Archive for the ‘Little Rock’ Category

War Memorial Stadium memories

Monday, December 23rd, 2013

I look forward to the first two weekends of December.

It has become a tradition of mine to spend large parts of those weekends at War Memorial Stadium in Little Rock, watching the state high school championship games.

This year, Mother Nature did her best to ruin that tradition. The ice storm that hit just before the first weekend in December pushed the games back a week.

There were three state title games played the second weekend of the month and three played the weekend before Christmas. The first of those six games — the Class 7A title contest between Bentonville and Cabot on the evening of Friday, Dec. 13 — was played in a steady rain with temperatures in the 30s.

A week later, the Class 4A title game between Booneville and Warren finished at 11:45 p.m. after two lengthy lightning delays.

The next afternoon, the Class 2A title game between Junction City and Des Arc was played in a downpour with heavy winds throughout the contest.

I shouldn’t complain. I was in the press box for all six championship games. Hats off to those fans who survived the elements in the outdoor seats.

Between games this past Saturday, I hung out in the swank, multimillion-dollar press box that was added three years ago. The comfortable leather couches and flat-screen television sets on which we watched the season’s first college bowl games were reason enough to stay put.

The bad weather this month gives me more War Memorial Stadium memories. I have so many.

I have played on that field (Arkadelphia vs. Cabot in the state semifinals in 1976).

I have watched countless games from the stands.

I have covered numerous games from the press box as a newspaper reporter.

I have broadcast games on radio and television.

The old stadium is special to me.

War Memorial Stadium opened in 1948 — 11 years before I was born — with a natural grass surface, open end zones and about 31,000 seats. The changes of recent years have been drastic. In the past decade, we’ve seen new lights, a new artificial playing surface, renovated rest rooms and concession stands, the addition of large video screens in both end zones, the renovation of the outside of the stadium and the new press box.

War Memorial Stadium, which is owned by the state of Arkansas, still stands as a tribute to those Arkansans who have given their lives to defend our country. The Sturgis Plaza was added in 2008 to further honor those who served America. It was built as part of the celebration of the stadium’s 60th anniversary.

The first event at the stadium in 1948 was a University of Arkansas Razorback football game. Some of the most memorable games in program history have taken place in that stadium. I’m glad that I’ll always be able to say that I was there for the Miracle on Markham in 2002. We know Arkansas will continue to play games there the next five seasons. I hope that tradition will continue far into the future.

My memories go beyond Hog games, though. As I said, I played a game there back when the artificial turf was as hard as concrete. The Arkadelphia team for which I was the center recovered a fumbled punt and scored late to defeat an outstanding Cabot team. During this year’s Class 5A state championship game between Morrilton and Batesville, I sat in the press box with two close friends who just happened to be the quarterback and star receiver on that Cabot team 37 years ago. We didn’t know each other at the time. We became friends in college.

Arkansas is a small state, isn’t it?

I saw the first (and last) Bicentennial Bowl in the stadium in 1975 (the game did not survive until the actual bicentennial year) as Henderson took on East Central Oklahoma.

I’ve broadcast several Ouachita games from there.

I’ve seen Arkansas State play there and have enjoyed the UAPB and Grambling bands at halftime of games between those teams.

I go to most of the Little Rock Catholic home games and try to attend the annual Salt Bowl between Benton and Bryant, which draws the biggest crowd of any high school game in the state each year.

The Rev. Billy Graham once attracted 270,000 people to War Memorial Stadium during the course of a week.

Elton John, the Eagles, the Rolling Stones, George Strait and many others have played outdoor concerts there.

This past weekend, several people asked me what I thought would happen to the stadium if the Razorbacks cease playing games there after 2018. As a state facility dedicated to those who have served our country, I’m convinced the stadium will be just fine.

This is the final Southern Fried blog post of 2013. In the comments section below, I invite you to give us your favorite War Memorial Stadium memory. This is NOT a place for the Great Stadium Debate. There are other outlets for that. This is for memories. I hope to hear from many of you.

I’ve been writing a weekly newspaper column for almost five years. One of the most requested columns is the one I wrote about watching my son during Arkansas’ victory over LSU at War Memorial Stadium in 2010. As my Christmas gift to you (a needed gift after two bleak seasons for the Hogs), here again is that column.

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year.

Published Dec. 4, 2010:

Sugar fell from the sky in Little Rock shortly after 6 p.m. last Saturday.

You couldn’t see it, but you can bet it was there.

I glanced over at my 13-year-old son, who had yelled himself to the point of exhaustion during the previous four hours, and I hoped he would remember this moment.

I could feel my eyes misting up as the memories came flooding back — memories of the drive from Arkadelphia to Little Rock in my father’s big Oldsmobile to attend games at War Memorial Stadium, the anticipation building with each passing mile; memories of watching the crowd simply refuse to leave following Arkansas’ victory over Texas in 1979; memories of looking over at my older son (who was 9 at the time) following the Miracle on Markham in 2002 and hoping that he would cherish the moment.

Isn’t that one of the reasons for attending such events?

We’re there not only to enjoy the moment but hopefully to create memories along the way, perhaps even picking up a new story to tell around the dinner table 10 or 20 years from now.

Arkansas’ 31-23 win over LSU last Saturday afternoon was one of those memory-making games. I’ve been attending games at War Memorial Stadium for more than 40 years and can never remember when the fans stood for every play. We only sat during television timeouts, and goodness knows CBS requires plenty of those.

There can be magic in late November games – the ones that start in the sunlight and end under the lights.

As was the case after the wins over Texas in 1979 and LSU in 2002, no one wanted to leave. The stadium remained packed 10 minutes after the game had ended. I hope my son remembers that.

In the north end zone, motorcycle officers in their helmets from the Little Rock Police Department protected the goal post from being torn down. In the south end zone, the goal post was protected by troopers from the Arkansas State Police. I hope he remembers that.

Coach Bobby Petrino was surrounded by troopers (the more troopers around a Southern football coach, the bigger the game) and television cameramen as he exited the field, smiling more than I’ve ever seen him smile. I hope Evan remembers that, too.

The weather had cooperated fully on the Saturday after Thanksgiving. It was a gorgeous November day for college football. We parked in Hillcrest and walked down Harrison, Lee and Van Buren streets. I knew immediately this wasn’t an average contest when I saw people who had charged $10 to park for the Louisiana-Monroe game now charging $30. There were dozens of fans at the intersection of Van Buren and Markham wanting tickets. No one was selling.

The policeman signaled for us to cross Markham Street. We walked into War Memorial Park for what would turn out to be an afternoon never to be forgotten.

I’ve never made a secret of my fondness for Little Rock games. I cherish those traditions that make our state unique, and having the state’s largest university play its home football games in two places sets us apart in an era when Alabama no longer plays at Birmingham and Ole Miss no longer plays at Jackson.

After entering the park, we made our way to stadium commissioner Brenda Scisson’s tailgate party in the lot directly behind the new press box. I can think of few things better than this: A beautiful November afternoon, good friends, what promises to be a great college football game, fried chicken, pimento cheese sandwiches.

An integral part of a Little Rock game day for me is the time spent watching the fans walk by. I greeted friends from all sections of our state. It was, in a sense, a large family reunion.

When it was over after almost four hours of pressure-packed action, I looked at Evan as he joined thousands of his fellow Arkansans in chanting, “BCS! BCS!”

I’ve never been in this stadium when it was louder. We returned to Brenda’s tailgate party after the game and listened to the Hog calls, yells and whoops that were coming from the now dark golf course.

It was a happy night in Arkansas.

Remember this sweet November day, Evan.

Remember that you sat between your mother and father.

Remember how you screamed at the top of your lungs each time LSU came to the line, feeling as if your effort were playing a role in the game.

Remember that touchdown as time expired in the first half.

Remember that fourth-down play that resulted in a touchdown right in front of you in the fourth quarter.

Remember the smile on the coach’s face and the fans who didn’t want to leave, staying in their seats to savor it all for a few more minutes.

Remember the day sugar fell from the sky.

Happy birthday Brooks Robinson

Friday, May 17th, 2013

Brooks Robinson turns 76 Saturday.

Perhaps you can wish him a belated happy birthday when he returns home to Arkansas next month.

Robinson, the Little Rock native who was inducted into the Arkansas Sports Hall of Fame in 1978 and the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1983, will be at Lamar Porter Field on June 15 to draw attention to revitalization efforts at the historic complex.

The field is owned by the Boys & Girls Club of Central Arkansas. Those associated with it want to make sure it doesn’t meet the same fate as nearby Ray Winder Field.

Do you get as sick as I do each time you travel down Interstate 630 and see the ghastly UAMS parking lot that occupies the site that was long the home of Ray Winder Field?

“The sadness of witnessing the demise of Ray Winder fills me with gratitude that Lamar Porter doesn’t suffer the same fate,” says Little Rock businessman Jay Rogers. “Lamar Porter is now the oldest usable field in the state of Arkansas.”

In late 2011, the Lamar Porter Complex Revitalization Committee was formed. In addition to renovating the baseball field, the committee hopes to fund improvements at the Billy Mitchell Boys and Girls Club, the Woodruff Gardens and adjoining recreational areas.

