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The Village Academy Beavers

The Village Academy Beavers live on.

Recently, Guy Lancaster, who heads the online Encyclopedia of Arkansas History and Culture, asked me to write an entry on the Beavers.

I was delighted to accept his offer. I happen to think it’s one of the classic pranks in modern Arkansas history.

Village Academy was a fictitious private school in south Arkansas that was created by two members of the staff at Jessieville High School in 1985. Fake scores for the Beaver football teams were printed for parts of four seasons in the Arkansas Gazette and the Arkansas Democrat before anyone at the Little Rock newspapers caught on.

The subject was revived when Jon Mark Beilue wrote a lengthy feature for the 2015 edition of Hooten’s Arkansas Football headlined “Fauxball: How a band director and basketball coach orchestrated a hoax too funny to forget.”

Now, the Little Rock-based company Rock City Outfitters is selling Village Academy shirts.

Bob Sivils, the band director at Jessieville High School in 1985, and Garry Crowder, the school’s girls’ basketball coach at the time, decided to create the Village Academy team after becoming frustrated with the limited knowledge of those at the Little Rock newspapers who would answer their calls on Friday nights when they reported actual Jessieville scores.

I was the assistant sports editor at the Democrat in the fall of 1985 (the newspaper would send me to Washington, D.C., the following year as I made the sports-to-politics shift) and was in charge of Friday nights in the sports department. It was a madhouse. The newspaper war had heated up, and we fought the Gazette to get the most scores and summaries of games. If someone was willing to take calls, we used them. They didn’t need to know much about high school football.

Here’s how Beilue summed it up in his story: “Most newspapers the size of the Democrat and Gazette send their sportswriters to staff key games on Friday nights. The majority of games, however, are called in by school personnel to sports departments staffed by news reporters or volunteers eager to get a little overtime pay.

“Most couldn’t name four other high schools at gunpoint, much less know the names of mascots or anything about the teams. They simply have a questionnaire to fill out basic information when a correspondent calls such as Sivils or Crowder. From that information comes the four-to-five-paragraph story that fills up several sports pages on football Saturday mornings.”

Sivils, who’s now retired in Sallisaw, Okla., told Beilue: “People taking the calls would always have trouble keeping what school straight. They would say, ‘This is Jacksonville?’ No, it’s Jessieville. ‘Are you the Eagles?’ No, we played the Eagles. We’re the Lions.”

Crowder said: “I guess I got so frustrated with their ineptness that I commented that I don’t even know if they know our school exists, that we could probably call in a fake game.”

So it was that Sivils called in the first Village Academy score on the first Friday of September 1985. The Beavers had battled Rayville, La., to a 6-6 tie.

Crowder had coached in south Arkansas and was familiar with the community of Village, which is east of Magnolia in Columbia County. The two men decided that the prank would succeed if the fictitious school didn’t play Arkansas teams and didn’t win too much.

The Jessieville High School principal’s name was Norman Jespersen, and Sivils and Crowder derived the name of their make-believe star Jess Norman from the principal’s name.

Beilue wrote: “Neither Crowder nor Sivils was sure the game report would make it into either paper. But first thing Saturday, they tore through the sports pages looking for one in particular among three full inside pages of high school football coverage. And, in all its glory, there it was on page 7C of the Gazette. Crowder and Sivils began punching each other in the arms like a couple of giddy 14-year-olds. It worked. The little game story got in there.

“They had a living, breathing Beaver, sorta, on their hands. They also had a secret, but the Beaver quickly got out of the bag. It was too good for Sivils and Crowder to keep to themselves.”

During the next four seasons, Beaver scores and game summaries often were published. Sivils and Crowder only called the two Little Rock newspapers, but The Associated Press picked up the scores, and they soon were running in newspapers across the state.

A football coach who was in on the joke sent recommendation forms for Norman to colleges, and recruiting letters addressed to Jess Norman began arriving at Crowder’s home address. Norman apparently was an outstanding student since Yale and Dartmouth were among the schools that sent letters.

