Several years ago, the Arkansas Times began publishing a Big Ideas issue, an annual showcase of ideas that would make Arkansas a better place to live. It’s always an inspiring endeavor, a rare opportunity for cynical editors to focus on promise rather than shortcomings.
In that spirit, we decided to survey some of the people behind the ideas and initiatives that are shaping Arkansas today. We used the idea of influence as an organizing principle, but rather than focus solely on the power brokers and business titans who carry the greatest weight, we considered a wide range of fields and communities, regardless of their size. In other words, this isn’t the same list of impressive businessmen you’ve seen before. It’s far from comprehensive, but still (we hope) broadly representative of what makes Arkansas hum. We considered people in fields that are small and obscure, such as Scott Stewart of Slabtown Customs, a leader in Arkansas in the so-called tiny house movement sparked by people who want or need to live more simply, and Larry Pillstrom, who leads a company his father founded that manufactures the world’s preeminent snake-handling tongs. That they sit side-by-side in the issue with the likes of Buddy Philpot of the Walton Family Foundation, which pumps millions into education in Arkansas, and Hope native Chad Griffin, who leads the aptly named Human Rights Campaign in efforts to protect and extend gay rights, seems like an honest representation of Arkansas’s talent and ideas.
We’re hosting a weekend later in September in honor of these men and women who’ve left their mark on Arkansas. On Sept. 21 at the Old State House, we’re throwing a cocktail reception for the public to mingle with the honorees (purchase tickets here). The following day, at the Old State House, the Historic Arkansas Museum, the Central Arkansas Library and the Clinton School for Public Service, we’re hosting the Arkansas Times Festival of Ideas, where nearly 20 of our influential Arkansans will offer presentations and demonstrations in sessions free to the public. It’ll be like our own version of TED Talks. See more details here, and save the date!
“I’m a go big or go home kind of girl,” Korto Momolu said, on showing up at the 2008 Project Runway audition with three models rather than three garments in a bag. She earned a spot on the show’s fourth season, where she was named runner-up and the world learned that “Korto” (pronounced cut-toe) means generous cuts, tribal prints, bright colors and startling zippers. (Mayor Mark Stodola also proclaimed Nov. 13, 2008, Korto Momolu Day.)
Momolu was born in Monrovia, Liberia, where her grandfather lived communally with nine wives, and her parents’ government positions afforded her Canadian boarding school and parties with the children of dignitaries. But in 1990, Momolu and her family fled the violence of the Second Liberian Civil War. As refugees in Canada, the family that once owned a village began dressing from a charity bin. Momolu found solace in her sketchbook, and ultimately, a woman from church loaned her the money for a local fashion college in Ottawa, Canada.
In 1999, Momolu met a military officer, moved to his hometown of Little Rock and married him. “I started having my own shows and branching out,” Momolu said. “There was this space called The Art Scene. There were painters, sculptors, jewelry designers. I was the only fashion designer. … On the weekends it was open to the public … it was a huge start for me because we’d have Friday night art parties, and there’d be a fashion show, music over here. It was great for people to see the arts relating to each other.”
After Project Runway, Momolu began showing at New York Fashion Week and having international shows in Nigeria and the Cayman Islands. Last year, she held a show in Monrovia. It was the first time she’d returned to the country of her birth in 21 years. After visiting overflowing orphanages — the result of two wars — Momolu founded Gracie’s Gift, to collect clothes and school supplies for these children.
Momolu now splits her time between Little Rock and Manhattan. She’s preparing for Fall Fashion Week 2012, and for the first time, she has financial backers. “I’ll be able to sell to stores,” she explained. “If you get orders, you have to be able to produce the stuff wholesale. I’ve shown every season so the fashion community doesn’t forget who I am, but this is the first season that I’m doing a full, ready-to-wear collection. My past collections have just been drama, like gowns that you’d wear to these great events. Now I’m doing separates, offering more colors, appealing to the masses.”
When she’s in Little Rock, Momolu works in her River Market studio and focuses on her husband and 8-year-old daughter. “Arkansas is like Liberia to me. It’s about family, and it’s about loyalty. You don’t have to be born here, but if you show love for this state, you can be part of it. I’m African all day long, but I feel like I’ll always have a home here. And that’s huge because, for the longest time, I didn’t have a place to say, ‘Oh, I’m going home.’ “
Master bladesmith Jerry Fisk of Lockesburg is the Yoda of Arkansas when it comes to the artist’s relentless, self-sacrificial pursuit of perfection.
Years ago, a reporter for Arkansas Times visited Fisk’s shop. By then, he was already one of the greatest knife makers in the world, the pre-paid waiting list for his work seven years deep. During that visit, he showed the reporter several blades, each amazingly beautiful, that hadn’t quite lived up to his incredibly demanding standards. He’d spent more than 30 hours collectively on those castoffs — hours spent on Hell’s doorstep, so hot his denim work shirts would sometimes disintegrate — but said that they’d be taken around behind his shop and pounded into the ground with his forging hammer.
“I can go up here at the Historic Arkansas Museum, and I can see knives that are 200 years old,” Fisk said. “Some of those may be the only knife that survived from a particular maker. If only one knife I make survives, what’s it going to look like? I don’t want to be known for a mistake.”
And that is how you become the best in the world.
A former machinist, Fisk has been making knives for more than 25 years. These days, he takes his craft and vocation as seriously as any religion, traveling all over the world to absorb new techniques and skills. The best of his art simply must be seen to be believed: incredible fantasies of tusk, gold, jewels, silver, horn, bone, or ivory, all delicately inlaid and engraved, with blades of Damascus steel — layers of metal folded hundreds or thousands of times, creating patterns that look like moonlight on water.
Named a National Living Treasure by the University of North Carolina at Wilmington’s Museum of World Cultures in 1999, Fisk is still going strong at 58.
“I don’t know what to do about the orders,” he said. “It’s getting to be a problem. If a man on the street places a regular order, it’d be nine, 10, 11 years before I could get to it. … I could probably work three years for just the Chinese, or work two years just for one particular client down in South America. It’s kinda like having to ration it out. I can only do so much as I get older.”
As for being influential, Fisk said one of his greatest accomplishments was the establishment of a bladesmithing school in Sao Paulo, Brazil, in 2001. He had 14 students that first year, and the school has since raised a whole generation of young artisans out of poverty.
“Three of my original 14 were living in the streets in cardboard boxes,” he said. “Now they’re in the middle class, they all have a house, they all have students of their own, and a lot of their students have students. So I have great-grandchildren.”
