I usually have far too many projects on my plate.
But how was I to say “no” when my friend Ian Cosh, the vice president for community and international engagement at Ouachita Baptist University, called last year and asked me to join him as the co-author of a small book on the life of Dr. Ben Elrod, the former Ouachita president?
When I was growing up in the Ouachita Hills neighborhood of Arkadelphia, the Elrod family lived just two doors down during Ben Elrod’s time as Ouachita’s vice president for development. After I moved away from Arkadelphia, Elrod served as Ouachita’s president from 1988-97. The task of working on the book proved to be a blessing for me, giving me a greater appreciation than ever for this dear family friend who had been a fishing and quail hunting partner of my late father.
Elrod, one of Arkansas’ most respected leaders in the 20th century, learned much about leadership as a high school student at Rison.
“I injured my knee in a football game during the 1947 season, which was my junior year,” he says. “The knee surgery procedures weren’t as refined back then. My surgery at the Campbell Clinic in Memphis didn’t restore full use of my knee. The decision by the doctors was that I should not play contact sports anymore. That was a disappointing development for me, especially as it related to my favorite sport, which was football.
“As the 1948 season neared, the school superintendent and the high school football coach approached me with a request that I coach a newly formed junior high team in the fall. When I arrived at their office, I was really shaken to see both the coach and the superintendent waiting on me. What they had to say was one of the greatest surprises of my life. I could hardly believe what I was hearing. I was frightened but excited about the offer. I thought about it for about two minutes and said I’d like nothing better. I eagerly accepted the task and coached the first junior high football team that Rison had fielded.”
Elrod says the high school coach had promised to help, but his focus (as one might expect) was on the senior high team once the season began.
“I was pretty well on my own,” Elrod says. “I was fortunate in that the 40 or so boys who reported for practice were above-average athletes, and a few of them were exceptional. They had played sandlot games together most of their lives. They blended into a good team. We had fun, especially the coach.”
Elrod says coaching helped fill the void that had been created by the doctors’ decision not to let him play football as a high school senior.
“I found that I really liked coaching,” he says. “I had a great group of boys, and they loved the game. If it ever bothered them that they had a high school senior with no coaching experience as their coach, they never gave any indication of their concern. How did we do? We played seven games, and we won four and lost three. The same group as seniors won the state championship in their division.”
In the state playoffs as seniors, those Rison athletes beat Atkins. Elrod was a Baptist minister at Atkins at the time.
“One would assume that I had mixed emotions,” he says. “That would be wrong. Where those kids were concerned, I was still a Rison Wildcat fan. I still am and follow the team closely in the news. That early exposure to such heavy responsibility was one of the formative experiences in my life. Do I think my coaching made them state champions? No. In fact, they may have won that honor in spite of my coaching. But what I’m certain about is that they made my senior year the most enjoyable year of my high school experience and among the most enjoyable of my life.
“I still have great admiration for the two men, superintendent Bill Hobgood and coach Boyd Arnold, for the gamble they took on a high school senior. The boys? The surviving ones are retired now. I’ve attended some of their reunions and take pride in their accomplishments as men. I could have gladly gone into the coaching field as a vocation.”
Instead, Elrod became a pastor, a college administrator, a college president and a master fundraiser.
In all of his roles, he was having an influence on young people, just as he did when he was coaching during his senior year of high school.
In August 1988, Elrod conducted a lengthy interview with Erwin McDonald, the well-known editor of the Arkansas Baptist, a widely circulated magazine. Elrod had experienced heart problems, and McDonald asked him if he worried about the stress of being Ouachita’s president.
Elrod answered: “I could check out right now and feel that the Lord has given me far more than I ever deserved in a lifetime. I have often wished that I could live three lifetimes because there are so many things I want to do. God has filled my life with activity and rewarded me with seeing to it that those activities are worthwhile. I’m not sure that a person could ask for a lot more than that. I have had more than I deserved and much more opportunity than most people have. This makes me want to give the Lord all I have as long as he lets me live.
