I’ve told the story often.
The event was so traumatic that I remember it as if it were yesterday.
Saturday, March 1, 1997.
I was downstairs in our Little Rock home, paying bills.
Melissa was upstairs with our 4-year-old son and the new arrival, who was five weeks old (we had taken little Evan to a restaurant for the first time the previous evening — a Cajun place in west Little Rock called Big Mamou).
The tornado sirens went off. I told Melissa to come downstairs and bring both boys.
As Melissa walked down the stairs, she said to me: “Channel 11 is reporting that a tornado has destroyed downtown Arkadelphia.”
“Oh, television news people always exaggerate,” I quickly replied.
Just to be sure, however, I decided to call my parents’ home in Arkadelphia. When I got the “all circuits are busy” recording, I began to worry a bit. What if the television report proved to be true?
About 10 minutes later, the phone rang. It was my father, calling on his cell phone. Our home was fine. His downtown business was fine. But a mere block away from his business, the damage was incredible.
In what would go down as one of the worst tornadoes in Arkansas in the 20th century, 60 blocks of my hometown had been partially or completely destroyed.
I wasn’t accustomed to hearing my father’s voice quiver, but it indeed quivered as he said: “Call the governor and tell him to send in the National Guard. Main Street is gone.”
I was working for the governor at the time, so he knew I could get through quickly.
I hung up and called the Governor’s Mansion.
When the state trooper answered, I said: “This is Rex. I need to speak to the governor as soon as possible. It’s an emergency.”
“He’s on the phone,” the trooper answered. “I’ll get him a message and let him know you’re holding on the line and that it’s important.”
About a minute later, I heard the familiar voice of Mike Huckabee.
“Governor, I just spoke to my father in Arkadelphia,” I said. “He’s downtown, and much of the business district has been destroyed.”
He interrupted me: “I know. I was just on the phone with Percy Malone. He’s standing in the rubble of what once was his drugstore. I’m about to send in the National Guard.”
I drove to the Mansion, where we set up a command center that later was moved to the state Capitol as the magnitude of the destruction across the state became apparent. It would be a long day. Tornadoes had cut a swath across the state that Saturday from southwest Arkansas to northeast Arkansas, killing 25 people. To put it into contenxt, more people were killed by storms that day than were killed by storms in Bill Clinton’s entire 12 years as governor.
The next day, I rode in a National Guard helicopter with the governor from Arkadelphia all the way to Newport to view the damage. On Monday, we were back on the helicopter to fly to Hickory Ridge and Marmaduke in northeast Arkansas. There had been heavy damage in each of those towns before the storm exited the state.
On Tuesday, March 4, President Clinton came home to Arkansas and took part in a walking tour of what remained of downtown Arkadelphia.
Following the tour, a small group of us sat in a room at Elk Horn Bank and Trust (now Southern Bancorp). There was no electricity. The room was lit by candles.
Knowing I was from Arkadelphia, the president whispered this to me: “Don’t quote me (I figure that after almost 14 years it’s OK now), but most towns in the southern half of the state could never recover from something like this. Given the fact it has two universities and strong banks, Arkadelphia has a better chance to come back than almost any other town south of Little Rock would have.”
It’s interesting that he mentioned the banks.
I thought of President Clinton’s comments last week as people filled the football stadium at Arkadelphia High School. They were there to see the Arkadelphia Promise scholarship program unveiled. The initiative is modeled on the El Dorado Promise, though there are key differences. It’s something that will change the face of my hometown forever, and it’s being made possible by the Ross Foundation and Southern Bancorp. No longer will the families of Arkadelphia High School graduates have to worry about coming up with the money to pay college tuition and fees as long as their children meet certain standards.
Ross Whipple, the chairman of the Ross Foundation, is also the chairman of Summit Bank, which he began in February 2000. Whipple is recognized as one of the region’s top bankers. Meanwhile, Phil Baldwin’s leadership has solidified Southern Bancorp’s position as the largest and most profitable rural development banking organization in the country.