Lamar Porter Field was built between 1934 and 1937 by the Works Progress Administration as part of the Roosevelt administration’s efforts to put people to work during the Great Depression. It was an impressive concrete-and-steel facility that could seat 1,500 people. It was also the only baseball field in the state that had electric lights at the time.

The 10-acre site that includes the baseball field was given to what was then known as the Little Rock Boys Club in honor of Lamar Porter. The Little Rock native was a junior at Washington and Lee University in Virginia when he was killed in an automobile accident on May 12, 1934.

In addition to donating the land, the family contributed money for construction. The first anniversary of Porter’s death coincided with Mother’s Day. The donation was announced that day by his mother, Louise Skillern Porter.

Lamar Porter’s nephew, who shares his name, is among the trustees for the revitalization committee.

“A memorial serves no purpose if it ceases to exist,” says the younger Porter. “This complex needs revitalization soon or it will meet the same fate as Ray Winder Field.”

The June 15 event will begin at 5:30 p.m. and is scheduled to end by 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $10 each and are available at The SportStop on Rodney Parham Road. The business is owned by Rogers. Each ticket will be good for admission to the event, a hot dog, a soft drink, popcorn and a chance to get Robinson’s autograph.

Robinson remains a legendary figure in Baltimore, where he spent his major league career. Following his retirement at the end of the 1977 season, Robinson began a 16-year career as a television announcer for the Orioles. He was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility. He’s one of only six former Orioles to have had a number retired by the team.

Was Brooks Robinson the best third baseman ever to play the game?

Many baseball historians think so. He began playing baseball almost as soon as he could walk. Robinson’s father, a fireman, had played semipro baseball and also was a member of the 1937 International Harvester softball team from Little Rock that played in the finals of the World Softball Championship in Chicago.

“Brooks Robinson began playing baseball at the grammar school level as a catcher for the Woodruff School,” Jeff Bailey wrote for the online Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. “He spent much of his time practicing at the facilities of the Arkansas School for the Deaf, which was across the street from his home. He also worked the scoreboard and sold cold drinks during games played at Lamar Porter Field. While a student at Pulaski Heights Junior High, Robinson played quarterback for the 1951 junior high state championship football team and was an honorable mention on the all-state team.”

Robinson played basketball and ran track at Little Rock High School. During the summer, he played American Legion baseball for the M.M. Eberts Post No. 1’s team, the Doughboys. The Doughboys won American Legion state championships in 1952 and 1953.

As soon as Robinson graduated from high school in 1955, he signed a contract with the Orioles. Having just turned 18, he first played for the Orioles’ farm team in York, Pa., in the Piedmont League. Late in the season, Robinson earned a promotion to the big leagues. By the 1958 season, he was the Orioles’ regular third baseman.

Known as the Human Vacuum Cleaner, Robinson won an amazing 16 consecutive Gold Glove Awards (1960-75). His best season offensively came in 1964 when he batted .317 with 28 home runs and 118 RBI. He was the Aemrican League MVP that year, receiving 18 of the 20 first-place votes. Mickey Mantle was second in the voting.

In 1966, Robinson was the MVP at the All-Star Game. He finished second that year behind teammate Frank Robinson in the American League MVP balloting as the Orioles defeated the Los Angeles Dogers in the World Series.

The Orioles would win two World Series while Brooks Robinson was playing for them. The second came in 1970 when he was the World Series MVP against the Cincinnati Reds.

The Orioles had lost the World Series to the New York Mets the previous season. In 1970, however, it was almost as if Robinson willed them to a championship.

Robinson had a .583 batting average in the 1970 American League Championship Series against the Minnesota Twins. In the World Series against the Cincinnati Reds, Robinson had a .429 batting average with two home runs and some incredible defensive plays.

“I’m beginning to see Brooks in my sleep,” Reds Manager Sparky Anderson said. “If I dropped this paper plate, he would pick it up on one hop and throw me out at first.”

As the World Series MVP, Robinson was awarded a new Toyota.

Reds catcher Johnny Bench said, “Gee, if we had known he wanted a new car that bad, we would have chipped in and bought him one.”

Robinson played in his last World Series in 1971 as the Orioles lost to the Pittsburgh Pirates in seven games. Baltimore would win division titles in 1973 and 1974 but lose in the American League Championship Series.

Robinson was selected for the American League All-Star team for 15 consecutive years from 1960-74. His career batting average was .267 with 2,848 hits, 268 home runs and 1,357 RBI. He led the American League in fielding percentage 11 times. He retired with a .971 fielding average, the highest ever for a third baseman.

At the time of his retirement, Robinson also had the records for a third baseman for games played at third (2,870), putouts (2,697), assists (6,205) and double plays (618). Only Carl Yastrzemski, Hank Aaron and Stan Musial played more games during their careers for one franchise.

Yet another Robinson record came from hitting into four triple plays during his career.

“I wouldn’t mind seeing someone erase my record of hitting into triple plays,” he later said.

How popular was Brooks Robinson in Baltimore, even after he retired?

In 1982, WMAR-TV’s on-air announcers had been on strike for two months leading into the baseball season. When Robinson refused to cross the picket line as opening day approached, station executives began new negotiations. The strike ended the next day, and Robinson was on the air for the season opener.

Robinson and Baltimore Colts’ quarterback Johnny Unitas had plaques in their honor in Balimore’s venerable Memorial Stadium. The two men were saluted on the field when the Orioles played their last game there on Oct. 6, 1991.

In 1999, The Sporting News placed the native Arkansan on its list of the 100 Greatest Baseball Players. He also was named to the All-Time Rawlings Gold Glove team.

Veteran Associated Press sportswriter Gordon Beard was the emcee for the ceremony that marked Robinson’s last game at Memorial Stadium in 1977. Beard reminded the crowd of Reggie Jackson’s remark: “If I played in New York, they would name a candy bar after me.”

“Around here,” Beard said, “nobody has named a candy bar after Brooks Robinson. We name our children after him.”

Now, Robinson is coming back to Little Rock to lend a hand to those who are saving Lamar Porter Field.

Little Rock’s Catholic High School for Boys and Episcopal Collegiate High School use Lamar Porter Field for home games. The field and an adjoining space also are the Arkansas home of a national program known as Reviving Baseball in the Inner City, which is sponsored by Major League Baseball.

Portions of the movie “A Soldier’s Story,” starring Denzel Washington, were filmed at the field in 1984. In December 1990, the facility was placed on the National Register of Historic Places.

There are other positive things going on in the neighborhood.

The Woodruff Community Garden allows novice and experienced gardeners to have plots in the city. The renovation project will add lights, security updates, a more secure gardening shed, a gate and fencing to the community garden.

There also will be restoration work on historic stone walls and bridges.

Other improvements will take place at the Billy Mitchell Boys & Girls Club, which is named after the man who became associated with the club in 1922 and began heading the organization in 1928. Mitchell, who had played basketball at Texas A&M, was connected with the club for more than 50 years. Construction of the current facility was completed in 1982.

In December 2011, the revitalization committee announced that an anonymous donor had given a significant gift to begin the process of planning the renovation effort.

In January 2012, representatives of the Little Rock architectural firm Witsell Evans Rasco met with the committee. Last August, the firm’s initial renderings for renovating the complex were approved.

Robinson agreed in September to become the honorary chairman of the revitalization committee.

“Not only did I sharpen my baseball skills at Lamar Porter, I even once won a bubble-blowing contest there and proudly rode a new bicycle home,” he said. “The memories of playing there and the friendships that I made have lasted all my life.”

In October, the Boys & Girls Club of Central Arkansas and the Lamar Porter Complex Revitalization Committee announced a partnership with the Cal Ripken Sr. Foundation of Baltimore. The foundation was founded in 2001 by Hall of Famer Cal Ripken Jr. and his brother, Bill Ripken, who also played for the Orioles.

Cal Ripken Sr., who died in 1999, had a 37-year career working for the Orioles. The Ripken Foundation seeks to help kids from low-income families, using baseball as the hook to reach boys and softball to reach girls.

The revitalization committee’s website contains the words “heading for home.”

With a master plan now in place, it’s a fitting motto as the great Brooks Robinson heads home to Little Rock, determined that the city won’t see another historic treasure turned into a parking lot.

10 must-have dishes before you die

Thursday, May 9th, 2013

You’ll have to pick up the May edition of Soiree magazine for the full story (and photos that will make your mouth water).

But here’s what happened: Jennifer Pyron, the magazine’s editor, called and asked if I would come up with a list of the 10 restaurant dishes in the Little Rock area that you simply must have before you die.

I like a lot of things. And Little Rock has a good restaurant scene. This was not an easy assignment.

Here’s what I decided: I would go with the tried and true, the kinds of food that longtime Little Rock residents find themselves craving as they drive home at night.

There are finer restaurants than the ones I put on my list.

There are fancier dishes.

I decided to stay away from new recipes. No foam. No molecular gastronomy. The restaurants needed to have been around for several decades to prove their staying power.