“If the curtain comes down during my Ouachita days, the only thing that would bother me would be the inconvenience that would cause Ouachita. I would much rather be doing something worthwhile for the Lord and feeling good about it than to live longer by not being busy. However, I plan to live to a ripe old age and may even have a challenge or two beyond Ouachita waiting on me. Those matters are in God’s hands, and I’m pleased to leave them there.”
Fortunately for all of us, Ben Elrod has lived to that ripe old age he talked about. Arkansas is a better place because he walks among us.
Elrod’s family had roots deep in south Arkansas.
“My mother was a member of the Sadler family,” he says. “She was one of five children, all of whom lived in Rison. Both sets of grandparents lived in Rison. … I had enough aunts and uncles and grandparents that if my mother and father were gone for a day or a week or a month, I had plenty of places to stay. I never had a minute’s insecurity because I knew I was loved and accepted.”
Elrod’s mother was less than five feet tall and wore a size 3 1/2 shoe. She almost died in childbirth when John Elrod was born four years before Ben.
Ben Elrod says: “When she became pregnant with me, the doctor advised an abortion and asked for a decision on the matter with a one-week deadline for the decision to be made.”
Elrod says his mother didn’t tell him the story until he was an adult. She decided to have the baby despite the chance she would die during childbirth, something Ben Elrod now calls “a pretty brave response from a little 25-year-old woman.”
One thing that was a given in the Elrod family was that Sundays would be spent at the local Baptist church.
“When I was 12 years old, I made a profession of faith,” Elrod says. “We had a revival meeting, and all of my buddies had made a profession of faith, and I had not. Two or three weeks later, I realized the preacher was preaching to me. I realized my need for Christ and made my profession of faith. The church we attended was a strong church for a little country town. We had some good pastors. We had one very fine pastor in my later years as a teenager.”
For parts of two years, Elrod served as a page for the U.S. House of Representatives.
“I was in Washington at 16 years old when I felt called into the ministry,” he says. “I hadn’t been to church in quite a while. I was living with three roommates, two from New Mexico and one from Little Rock. I don’t know when we had been to church. We went to the Smithsonian Institution. I had always planned on being a doctor. We went through the medical section of the Smithsonian. As I walked through that, the thought came to me: ‘Hey, who are you fooling? You’re not interested in this stuff.’ I really wasn’t. I spent a restless night in which I prayed and asked God to direct me. I felt strongly that his answer was that I was to be a minister. I never wavered from that. My father was not very favorable toward it. He had looked forward to my being in the family business with him and my brother. He didn’t know that my decision was a mature decision, so he challenged it a bit. But I didn’t have a more enthusiastic supporter once I went into the ministry. My mother, of course, was supportive of whatever I did.”
During his senior year at Rison High School, Elrod considered attending the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville, the school from which his older brother had graduated. He was concerned, however, about the lack of religion courses. After a visit with Dr. J.R. Grant, Ouachita’s president at the time, Elrod decided to attend Ouachita. Many years later, Elrod would find a letter that Grant had written years earlier to Elrod’s older brother following a visit to Rison. He still has the letter.
Grant was president during Elrod’s freshman year. When Grant retired (he had been president since 1934), he was replaced by S. William Eubanks, who served as president for two years. Harold A. Haswell served as president during Elrod’s senior year.
“We got into deep financial trouble,” Elrod says. “We got into problems with the North Central Association and lost our accreditation. Dr. Haswell has never been given proper credit for what he did for Ouachita in two years’ time. He turned it around with North Central and recovered our accreditation. He was a brilliant man. I was the president of student government during my senior year, and he gave me a voting spot on the administrative council as a student. I thought he was way ahead of his time on that. He was ahead of his time on most everything. He was the world’s poorest speaker. He would bore you to death as a public speaker, but he was a tremendous administrator and did a great job for Ouachita.”
Elrod majored in history and minored in political science. He had been advised that if he planned on attending seminary he should major in something other than religion at Ouachita.
“That was good advice,” Elrod says. “I got a good liberal arts education here and then built on that in seminary with specialized education there.”