How does a one-man start-up become one of the most respected ad agencies in the country in a matter of years? Kenny Tomlin, who’s seen Rockfish Interactive grow its revenues by 60 percent to 100 percent every year since he founded it in 2006 (meteoric growth that prompted ad giant WPP to scoop up the company for an undisclosed sum last year), has four answers: “It was a good business idea and a good location at a good time filled with good people.” In a profile accompanying a 2008 award for small agency of the year, Advertising Agency magazine said of Rogers-based Rockfish, “You might call it the advertising agency of the future, except that its time is clearly now.” In other words, while legacy agencies were busy trying to hire programmers and hold onto clients eager to launch innovative campaigns on the web and on mobile, Rockfish was founded on a digital-first approach. That Walmart is just down the road from Rockfish and gave the company business early helped it land a number of other big fish, Tomlin said. Today, clients include Walmart, Johnson & Johnson and EA Sports. Its most recent high-profile job was building Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s Mitt’s VP app for iPhones and Android phones, through which the campaign first made the announcement of the selection of Paul Ryan. That Rockfish has managed to steadily attract tech talent — today, its staff of some 200 works in offices in Rogers, Little Rock, Dallas, Cincinnati and Austin — might owe to its culture of innovation. Rockfish was founded as two parts, one devoted to servicing clients and another to creating spin-off companies. Maintaining a healthy balance can be challenging, Tomlin said. “Especially when your professional services side of the business has grown so rapidly, it’s hard to ever want to put resources on something else when you know there is billable work to get done.” The incubator side of the company, Rockfish Labs, has created a half a dozen ventures, including a specialty coffee shop, a digital coupon creator and an employee rewards platform. Tomlin said Rockfish had already had an opportunity to sell the coupon creator, couponfactory.com, for “a meaningful amount of money, but we think we’ve got a lot of good opportunity in front of us.”
Wood sculptor Robyn Horn has done some heavy lifting in her life, turning enormous chunks of wood into art with the use of a chainsaw and other tools. She’s also done a lot of lifting of the arts in Arkansas, promoting contemporary crafts and arts education, including the Applied Design program at the University of Arkansas, with generous gifts of money, time and passion. She’s made it possible for instructors and students at UALR to become involved in Penland School of Crafts in North Carolina, is working with the Thea Foundation in its efforts to promote the A+ arts-infused curricula in the schools, and promoted the Conversations in Contemporary Craft presentations at the Arkansas Arts Center. She’s newly involved with programs likes Hearts and Hooves, a physical therapy program for children, and Our House. “I feel less influential and more like a facilitator,” Horn said. “There are people here doing extraordinary things.” Without Horn, though, they’d be having a harder time.
BILL DILLARD III
In 1993, Bill Dillard III began his retail career in the regional office for Dillard’s Inc. in Phoenix, Ariz. The grandson of the founder of the department store giant is now vice president of the company, overseeing accessories, beauty and home merchandise products.
His professional path included gaining valuable international business experience while living in Hong Kong, sourcing private brand merchandise for the retailer. In 1999, he earned a master’s in business administration from Northwestern University’s Kellogg Graduate School of Management. Dillard, or “B3,” as he’s known within the company, has worn many different hats in the company, including selling, buying, product development, merchandising and area sales management. In March, he was honored at the Fashion Institute of Technology’s annual FIT Foundation Annual Gala, alongside William P. Lauder, executive chairman of Estee Lauder Cos. Inc. The award was given to Dillard and Lauder in recognition of their leadership in the retail industry.
DEE ANN NEWELL
Juvenile and adult offenders
Since 1994, Dee Ann Newell has tirelessly advocated for the children of prisoners, creating what was only the third program in the nation to address the needs of such children. For more than a quarter century, Newell, 66, has worked with juvenile and adult offenders. During that time she created a program to teach parenting to imprisoned women and in 2006 helped bring to the public’s attention the fact that Arkansas prisons shackle women prisoners during childbirth. She has worked to pass legislation in each General Assembly since to make the Arkansas practice illegal. Also in 2006, the Little Rock native won the Senior Justice Fellowship Award from the Open Society Institute of the Soros Foundation for her work with children, mothers and caregivers. As a Soros fellow, Newell created the 14-state (including Arkansas) National Partnership for Children of Incarcerated Parents to pursue legislation to guarantee certain rights to the children. With funding from the Winthrop Rockefeller Foundation, Newell also founded the Arkansas Voices for the Children Left Behind non-profit; Rockefeller also funded the documentary “Mothers in Prison, Children in Crisis” that featured Newell. As well as implementing family-friendly visiting policies that make it easier for children to visit their parents in the prison setting, Newell has started school-based support groups for students at Central and Hall High Schools.
Pastor Rick Bezet has presided over enormous growth in his congregation since New Life Church, headquartered in Conway, began in 2001. “We only started with one family and then one day we had two families and then three families …” he said. The church now has 15,000 members of churches in North Little Rock, Cabot, Conway, Hot Springs, Heber Springs and Fort Smith. By 2009, Outreach magazine ranked New Life Church No. 1 on its list of the 100 fastest growing churches in the United States.
Attendance across all six houses of worship averages about 8,000 a week, Bezet said. The pastor said the church has grown by noting what turns people off about church and doing the opposite. Citing a study by the Barna Group, Bezet said that people are leaving churches because they didn’t find the sermons relevant, their kids didn’t want to go, they didn’t like the music, they didn’t identify with other churchgoers and they thought the church was only after their money. So Bezet and NLC offered what they believe are sermons that “mainline Arkansas” families will respond to, programming for children and contemporary music. The church also decided not to press for tithes. “We thought, ‘let’s not do it this way,’ ” Bezet said. “Let’s just go for the people and if the Lord can’t do the rest on the funds that come into a church, if He can’t do that, then this is not built by God. Let’s just build people and we’ll let Him take care of the rest.”
SUE AND RUSTY NUFFER
Thirty-four years ago, a couple of back-to-the-landers in search of cheap property and an ideal growing season found their way to Pope County. Sue and Rusty Nuffer, from Ohio and Michigan respectively, started an organic blueberry farm and began selling at farmer’s markets and, later, online buying clubs. They now supply Little Rock restaurants The Root, Brave New Restaurant, ZaZa, Trio’s, Twenty One, Terry’s Finer Foods, Boulevard Bread and Ashley’s. The Nuffers were also influential in the now disbanded Ozark Organic Growers Association, a co-op that helped Arkansas products reach a national market and, according to Sue, they were the first farmers to sell organic blueberries on a national scale. “There’s more interest and demand in organic food now,” said Sue, “but the heyday of organic farming was from about 1982 to 1993, because land was a lot cheaper then. But this is what we’re dedicated to. We can’t imagine putting chemicals on food or in the ground.”
In 2000 Scott Stewart, 38, of Mountain View, opened a pine mill in the same spot where his grandfather used to saw stays for whiskey stills and used the leftover lumber to build portable vacation cabins. A few years later, after the economy tanked and the small house movement fed by the 1997 book “The Not So Big House” and the need for shelter after Hurricane Katrina ballooned, Stewart began his Slabtown Customs tiny house business. The houses range in size from 160 to 300 square feet and cost from $14,000 to $30,000; he builds about 30 a year. All include the essentials — toilet, shower, kitchen appliances and sleeping lofts — and some a washer and dryer. Stewart’s sold his houses as far away as Washington to clients ranging from college students to retirees. (“The most extreme was when a family of six moved into an 8 x 16 house with a 6-foot porch,” 176 square feet, Stewart said.) He’s even built a wheelchair-accessible tiny house.