Look, Little Rock is becoming one of the best places to dine out in the South. The city is now filled with exciting restaurants, food trucks, talented food bloggers and ambitious chefs. It’s quite a food scene.

I’m energized by that.

Yet the list I came up with spoke to my heart; the heart of a country boy who doesn’t want sugar in his cornbread, wants his country ham to be fried, wishes his wife would let him join the Bacon of the Month Club and could stand to lose a few pounds.

Here goes:

1. Ribs at Sims with a side of greens and cornbread — Sims just screams “quintessential Little Rock” to me. Little Rock is a true Southern city, and it doesn’t get more Southern than ribs, greens and cornbread. I miss the old location on 33rd Street, but the fact remains that this is a place that has been around since 1937. In a city that loves its barbecue, Sims is a shrine.

2. Chopped pork plate at the White Pig Inn — Here we go with the barbecue again. There’s a reason that a photo of the White Pig’s sign is at the top of this blog. This restaurant has been around since 1920, when U.S. Highway 70 was one of the main east-west routes in the country. I like family places, and the White Pig has been in the Seaton family for three generations. The current building is fairly new (built in 1984), but take a look at all the history on the walls.

3. Eggplant casserole and egg custard pie at Franke’s — I know, I know. You’re going to order more than just eggplant casserole and egg custard pie as you go through that line. There’s fried chicken, roast beef, chicken livers, fried okra, turnip greens and more to eat. But I consider the above two dishes the ones that most define this Arkansas classic. C.A. Franke opened a doughnut shop in downtown Little Rock in 1919. By 1922, it was a full bakery. In 1924, he opened Franke’s Cafeteria on Capitol Avenue in downtown Little Rock. The original cafeteria closed in 1960, but two Little Rock locations remain. You will find me at the downtown location often.

4. Buffalo ribs at the Lassis Inn — You Yankees think this is a four-legged mammal, right? You’re wrong. You’re the same people who refuse to believe us when we tell you that rice and gravy and macaroni and cheese are classified as vegetables here in the South. This buffalo is the bottom-dwelling fish pulled by commercial fishermen from the slow-moving rivers of east Arkansas. The ribs are about five inches in length. Tell my friend Elihue Washington that I sent you.

5. Tamales at Doe’s — I realize that you’re likely to order a steak if you’re going to Doe’s for dinner. Still, you must have an appetizer of tamales. If it’s lunch, the tamales can be your meal. George Eldridge has been operating the Little Rock location of Doe’s since 1988. Was it Hunter S. Thompson or P.J. O’Rourke who tried to eat a tamale with the shuck still on when they came to Doe’s to interview Bill Clinton in 1992?

6. The hubcap burger at Cotham’s — The Little Rock location will suffice (though I always have a fern bar flashback to TGI Friday’s and my younger days when I’m in there), but it’s better to be out in the 1917 building at Scott, which has been serving food since 1984. Politicians such as the aforementioned Bill Clinton and David Pryor made the Scott location of Cotham’s famous. What’s that? You say you cannot eat an entire hubcap burger? Then you’ve come to the wrong blog.

7. Gumbo at the Oyster Bar — The Oyster Bar has been around since 1975, but it looks like it has been there since 1924, when the building it occupies in Stifft Station was built to house a grocery story. Yes, it’s a dive. I especially like the fact that they saved the old refrigerator door with memorable bumper stickers attached. Check out the one dealing with that pass interfence call against SMU. Some of us still remember that call. The Hogs wuz robbed.

8. Smoked turkey sandwich and a cherry limeade at Burge’s — The original Burge’s in Lewisville is outside the geographic scope of this assignment, but the Heights location in Little Rock will do since it has been around for 36 years. Lots of rich, tanned Heights moms and their spoiled kids will be running around on Saturdays to take part in what’s a family tradition for many Little Rockians. After moving to Lewisville from Shreveport in 1953, Alden Burge began smoking turkeys in the back yard for friends and family members. Soon, he was selling smoked turkey and chicken dinners before Friday night football games. He bought a dairy bar in 1962 at the intersection of Arkansas Highway 29 and U.S. Highway 82 in Lewisville. The folks who work for Burge’s in Little Rock follow Mr. Burge’s 1950s instructions for smoking those turkeys.

9. Pimento cheese at the Capital Bar & Grill — Sometimes a Southerner simply must have pimento cheese, and no one does it better than the folks at the Capital. Get it as an appetizer with those homemade soda crackers, order a pimento cheese sandwich or have it on the burger. I’m craving it right now.

10. The foot-long chili dog at the Buffalo Grill and the chopped steak at the Faded Rose — OK, I cheated. I listed two restaurants. Here’s why: I first moved to Little Rock in late 1981 to work as a sportswriter at the Arkansas Democrat. I moved into the Rebsamen Park Apartments (cheap and already furnished, along with very thin walls). The Buffalo Grill opened just down the street in 1981. The Faded Rose was opened by New Orleans native Ed David the next year. I would work in those days until about 1 a.m., get something to eat at Steak & Egg (where the Red Door is now), go home and read and then sleep until the crack of noon. Then I would go to one of those two restaurants. I often would have that gut bomb they call the Paul’s chili dog at Buffalo Grill with chili, cheddar cheese, mustard, onion and slaw. On the days when I went next door to the Faded Rose, I would start with the Creole soaked salad (mixed lettuce, chopped tomatoes and green olives tossed in a garlic vinaigrette just like the Creole Sicilian joints do it in New Orleans). That would be followed by the chopped sirloin, which comes in a lemon butter sauce with a big slice of grilled onion on top. Of course, there were potato wedges with buttermilk dressing to dip them in.

Like I said, no foam or molecular gastronomy on this list.

What dishes make your list in Pulaski County?

Let me hear from you in the comment section below.

Meanwhile, I’ll see you in Soiree along with the “beautiful people” who are holding wine glasses and forcing a smile in a too-tight tux.

KAAY — The Mighty 1090

Thursday, September 20th, 2012

I can’t remember when I’ve had as much fun as I had last week attending the 50th anniversary party for the radio station that was such a key part of my youth — KAAY-AM, the Mighty 1090.

Thank you, Barry McCorkindale, for including me.

As I pointed out in a newspaper column earlier in the week, there’s still a Little Rock radio station with the call letters KAAY. And it’s still at 1090. But the Mighty 1090 has been gone for more than a quarter of a century, having died on April 3, 1985, when the station switched from its mix of Top 40 music, news and Razorback sports to paid religious programming.

We were in the side room of the Little Rock Oyster Bar for the anniversary party. The Oyster Bar long has been among my favorite dives, and it was probably fitting that we were in a room with cheap wood paneling from the 1970s and a sagging roof. That’s because the memories that came rushing back that night were from the 1960s and 1970s.

Bob Robbins, who went on to become one of the nation’s top country DJs at KSSN-FM, first came to Arkansas because of KAAY. Born in Florida in 1944, Bob was the youngest of 13 children. He was living in Americus, Ga., when the job offer came from the 50,000-watt Little Rock station.

“I drove through the night from Georgia, and I listened to KAAY the entire way,” he said. “I never lost the signal. Somehow, I found out where the studio was. I remember thinking, ‘My gosh, what is this place?’ Jonnie King was on the air as I pulled up.”

King would go on to a long radio career in the St. Louis market.

Sharing the stage with Robbins at the anniversary party was Sonny Martin, who handled the morning-drive shift for many years with legendary newsman George J. Jennings.

Bob and Sonny talked about heavily promoted events during KAAY’s heyday that would draw thousands of people — the cow chip throwing contest, the skunk festival, etc.

The late Pat Walsh, who was the station’s general manager in those days, was a marketing genius. He also was able to mold a group of eclectic characters into a team.

“The way we lived back then, it’s amazing that any of us got to this age,” Robbins said. “We cared for each other. We were a family. Radio has changed in so many ways. I wish I could live long enough to see radio stations be like they were back then.”

In an age of massive corporations, satellite programming and an eye only on the bottom line, it’s unlikely there will ever be anything again like the Mighty 1090.

It was an interesting mix. There was Top 40 music during the day. There was “Beaker Street” and its so-called underground music late at night. There was a solid local news operation. There were Razorback football games. There were the Marvin Vines farm reports early in the morning and during the noon hour.

Vines had started at KAAY’s predecessor, KTHS, in 1953.

“He was one of the few people and the only on-the-air person to make the change to KAAY in 1962,” wrote A.J. Lindsey, whose on-air name was Doc Holiday. “Marvin’s talent was not so much on the air as it was driving 64,000 miles a year and speaking everywhere he could.

“My memory of Marvin was his terrible coffee. He arrived at the station early — like 4 a.m. — to prepare his show. The all-night jock wasn’t interested in making coffee, so the first pot of the day was made by Marvin, and it was terrible.

“I arrived at 6 a.m. as Marvin was doing the farm reports. By then, the coffee was old. But Marvin was always in a good mood.”

Vines was killed in May 1978 in a tractor accident on his farm. Lindsey, a Little Rock native, died in May 2009.

Speaking of KTHS, the station signed on in 1924 with studios in the Arlington Hotel at Hot Springs.

