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Back from Fordyce

The fog was heavy last Thursday night as I drove from El Dorado to Fordyce through the thick pine forests that surround the Ouachita River and Champagnolle Creek.

Storms had rolled through the piney woods earlier in the day and been replaced by fog on a humid evening. As I pulled into the driveway of the 1905 Wynne Phillips House in Fordyce at almost 10 p.m., I thought to myself how glad I was that I didn’t have to drive that extra hour to Little Rock.

I wrote last week about the invitation I had received from Agnes Wynne Phillips and her husband, Col. James Phillips, to spend the evening at their historic home. The home, which is on the National Register of Historic Places, is furnished throughout with antiques and Oriental rugs.

Col. and Mrs. Phillips were still awake, and we visited before I headed upstairs to the front bedroom.

It was in this home that Thomas Duncan Wynne and his wife Agnes raised their seven children. Agnes Phillips was the youngest of those seven children.

Five older brothers served in the armed forces during World War II. An older sister also was married to a serviceman. Photos of them in uniform lined an upstairs table outside my bedroom.

The trains passing through downtown Fordyce were loud, but sleep came quickly following an exceedingly long day that had begun with meetings atop Petit Jean Mountain and been followed by the three-hour drive to El Dorado in the rain and an evening dinner speech in that city’s stunning new convention center.

By Good Friday morning, the sun was beginning to peek out for the first time in several days. Col. Phillips had made the short trip down to the street to Klappenbach Bakery. Mrs. Phillips added fresh grapefruit, coffee and orange juice to the mix. We had a delightful breakfast on the front porch as we discussed the city’s plans to capitalize on the Bear Bryant legacy.

It was time for the Fordyce on the Cotton Belt Festival, and Mrs. Phillips was holding her annual garden party that afternoon with proceeds going to the Dallas County Museum.

Ken Gaddy, the director of the Paul W. Bryant Museum in Tuscaloosa, was scheduled to arrive just after lunch.

While Mrs. Phillips spent the morning preparing for her party, Col. Phillips took me on a tour of the Dallas County Museum, one of the best museums for a town this size to be found anywhere.

In 1995, Frank D. Hickingbotham sold his banks in Little Rock, El Dorado, Arkadelphia, Fordyce and Springhill, La., to what was then First Commercial Corp. of Little Rock. He later donated the 13,000-square-foot downtown building that had housed his Fordyce bank to the museum.

Col. Phillips put his engineering skills to work and Mrs. Phillips put her organizational skills to work to make the museum a reality.

The colonel, who played football at the University of Arkansas, spent 30 years in the U.S. Army as a commissioned officer. He was deputy commander of the Lower Mississippi River Valley Division of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in Vicksburg, which supervised Corps districts in St. Louis, Memphis, Vicksburg and New Orleans.

Col. Phillips served commands in South Korea and Vietnam. He also served as secretary of the Mississippi River Commission.

Then-Gov. Bill Clinton put him in charge of the Arkansas Waterways Commission in 1980. The commission fosters development of Arkansas’ navigable waterways.

He worked to improve navigation on the Arkansas River through adequate channel markings that could withstand high, swift flows such as the one I’m looking at right now through my window in downtown North Little Rock.

Col. Phillips also worked to make a slackwater harbor at the Port of Little Rock a reality. He helped lead efforts to construct the Montgomery Point Lock & Dam at the White River entrance linking the Mississippi and Arkansas rivers.

Last year, Col. Phillips was inducted into the Arkansas River Historical Society’s Hall of Fame.

In 1985, while still living in Little Rock, the Phillips began renovation of the historic Wynne family home. In 1988, they started operating it as a bed and breakfast inn.

They stopped taking overnight guests last year. These days, you have to be lucky like I was and receive a special invitation from Col. and Mrs. Phillips, who will celebrate their 60th wedding anniversary in July.

Barbecue was being prepared downtown on a huge smoker as lunch approached, and we bought three sandwiches to take back at the house. Gaddy arrived from Tuscaloosa just as we were finishing lunch. He was the curator of the natural history museum on the University of Alabama campus from October 1988 until December 1991, when he got the call to take over the Bryant Museum. That museum had opened to the public three years earlier.

The Bryant Museum in Tuscaloosa now draws almost 40,000 visitors a year.

“We get a lot of the people who come to watch visiting teams play Alabama,” Gaddy said. “They make a visit to the museum a part of their trip. And we’ve worked with a number of other schools through the years that want to establish their own football museums.”

This was Gaddy’s third trip to Fordyce. On one of the two previous trips, he was accompanied by Coach Bryant’s granddaughter.

The Tuscaloosa museum has seven full-time and four part-time employees. Several other members of the staff have been to Fordyce. Gaddy said they came back raving about Klappenbach’s and the Redbug football game they attended.

“Every Alabama fan worth his salt knows where Fordyce is,” he said.

It is, in a sense, holy ground for those football-crazy Bama fans. Gaddy is convinced many of them will make the pilgrimage to south Arkansas if the Phillips are successful in turning an 1884 downtown building into a sports-related exhibit to be known as The Bear and the Bugs.

The building is directly across Main Street from the site of the Lyric Theater, where Bryant had his encounter with a circus bear.

“For a small town with a population of less than 5,000 people, we’ve had a number of famous coaches either grow up here or coach here,” Mrs. Phillips said. “There was Coach Bryant, Larry Lacewell, Red Parker and Houston Nutt Sr. We’ve also produced professional athletes. Our thoughts are to include information about the Redbugs as well as Bryant.”

There’s even a Dallas County Sports Hall of Fame. The first class in 2007 included Bryant, Jim Benton, Click Jordan, Jud Jordan and the famed Sparkman Sparklers girls’ basketball team of 1927-30.

Inductees to subsequent classes have included Nutt Sr., Lacewell, Parker, Footsie Benton, Bobby Richardson, Quinnie Hamm Toler, Ronnie Carter, John Ed Anthony, Sam Cook, Joe Arnette, Convoy Leslie and Don White.

On Friday night, Parker’s 12-0 Redbug teams of 1958, ’59 and ’60 were inducted. Also inducted was Benny Mack Estes of Dumas, who excelled in football, basketball and track when he attended Fordyce High School.

During Friday night’s ceremony, Gaddy presented the people of Fordyce with a bronze bust of Bryant that will be a centerpiece of the sports museum.

“It’s a spectacular thing to have,” Mrs. Phillips said.

“I spoke with Paul Bryant Jr.,” Gaddy said. “We went through some of the things we could do for Fordyce. This was the big thing we could do tonight to help them kick off their campaign.”

Col. and Mrs. Phillips hope to have parts of the sports museum open in time for the Fordyce on the Cotton Belt Festival next year.

The official grand opening will be in 2013, the 100th anniversary of Bryant’s birth.

I expect the Phillips to achieve their dream. If you’ve seen the Dallas County Museum, you know they set their sights high and achieve their goals.

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