from there: “Mr. Claypool’s mission was the conservation of ducks, and he was famously quoted as saying that ‘if the wild duck is to avoid the fate of the passenger pigeon, somebody must furnish it with food, water and a place to rest.’

“Claypool’s Reservoir achieved national prominence when it was showcased on NBC. … And what a production it was to set up the crew and equipment in a remote spot and to conceal the trucks, the cameras and the power generators. Camouflaged blinds were specially built, including one which sat high atop a hickory tree.

“In an extraordinary combination of good luck and skill, the ducks were herded in front of the cameras at 3:14 p.m. on Dec. 23, 1956. There were two explosions — the first, three blocks of TNT in a rocket fired over the ducks — and then the second, 350,000 ducks lifting off the water, a sight which mesmerized millions of viewers and created a nationwide interest in Arkansas duck hunting.”

Claypool sold his land in 1966 to friends from Memphis. Hunting is only allowed each Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday morning during the season.

“First Shooting Light” was published in 2008 but still would make anyone who loves the Arkansas outdoors a fine Christmas gift.

The Gorilla Man and the Empress of Steak

Thursday, December 8th, 2011

I’ve found a book for my December reading pleasure that fits my interests perfectly.

I love New Orleans.

I love Hot Springs.

I love food.

I love thoroughbred racing.

Skip Rutherford, dean of the Clinton School of Public Service, was hanging out at Square Books in Oxford, Miss., when he came across a copy of “The Gorilla Man and the Empress of Steak” by Randy Fertel. The book was released earlier this year by the University Press of Mississippi.

Skip invited Randy to be a part of the Clinton School’s lecture series, and the author showed up on the final night of November to speak. I’ve been engrossed in his book ever since.

My friend John T. Edge, who heads the Southern Foodways Alliance over at Ole Miss, described the book this way: “His mother was the ‘first lady of American restaurants.’ His father was ‘odd, self-centered and nuts.’ Randy Fertel leverages a raucous New Orleans upbringing, in which Salvador Dali and Edwin Edwards play bit parts, to tell the story of an uncommon American family, defined, in equal measure, by bold swagger and humbling vulnerabilities.”

Randy’s mother is the Ruth in the Ruth’s Chris chain of upscale steak houses.

His father launched a quixotic campaign for mayor of New Orleans in 1969 on the promise that he would get a gorilla for the Audubon Zoo. He received only about 300 votes.

The photo on the book’s dust jacket shows Randy’s parents during a visit to Hot Springs. The year was 1948. My father graduated from college in Arkadelphia that year. My parents were frequent visitors to Hot Springs. For all I know, they unknowingly crossed paths with the Fertels on Central Avenue.

On a visit to Hershey, Pa., this summer, I learned that Milton Hershey honeymooned in Hot Springs. It was once quite the destination for young couples.

Here’s how the first chapter of the book begins: “If we could return to the moment captured in a 1948 photo, this couple, Mom and Dad, Ruth and Rodney, might catch our eye as they stride down Central Avenue in Hot Springs, Ark. In full sunlight, Ruth holds the crook of Rodney’s right arm and gazes at the camera with self-assurance and an easy smile. While women behind her clutch their bags tight, she carries a handbag by its strap. She wears heels with bows.

“That sunny day in Hot Springs, an unseen ornate gold barrette tooled in her initials — RUF — holds her hair swept back from her high brow. The barrette is a gift from her husband, whose family is in the trade — pawnshops.

“His face in shadow and wearing sunglasses, not unaware of the camera himself, her husband gazes at her with fondness and regard. Rodney sports a tie with bold ovals and in his right hand he carries a folded paper, probably the Daily Racing Form. He wears his shirtsleeves rolled. His left arm swings forward with a watch on his wrist, the first of many gold Rolexes, and a cigarette in the tips of his fingers — he has yet to give them up.”

Ruth was 21 when that photo was taken.

Rodney was 27.

A decade later, Ruth was speeding down Gentilly Boulevard in New Orleans on her way to the Fair Grounds (she was the first licensed female thoroughbred trainer in Louisiana) when she was pulled over by police officer Salvador J. “Joe” DeMatteo.

Soon, Ruth and Joe were an item.

By May 1958, Ruth and Rodney were separated.

Ruth married Joe in 1964.

“Joe was dark and wiry, a man’s man, a grunt who had survived the Italian campaign in World War II, a motorcycle cop, small plane pilot and gas station owner,” Randy writes. “Like him, Mom began to smoke filterless cigarettes, Pall Malls. In Joe’s presence, I heard curse words from my mother’s mouth for the first time. Surely not her first, they bothered me and I imagined Joe was their cause.”

Randy, who has a doctorate from Harvard, has taught English at Harvard, Tulane, LeMoyne College in Syracuse, N.Y., and the University of New Orleans. He’s a lover of food and fine wine who once was the marketing director for the Ruth’s Chris chain.