“KTHS began broadcasting on Dec. 20, 1924, at 8:30 p.m. with an inaugural program originating from the ballroom,” Bud Stacey writes for the online Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. “On Jan. 1, 1925, the Arlington opened for hotel guests. KTHS programs consisted mainly of live big band music from the ballrooms. … In August 1928, the Arlington Hotel presented KTHS to the Hot Springs Chamber of Commerce as a gift; the station was shut down during the week of Aug. 13 to move its facilities to the Chamber of Commerce building at 135 Benton St.”

It was in April 1931 that Lum and Abner were invited to perform on KTHS for a flood relief benefit, helping launch what would be remarkable broadcast (and movie) careers.

An email from Scott Lauck arrived after this week’s newspaper column was published.

“My grandfather was Chet Lauck, and he played Lum,” Scott said. “He told me about those first broadcasts that he and Tuffy Goff (who played Abner) made on KTHS before the show was quickly picked up by NBC and moved to Chicago. Those were the golden years of radio, and they had so much fun doing that show for 25 years. They also made six movies for RKO.”

KTHS was granted permission by the Federal Communications Commission in 1951 to move from Hot Springs to Little Rock. A new transmitter was set up at Wrightsville.

Randy Tardy, with whom I once worked at the Arkansas Democrat and the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, remembers that last day before KTHS became KAAY in 1962.

“I was news director for KTHV, Channel 11, whose companion radio station was KTHS,” Tardy says. “I had somehow inherited the night news reporter’s job for radio since their man was out sick or on vacation. It was Labor Day weekend 1962. I had wrapped up preparing the 10 p.m. news for the television side and put together some wire copy and local stuff for the 10 p.m. radio news on KTHS. As I entered the booth a few minutes before the top of the hour, the engineer in the control room said: ‘You know, this is the last KTHS 10 p.m. newscast. Next time around it will be the new folks.’

“I was anxious to leave Eighth and Izard, where the studios were, so that the secretary to the program director, Miss Elizabeth Timmel, and I could drive all night in my 1955 Pontiac to Kentucky Lake near Murray, Ky., to meet her mom and dad. She had prepared sandwiches for us to nibble on overnight as we made our way east on U.S. 70. Interstate 40 was a few years in the future.

“I wrapped up the final newscast, and off we went. While at Kentucky Lake with her parents, I proposed to her on their lake dock. Fortunately for me, she said ‘yes.’ So as the Mighty 1090 celebrates its 50th anniversary, Elizabeth T. Tardy and I are approaching our 50th anniversary on Oct. 12. We were married on Oct. 12, 1962, in the chapel of Trinity Episcopal Cathedral. We had the weekend off but were both back at work on Monday at the television station.”

KTHS had been purchased by the LIN Broadcasting Corp. and changed its call letters to KAAY on Sept. 3, 1962 (the day after my third birthday).

“Labor Day weekend listeners were teased by a new, temporary format: that of radio announcers reading names and addresses out of the Little Rock phone book and welcoming them to The Friendly Giant over Henry Mancini’s ‘Baby Elephant Walk,'” Stacey writes.

Tardy remembers listening to that on the way back from Kentucky with his new finacee.

“The only thing that sounded the same was Marvin Vines, whose format did not change,” he says. “In fact, I think he still said KTHS rather than the new call letters. The newscasts were delivered by George J. Jennings and B. Bruce Jenkins, two pretty darned good radio newsmen.

“It was a good time to be where I was, especially watching and listening to Howard Watson and others prepare for ‘Ear on Arkansas’ as I watched Bob Hicks, Evelyn Elman and Steve Stephens do ‘Eye on Arkansas’ on KTHV.”

“Eye on Arkansas” was a true magazine-style television show.

“Ear on Arkansas” was satire and comedy, far ahead of its time.

On-air names were taken from the real names of LIN board members.

“As DJs left for other markets, their air names were dropped to the bottom of a list and the next new announcer would pick up the air name at the top of the list,” Stacey writes. “These names were trademarked by the station so that they could not be taken to competitors’ stations. In some cases, a former announcer would be hired again by KAAY while his original air name was being utilized, so he used his real name. This happened with Wayne Moss in later years since a ‘Sonny Martin’ was on the air at the time.”

The “Sonny Martin” at last week’s event is really Matt White. He runs the Pot O’ Gold Restaurant at Lindsey’s Rainbow Resort on the Little Red River near Heber Springs and has a show on KWCK-FM, 99.9, in Searcy. White was the last Sonny Martin from 1966-77.

KAAY stories often revolve around the Funmobile, the trailer used for remote broadcasts.

David B. Treadway, a familiar voice in Arkansas radio, once wrote of White: “The Funmobile was parked in a huge field some miles south of Little Rock for a big music festival headlined by the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band. We were all doing our shows live from the event that day, and it was well after dark when Sonny showed up demanding my belt and KAAY buckle. Yes, he had been there all day.

“A fan had admired Sonny’s buckle, so naturally he had given it to her, belt and all. He was due onstage to introduce the Dirt Band in a couple of minutes, and his jeans were in danger of going south. Reluctantly, I gave him my belt and, of course, never saw it again. But that’s how we did it back in the day — everything for the station, all glory to the call letters.”

I hear there’s a book in the works on the Mighty 1090.

I hope so.

There are enough stories out there to fill several volumes.

Thinking big in Little Rock

Tuesday, August 14th, 2012

At the end of May, Max Brantley wrote a column for the Arkansas Times with the headline “Little Rock needs to think big.”

Max and I have known each other for too many years to count. For about five years in the early 1990s, we were among the “regulars” who showed up every Friday to appear on the “Arkansas Week” program on AETN.

Most people would consider us to be on opposite sides of the political fence, and often we are. We do have several things in common.

Neither of us grew up in Little Rock.

Both of us have lived here for years.

We both love the city and want to see it be all it can be.

When it comes to the need for Little Rock to think big, Max is right. What he wrote in late May dovetails nicely with the column I’ve written for Wednesday’s Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

My column topic is this summer’s demolition of Ray Winder Field. Thousands of people each day have passed the site on Interstate 630 and watched what I consider the greatest tragedy from a development standpoint in recent Little Rock history — the selling of valuable green space in the center of the city so UAMS can build yet another parking lot.

I had a discussion with a prominent Little Rock real estate developer recently. I tend to be an optimist by nature and noted how pleased I was with some of the developments planned for downtown Little Rock.

“Yeah,” he replied. “But we still have far too many surface parking lots and unimaginative storefronts.”

This is indeed the land of the surface parking lot. Because it’s in one of the state’s most visible locations, the Ray Winder demolition site is a powerful symbol. In a sense, the symbolism erases much of the good done along the riverfront and in other areas of town.

You know what they say: Perception is reality.

Here’s what the new UAMS parking lot screams out about Little Rock: “We’re stuck in the old urban renewal mode of the 1960s and 1970s at a time when other cities are going the opposite direction. We love the smell of bulldozer smoke in the morning.”

The story will be told far into the future. It’s a sad story about how Arkansas’ largest city took one of the most cherished ballparks in the country and sold it for a pittance so it could be paved over for surface parking.

It’s too late for Ray Winder, but out of this historic preservation catastrophe perhaps there’s a lesson to be learned. The lesson is that residents of the city must speak up in the future when things like this are being debated.

“Remember Ray Winder” can become the battle cry in a town that far too often in the past has torn down rather than renovated its historic treasures.

When we drive along Interstate 630 and look at that parking lot, this is what we can think for years to come: “We’re better than this. We must do better as a city. We owe it to our children, our grandchildren and all who live here.”

If that happens — if this travesty leads to additional public involvement in the decades ahead — Ray Winder will have taught us an important lesson.

Max wrote his column after a long walk around War Memorial Park.

“Across the freeway, I marveled at the children’s branch library under construction and the fact that the Central Arkansas Library System had saved a Craftsman-style house, as well as a stone storage building. The library builds monuments.

“On the north side of the freeway, I had a nice walk around the park perimeter. Careful on Monroe Street. It lacks sidewalks. More walking paths are also needed in the northwest sector of the park. The perimeter of the Little Rock Zoo could use some improvement, particularly the raggedy picnic area.”

The economic development game has changed dramatically in recent decades. So much of economic development these days is about attracting talented, creative people who have their choice of cities.

It’s about far more than building industrial, business and, yes, technology parks.

It’s about creating a place where people want to live. It’s about walking trails, biking trails, parks, baseball fields, restaurants and concert venues.

That’s all part of economic development.

Plugging that hole in the River Trail is probably the most significant economic development step this city could take right now.

In the newspaper column I wrote this week, I referenced a column that was produced last month by Frank Bruni for The New York Times. It focused on New York City’s parks improvements and how those mirror a trend in dozens of American cities.

“Whenever you doubt that the future can improve upon the past or that government can play a pivotal role in that, consider and revel in the extraordinary greening of New York,” Bruni wrote. “This city looks nothing — nothing — like it did just a decade and a half ago. It’s a place of newly gorgeous waterfront promenades, of trees, tall grasses and blooming flowers on patches of land and peninsulas of concrete and even stretches of rail tracks that were blighted or blank before. It’s a lush retort to the pessimism of this era, verdant proof that growth remains possible, at least with the requisite will and the right strategies.