It’s been a momentous year for Warwick Sabin. As publisher of Oxford American magazine, he’s weathered the storm following the firing of founding editor Marc Smirnoff for sexual harassment. He won the Democratic primary election for Arkansas House of Representatives, District 33, and he’s running unopposed in the general election. He’s been overseeing the start of South on Main, a project to put an Oxford American restaurant and public venue in the former home of Juanita’s on South Main Street. South on Main will celebrate the South with an array of arts programming and a menu designed by a soon-to-be named accomplished chef. The venture, scheduled to open early next year, will put Sabin on the path to realizing a goal that’s shared by forward-thinking publishers everywhere — to be more than a publication. “Cultural institution” is a term Sabin has used. When a reporter suggested 2013 — in his first year as a legislator, with a new OA editor in place and a new restaurant and venue open — could be his year, Sabin protested. “You’re tempting fate.”
Haydar Al-Shukri is the director of the Arkansas Earthquake Center at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock and chair of the Applied Science Department. His mission is to educate the public about natural phenomena. He takes a complex subject he knows well — seismology — and talks about it in a way the public can understand. He’s not trying to shake people up — “I don’t usually use a scare tactic,” said Al-Shukri — in his attempts to educate the public about the risk of an earthquake and ways to prepare for a disaster. He is both educator and researcher; a current project has taken him to a cotton field in Eastern Arkansas, where the Marianna Fault exists, which could produce an earthquake in the future. The Earthquake Center director has won a federal grant to operate six new seismic stations, including one at the New Madrid Fault, and to provide public education and data to the scientific community. Al-Shukri’s expertise put him in the middle of the state Oil and Gas Commission’s inquiry into whether fracking wastewater wells were causing an increase in the number of earthquakes north of Conway; Al-Shukri, who’d been paid by the well disposal operation Deep Six to conduct tests, testified the wells were not the cause of most of the small quakes. The state Oil and Gas Commission closed one well anyway.
In 1992, a 19-year-old volunteer in Bill Clinton’s successful presidential campaign dropped out of Ouachita Baptist University to move to D.C. and work on Clinton’s press team, thus becoming the youngest White House staffer ever. Both Griffin and Clinton were born in Hope, and their families were loosely acquainted. “I was inspired by my governor and first lady,” Griffin said. “I not only followed him growing up in Arkansas, but I followed my first lady, who was incredibly active in education reform.”
Griffin graduated from Georgetown University in Washington with a degree in foreign affairs and began to work on various legislative campaigns. He helped pass a cigarette tax in California that funds early childhood education and fought for stem-cell research. But Griffin is best known as an advocate for gay and lesbian civil rights.
In 2010, voters overturned a California Supreme Court ruling giving same-sex couples the right to marry. Griffin astounded everyone by convincing Theodore Olson and David Boies, lawyers for George Bush and Al Gore, respectively, during the U.S. Supreme Court presidential-election fight, to work together to challenge the law. It was the first time that same-sex marriage had been addressed in a federal court. Thus far, the Olson/Boies team has succeeded in three federal courts and is readying the case for the Supreme Court.
In March, Griffin was named the new president of the Human Rights Campaign, the largest LGBT advocacy group in the country. “Our movement has come a long way in the last 10 or even five years. If you look over the country, there’s over 50 percent bipartisan support for marriage equality, there’s tremendous support for an employment nondiscrimination act, ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ is gone, we have the first president of the United States supporting marriage equality, but we still have a long ways to go,” Griffin said. Currently, HRC is working on marriage-related ballot measures in Maine, Maryland and Washington, where there are measures to grant marriage equality, and in Minnesota, where HRC is working against a discriminatory measure. “Right now, what’s before me are these four ballot measures. These are four opportunities that we can win, and we need to do everything in our power to do that,” Griffin said. Beyond that, he plans to work with what he calls “fair-minded religious leaders and legislatures” to fight bullying and discrimination and offer LGBT people — particularly teen-agers — support and stability. For Griffin, “At the end of the day, this is about the Golden Rule.”
Managing editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette since 1998 — and performing the duties of executive editor since Griffin Smith stepped down last April — David Bailey has to be one of the most influential people in the state. Though people have been sounding the death knell of the American newspaper for awhile, the Democrat-Gazette still has tremendous sway on the politics and attitudes of Arkansans, and Bailey is one of the chief minds behind what that paper is going to look like when it hits the doorstep.
Born in Natchez, Miss., Bailey has been a journalist his whole adult life. Fresh out of school, he worked at a newspaper in Natchez for a few months, then moved to Baton Rouge, where he worked at the Baton Rouge Advocate for almost 16 years. In 1988, he moved to the Memphis Commercial-Appeal and after that to the Hattiesburg American in Hattiesburg, Miss. He accepted a position with the Democrat-Gazette in 1993.
“I knew a little something about Little Rock,” he said. “Although I didn’t know any people here, I knew the town and I knew the newspaper. This newspaper has had a tremendous history and tradition. There’s been a lot of good journalism in this town, so it was an easy decision to come here.” He credits any influence he might have to his “remarkable” staff at the newspaper.
Since taking over Smith’s duties in April, Bailey has seen the paper through several projects, including the rollout of its Plus Technology, which allows readers to scan a photo with their smart phone for video and other information. Overall, Bailey said he’s hopeful about the prospects for the American newspaper.
“A lot of people predicted print would go away when television came along,” he said. “A lot of people predicted it back in the 1970s when there was a little cable box you could put on top of your TV, and that didn’t happen either. I think print will be around for a long, long time.”
BRENT AND CRAIG RENAUD
Brothers Brent and Craig Renaud have spent more than a decade traveling the world making documentary films. They’ve worked with the biggest players in the industry — HBO, NBC, PBS, the Discovery Channel and the online New York Times. They’ve won major prizes, including an Alfred I. duPont-Columbia Award, the most prestigious award in broadcast and digital journalism, for a stirring web video report they did for the New York Times on the recovery of two Haitian children who were severely injured in the 2010 earthquake. They’ve trailed drug addicts (“Dope Sick Love”), filmed on the front lines (“Off to War”), dodged bullets in the Mexican drug war (a multi-part series for the New York Times) and interviewed Olympians Michael Johnson and Carl Lewis (for a U.S. Olympic team YouTube channel). Somehow, they’ve also found time to contribute, perhaps more than any others, to Arkansas’s growing film culture — founding and programming the Little Rock Film Festival, which has quickly grown into a regional juggernaut, and founding the Arkansas Motion Picture Institute, a new umbrella nonprofit under which all of the state’s film festivals will collaborate. Next up: A fall premiere of their documentary on a 10-year-old boy awaiting a heart transplant for almost a year, his twin brother and their Russian immigrant parents. It’s a “heavy” story, Craig said recently, but that’s territory in which the Renauds thrive, as Brent acknowledged earlier this year in his acceptance speech for the duPont-Columbia. “Our goal with all of our films is to tell a simple, honest, human story about [subjects that] can sometimes be incomprehensible and hopeless.”