Sivils and Crowder shared their secret with coaches and band directors across the state. Fellow faculty members at Jessieville High School created an alma mater and fight song for Village Academy. A photographer named Bob Hurt, who took team photos at high schools throughout Arkansas, shot photos of Sivils holding a football.

Green T-shirts and bumper stickers that said “Village Academy Beavers” were distributed.

Hurt, whose portrait studio is in Rogers, even ran an ad in last fall’s Hooten’s Arkansas Football that said “Village Academy’s Biggest Supporter.”

“Not only did the Beavers play football, they also started a track program,” said Crowder, now the head women’s basketball coach at Ouachita Baptist University in Arkadelphia. “They played girls’ basketball with Jess’ sister Jessica leading the way. When inclement weather forced the closing of schools across the state, Village Academy would appear on the Little Rock television stations as being closed.”

Crowder usually was on the public address system when Jessieville hosted track meets and routinely would call for Jess Norman to report for the pole vault or for Village Academy athletes to report to their bus.

Sivils, meanwhile, also made Jess Norman a music sensation. He was listed as having attended band events at Henderson State University in Arkadelphia and Arkansas Tech University in Russellville. After Sivils moved to Sallisaw, concert programs for the band there would list Norman as having written at least one piece.

During the 1988 Hot Springs Christmas parade, the daughter of a Jessieville teacher rode in a convertible with a poster attached to the car that read “Little Miss Village Academy.”

It all came crashing down in October 1988 when Arkansas Democrat reporter Robert Yates followed up on an anonymous letter stating that Village Academy was fictitious.

Yates ended his column this way: “But, guys, I have to give you credit. You got us.”

Yates, who stayed at the newspaper until 2014, told Beilue: “It was a well-crafted, clever stunt. The goal back then was to get in as many game stories as possible, try to have more than the Gazette. You were never going to take the time on deadline to think if this is legitimate or not.”

Rod’s Pizza Cellar in Hot Springs was the site of a “farewell banquet” for Village Academy. Lamar Cole, who headed the Arkansas Activities Association at the time, even showed up. Most of those in attendance at the party were wearing green-and-white Village Academy T-shirts.

The note to Yates, as it turned out, had been sent by George Foshee, the elementary principal at Jessieville. He had been against the stunt from the first.

But now Village Academy lives on thanks to the article in Hooten’s Arkansas Football and a column written last fall by Mike Lee for the San Angelo, Texas, newspaper.

Lee wrote: “Even after the hoax was exposed, Jess Norman lived on. A coaching friend of Sivils’ from Fountain Lake called in a junior high football game report to the Hot Springs newspaper. ‘They wanted to know who scored all the touchdowns for Dardanelle, the team they were playing. The guy didn’t know, so he just said Jess Norman. The headline the next day read Norman Scores 4 TDs For Dardanelle,’ Sivils said.

“During a band camp one summer at the University of Arkansas, Sivils was assigning lockers to high school campers. He came across the locker of his daughter, Mandy, and her fiancé, Jeremy Ford, both UA band members who shared a locker during the fall and spring semesters. Before leaving the camp, Sivils penned a note to Mandy and signed it, ‘I love you. Jess Norman.’

“‘Her fiancé was the first to use the locker after the camp. He read the letter and demanded to know who this Jess Norman was and how he got the combination to their locker,’ Sivils said.”

There are the shirts being sold by Rock City Outfitters and soon an encyclopedia entry.

“Just when you think it’s beginning to die away, something pops up again,” Crowder told me. “When the Arkansas Activities Association was selling bricks for a fundraiser, someone bought one that’s engraved in memory of Jess Norman and Village Academy. For the past 15 years, you could check the portion of the University of Arkansas football program where Razorback Foundation contributors were listed and find a donation from the Village Academy Booster Club.”

Sivils makes that annual contribution in the name of the booster club.

Long live the Beavers.

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