I had the honor of speaking Saturday in Arkadelphia at the memorial service for one of my college professors, Dr. Everett Slavens. Here are my remarks:
The older I get, the more I realize how blessed I was as a boy.
I grew up in a college town. Not only was it a college town, it was this town — Arkadelphia — a place small enough for everyone to know and care for each other.
I took it for granted as a boy, but because of the existence of two four-year institutions of higher education, the Arkadelphia in which I was raised in the 1960s and 1970s was far different from other towns its size in south Arkansas.
What’s now Ouachita Baptist University began developing the wooded hills near the Ouachita River in the late 1950s for faculty housing. My family moved into that neighborhood when I was just a year old, and Ouachita Hills was the only neighborhood I knew growing up. Most of those in the neighborhood were faculty members at Ouachita with a few Reddies from what’s now Henderson State University sprinkled in.
My mother and father were Ouachita graduates, yet we were different from our neighbors since my parents ran a business downtown rather than being employed at Ouachita or Henderson. Our family friends included a noted composer, a talented playwright, a famous basketball coach, a well-known football coach, writers, philosophers, theologians and even the state’s lieutenant governor.
You couldn’t get that in a Malvern or a Camden.
It was just a short walk to the Ouachita River and Mill Creek, where I could wade and throw rocks. There was a pond across the street to fish in and an old barn to hide in. Ouachita had cattle and horses in the pasture across the street from our house in those days. So even though we were inside the city limits, it was like living in the country, albeit a country filled with highly educated, articulate and interesting people.
Dr. Everett Slavens was a piece of the tapestry of my blessed boyhood. He was an integral part of a special place at a special time.
In a story published shortly after his death last month, Dr. Randall Wight, a current Ouachita faculty member, described him as “a profile in courage, a figure of lore.”
Dr. Wight went on to say: “He arranged his life so that nobody felt sorry for him. For generations of students and colleagues, his name conjures a Ouachita not lost in the mists of time.”
One of the things that characterized those talented men and women on the Ouachita faculty was a sharp wit and a brilliant sense of humor. Dr. Slavens’ wit was razor sharp.
Yes, Everett Slavens was blind, but indeed we never felt sorry for him because he didn’t feel sorry for himself. His blindness, in fact, was not something I really noticed as Dr. Slavens would walk through our neighborhood.
At least I didn’t pay much attention to it until my freshman year at Ouachita when both Johnny Wink and Tom Auffenberg — two other witty members of the Ouachita faculty — somehow convinced gullible new students that Dr. Slavens really could see.
“It’s all an act,” Auffenberg would state flatly. “Watch how easily he makes his way around campus. No one truly without sight could do that.”
One Ouachita professor might pull my leg.
Surely both Wink and Auffenberg wouldn’t both joke about such a thing.
And surely Dr. Slavens wouldn’t be in on the joke, refusing to provide a straight answer to anyone with the courage to ask.
My doubts increased one warm spring afternoon on the first floor of the former World War II-era barracks that only Ouachita could pass off as a classroom building. My friend Wayne Fawcett from Cabot — now the public school superintendent at Paris — decided he would show up to answer the roll and then quietly climb out the window so he could be at Oaklawn Park in Hot Springs that afternoon in time to take advantage of a hot tip on the third race.
With Wayne halfway out the window, Dr. Slavens tilted his head in that direction and said: “Mr. Fawcett, if you need to leave, you’re free to use the door.”
Embarrassed, Wayne sat back down in his seat and never missed class for the remainder of the semester.
I understand that type of thing happened more than once through the years.
What a teacher he was, this man who refused to let blindness be an obstacle.
I might have been a communications major, but all of my electives were in history and political science. It was an all-star cast of historians at Ouachita in those days — Cole, Coulter, Granade, Auffenberg, Slavens. In baseball, that would be known as depth on the mound. Schools five to 10 times the size of Ouachita couldn’t claim such depth in their departments. I soaked up every opportunity to hear their lectures. And I’m a better person because I did so.
As one of Everett Slavens’ former students, I’m here today to tell you that Johnny Wink and Tom Auffenberg were right. He could see.
Here’s what Dr. Slavens could see:
He could see the potential in his students, many of whom came from small towns in Arkansas, Texas and Louisiana and had never really been exposed to the wider world around them.
He could see that opening up these new worlds to them would improve their lives in the decades ahead.
He could see that forcing them to defend their positions and rely on facts rather than emotions would make the world of work an easier place for them to navigate.
He could see that he was truly making a difference in their lives.
With each passing year, we lose more and more of those men and women who were so influential in the first 22 years of my life, the years I spent in Arkadelphia.
I’ll always appreciate what they did for me and thousands of others.
Well done, Dr. Slavens.
Well done, good and faithful servant.