IRMA GAIL HATCHER
When Irma Gail Hatcher moved to Conway in 1981, shortly after her husband accepted a position as president of Hendrix College, she began quilting. After a few years, she started exhibiting her quilts, and in 1999, her quilt “Conway Album (I’m not from Baltimore)” was chosen by a panel of expert quilters as one of the “100 Best American Quilts of the 20th Century.” Hatcher estimates that she’s made 100 quilts. She has never sold a quilt, although she’s donated a few to museums. One day her six grandchildren will inherit the rest of them. Hatcher has taught quilting in 36 states, and she’s authored eight books on the subject. “Ozark Oaks,” a brown-and-blue piece quilt that she made decades ago, is still her favorite. “It took me a year to make it, and I think I was just thrilled to finish it. It became a part of me, like a child,” she said.
At Hearne Fine Art, owner Garbo Hearne says, the art sells itself. “I’m not a salesperson,” the somewhat reserved operator of the only gallery to focus on African-American in Arkansas says. “You have to want it.”
But Hearne wants you to want it, and since 1988 has worked to introduce names previously little known in Little Rock’s collecting circles both black and white, though the artists are famous elsewhere. Her gallery represents painters and printmakers and sculptors of national reputation, like Benny Andrews, John Biggers, Samella Lewis, Dean Mitchell and Faith Ringgold, and highlights major Arkansas talents as well, like Aj Smith, Marjorie Williams-Smith, Ariston Jacks, Larry Hampton and others. These are fine artists whose work you’re unlikely to find anywhere else in Arkansas.
The El Dorado native was herself encouraged to learn about African-American art by her husband, Dr. Archie Hearne, who is a collector. Her first gallery, Pyramid Art, was on Main Street, and she sold posters at first. As she moved more deeply into fine art (she sells books and does framing as well), she moved the gallery to the Museum Center in the River Market. There, Hearne Fine Art was a destination; “I couldn’t have survived the River Market [district] otherwise,” she said laughing, because of the lack of parking. (Though, she added, some of her visitors came in thinking she was part of the Museum of Discovery, got a confused look on their faces and exited.)
To have a gallery devoted to artists who are African-American “sounds so crazy,” Hearne said. “A whites-only gallery wouldn’t be acceptable.” But there is a commonality in much of the work, narratives of a life of exclusion and struggle.
Now, Hearne says, she is starting a young collectors group, and will pair its members with mentors who already know something about art and the market. “I feel like I’ve been able to change a lot of people’s understanding” of African-American art, Hearne said. She makes buying fine art affordable, too, allowing people to buy on monthly installments.
It is not a stretch to say that John Gaudin was the prime mover, the sower of seeds that have transformed downtown North Little Rock in the past eight years. And the changes he wrought — giving the railroad town’s Main Street a new identity as arts district — might have happened in Little Rock instead.
“North Little Rock was so far off my radar” when he was looking for new office space that would allow him to have a gallery along with his investment consulting business, Gaudin said, sitting at a table in his office over Cregeen’s at Broadway and Main, a building he constructed to fit in with Argenta’s historic buildings. “I had no idea what was here — all these cool buildings.”
Gaudin, 56, a native of Lafayette, La., who moved to Arkansas in 1982, was methodical in what some might have considered madness, this goal to bring in the arts and chic housing to an old downtown whose mercantile bustle was fading. He hired an architect to “plot out, building by building” what a successful arts-based business district might look like. With investors Harold Tenenbaum and Greg Nabholz (doing business as The New Argenta Fund, The Mill LLC and other entities), he began to buy and transform buildings and lots on and off Main that are now home to the Thea Foundation, the Argenta Community Theater, Starving Artist Cafe and City Grove Townhomes; he’s also bought the former Mountaire Feeds property, to one day be developed for a hotel. His fingerprints are all over the Argenta Downtown Council, a mini-chamber of commerce/city beautiful group for the neighborhood, and the Argenta Arts Foundation.
Gaudin’s newest project: the North Little Rock Moon Shot project to raise educational achievement, involving the A+ School program embraced and promoted by the Thea Foundation, the federal City Year program and a new creation, Art Connection, an arts-based teen afterschool and jobs program modeled on the Artists for Humanity project in Boston. He’s a believer in arts as good for the soul, good for young minds, and not bad for business, either.
Keith Jackson’s earlier claim to fame was his football career. He was a tight end for the University of Oklahoma and was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame. Jackson went on to play for the Philadelphia Eagles, Miami Dolphins and Green Bay Packers. But since 1993, Jackson has come to be known for the non-profit organization he started in Southwest Little Rock to help at-risk teen-agers. Positive Atmosphere Reaches Kids (PARK) offers a place for students who may be struggling with school or a violent environment a safe place to study and play. Jackson said students who come in with a 1.5 GPA may improve their grades — and attitude — so much that they can go to college. Today, there are 175 PARK graduates enrolled in college. Jackson said the PARK program started as a vision from God. (In a 2003 interview, when asked how he knew he was hearing God’s voice, Jackson said, “Hey, I’m a football player … it couldn’t be from me.”) Jackson wanted to be “more than just a football player,” and was concerned about teen violence. With a current enrollment of 250 students and countless changed lives, Jackson proudly reflects on the program saying, “PARK has done as much for me as I’ve done for it.” He’s also still part of the sports world; he’s a commentator for the Arkansas Razorbacks.
Over the past 40 years, Little Rock furniture maker, carver, photographer and wood-turner Keith Newton has churned a lot of sawdust. In the process, he’s shaped himself into arguably the best artist working in wood in the state.
In a huge, cluttered shop on Arch Street (which features a living space that includes a massive tree trunk that’s been turned into a spiral staircase), Newton has amassed a collection of iron machines that look like something from a Dickensian workhouse: a massive planer from a defunct coffin factory, a seven-foot-tall band saw, a five-horsepower wood lathe — formerly used to make steam locomotive drive wheels and saved from scrap — that allows Newton to turn mammoth wooden vessels up to 54 inches across. With these, Newton creates works of such organic flow and lightness that it’s hard to believe some of them didn’t just grow that way.
Newton started woodworking in the late 1960s and bought his workshop on Arch Street in 1983. There was a time when he didn’t see himself as anything other than a woodworker, something that slowly changed as his skill set grew. “My clients back through the years started introducing me to their friends as ‘an artist,’ ” he said. “At first, I couldn’t say: ‘Oh yeah, I’m an artist.’ It was too braggy or something. But after awhile and a few awards …”
In those early days, Newton went through periods where he took design cues from the furniture of other makers, but in recent years, he said he’s been finding most of his inspiration in nature. An accomplished amateur wildlife photographer, Newton often incorporates the patterns and shapes he sees in the field into his furniture and turnings.