“The transformation of New York has happened incrementally enough — one year the High Line, another year Brooklyn Bridge Park — that it often escapes full, proper appreciation. But it’s a remarkable, hopeful stride.”

Bruni noted that what’s going on in New York is “emblematic of a coast-to-coast pattern of intensified dedication to urban parkland.”

Van Valkenburgh, a noted landscape architect whose firm designed Brooklyn Bridge Park, said: “There’s a profound amount of interest and activity right now in making and remaking urban parks. I think it’s because we are reinvested in the idea of living in cities.”

Bruni pointed to other examples across the country, some of them in this region:

 — The Myriad Botanical Gardens in Oklahoma City

— Discovery Green in downtown Houston

— Trinity River developments in Dallas

Catherine Nagel, the executive director of the City Parks Alliance, said the country is in an era of “re-urbanization” and that the increased population density brings with it the need for more green space.

“Amazingly, we’re getting it because citizens have demanded as much; because governments have made it a priority; because public and private partnerships have been cultivated,” Bruni wrote. “New York is the bright flower of all that.”

Sadly, the most high-profile public project in Arkansas this summer has been the demolition of one of the state’s historic treasures so it can be replaced by surface parking.

Each time you drive down Interstate 630, tell yourself that we can do better and vow to speak out in the future.

Remember Ray Winder.

A tipping point for Little Rock

Thursday, March 29th, 2012

Perhaps downtown Little Rock is finally at a tipping point.

I say this following a recent afternoon when I parked my car at the intersection of Main and Second streets in downtown Little Rock and walked south to the newly remodeled Arkansas Repertory Theatre to hear a talk by Rocco Landesman, the chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts.

After hearing Landesman speak, I headed over to the Clinton School of Public Service to hear Susan Piedmont-Palladino, the curator of the National Building Museum in Washington, talk about “intelligent cities” — the intersection of information technology and urban life and design.

The two talks that day had a lot in common. Landesman spoke about “creative placemaking” and the $150,000 grant that was awarded last year by the NEA to the city of Little Rock to plan the development of a “creative corridor” on Main Street.

I was reminded once again of the wealth of interesting speakers who now come to Little Rock on a regular basis. It’s pretty unusual for a city this size and, in my mind, one of the great amenities of living here.

This past Sunday, I went with my son to see the St. Louis Cardinals exhibit at the Clinton Center (we are both Cardinals fans and are ready for the major league season to start). Afterward, we walked across the pedestrian bridge to North Little Rock and then walked through the Bill Clark Wetlands (at least the small part that wasn’t flooded).

Hundreds of people were enjoying a beautiful Sunday afternoon downtown. I was reminded of what downtown Little Rock can be. Main Street, however, remains the bleeding sore in the middle of downtown.

There are several reasons I believe downtown (Main Street in particular) may finally be at a tipping point. They include:

1. The announcement earlier this month that the Doyle Rogers Co. and Moses Tucker Real Estate are going to restore the seven-story building on Main Street that was built as the flagship of Blass Department Stores. The developers also plan to renovate an adjoining three-level annex.

The Blass building, constructed in 1906, is on the National Register of Historic Places. Rett Tucker and Jimmy Moses have a track record of actually making things happen downtown (there are about five people in this city that I consider true visionaries, and Moses and Tucker are on my list). The fact that they’re now branching out from the River Market District and onto Main Street sends a strong message to other potential developers. I’m talking about developers who can really move projects forward, not the type of out-of-state developers we’ve seen so often in the past who make big promises for downtown Little Rock but have neither the will nor the capital to transform those promises into reality.

The Blass building project will include almost 100,000 square feet of office space, room for six to eight retail establishments and about 20 loft-style apartments.

2. Stephens Inc.’s renovation of a historic building it owns at the corner of Capitol and Main. Yes, I know there are empty lots of both sides of Main Street where the Stephens interests tore down buildings.

The reason I’m willing to cut Warren Stephens some slack is because we’ve seen at both the Capital Hotel and Alotian that when he moves ahead with a project, he does it right. With the economy turning around, hopefully the time is near when Warren will announce his plans for those lots.

3. The $6 million renovation of the Arkansas Repertory Theatre, which could serve as a catalyst for other creative outlets along Main Street.

“The arts is an ecosystem,” the NEA’s Landesman said. “The arts not only employs the artisans, it employs the restaurant owner down the street.”

Bob Hupp, the Rep’s producing artistic director, noted that the Rep has long been “an urban pioneer for the economic development of downtown Little Rock. We would love to have some company.”

Indeed, the Rep’s neighbors are mostly state offices that empty at 4:30 p.m., unused buildings and what’s basically a porno video store.

4. Grants and available capital: The city has received important planning grants the past couple of years to study what should be done along Main Street. Maybe the passage last year of the one-cent increase in the sales tax will now provide capital to help make parts of those plans a reality.

Green America’s Capitals is a project of the Partnership for Sustainable Communities in association with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and the U.S. Department of Transportation. The goal is to help state capitals develop distinctive, environmentally friendly neighborhoods.

Little Rock was one of five state capitals — Boston, Hartford, Jefferson City and Charleston, W.Va., were the others — selected in 2010 to participate in the program. Five additional cities were added in 2011.

A three-day workshop was conducted last April to pull together various ideas for Main Street. They included:

— Continuous street design for the length of Main Street, including stormwater management, crosswalks, trees, lighting and benches.

— A park along Main Street that’s large enough to host events.

— Development of the overpass at Interstate 630 to better connect south Main Street with downtown.

A 43-page plan came out of that workshop. Combine that with the previously mentioned NEA grant for a “creative corridor” plan. That blueprint calls for the renovation of buildings across the street from the Rep for use by area arts organizations and affordable units in which artists can live and work.

The University of Arkansas Community Design Center partnered with Marlon Blackwell Architects to work on the design.

Landesman noted that “communities across the country are using smart design and leveraging the arts to enhance quality of life and promote their identities.”

Mayor Mark Stodola called the NEA grant “exactly the stimulus the city needs to bring back Main Street. With the Arkansas Repertory Theatre at the core, bringing other arts organizations to Main Street will give the corridor a cultural excitement and identity that is so vital to the renaissance of our downtown.”

Stephen Luoni of the University of Arkansas Community Design Center said the project has the potential to be a “national model for consolidating cultural arts functions — artist housing, production spaces, galleries and performance spaces — as a catalyst for sustained urban development in downtown.”

Too many plans for this city, of course, have simply gathered dust. The city board must decide to use part of that new sales tax revenue to complete the infrastructure portions of the Greening America’s Capitals and NEA “creative corridor” plans.

If the city will do its part from an infrastructure perspective, I have no doubt that private investments will follow.

5. The Oxford American’s plan to transform the old Juanita’s location on south Main Street into a Southern cultural center (full disclosure: I’m a member of the Oxford American board).

The addition of a Southern bistro, perhaps a gift shop and use of the performance space several nights a week for everything from music events to lectures to poetry readings will add momentum to what’s already happening along Main Street south of Interstate 630.

“The Oxford American occupies a niche,” said Warwick Sabin, the publisher of the noted Southern literary quarterly. “We protect and perpetuate the best of Southern culture.”

If done correctly, the OA complex will complement existing downtown attractions such as the Clinton Center, the Museum of Discovery, Heifer International, the Old State House and the Historic Arkansas Museum.

There also are things happening away from Main Street that lead me to believe we might be at a tipping point for that crucial downtown corridor:

1. Little Rock and surrounding cities in the metropolitan statistical area survived the Great Recession pretty well. In fact, it was announced in December that the Little Rock MSA had jumped from 93rd to 19th in the Milken Institute’s annual rankings of America’s 200 best performing cities.

2. The passage earlier this month of a bond issue for the Central Arkansas Library System will allow momentum to continue in the River Market District. The bond issue will provide $13 million for an auditorium, a parking deck and other improvements to the already impressive downtown CALS campus — main library, Arkansas Studies Institute and Cox Creative Center — that Bobby Roberts (who also is on my list of Little Rock visionaries) has built.

The hope is that a public-private partnership will allow Moses-Tucker to move forward with a development to be known as The Arcade. Continued momentum in the River Market District is necessary if development is to spread to Main Street.

Now if only the folks at City Hall would plug that hole in the River Trail, we would really be on a roll as a city.

Garrett Uekman, Catholic High and ties that bind

Friday, December 2nd, 2011

When I wrote a newspaper column earlier this week on Little Rock’s Catholic High School for Boys, I knew I would receive feedback.

I don’t write columns with feedback in mind. But understanding how strongly Catholic High graduates feel about the place, I knew this particular column would generate calls, texts and e-mails.

As I noted in the column, I’m not a Catholic High graduate. Our oldest son graduated from there in May. The night he graduated as valedictorian (he is blessed to have his mother’s brains) was among the proudest moments of my life.

Austin is now at Hendrix College. His younger brother is a freshman at Catholic High. That means I’ll have the pleasure of being a Catholic High dad for another four years.

