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Remembering Bill Gwatney

Thursday marks the first anniversary of the murder of former state Sen. Bill Gwatney.

When I was working for Republican Gov. Mike Huckabee and Bill was serving as a leading Democrat in the Senate, we often would spar in the newspaper. It was all business. It was actually kind of fun. Not a lot of people realized at the time that we were friends.

I was part of a regular breakfast group that consisted of Bill and Skip Rutherford on the left (relatively speaking) and Bubba Lloyd and me on the right (relatively speaking). I say “relatively speaking” because we all tended to want what was best for Arkansas.

If I remember correctly, the breakfast meetings began about 1990 at the old Hungry’s restaurant on West Seventh Street in downtown Little Rock. When Hungry’s shut down, the breakfast gatherings moved to Cuz Fisher’s on Broadway in North Little Rock. We had great fun with Bill when he would order something called the Working Man’s Breakfast.

“That’s as close as you will ever come to being a working man,” we would say. Accusing Bill of having been born with a silver spoon in his mouth was a favorite sport.

Bill could take it. And he never hesitated to dish it out.

When Roy Fisher sold the place, we moved our breakfast club back to Little Rock and the Ozark Mountain Smokehouse (now the Ozark Family Restaurant). The last breakfast had been several weeks before a madman entered the headquarters of the Arkansas Democratic Party and shot Bill.

I remember the details of that horrible Wednesday, Aug. 13, as if it were yesterday. I suspect I always will.

The Little Rock Touchdown Club had scheduled a news conference for 11:30 a.m. in the lobby of the Metropolitan Tower downtown to announce its schedule of speakers for the fall. I pulled into a parking spot on Capitol Avenue in front of the Baptist Building and began to put change in the meter. As I did so, two Little Rock Police Department vehicles raced through the intersection of Capitol and Broadway, headed west at a high rate of speed with their lights and sirens on.

I remember thinking: “Boy, something bad must have happened for them to be going that fast.”

I attended the news conference and remember that my cell phone — which was set on “vibrate” — went off several times during the event.

As I walked across Broadway to my car shortly after noon, Ron Witherspoon saw me through the window and came out of his office at Arvest Bank.

“Aren’t you friends with Bill Gwatney?” he asked.

“Yes,” I replied as I stood on the sidewalk.

“Well, television news is reporting that he was just shot at Democratic Party headquarters.”

I walked to my car in a trance. Only later would I learn that the murderer had come to the Baptist Building after shooting Bill — the building that ironically enough I had parked in front of. For all I know, I might have laid eyes on him as I arrived at 11:30 a.m. for the news conference, never realizing this was a man who had just shot my friend.

I drove down to Democratic Party headquarters and saw the police units, the television trucks, the whole frenzied scene. I’ve been a part of more than my share of tragedies as a newspaperman and a governor’s spokesman. I had no desire to get out of the car.

I checked my phone messages. The earlier calls had come from Bubba to tell me of the news.

I went back to my office and simply sat there — praying, crying, checking websites. I had a dinner in Jonesboro that evening and left at 3 p.m. Friends had already informed me that the situation was grave.

So when ABC radio news led its 4 p.m. national newscast with the confirmation of Bill’s death, it was not a surprise. All of us who knew him were expecting the worst by that point in the day. I remember that I was near Bradford on U.S. 67 when I heard that news. It’s so strange hearing a friend’s name as the lead story on the national news.

The rest of the trip was a bit of a blur. I do remember stopping at a service station at the intersection of Arkansas Highway 17 and Arkansas Highway 14 just to get some fresh air and walk around. I thought about Bill’s daughters. I thought about his new wife. I thought about his mother, his father, his brother in Memphis. I thought about how often we take our friends for granted.

I prayed some more. I cried some more. I made it to Jonesboro in time to check into the Washington Street Bed and Breakfast and watch the story of my friend on the national news.

It has been a year.

We’ll get back later this week to the fun stuff on this blog — catfish eating, plate lunches and the like. Tonight, though, I needed the therapy of writing about Bill. Thanks for reading these ramblings.

I am about to leave the office and drive home in my vehicle from a Gwatney dealership. Tomorrow won’t be a fun day.

Dang you, madman. I miss my friend.

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