“I love curves,” he said. “I love making things curvy. Flat is boring to me. I’m trying to do things that separate me from everybody else, [and] the craft is so old that you can’t really do anything that has much originality if it has nothing but flat planes. I like the challenge of finding new shapes that don’t fit into older periods.”
Newton definitely likes a challenge. A recent job found him creating a rigid, see-through balcony for a loft that featured a series of thin rails joined into small rectangles that diminished in size the farther they got from the center of the balcony. That required a truly mind-boggling amount of planning, design and skill. “Even people who are really good woodworkers are going to look and that and say: ‘Oh God, it makes my brain hurt,’ ” Newton said with a chuckle. Still, that kind of dedication has its rewards. Newton says his projects eventually start to flow from one to the other.
“I have such a wonderful, creative imagination that I get in the zone to where the juices are flowing,” he said. “In my mind, I can just see stuff like you’re flipping pages in a book.”
It would be tough to find someone else who has more of a hand in determining which big-name concerts and other large-scale events come through Arkansas than Michael Marion, GM at Verizon Arena. He’s modest about his role, acknowledging the myriad factors that go into booking big events. But he’s a showbiz veteran whose contacts come in handy.
Marion got his start in booking concerts as a senior at Mississippi State University in the mid-’70s. The just-elected president of the student body approached him. “He said, ‘Hey, do you want to handle concerts?’ And I said, ‘Sure. How do you do it?’ ” Marion said with a laugh.
The first show he booked? “Billy Joel. We paid him $4,500. It was free to students and $3 for non-students.”
In the early ’80s, Marion took a job with a talent agency in Los Angeles. “It was really nice learning what goes on on the other side of the phone, because I’d been a buyer for all these years, wondering what agents did.”
He eventually got back into the business of booking, first back in his hometown of Tupelo, Miss., and then in Arkansas, when he was hired to manage what was then Alltel Arena. He brought with him the experience — and the contacts and friendships — he’d gained in his six years as an agent. Those things have come in handy over the years. For example, Marion had brought Tom Petty to Tupelo, and had long wanted to book the rock legend for a show in North Little Rock.
Petty “had a big offer to play Jazz Fest and they wanted to put some dates around it. Fortunately the agent for Tom Petty is a friend of mine.” Because Marion had been trying to get Petty to Arkansas for years, “we got the phone call.”
Like his mentor Alice Waters, the thing that sets chef and restaurateur Scott McGehee apart from many of his peers, which is also the thing he helped introduce in Arkansas after working for more than six years in Waters’ famed Chez Panisse in Berkley, hardly sounds like a thing at all. McGehee believes in the power of using the finest and freshest ingredients. Waters’ reliance on that philosophy in the ’70s and ’80s helped spawn the local, organic foods movement. McGehee’s helped revolutionize how Central Arkansans think about basic staples. With each new restaurant he’s opened, he’s managed to turn the likes of bread, pizza, salad, ice cream, hamburgers and French fries into delicious gourmet creations that bear little resemblance to what we knew of them before. Not yet a convert? A tasting tour of the mini-empire he’s created is in order: Try a baguette at Boulevard Bread (which McGehee sold to his ex-wife in 2009 following a divorce), the recipe for which won a world baking competition in France. Try a cup of the impossibly creamy Italian gelato at ZaZa Fine Salad and Wood Oven Pizza Co. Try the habit-forming Truffle-Garlic-Herb Fries at Big Orange: Burgers, Salads & Shakes. Then go back and try something else. Later this year, McGehee and several partners will open Local Lime, a new concept that could explode one’s notion of what a taco and a margarita can be. McGehee’s father, Frank McGehee, started Blue Mesa Grill and Juanita’s, where McGehee spent time cooking. “It’s kind of coming full circle,” he said.
Children neither vote nor make campaign contributions, which puts them at a disadvantage when it comes to influencing public policy. Arkansas Advocates for Children and Families was founded in 1977 to reduce that disadvantage, and in the years since, it has succeeded to a considerable degree. Rich Huddleston joined AACF in 1995 and has been executive director since July 2004.
“Our formal mission is to ensure that all children and families have the resources and opportunities to lead healthy and productive lives,” Huddleston said in an interview. “We concentrate on improving public policy. Much of our work focuses on low-income and vulnerable kids. We try really hard to see that everything we do is researched and data-based.” Unlike many such documents, AACF reports are highly valued by the news media.
AACF may be best-known for the ARKids health insurance program for low-income children, which was created in the 1990s. Huddleston’s predecessor, Amy Rossi, was the foremost advocate for the program and won Gov. Mike Huckabee’s support. Mike Beebe, then a member of the state Senate, was a legislative leader for the program. Pre-kindergarten education is another cause for which AACF seeks and wins public funding.
AACF is funded primarily by private grants from groups such as the Winthrop Rockefeller Foundation and the Annie E. Casey Foundation. Foundation funds can’t be used for lobbying, and although some people think of AACF as a lobby group, lobbying is actually a fairly small part of what the organization does, Huddleston said.
“We educate the public about the importance of these issues and potential solutions. We try to engage the public to be advocates. We partner with other organizations who are committed advocates in their own right.” And although AACF does not endorse or contribute to political candidates, “We have had strong champions in the Arkansas legislature on nearly every issue we work on.” AACF brings out the best in legislators, sort of the reverse of the Americans for Prosperity group.
At first glance, a peace group seems like something out of the Vietnam era, but peace never grows passé. Certainly not to Jean Gordon, who founded the Arkansas chapter of WAND (Women’s Action for New Directions) in 1997, and remains active in it. (The national organization was founded as Women’s Action for Nuclear Disarmament in the 1970s by Dr. Helen Caldicott.) Arkansas WAND has more than 350 members, mostly in Central Arkansas. It works to direct excessive military spending elsewhere, such as education, health care and environmental protection. It holds special events, such as annual remembrances of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings; it sponsored the Beacon of Peace and Hope at the Arkansas Inland Maritime Museum in North Little Rock. “We have speakers talking about the history and terrible consequences of nuclear weapons, and the danger of nuclear weapons now,” Gordon said. “We want to abolish most of the nuclear weapons.”
P. ALLEN SMITH
Born in Little Rock in 1960, P. Allen Smith took a love for nature, an eye for design and a green thumb he inherited from his grandfather and grew them into a multimedia empire: gardening books, a radio show, a newsletter with over 100,000 weekly subscribers, three nationally-syndicated TV shows, a new partnership to produce content for Youtube.com and more. He’s also still active in designing grand gardens around America and the world. Relishing his success, Smith has spent the last eight years building a country estate called Moss Mountain Farm near Roland, where he lives and films much of the content for his Internet and television ventures. Smith, who says he sees himself at heart as a teacher, doesn’t believe in perfection, but he does believe that good taste is something most people can acquire if they pay attention to the details and take the time to nurture their creativity. “It’s like having musical ability,” he said. “I was not born with any sort of musical ability or talent, but lots of people are born with those talents and they build on them. … You can either build that out within yourself or let it lie dormant. Most of us who have an artistic bent can’t allow it to lie dormant.”