What I didn’t have in front of me when I wrote that column was the text of the amazing eulogy the school’s principal, Steve Straessle, gave at the funeral of Catholic High graduate and University of Arkansas tight end Garrett Uekman.

Here’s part of what he said: “Letting go of a good kid is hard to do. Letting go of an exceptional kid is almost unbearable. At Catholic High, we’re surrounded by boys who are striving to be exceptional young men. You should see them. They all enter our doors as scared, shaking little freshmen who are wondering if they can survive in a school with no girls and no air conditioning. Then, as seniors, they graduate as confident young men who know that they are armed with strong faith, a strong work ethic and the ability to endure life’s pitfalls.

“No easy roads are promised at Catholic High. Instead, Catholic High promises the strength to rise to challenges and to be more than just an average man. Oftentimes, we are fortunate to get a few freshmen who are not shaking and scared. We get a few of them who are quietly confident in their ability and revel in the challenges we present them. That was Garrett Uekman.”

Steve added this: “At Catholic High, we have one rule that encompasses all the others, one rule that transcends everything else and is at the heart of Christ’s message. That rule is: Never be a bystander. If your faith is tested, defend it. If someone is hungry, feed him. If one is downcast, encourage him. If your test is difficult, prepare for it. If your friends are troubled, step up. If the little guy needs you, be there. Bystanders watch life go by. People like Garrett Uekman get in the game. Bad things happen when bystanders are in the crowd. Good things pour forth when people like Garrett step up. You don’t live your dreams by twiddling your thumbs when action is called for. You live your dreams by getting into the game. It’s just that simple, and Garrett was the embodiment of that spirit.”

“That spirit.”

Spend some time around Catholic High, its alums and the boys who currently attend school there and you’ll know that spirit is real.

Michael Moran, who graduated from Catholic High in 1961 and later spent four decades teaching at the school, wrote a book titled “Proudly We Speak Your Name: Forty-Four Years At Little Rock Catholic High School.”

Through the stories he tells in his book, which was published by the Butler Center for Arkansas Studies in 2009, he captures the essence of the school.

He sets the stage for the book this way: “Catholic High School for Boys was established in Little Rock in 1930 by Bishop John Morris at 25th and State streets, where Little Rock College and then St. John’s Seminary had formerly been located. In January 1961, CHS moved to 6300 Lee Ave. (now Father Tribou Street). The first graduating class of 1931 numbered five. Since then, more than 7,000 students have become alumni.

“Father George Tribou is the towering figure in Catholic High history. Coming to Little Rock from Jenkintown, Pa., George Tribou was ordained a priest for the Diocese of Little Rock and in the second year of his priesthood was assigned to CHS, where he served as teacher and principal for more than 50 years, until his death in 2001.

“Any recollection of Catholic High School would be incomplete without recognition of the centrality of Father Tribou’s role in defining its character. Even when elevated to the position of monsignor in his later years, he preferred to be called ‘father,’ a role he played in the lives of untold numbers of Catholic High boys.”

Ah, Father Tribou.

As a boy, he had worked as a film projectionist back home in Pennsylvania. He later would say that part of his inspiration for becoming a priest was seeing the movie “Boys Town” and Spencer Tracy’s portrayal of Father Flanagan.

His approaches were unique – and effective:

— Boys were sometimes allowed to settle disputes with boxing gloves. They would then spend the next day at school together and be allowed only to talk to each other.

— He once announced to the student body that he had seen a boy smoking a cigarette on the school grounds. He said that if that student did not show up in his office immediately, his penalty would increase. Within minutes, there were more than a dozen boys in Father Tribou’s office.

— He was known for getting to the point. When a number of urban schools began installing metal detectors, Father Tribou said of Catholic High: “That would not work here. These boys have too much lead in their asses.”

I know Father Tribou would be proud of the job Steve Straessle is doing in the role of principal.

At one time, Steve wanted to be a lawyer. After graduating from college in 1992, he decided he wasn’t quite ready for law school.

Steve, a Catholic High graduate and the son of a Catholic High graduate, called Father Tribou one night to say he was thinking about teaching history for a year before entering law school. As luck would have it, a history teacher at Catholic High had asked for a one-year sabbatical.

Steve’s grandfather had been a custodian when the school moved to its current location in 1961.

“My grandfather walked through these halls,” Steve told the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette several years ago. “And while I’m walking through the school, I often can’t help but think of my grandfather sweeping the halls. I learned a couple of things from my grandfather — the importance of humility and hard work.”

He went on to tell the newspaper this about his experience as a Catholic High student: “It laid the groundwork perfectly for the next stone of education to be laid in college. It was also about Christian formation, and at Catholic High in particular, we still hammer home the idea that we want you to be successful. But success to us means that you are a good husband, a good father and a good citizen as well as a good member of your profession. My classmates were and still are my best friends. They were in my wedding. They are my closest confidants. They are the people who will carry me to my grave.”

At the end of that newspaper story, Steve had this to say about Father Tribou and about Catholic High: “He was a child of the ’40s. He was raised in the era of Tommy Dorsey and Benny Goodman and Humphrey Bogart. I was raised in the ’80s in the era of Van Halen and Charlie Sheen. Those are big differences, but there are some things that are timeless such as the adherence to the belief that rigorous academics and high expectations are the keys to success, the belief that self-discipline and work ethic are virtues and the idea that all ambition should be tempered by a doctrine of faith — and the absolute fact that a sense of humor is as important as an arm or a leg. This is our school. In succinct terms, this is what we do.”

As the father of a Catholic High graduate and the father of a current student, I’ve come to understand the Catholic High brotherhood.

Here’s how the school’s website describes it: “At CHS, boys experience a special kind of fraternity, often referred to by faculty, graduates and students alike as the Catholic High brotherhood. What forms this brotherhood? From time immemorial, challenges have bonded men, and the rigorous academics and strict discipline of CHS are certainly enough for that; but all-school masses, pep rallies with the skit cheerleaders, athletic events and intramurals serve to strengthen CHS boys’ brotherhood, rooted, as it is, in faith, laughter, competition and common goals.”




And common goals.

Sadly, it took a tragedy for many Arkansans to realize what a treasure resides in the middle of Little Rock.

God bless Garrett Uekman.

Long live Catholic High.

College football: Week 12 (Razorbacks in the Rock)

Wednesday, November 16th, 2011

It has become a November tradition in our family: The Ouachita football season has ended, meaning it’s time to attend a Razorback game at Little Rock’s War Memorial Stadium.

The November opponent in Little Rock has alternated in recent years between Mississippi State and LSU.

The LSU contest is the one you really look forward to, but there’s nothing wrong with playing the Bulldogs. We’ll do as we always do. We’ll park in Hillcrest, walk down Van Buren Street and head to Brenda Scisson’s tailgate party about two hours before kickoff. We’ll hit Brenda’s party again after the contest while the traffic clears. With the traffic gone, I can be home from War Memorial in less than 10 minutes. It’s great.

Normally, you would expect CBS to pick up Ole Miss-LSU as its national Southeastern Conference telecast on this weekend each year. Two years ago was the Tigers’ infamous clock-management meltdown in Oxford as Verne Lundquist exclaimed: “What are they doing?”

But the Rebels are so awful this year that there was no way CBS was going to telecast that rout nationally.

Thus the Razorbacks get a chance to show off for the national television cameras Saturday afternoon. They should take advantage of the opportunity. So should the fans.

The folks at War Memorial Stadium — who did a nice job getting those in attendance to wear alternating red and white shirts earlier in the year to mark the 10th anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks — have come up with a new idea for this Saturday. They’ve purchased more than 50,000 red-and-white pompons that will be placed in the seats.

It should make for quite a sight on national television.

The War Memorial Stadium Commission was joined by the Little Rock Convention and Visitors Bureau, the Little Rock Regional Chamber of Commerce, Bank of America, Regions Bank, the Mitchell Williams law firm, the Friday Eldredge & Clark law firm, Ark and Nancy Monroe and Kevin and Cathy Crass in making the purchase.

These individuals and entities realize how important those two Razorback football games are each year to Little Rock.

Kevin Crass, the chairman of the stadium commission, described it as a “privilege” to host two games in an era when few schools play home games away from campus.

In the unique state that’s Arkansas, I think UA athletic director Jeff Long has come to understand how much the Little Rock games mean to fans not only in central Arkansas but also those in south and east Arkansas. Expect to see plenty of those in attendance from south and east Arkansas in hunting clothes since Saturday is the first day of duck season and the second Saturday of modern gun deer season.

Add to the football game the fact that Mike Anderson’s basketball team will take on Houston on Friday night in North Little Rock’s Verizon Arena.

Hugh McDonald of Entergy Arkansas, the current chairman of the Little Rock Regional Chamber of Commerce, noted during a Wednesday news conference at War Memorial Stadium that the events will have an estimated $6 million impact on the city.

McDonald also noted that part of economic development these days is “creating an environment in which people like to live.”

Especially in the South, people like to live in a place that has some big-time college football.

Given the Razorbacks’ long history of playing Little Rock games, Little Rock Mayor Mark Stodola made the point at the news conference that War Memorial is also a home stadium for the university.

