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“Bearing down” in Fordyce

My Democrat-Gazette column this Saturday will focus on Fordyce and the creative thinking that needs to go on there in the wake of Georgia-Pacific’s decision to close its plywood mill.

As a south Arkansas native, I’ve always liked Fordyce. It starts with the fact that you can’t help but like a place with a high school mascot of Redbugs.

As Fordyce native Larry Lacewell is fond of saying: “I’ve been an insect my entire life. I was a Chigger, a Baby Bug, a Redbug and then a Boll Weevil (when he played in college at the University of Arkansas at Monticello).”

And as someone who had Paul “Bear” Bryant as a childhood hero, I also have to like the place that produced the most famous coach in college football history.

Add in the other sports accomplishments and figures associated with that place — Jim Benton, a member of the All-NFL team for the decade of the ’40s, played high school football at Fordyce; Red Parker had that 38-game winning streak at Fordyce High School.

You also can’t forget that Fordyce is home to the Klappenbach Bakery, which has become nationally known.

I remember one afternoon when I was in high school watching our football coaches rush away in order to go see Johnny Cash perform at the Fordyce on the Cotton Belt Festival.

Fordyce just seemed to have a special vibe for such a small town.

But I’ve never thought Fordyce has done enough to capitalize on the Bear Bryant legacy. There are signs on the highway. There should be more — a modern, interactive Bryant museum, perhaps one that partners with the excellent Paul W. Bryant Museum on the University of Alabama campus at Tuscaloosa.

With all due respect to Razorback fans, there is no fan base quite like the Alabama fan base. Create a facility in Fordyce. Advertise it in publications that cater to Crimson Tide fans. I have no doubt that a number of them will then make the pilgrimage west.

As Alabama native Allen Barra points out in his outstanding 2005 Bryant biography, “The Last Coach”, college football in Alabama transcends sports: “There was the embarrassment of living in a state where there was so little to boast about to the rest of the country except Bear Bryant. Alabamians liked to joke, ‘Thank God for Mississippi,’ meaning that whatever Alabama ranked 49th in, such as public spending on education, Mississippi was bound to be 50th. Last or not, Mississippi could claim William Faulkner and Eudora Welty, Jimmie Rogers, the father of country music, and Robert Johnson, the king of the Delta blues singers. All Alabma had was a football coach.

“What so many college students like ourselves couldn’t see was not only how much football meant to so many people in Alabama — white and black, male and female, old and young — but how much it mattered to us. We had felt superior to football, seeing it through the Vietnam-era mist of skepticism and alienation that permeated even Alabama’s football-crazy colleges; it had served only to distract us from the important issues. Football was, we liked to say, Alabama’s version of grits and circuses. Years later, gathering with friends to watch Alabama on cable television at Manhattan bars or seeing some TV documentary on Bryant, we realized how important the game and all of its cultural baggage had been to us. And always, when we came to talk of such things, Bear Bryant dominated our conversations.”

Barra goes on to argue that Bryant left a larger footprint on our American culture than even Vince Lombardi.

He writes: “Lombardi was head coach for the Green Bay Packers and pro football’s dominant figure for nine seasons. Bryant, for nearly three decades, was the king of what Dan Jenkins called ‘Saturday’s America’ — the world of small towns and college communities that, from Labor Day through New Year’s, gives their unqualified devotion to college football, displaying the kind of unbridled enthusiasm that can only be faked or imitated in pro football stadiums. … Both men shared an abiding passion for the game of football and a fierce, unwavering conviction that it was the pathway to the Amreican dream.”

Bear Bryant became far more than a football coach. He became a Southern icon, right up there with Faulkner, Elvis and General Lee. And he was a native Arkansan. We should do more to celebrate that.

Again, I have no doubt that a proper facility in Fordyce with wise marketing would attract people from Alabama and all over the South. There also could be lessons learned in that facility for students from the many public schools that are scattered across those pine woods of south Arkansas. What a field trip opportunity.

Back to Barra: “Bear Bryant still intimdates me, not so much the memory of his overpowering demeanor when I saw him up close, as his intensity and will to win and his unshakable belief that these qualities, when applied to a higher purpose, can make you a better person. Not that I don’t believe that. I just don’t know whether or not, if I had to, I could commit to those principles as strongly as might be demanded of me by someone like Bear Bryant. In Bryant’s case, faith and determination were products born of a desperation that I have never known and that I hope my child will never know. The America I grew up in was, I’m aware, a much easier place to live, largely because of men and women with the strength and tenacity of Bear Bryant. … His character defects and good qualities are not even the point; in time, the memory of them will fade as those who knew him will pass on. What will matter, what will endure about Bryant, will be the legacy he left behind of the power of simple adherence to good principles, such as the ones on a devotional he carried in his wallet.”

So to the good folks in Fordyce, I say this: No Bear Bryant museum will ever replace those 340 jobs lost when G-P closed the mill. But it could be a beacon that conveys to young people what true discipline, dedication, determination and desire can bring.

Let’s close with that devotional that was in the coach’s wallet:


This is the beginning of a new day.

God has given me this day to use as I will.

I can waste it or use it for good.

What I do today is very important because I am exchanging a day of my life for it.

When tomorrow comes, this day will be gone forever, leaving something it its place I have traded for it.

I want it to be a gain, not loss — good, not evil — success, not failure in order that I shall not forget the price I paid for it.

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