Reese Rowland and his colleagues at Polk Stanley Wilcox Architects have done much to shape the way Little Rock looks. Several of their buildings have won some of the top professional honors in the industry.
Of the firm’s many projects in the state, some of its most visible works were helmed by Rowland, including the Acxiom tower, the Arkansas Studies Institute, the Little Rock Chamber of Commerce and the Heifer International headquarters downtown, which won the 2008 AIA National Institute Honor Award — the nation’s highest award for architecture.
The building, which was completed in 2007, was one of the earliest structures to be certified as a LEED Platinum project by the U.S. Green Building Council, meaning it met the most stringent requirements for energy efficiency and sustainable construction practices.
“We feel like our firm in general is really on the cutting edge — and has been on the cutting edge for years and years — of this kind of work,” Rowland said.
Many of the principles that helped the building earn that distinction were already common practice at Polk Stanley Wilcox, Rowland said.
“We were doing most of those things in our buildings anyway, how you orient a building and how you bring in natural light instead of artificial light,” he said.
While the LEED certification process is a good measuring stick for how efficient a building will be, “we were focused on energy savings more than just lip service,” Rowland said. “We wanted the building to really perform, because every dollar that we saved in energy bills, that was money they could send to programs and hungry people.”
Since that time, the focus on sustainable, energy-efficient construction and design — “green” buildings for shorthand — has increased substantially. “It’s kind of the catchphrase now,” he said.
But for Rowland and his colleagues at PSW, “it’s about creating a building that does perform,” he said. “You can whitewash it — or ‘greenwash’ it as they say — where you do all the things that feel good and look good and you can say that it’s green,” he said. “But if it doesn’t save any energy over a normal building, then what’s the point?”
Rowland’s buildings weren’t recognized only because of energy efficiency. The design of much of his award-winning work tells the story of the client. In the case of the Arkansas Studies Institute, for example, as the main entrance to the building suggests the cover of a book, the glass panels along the building’s west side forming pages.
The building was one of five winners worldwide of the 2011 American Institute of Architects/American Library Association Library Building Award.
“For us as an architectural community, to make Little Rock something that’s progressive and forward-thinking — not mired in the past but really progressive — it takes modern, crisp, neat, interesting architecture,” he said. “I think over the last 10 to 15 years, as a city and at our firm, we’ve really worked hard to make that happen.”
Only the students of University of Arkansas chemical engineering professor Dr. Jamie Hestekin truly understand what they’re up to in Fayetteville, but we’ll take a shot at it. Hestekin and students, who won the PBS Planet Forward competition “Innovator of the Year” and were featured on the special “The Energy of Innovation,” are working to turn algae into butanol, a biofuel. The benefits: Compared to amber waves of corn, ponds of green scum occur naturally, and therefore sustainably. “Our dream,” Hestekin said, “is to have something that cleans up wastewater and makes usable fuel out of it.” Research is early; “I’d love to say we could do that tomorrow,” but they’ve got a way to go — and competition for federal dollars with the oil and gas industry — before we’re putting fermented algae in the tank. Meanwhile, Hestekin and his team, who are getting their algae shipped to them from a New York wastewater treatment plant, will continue working to create affordable ways to make an engine hum on scum.
Donald Bobbitt, the president of the University of Arkansas System, a chemistry Ph.D. and Philadelphia native who earned his undergraduate degree in Fayetteville, is an evangelist for distance learning. He sees it as an opportunity to for more Arkansans to seek a college degree, making school more accessible to those who are “geographically fixed” because of their job, family obligations, or finances, as well as more appealing to those who don’t want or need the “cultural fabric of the university.”
“That could be older students realizing their career would be advanced by a college degree, or people in the stage of life where they don’t want to spend time in the traditional college setting, they want to stay focused and finish and get out,” said Bobbitt.
Bobbitt also sees technology as a way to enhance the learning process. For example, he said some excellent scholarship has been done on the traditional learning process — the professor presents a lecture, reading material is assigned, and students do homework then ask questions about it — and a new model called “the flipped classroom” is emerging.
“Maybe the lecture and materials could be reviewed ahead of time by the students and points not well understood could then be used to highlight the places of misconception through questions,” said Bobbitt. That’s a format that would work well on-line.
Bobbitt believes Arkansas has made progress in online learning. “We’re putting in high-speed networks across both the public and private sector.” The real concern is what he calls “storm clouds” at the federal level, such as the budget impasse in Congress and lawmakers’ “meat cleaver approach” to spending reduction. Federal education is being cited more frequently as a place where cuts could be made.
“If the Pell Grant is going to serve as the financial bedrock for many students across the South … you’re going to see a drastic reduction in the number of Arkansans who can afford to go to college,” said Bobbitt. “I think that’s why we should at least be looking at how technology can assist these students who may no longer be able to afford a traditional education.”
In 1975, while studying environmental science at the University of Arkansas, Tim Ernst bought a camera and started a photography business. He shot Greek functions, what he calls his “wildlife photography stint.” By 1980, the Fayetteville native had dropped out of college and taken up nature photography. In 1987, Ernst got his break — the Sierra Club used his photo as a calendar cover. Soon after, he started freelancing for heavies such as National Geographic. He also kept busy clearing hiking trails, something he’d been doing since 1981. In 1977, the National Forest Service began to clear the 162-mile Ozark Highlands Trail — a task it abandoned by 1980. So Ernst founded the Ozark Highlands Trail Association. By 1988, the association’s thousands of volunteers had completed the trail. In the late 1980s, Ernst started a publishing company to sell his roughly 30 photography books and guidebooks. He also leads about 30 photo workshops a year. Ernst loves teaching, but he complains that running a business shortchanges his life on the trail. “I used to spend about 290 nights a year in a tent,” he said. A little over a decade ago, he built a log cabin on a ridge in Newton County. It’s an easier place from which to manage the administrative duties that go with being Tim Ernst, the unofficially branded Ozarks evangelist. For Ernst, the magic is in the light. “There’s a rare quality of light here, and when you see it, you know it … it can be brilliant sunlight streaming through foggy trees or, just the other night, it’d been storming and right before sunset I was out on the deck, looking at these cloud formations below. They were twisting and dancing as they warmed and rose up, and just beyond them, on the opposite ridge top, it lit up. It was bathed in this warm, golden glow,” he said, sounding as airy and dreamy as the clouds.