“The Little Rock games offer an opportunity to bring this state together,” the mayor said. “We’re proud of our partnership with the university. This is going to be a wonderful Razorback weekend with wins Friday night and Saturday afternoon.”

Stodola also correctly pointed out that the golf course in War Memorial Park provides the setting for one of the best tailgate scenes in America.

Shake those free pompons Saturday afternoon and make it look good for the CBS cameras.

As part of what’s known as RazorRock, a pep rally will be held at 4:45 p.m. Friday at Little Rock’s Park Plaza Mall. The Razorback band, cheerleaders and mascots will be in attendance.

As for the game itself, it’s important to point out that Mississippi State is not to be confused with Tennessee. Though the Bulldogs are just 5-5 overall and 1-5 in the SEC, they’re a far better team than the Vols. That’s not to say that the Hogs shouldn’t pull away in the second half. Coach Dan Mullen is just 2-11 against SEC West teams since coming to Starkville (he has defeated a fellow from Ole Miss named Nutt on two occasions). Last week, Alabama’s defense held the Bulldogs to only 131 yards of offense en route to a 24-7 victory.

This Bulldog team easily could be 7-3 rather than 5-5 had it made key plays down the stretch in losses of 41-34 to Auburn and 14-12 to South Carolina. Top-ranked LSU only beat the Bulldogs by 13 points, 19-6.

Arkansas has won 14 of the 21 meetings between these two schools, including nine of the past 10. The Razorbacks are 5-0-1 against the Bulldogs in Little Rock. Mississippi State last beat Arkansas three years ago in Starkville.

Meanwhile, Arkansas State needs a win at Middle Tennessee on Saturday afternoon to secure at least a share of the Sun Belt Conference championship. And UAPB ends the regular season at home against Texas Southern.

We were 7-1 on our picks last week, making the record 73-19 for the season. We not only would have gone 8-0 had Ouachita been awarded a touchdown on the final play of the Battle of the Ravine but also have had the margin correct since we had picked the Tigers by one. Oh well.

On to the picks for Week 12:

Arkansas 35, Mississippi State 19 — Razorback fans couldn’t find much to complain about in the wake of that 49-7 win over Tennessee in Fayetteville last Saturday night. The Hogs have now won six consecutive games and 10 in a row at home. It was their largest winning margin in an SEC game since beating Mississippi State in Fayetteville in 2003 by a score of 52-6. I attended that game. Arkansas has now won seven consecutive games against SEC East teams, dating back to the narrow 2009 loss at Florida. At 4-6 overall and 0-6 in the SEC, Tennessee will have six or more conference losses for the first time since 1962. How long ago was that? Tulane was still in the conference. It was the largest margin of defeat for a Tennessee team since a 44-0 loss to Georgia in 1981. It’s fair to say the Hogs are rolling now. With Joe Adams’ remarkable punt return, Arkansas has now scored seven nonoffensive touchdowns this season, including one in each of the past four games. Tyler Wilson was 16 of 26 passing against Tennessee for 224 yards while Dennis Johnson rushed for 97 yards. My thinking is this: A similar performance against Mississippi State in Little Rock on Saturday afternoon results in a margin of victory between 14 and 21 points.

Arkansas State 31, Middle Tennessee State 24 — Last Saturday’s 30-21 win in Jonesboro over a good Louisiana-Lafayette squad was huge for Red Wolves. In the first year of the Hugh Freeze era, ASU is 8-2 overall and 6-0 in conference play. The Red Wolves converted five turnovers into 17 points against Louisiana-Lafayette. Ryan Aplin was 20 of 32 passing and added 80 yards rushing. Middle Tennessee is 2-7 overall and 1-4 in conference play. The wins came by scores of 38-31 over Memphis and 38-14 over Florida Atlantic. The losses have been by scores of 27-24 to Purdue, 49-21 to Georgia Tech, 38-35 to Troy, 36-33 to Western Kentucky, 45-20 to Louisiana-Lafayette, 24-0 to Tennessee and 42-14 to Louisiana-Monroe.

UAPB  21, Texas Southern 12 — The Golden Lions can give Monte Coleman his first winning season in four years as head coach. They evened their record last Saturday at 5-5 overall and 4-4 in the SWAC with a 15-3 victory over Mississippi Valley State. Texas Southern comes to town with records of 4-6 overall and 2-6 in the SWAC. The wins came by scores of 49-6 over Texas College, 14-7 over Alcorn State, 42-11 over Central State of Ohio and 29-15 over Southern University. The losses were by scores of 37-34 to Prairie View A&M, 58-13 to Jackson State, 43-29 to Alabama State, 24-21 to Alabama A&M, 12-9 to Mississippi Valley State and 29-25 to Grambling. The good news for UAPB is that all of those suspensions that resulted from the brawl at the end of the Oct. 15 win over Southern have now been served.

The next great Southern city?

Friday, September 16th, 2011

I recently came across a copy of the October 2003 edition of Little Rock magazine, a pretty nice monthly publication that had a short run before folding due to its inability to turn a profit.

That issue of the magazine contained an article by John Brummett on the Vision Little Rock process. Brummett described that process as “300 of the city’s finest people voluntarily spending two years at the behest of the City Board of Directors compiling a report submitted in January 2002 on where the city needed to go over the next decade. … Nothing much came of it. Bob East, one of three chairmen of Vision Little Rock, says he’d hoped the city would take the report and run with it, availing itself of the political capital and energy of the 300 mobilized citizens and putting an infrastructure and public safety tax to an expedited vote.”

East told Brummett at the time: “I’m disappointed at the lost momentum.”

Turn the clock forward almost eight years as 54 percent of those who turned out in a special election voted for a sales tax increase that will raise an estimated $31.6 million a year for operations while also approving a separate sales tax increase that will raise an estimated $196 million during the next decade for capital improvements.

This week’s special election marked the city’s sixth attempt since 1981 to get a sales tax increase approved. Only two of those attempts have been successful. The previous time an increase was approved was 1994.

I see similarities between what happened almost two decades ago and what happened this week.

The gang situation had reached its zenith in Little Rock in 1994, and people had quite simply had enough.

I’ve always thought the low point for the decade of the 1990s was the Friday night when Chef Andre was shot in front of a full house at his restaurant in that converted Hillcrest home. I remember being in the newsroom of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette when we received the news. I grieved not only for Andre and his family but also for Little Rock.

The year 1994 was also when the HBO documentary “Gang War: Bangin’ in Little Rock” ran over and over and over again.

There were Bloods. There were Crips. There was a city that looked hopeless to HBO viewers around the world, a sort of Detroit of the South.

Those of us who loved Little Rock had had enough. A majority of us voted for a half-cent sales tax to, among other things, beef up the police force. The gangs weren’t totally eradicated, but progress occurred. Little Rock had blossomed into (dare I say it) sort of a hip Southern city by the end of the century.

It’s 2011, and many of us had again become concerned about the state of the city.

Here’s how Mayor Mark Stodola put it in his State of the City address back in March: “The city enacted a half-penny city sales tax in mid-year 1994, some 17 years ago. The rate has never increased. In 1995, the first full year of collecting our half-penny sales tax, we had a total of 1,537 employees. … Now we have 1,542 employees on the payroll for a net gain of five employees. Consider for a moment that in 1994, when our tax began to be collected, we had a total of 869 employees in our police and fire departments. Now, 17 years later, we have 1,106 employees in our police and fire departments, for a net increase in the area of public safety of 237 employees. Obviously, it is apparent that all of our other operating departments have been cut so that we do everything possible to ensure that public safety is our first and foremost obligation.”

Despite the increased number of folks working at the police and fire departments, there are severe problems. Cars and trucks are failing apart. The police headquarters is far from adequate. The communications system is on its last legs.

Problems in other areas also are severe. Little Rock doesn’t have nearly enough code enforcement officers. Street resurfacing has become a thing of the past. City parks are woefully maintained.

I took a history-loving visitor from Washington, D.C., to MacArthur Park this summer and immediately felt the need to apologize. Tall weeds and trash were everywhere. I was embarrassed for my city.

“Enough is enough,” we said in 1994.

“Enough is enough,” we said again on Tuesday.

While Little Rock has its share of urban decay, that decay is not as widespread as in the cities of some of our neighboring states — think Jackson in Mississippi, Memphis in Tennessee, St. Louis in Missouri.

“Enough is enough,” we said Tuesday. “We don’t want to be Jackson, Miss.”

But this is a huge amount of new money for City Hall, which is why in yesterday’s post I urged everyone to be vigilant so this money is spent in the wisest possible manner.

Here’s how Jim Lynch put it in a Tuesday guest column in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette: “$511 million in new taxes is almost equal to $1 million in new taxes paid every week to City Hall for the next 10 years. Please think about this scenario again — $1 million deposited every Monday morning in the City Hall treasury for the next 10 years.”

If invested wisely, that money can set the stage for greater private investments and the attraction of smart, talented, creative people to Little Rock.

Yet it’s far from certain how wisely the money will be spent.

