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Remembering Ann Vining and Ouachita Hills

I will attend the funeral of Ann Vining today, just nine days before my 50th birthday.

I will make the one-hour drive to Arkadelphia and think along the way about how much my old neighborhood, Ouachita Hills, is changing. It’s still a great neighborhood, but younger folks are moving in.

Mrs. Vining is gone. Other former neighbors are gone. My parents are still with us, but they are no longer living in the home in which I was raised.

In my mind, I still think of the folks around Ouachita Hills as they were when I was a child. Growing up in a college town, it seemed that everyone in the neighborhood (with the exception of my dad and one neighbor, who were downtown businessmen) was Dr. This or Coach That.

Our neighborhood was filled with kids. The Vinings had six — four of them were older and two were younger.

The Vinings also had the second swimming pool in the neighborhood. Bob and Claudia Riley (yes, the former lieutenant governor and his wife) had the first.

In the summer, you spent a lot of time swimming at the Vining home. In the fall, you played football on Sunday afternoons on the Ouachita football field, which is adjacent to the neighborhood. In the winter, when there was an occasional snow, the hilly neighborhood made for a great place to go sledding. In the spring, the Ouachita River would rise and you would explore the flooded areas, being careful not to step on a snake.

Maybe I remember my old neighborhood too fondly. Maybe the trees weren’t really that green in the spring. Maybe the neighbors weren’t really that nice. Maybe it was not really that neat of an experience to be able to walk to a college football game in three minutes and have the head coach and some players come over to your house to play pool afterward. Maybe we really weren’t allowed to ride our bikes and roam the neighborhood until dark.

But I know that’s not the case. Those memories are real. I realize now that I was lucky enough to have a sort of Mayberry RFD (with college Ph.Ds thrown into the mix) childhood, something we all took for granted at the time. My parents, despite a terrible tragedy in their own lives, saw to it that my childhood was a happy one. And Mrs. Vining was, in a sense, one of the den mothers of our neighborhood.

Growing up in a college town, my heroes were not athletes or coaches in some far-off city. They were right there in Arkadelphia — Ouachita basketball coach Bill Vining and Ouachita football coach Buddy Benson. You couldn’t imagine Coach Vining without his wife, Ann. And you couldn’t imagine Coach Benson without his wife, Janet.

Coach Vining led the Ouachita basketball team the whole time I was growing up. Coach Benson led the Ouachita football team the whole time I was growing up. I couldn’t even comprehend a time when they wouldn’t be on the job. Both are now in the Arkansas Sports Hall of Fame.

As a student at Ouachita, I had the honor of handling the radio play-by-play duties for both the Ouachita football and basketball teams. I remember when a Thursday night basketball game in Conway against UCA was called off due to snow. We rescheduled the game for a Saturday afternoon. The roads were still bad, and there could not have been more than 100 people in the Farris Center for the game. It was like a scrimmage.

Ouachita played poorly in the first half, and the Bears built up a huge lead. In a moment of frustration, I said on the air: “I doubt anyone back in Arkadelphia is still listening other than Mrs. Vining.”

The Tigers came back in the second half and made the game close.

I had ridden the bus to the game with the team, so Mrs. Vining knew to call my dorm room as soon as her husband walked into the house.

The phone rang just as I walked in, and she said: “You’re dang right I was still listening.”

To describe Mrs. Vining as feisty when it came to Ouachita basketball would be an understatement. She was her husband’s — and his players’ — biggest advocate.

Coach Vining — and Charlotte, Billy, Amanda, Andy, Molly and Lon —  please know that there are hundreds of us who share at least a small piece of your pain in losing Mrs. Vining.

We learned of the sad news of her passing on Friday, my mom’s 84th birthday. My parents have lived in Little Rock for the past year. I picked Mom up for a birthday dinner Friday. As I went into the Villa to pick up the food, Mom’s cell phone rang. It was Coach and Mrs. Benson calling to wish her a happy birthday. They had remembered. The call brought a smile to her face.

Yes, my old neighborhood is changing, though there is a 100th birthday party planned for Dr. Raymond Coppenger next month.

Mrs. Vining is gone. Mom is now 84. I turn 50 next month. Dad turns 85 in October. Those childhood memories become more precious with each passing day. Time marches on.

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