John James, CEO and founder of Fayetteville’s Acumen Brands, thinks he’s got a future billion-dollar company. “I know it seems audacious, but we’re well on our way,” he says. What’s Acumen do? At a quick glance, one might say they sell stuff online, like thousands of other retailers around the world. A visit to the company’s 50,000-square-foot warehouse turns up rows of shelves of cowboy boots and Carhartt jackets — the big sellers of two of Acumen’s online stores, countryoutfitter.com and toughwield.com. But if you stick around long enough, you’ll see boxy orange robots whizzing around the warehouse, hoisting shelves of merchandise and depositing them in the shipping area, leaving the packaging and shipping — the only human involvement in a massive operation — to a handful of workers. It’s just one way the four-year-old company has figured out how to how to sell things efficiently and innovatively. Move fast, break things and iterate quickly is a company philosophy, James has said. It’s a business style that attracted Dillard’s to invest $4 million in the company last year. James’ personality and background might’ve played a role as well. He’s a medical doctor who paid for medical school by selling Quiz Bowl questions to schools across the country and ran three e-commerce businesses and a lucrative arbitrage on Google keywords while he was in residency. Entrepreneurship eventually won out over medicine. “I want to do something to change the world, and I think I’ve got a better chance of doing it over here than I did in the medical system,” James said.
Paragould native Chris Bouldin got into the T-shirt business by way of the restaurant trade. In 2007, he was operating a pizza shop in Sherwood that wasn’t doing so well. Toward the end, he had some “I Little Rock” shirts made for his employees. The shirts were popular with customers as well.
“It got to the point where we were selling as many of those shirts as we were selling pizza,” Bouldin said. “We just went ahead and kept the shirts part of it and got rid of the pizza place.”
Bouldin took a job offer in Tulsa later that year, as program director at the Petroleum Equipment Institute. That gig is still his day job, but his heart — and much of his creative energy — continues to be focused on Arkansas. That, combined with his affinity for vintage design and sarcasm, blossomed into Rock City Outfitters, an Arkansas-themed on-line T-shirt shop.
The T-shirts sport messages that range from a G rating to, well, maybe not R, but probably a hard PG-13. Most are of a nostalgic bent, such as old-school Travelers images, the Southwest Conference logo or “Clinton for Congress in 1974.” Others are more smart-alecky, e.g., “I Give My Word to Stop at Third — Arkansas Abstinence Day 1987” or “Jonesboro — Not So Boring if You’re Never Sober.” There are digs at nearby states: “Imagine … A World Without Texas” and “Arkansas: Two Letters Better than Kansas.”
Bouldin averages a couple of hundred shirts a week, which brings in a good amount of extra scratch. “It could be eventually one of these things I do for a living. But honestly, I just want it to be fun,” he said. “And that’s really all it’s ever been for me.” If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, then Bouldin must feel mighty flattered. RCO has inspired several similar ventures in Arkansas.
Higher education, community building
Some universities and the towns they’re located in largely go their separate ways. More is expected of the university in a large metropolitan area. Under Chancellor Joel Anderson, UALR tries to provide. “In 2000, we did a six-month study that resulted in a recommendation for merger of Little Rock and North Little Rock utilities. I think that surprised officials on both sides of the [Arkansas] river. They surprised us by accepting the recommendation and putting it in place.” The university has also created the Institute on Race and Ethnicity. “We’ve recognized that race is a major issue in our community and that for the community to reach its best future, we have to address issues of race more successfully.” Anderson said UALR works to create programs that meet local and state needs. “We’re graduating some highly qualified students in high-tech majors that are in short supply in Little Rock and Arkansas. The university has been working for at least 20 years to improve neighborhoods around the university. Through a university district development corporation, we’ve gotten money to improve housing in this part of town.”
Phillip Goad, Ph.D., has been a vital part of the Center for Toxicology and Environmental Health (CTEH) since he and three others founded the group in 1997; he is the principal toxicologist at the company. A spinoff of the BioVentures program at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences, CTEH focuses on human health and the environmental impact of chemicals in the workplace, the air we breathe, the water we drink, and the earth under our feet. CTEH, headquartered in North Little Rock, provides risk assessment on the potential health consequences of chemicals, strategies for clean-up, data management and air sampling and safety technology. Although most of the company’s work is focused out of state, CTEH employs many Arkansans (it is the largest employer of doctoral students from the toxicology program at UAMS) and has a growing clientele in-state. CTEH also works in emergency response and had a large part in the clean-up of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf.
JAMES PARINS, J.W. WIGGINS, DANIEL LITTLEFIELD
Native American cultural history
Dr. Daniel Littlefield, Dr. Jim Parins and Dr. J.W. Wiggins have made Arkansas a destination for scholarly research on Native American writing and art. This is particularly significant given that this is a state that pushed its native population out in the 19th century; there is no Indian Country here, despite a rich prehistory and history of native people.
The Sequoyah National Research Center on the campus of the University of Arkansas at Little Rock is the fruit of 40 years of labor by the retired professors, with Littlefield and Parins amassing Native American newspapers and Wiggins Native American art. Their collections, composed of the Native Press Archives, manuscripts, the Tribal Writers Digital Library and other primary sources, and 2,500 works of art by 865 Native American artists and more, are now the largest of their kinds in the United States. The center’s importance is such that it’s attracted research fellows from states with large Indian populations like Arizona and Oklahoma, and scholars from as far away as Australia.
Littlefield, director of the research center, and Parins, a former English professor (like Littlefield), were working to compile an anthology of Native American writers in the 1970s when they realized there was a wealth of Indian materials about to be lost: newspapers and periodicals that were being weeded from universities. They began to take the printed material and created an archive that grew from an office in Stabler Hall to a suite there and then to space made for the archive in Ottenheimer Library.
“One of the reasons we’ve been successful is we don’t have recognized tribes in the state,” Littlefield said. “I’m not sure something like this could work in Oklahoma where there are 39 tribes.” Instead, Arkansas is seen as “neutral territory,” as independent journalist Mark Trahant, a Shoshone-Bannock, described it, where tribal loyalties don’t come into play. Still, Littlefield and Parins (who is assistant director of the center) hope the Sequoyah Center will be Indian-run in the future.
Wiggins, a former chemistry professor, has work by more than 145 Native American artists in his collection, which was once stored and hung from floor to ceiling in his home in Broadmoor. He donated the collection to UALR with the caveat that the university had to create a place to show it; Sequoyah shows the work in rotating exhibitions in its gallery. Wiggins said he started collecting contemporary native art in 1974 after a visit to the Five Civilized Tribes Museum in Muskogee. “Dan liked the museum,” Wiggins said, and “kept harping” on his recommendation that Wiggins visit. He figured if he did “Dan would shut up.” When Wiggins entered the museum, he said, “I was at home. I was comfortable and I liked what I saw. I’ve not missed attending one of their two major shows each year since 1975.” Today, Wiggins is president of the board of directors of the museum.
When Wiggins first exhibited his collection at UALR in 2006, artists from Oklahoma, the northern Plains, Canada and the Arctic were represented. Since then, he’s expanded into work from the Southwest and Northeastern tribes. His goal is to educate people to the fact that “Native American art is out in the world and they have a rare opportunity here in Little Rock to view it.”