A March 2007 New York Times feature on his wedding to Bernadette Murray began this way: “The chatter among the 175 guests gathered under the live oaks of Audubon Park in New Orleans for the wedding of Bernadette Murray and Randy Fertel was upbeat but also circumspect. They gushed about the setting and marveled about the beauty of the bride. And barely a word about the tough times the couple had just been through.

“Less measured were the bride’s grade-school-age nephews: ‘Don’t tell,’ one said in a stage whisper. ‘Aunt Bernadette is wearing a wig!’

“Aunt Bernadette has been wearing a wig since shortly after she began treatment in May 2005 for acute myeloid leukemia, several months after Ms. Murray began dating Mr. Fertel.

“Early on, Ms. Murray tried to let Mr. Fertel off the hook, telling him that she didn’t expect him to endure what appeared to be a long illness. Mr. Fertel responded by returning to the hospital with a big diamond ring in a blue Tiffany box.”

Randy, who was 56 at the time of the wedding, met his wife in late 2004 when he was working at the New School in New York as an adjunct instructor who specialized in the literature of the Vietnam War. They met through a dating website. She’s eight years younger.

In an October story for The Times-Picayune in New Orleans, Judy Walker wrote: “The eccentric streak in Rodney Fertel ran deep. In the Rampart Street community of Orthodox Jews, where the Fertels owned a pawnshop and property, the Fertels were by any measure an unusual family. Rodney Fertel’s mother, Annie, shoplifted so regularly that store detectives in D.H. Holmes and Maison Blanche were detailed to follow her around; later, her accountant would quietly pay her debts. Family members also sued each other repeatedly.”

Randy told the newspaper writer: “My dad enjoyed a grudge. My family left a trail. They were litigious people; that was very helpful” in researching the book.

Randy ends the foreward of his own book this way: “The Empress of Steak reserved all the glory for herself. Her appetite for winning excluded everyone, even her offspring. Nearly all the key players in the global empire of Ruth’s Chris Steak House ended up suing her, to get what they felt they deserved. I must confess that I was among them.”

When Ruth saw a for-sale ad for a steak house at 1100 Broad St. in New Orleans, she took it as a good sign that the restaurant had been established on her birthday — Feb. 5, 1927.

She bought Chris’ Steak House in 1965 after borrowing $22,000. Almost a dozen years later, fire destroyed the original restaurant. She reopened a few blocks away at the intersection of Broad and Orleans and called the place Ruth’s Chris. It became the top political hangout in New Orleans.

Ruth sold the chain in 1999. In 2002, she died of cancer. By then, there were more than 80 restaurants in the chain.

In her will, Ruth made Randy the president of the Ruth U. Fertel Foundation. Among its projects, the foundation is working to establish the Fertel Culinary Arts Center at Nicholls State University. Randy put his own money into the Fertel Foundation, which focuses on education and the arts.

As someone who has long been fascinated with the history of Hot Springs, I’m drawn back to the first of the book and Randy’s description of the Spa City: “In this year, 1948, Hot Springs is a wide-open town, dominated by the Southern Club, a gambling house in operation since 1893. In Las Vegas, Bugsy Siegel’s Flamingo Hotel is only two years old and ‘the Strip’ still but a dream. The mineral baths and the gambling tables draw Rodney and Ruth here from their home in New Orleans for long stays. Rodney enjoys independent means inherited from his pawnbroker grandparents: no job pulls him home.

“The horses bring them, too. In 1948, the Fair Grounds in New Orleans celebrates its diamond jubilee, 75 years of continuous thoroughbred racing. Hot Springs’ Oaklawn Park is almost as old. This very summer, Louisiana Gov. Earl Long, Huey’s brother and inveterate gambler, comes to Hot Springs ‘for his arthritis.’ Gov. Long begins his day with the Daily Racing Form and the tout sheets. He helped the mob install slots throughout Louisiana; they let him know when the fix is in. Ruth and Rodney Fertel share Gov. Long’s taste for racehorses. In a few years, Ruth will earn her throughbred trainer’s license.”

In one photo from that 1948 visit, there’s a sign for a Hot Springs restaurant. Randy writes of the sign: “Hammons, no apostrophe. Sea Food, two words. Inside a sign promises One Day Out of the Ocean, meaning one day up from the Louisiana bayous where Ruth was born. Rodney prefers Hammons to the Arlington’s grand dining room with its organ and white-gloved black waiters and where, at age 13, I develop a taste for watercress salad and cornbread sticks slathered in butter and honey.”

Rodney would live for a time in Hot Springs at 359 Whittington Ave.

Randy said he once asked Ruth why she married Rodney.

She replied: “He had horses. I was a country girl and a tomboy. I was at LSU. Your dad owned a stable. When I first met him, I thought he was a stable boy. We ran off and got married, honeymooned in Hot Springs, then took a trip around the world.”

Randy writes: “Which means my first sibling rivals were racehorses. Later Dad would add two gorillas to the list and Mom a restaurant.”