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A magazine and a website to love

It became official today.

Warwick Sabin is leaving his post as the associate vice president of communications at the University of Central Arkansas to spend all of his time in his other role, publisher of The Oxford American.

It’s time for another confession: I’ve known about this for quite some time since I’m the chairman of the OA board. But it was up to UCA to make the official announcement, and the university did that today.

Warwick, a New York native, came to Arkansas as a college freshman to attend the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville. He decided to stick around. He’s one of the most talented individuals with whom I’ve worked in my years of journalism, government and politics. It’s going to be a tremendous benefit having Warwick devote all of his time to the magazine.

Warwick took on the title of publisher in April 2008. He basically did a full-time job at the magazine in his spare time as his work days were consumed by UCA business. I’m not sure when he slept.

What Warwick’s move to the publisher’s position did, though, was to allow the heart and soul of the OA — editor Marc Smirnoff — to devote his days and nights to making a great editorial product even better.

It was Marc, a California native who ended up in Oxford, Miss., who founded the magazine with the goal of making it The New Yorker of the South. Living in Oxford allowed Marc to get to know Southern writers such as Willie Morris, Barry Hannah, Larry Brown and John Grisham. The first issue of the OA was printed in March 1992, and the magazine went out of business the first time in 1994.

Grisham helped resurrect the publication in 1995, but it went out of business a second time in 2001.

Private investors brought the OA to Little Rock in 2002. By the following year, those investors had decided that publishing an award-winning magazine with a literary bent was not a way to get rich.

So the magazine went out of business yet again. Then, Warwick stepped in. He was too young and idealistic to know better. He asked a group of people who were OA fans to work with him to give the magazine new life. I was fortunate to be one of the people he asked. It helped that Marc refused to give up on his dream and take a job in the real world.

Thankfully for all who love the South and love good writing, the University of Central Arkansas agreed to provide the financing necessary to resurrect the OA yet again. The university also provided a home for the magazine. Publication began again in late 2009. And this time, the OA is here to stay.

I think we have found the perfect mix — a non-profit status, a quarterly publication schedule, a home on a university campus where learning, reading, writing and lively debates are cherished. Now, if only we could give Marc more time to spend evenings at Dickey-Stephens Park.

The magazine was able to lure good, talented people like Ray Wittenberg to help it stay alive this time. With Warwick as a full-time publisher and Marc at the top of his creative game, I’m more optimistic about the future of the magazine than I’ve been in years.

The OA is the type of literary gem that we should support in Arkansas. It reaches people in the book world, the film world and the music world who don’t necessarily think of Arkansas as a place of culture. We know what we have in this state, and we shouldn’t keep it a secret. Even though its focus is on the entire South, the OA helps us spread the Arkansas message — the story of a state filled with talented writers, artists, musicians, filmmakers and more.

Yes, we turn out nationally known politicians. Attending National Governors Association meetings through the years, I would often find myself asking: “How on earth was that guy elected governor of his state?” But then I would realize I was spoiled. I came from a state that had produced truly world-class orators like Dale Bumpers, Bill Clinton and Mike Huckabee. The fact that all are native Arkansans says a lot about the oral tradition in this state.

And, yes, we turn out nationally known football coaches. I never tire of reminding my friends in the state of Alabama that when the University of Alabama wanted to win, it had to turn to a native Arkansan, Paul “Bear” Bryant. And when Auburn University wanted to win, it had to turn to a native Arkansan, Tommy Tuberville. I even seem to remember that there’s a native Arkansan coaching over at Ole Miss right now.

But we also turn out the musicians — Johnny Cash, Charlie Rich, Louis Jordan, Al Green, Glen Campbell (sorry, Melissa, I’m not quite ready to add Kris Allen to that list). And the artists. And the architects. And the writers. When I had an office in the Mississippi Delta, I would joke to my co-workers about the famed Mississippi literary tradition: “All of your great writers are dead. A lot of ours are still alive.”

The OA helps us celebrate all of that and spread the word.

A couple of items to close. First, you’re missing a real treat if you’ve not visited the OA’s revamped website at It features a new original video series; editors’ picks for music, books and the theater; interviews; links to the blogs of top Southern writers; and much more. Be careful. If you’re like I am, you will end up spending hours at the site.

Finally, congratulations to my friend Jeff Pitchford. UCA also announced today that Jeff, a Mountain Home native, has been promoted to vice president of university and government relations. Jeff and I worked together in the early years of the Huckabee administration, including the contentious 1997 legislative session when Sen. Nick Wilson was calling many of the shots. I know what Jeff is made of, and it’s strong stuff.

UCA’s new president, Allen Meadors, made a wise choice. I’m not sure we have to sell Dr. Meadors on the value of having the OA on campus. But if we do, we’ll just lock him in the room with Marc and Warwick for the day. They’re true believers. When the door is opened, Dr. Meadors will be a true believer, too.

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