It’s unusual for any town anywhere to have two banking corporations as strong as Summit and Southern headquartered in the same community. It’s especially impressive that visionaries such as Whipple and Baldwin work within blocks of each other on Main Street.
Bill Clinton’s March 1997 comment about the importance of strong banks resonates today.
In a video message, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said: “More than a decade ago, you not only rebuilt Arkadelphia after a devastating tornado, you built it stronger. Today, you have been given another chance to get smarter, to prepare yourself to succeed, to pursue your dreams. I don’t think we celebrate success enough in education.”
Here’s how the website www.arkadelphiapromise.com explains the program: “The goal of the Arkadelphia Promise scholarship is to increase the college-going rate for local students, reduce the number of students dropping out of college for financial reasons and provide for a more educated workforce. The Arkadelphia Promise is a game-changing effort — making a college education not just a dream but a reality for every child in Arkadelphia. A college degree is a passport to future prosperity for individuals, and a more college-educated workforce makes Arkadelphia a more attractive community in which to locate a business.”
Indeed, this is a game-changing initiative for Arkadelphia.
“Students who never considered college an option will now be free to achieve success that will better their future, their community and our state,” said Gov. Mike Beebe.
The superintendent of the Arkadelphia School District, Donnie Whitten, called it “the most significant event in the history of our school district.”
He’s right. I’m biased since I attended that district from the first through the 12th grade, but I always believed I received an excellent education in Arkadelphia. Because it was a college town, there seemed to be a greater commitment to education in Arkadelphia than you might find in other south Arkansas towns. A number of my teachers were the spouses of Henderson State University and Ouachita Baptist University employees. Now, there’s a pot of gold waiting at the end of the public education rainbow.
To be eligible for an Arkadelphia Promise scholarship, Arkadelphia High School graduates must be Arkansas Academic Challenge scholarship recipients and plan to immediately attend college after graduation. Academic Challenge is now mostly funded by the lottery. It provides annual scholarships of $5,000 for those attending four-year schools and $2,500 for those attending two-year schools in Arkansas.
All students enrolled in the Arkadelphia School District as of Nov. 16 — from kindgarten through 12th grade — can receive the full scholarship upon graduation regardless of the date of original enrollment. A sliding scale will be in effect for new enrollees.
Based on what has happened in El Dorado, the Arkadelphia School District should expect its student population to grow.
On Jan. 22, 2007, officials from Murphy Oil Corp. announced a donation of $50 million to create the El Dorado Promise scholarship program. The motto was simple — go to school, graduate, get a scholarship. The scholarship money was made available for use in schools both inside and outside Arkansas.
“For students, this is life changing,” El Dorado superintendent Bob Watson said that day. “Students who have worked hard but would not have been able to attend college because of financial limitations now have the means to do so.”
Since the El Dorado Promise was created, families have moved to the city from 31 states and 13 foreign countries so their children can attend the public schools. The El Dorado School District, after years of declining student populations, has had a 4 percent enrollment increase. The percentage of El Dorado High School graduates who enroll in college exceeds both the state and national college enrollment rates. Almost a quarter of those students are first-generation college students.
Last spring, former President George W. Bush was the keynote speaker for what’s known as academic signing day. Members of the El Dorado High School class of 2010 enrolled in schools ranging from Johns Hopkins University to the University of Michigan.
Two years following the original announcement, Murphy Oil officials announced an expansion of the program to allow more flexibility for students and their families. The expansion meant that students with scholarships and grants covering tuition now have the option to apply the El Dorado Promise funds toward other expenses such as room, board, books and additional fees.
“Living in Arkansas and getting the lottery scholarships is wonderful, but now living in El Dorado just got a lot better,” Watson said when the expansion was announced.
Arkadelphia and El Dorado are two of my favorite towns.
Now, they have something else in common — something very special.