Let’s go back to that 2003 Brummett article. He wrote: “The story of Vision Little Rock and its aftermath is one encompassing all the plots, subplots and contradictions of modern civic life in the capital city. It is a story of pervasive distrust of the city’s political leadership even as the mayor enjoys wide public approval. It is a story of a city in a veritable cultural renaissance that can’t fill potholes or keep its patrolmen in low-mileage cars. … It is, at the moment, a city with blurred vision.”

Pervasive distrust of the city’s political leadership.

A city with blurred vision.

The more things change. . .

We can only hope the vision clears a bit as this extra $1 million a week begins pouring in come January. Actually, we can do more than hope. We can attend meetings of the board. We can call board members. We can write letters to the editor. We can hold elected officials’ feet to the fire.

Brummett had a separate column in the back of that October 2003 issue of Little Rock magazine.

That column also bears quoting since its words ring as true today as they did eight years ago.

Brummett took offense at “the occasional pointlessness of slogans as designed by advertising and marketing consultants and adorned with cosmetic inanity. It’s better simply to be than to brag, and it’s better to do the job than to crow you’ve done it. Baseball players call it letting their bats do the talking. That’s because they don’t know any better than to use cliches.

“One should understate in a manner akin to the way old money reveals itself without effort or spectacle. Let it be seen, but do not expose it. Real quality resides in the passive voice.

“So it should be with the city of Little Rock, which has had its ups and downs — with the ups holding their own — over the last decade or so, first as city leaders paid consultants for the privilege of going around saying, ‘I’m big on Little Rock,’ then to talk about ‘Little Rock — city limitless.’

“The bigger the boosters got on Little Rock, the smaller the percentage of voters agreeing to tax increases for infrastructure and services. The more limitless the boosters proclaimed the city to be, the more limited the city budget became.

“Our city might well save a few consulting dollars by simply being rather than bragging.

“The fact of the matter is that Little Rock is not bad. Our bat can do some pretty fair talking. We’re better than Shreveport, better than Jackson and better than Mobile even with all those camellias and Bellingrath Gardens.”

So let’s harken back to yesterday’s blog post.

The next great American city in the South?

A city in a park?

Forget all of that for the next decade.

Let’s focus on how we invest that extra $1 million a week (see the suggestions in yesterday’s blog post).

Do that and our bats indeed will do the talking. We won’t have to come up with a slogan. That’s because others across the country will be able to proclaim in the fall of 2021 that Little Rock has become the next great Southern city.

I can dream, can’t I?

That new Little Rock tax

Thursday, September 15th, 2011

The first thing they need at Little Rock City Hall is a good editor.

There’s that line the mayor likes to use about being the “next great American city in the South.”

I guess that’s so we won’t be confused with the “next great French city in the South.”

If you’re going to engage in rank hyperbole, at least make it a bit less convoluted: “The next great Southern city.”

I went to my polling place along Mississippi Street early Tuesday morning and voted for both the three-eighths of a cent sales tax increase and the five-eighths of a cent sales tax increase.

I did so reluctantly, knowing the dire straits that would otherwise be faced by our policemen and firefighters with their unfilled positions, worn-out vehicles, antiquated communications system and mold-filled police headquarters.

I’ll readily admit that I was reluctant in part due to my dismal experience with the city in trying to save one of this state’s most historic structures, Ray Winder Field. That whole process was a sham. It was wired from the start.

I wish I had been wise enough not to become involved. I wish I would have realized that the cause was hopeless.

There was no interest in saving an important part of our state’s history.

There was no interest in providing a badly needed baseball facility for the youth of a city that has fallen far behind its neighbors when it comes to providing baseball fields, softball fields, soccer fields and the like.

There was only an interest in receiving a payment from the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences, a pittance when you consider what was lost.

You have to wonder about the priorities of any city that turns its back on children and instead sells off valuable parkland for parking lots.

I also have my doubts about the $22 million that’s going to be put into a so-called research and technology park. Having worked as a presidential appointee for several years on economic development issues, I can list the cities that have tried similar projects with decidedly mixed results.

It’s not as if Little Rock is on the cutting edge in this respect.

Here’s how The Economist recently put it: “Build a magnificent technology park next to a research university; provide incentives for chosen businesses to locate there; add some venture capital. This is the common recipe for harnessing higher education and industry to spur economic growth as prescribed by management consultants touting the ‘cluster theory’ developed by Harvard Business School’s Michael E. Porter.

“Hundreds of regions all over the world have spent billions on such efforts; practically all have failed. Yet others are following suit. … All of those are well-intentioned efforts to build Silicon Valley-style technology hubs, but they are based on the same flawed assumptions: that government planners can pick industries they want to develop and, by erecting buildings and providing money to entreprenuers and university researchers, make innovation happen.

“It simply doesn’t work that way. It takes people who are knowledgeable, motivated and willing to take risks. Those people have to be connected to one another and to universities by information-sharing social networks.

“Regional planners and some academics get very defensive when asked to produce evidence of cluster theory’s success. They commonly tout Silicon Valley and North Carolina’s Research Triangle Park as examples of the success of government-supported clusters. Research Triangle Park is a 50-year-old project that achieved success decades ago but lost momentum in the Internet era. And the success of Silicon Valley was achieved without government involvement.”

If we were intent on going down this path, we at least should have done it on a regional basis. If I learned anything in the years I spent with the Delta Regional Authority, it’s the importance of regionalism. The University of Arkansas at Little Rock, UAMS and Arkansas Children’s Hospital are tremendous economic engines for the capital city and the state. Rather than Little Rock going its own way, it would have been nice if Children’s Hospital, UALR and UAMS had taken advantage of what the Economic Development Alliance of Jefferson County is already doing at the Bioplex between Little Rock and Pine Bluff.

Almost 1,500 acres of Pine Bluff Arsenal property was deeded to the alliance a decade ago by the U.S. Department of Defense. Situated next to these 1,500 acres are the Food and Drug Administration’s National Center for Toxicological Research, the FDA’s Arkansas Regional Laboratory and what remains of the Pine Bluff Arsenal.

Just last month, the FDA signed an agreement with the state that will establish a joint center to enhance regulatory science. NCTR has about 550 workers, 150 of whom have their doctorates. When I was at the DRA, we sank money into the Bioplex because we believed in the potential of private businesses taking advantage of what’s already there.

Rather than Pine Bluff going one way and Little Rock going another, it would have made more sense for the Little Rock-based entities to cooperate with the folks to the southeast. Little Rock city officials, in turn, would have better served the citizens by sinking that $22 million into even more road, sidewalk and parks improvements.

Don’t get me wrong. I like living in Little Rock. If I didn’t like the city, I wouldn’t be raising my two sons here. But it’s high time the folks at City Hall realize that in the knowledge-based economy of the 21st century, you attract young, smart, creative people by having a high quality of place. Frankly, that has a lot more to do with quality schools, parks, trails, restaurants, bars, wifi connections, sports facilities and cultural amenities than it does with research parks.

Talented people who are new to a city can quickly sense if it’s going to be the right place to live. It either has that creative vibe or it doesn’t. It also needs to be clean and efficient.

I remember shaking my head last week on a trip from my office downtown to Riverdale. First, I dodged potholes on Broadway that could swallow a small car. Along Cantrell Road, the weeds adjacent to the River Trail — something that has the potential to be among this city’s landmark amenities — stood four to five feet tall in places.

I crossed a railroad overpass into Riverdale, and the weeds were just as tall on either side of that bridge.

If I didn’t know better, I would have sworn that City Hall was making things look as bad as possible so people would vote for the two-tiered tax proposal.

I know, I know. The budget is tight. I’m not a conspiracy theorist.

Yet when the additional dollars start rolling in come January, I hope the city will concentrate at the outset on taking care of what it already has before setting off on some wild building spree.

The beauty of the statewide effort in 1996 to pass a one-eighth of a cent increase in the state sales tax for conservation and parks improvements (I worked on that campaign) was that we promised voters we would not build additional state parks. Instead, we would make the state parks we already had the best in the nation.

In the end, I did what many of my fellow white males in my age and income groups did — I turned out and voted for both taxes.

Now, I’ll watch closely and hope the Little Rock media keep the heat on in the years ahead to ensure the money is spent wisely.

I know of virtually no one who disputed the needs of the Little Rock Police Department and the Little Rock Fire Department. These extra tax dollars should make us a safer city.

It’s in the other areas that the priorities become fuzzy.

How do we make this the next great Southern city?

Some ideas:

— Waste no time hiring those additional code enforcement officers that are promised and then have the most rigid code enforcement in the country. Remove dilapidated buildings and homes rather than letting them rot year after year.

— Finish the Little Rock portion of the River Trail.

— Add as many miles of new sidewalks and streetlights as possible to make this the next great walkable city in the South.

— Truly create a system of city parks that’s the envy of the region. That slogan “City In A Park” (the city probably paid some advertising agency good money for that) rings hollow in a town where they sell off ballparks for parking lots.

— Have the smoothest streets of any city this size in the country and make sure the right of ways are mowed and kept free of trash.

If you have a safe city with the above attributes, you might be amazed what entreprenuers in the private sector can accomplish without government subsidies.

Heck, mayor, we might just become the next great American city in the South.