Co-founder and executive director of the grass-roots Latino outreach program Arkansas United Community Coalition, Mireya Reith has devoted pretty much her entire adult life to trying to improve the lot of immigrants. The daughter of Mexican immigrants and the first Latina to serve on the state Board of Education, Reith grew up in Fayetteville. After working out-of-state for several years with groups like the National Democratic Institute for International Affairs, the United Nations, the Peace Corps and Latinos for Obama, Reith returned to Arkansas in 2010 and immediately set to work, helping found an Arkansas chapter of the political organization The New Latino Movement, serving as Latino outreach director for the Democratic Party of Arkansas, and founding the non-profit Arkansas United Community Coalition, which received a grant this year from the Winthrop Rockefeller Foundation to continue its efforts to make life better for Latinos in Arkansas.
Reith said the mission statement of the AUCC is to empower the Latino community through “organizing and coalition building,” so that they can take leadership roles and begin addressing the problems and goals of the community. “We’re really trying to take support to immigrants here in Arkansas to the next level,” she said. “To help immigrants help themselves, to support immigrants as leaders in their communities, as well as support the integration of immigrants into Arkansas more broadly.”
For Arkansas to reach its full potential, Reith said, we need that. “The basis for helping them help themselves is that immigrants don’t just have to wait for others to extend services or support to them,” she said. “Each of them has the capacity, the ability and even the responsibility in some ways to get more actively involved in their communities.”
Warren Stephens is influential even when he stays home. The son of Jack Stephens, founder of Stephens Inc., and now the CEO of the private international investment bank Jack Stephens and his brother, Witt, founded, Warren is one of the wealthiest people in Arkansas. That means when he wants something done, it happens. He and his wife, Harriet, helped found the Episcopal Collegiate School, which has grades K-12 and an enrollment of 763 on the Jackson T. Stephens campus in mid-town. He was the moving force behind the Dickey-Stephens Baseball Park in North Little Rock, donating the land, and he’s carried on his father’s support for First Tee, a national golf program for children. He also founded the exclusive private golf club, Alotian, on Highway 10 west of Little Rock, and the public gets a taste of his sensibilities at the Capital Hotel downtown, which he refurbished and which is now known for its fine dining and elegant suites.
GEORGE GLEASON, REYNIE RUTLEDGE & JOHN W. “JOHNNY” ALLISON
It wasn’t all that long ago that an Arkansas bank could not, by law, expand beyond the county in which it had been established, to say nothing of growing beyond state lines. And it seemed that any home-grown bank that achieved prominence was sooner or later snapped up by big, out-of-state banking monoliths, and buildings with familiar names like Worthen were soon replaced by Boatmen’s or Regions or USBank.
State banking regulations were eventually changed, though, and today Arkansas has a surprising number of native banks that have grown into regional dynamos, led by men who cut their teeth in the industry during the days of stricter rules.
“The national branching laws that now exist allowed Arkansas banks to grow and to capitalize on opportunities Arkansas banks couldn’t have a decade or two decades ago,” said George Gleason, CEO of Bank of the Ozarks.
Gleason was a 25-year-old attorney when he purchased controlling interest in the bank in 1979, taking charge as its chairman and CEO. He had a modest goal.
“The first morning of the acquisition — March 7, 1979 — I articulated in a staff meeting at 7:30 that morning that our goal was to build the best bank in Arkansas,” said Gleason. “I told the staff we may not be the biggest, but we would certainly be the best.”
That’s not to say that growth was out of the question; starting with a couple of dozen employees and $28 million in assets in 1970, Bank of the Ozarks now has $3.8 billion in total assets and 115 offices in seven states.
Gleason credits that success to “a lot of great bankers in our company” over the past 33 years. And many of those have gone on to success in bigger banking companies across the country, something he attributes to the nature of the Arkansas banking industry.
“It’s an environment where you have to work hard, you have to be efficient, and you have to be attentive to having a good credit culture to be successful,” said Gleason. “It’s not a high-growth market where lots of things come easy. So if you develop your skill-set as a banker in that environment, that skill-set translates really well in more dynamic, higher-growth markets in bigger states.”
The path was similar for Reynie Rutledge, chairman of First Security Bank.
“I moved to Searcy in 1977 and we bought controlling interest of a little bank there, $46 million in assets and three branches around Searcy,” he said.
Today the tote board would note $4.2 billion in total assets and 70 branches.
“Which is crazy, to tell you the truth — I never would have imagined it in 1977,” confides Rutledge. “We’ve kind of hung in there and grown as the state has grown and as opportunities have made themselves available to us.”
Those opportunities included purchasing other banks, but perhaps the biggest factor in the bank’s growth was the 1998 legislation that allowed Arkansas banks to open branches statewide.
“Those branches allowed us to move into markets like Northwest Arkansas, Little Rock, and Jonesboro,” said Rutledge.
First Security has yet to expand beyond the state’s boundaries, and that’s fine with Rutledge.
“We want to continue to serve Arkansas, and I think we can do that. I think there are banks in Arkansas that are, and can continue to be, successful in Arkansas,” he said.
John W. “Johnny” Allison, chairman of Home BancShares, recalls what happened when the big banks came in and bought up successful state institutions: Personal service went the way of the dodo.
“People became a number rather than a person,” said Allison. “It was punch six, punch seven, punch three, and not a live person answering the telephone.”
Arkansans got tired of that, he said, and offers as evidence the fact he got a standing ovation from a group of Conway seniors when he told them, shortly after starting Home BancShares with the purchase of the Bank of Holly Grove in 1998, that a live person would always answer the phone when someone called his bank.
“I found out the absolute importance of that to our people,” said Allison. “We’re just country bankers, there’s nothing fancy about us. They know us, they know our kids, we know their kids. They say ‘don’t do relationship banking,’ but that’s probably the key.”
Home BancShares has grown from $22 million to $4 billion in total assets and has more than 100 branches — including more in Florida now than in Arkansas, thanks in part to the economic downturn.
“It’s pretty amazing,” said Allison. “This opportunity with failed banks has been an unbelievable opportunity.”
Asked if there’s going to be a repeat at some point of national banks swooping in to buy successful Arkansas operations, Allison called that an inevitable part of the cycle.
“You have to do what’s in the best interest of the shareholders, but also the customers and employees,” he said. “You have to balance all that. Originally, I thought I’d sell this at one point in time; I don’t even think about it today. I’m having more fun than I’ve ever had in my business career building this corporation.”
Alice Walton and her Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art — built with her vast fortune and endowed by her family’s foundation to the tune of $1.2 billion — have been at the top of every art writer’s agenda since the Bentonville museum opened in November 2011. The New York Times: ”… there it stands, a big, serious, confident, new institution with more than 50,000 square feet of gallery space and a collection worth hundreds of millions of dollars in a region almost devoid of art museums.” The Huffington Post: “The Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art is regarded as the nation’s most important new art museum in a generation, offering the type of exhibits more commonly found in New York or Los Angeles.” Art in America: “The project is pharaonic in scope and ambition, aiming not only to establish a world-class museum during a precipitous fiscal downturn but to transform an Arkansas hollow into a cultural destination.” And from usually critical Arkansas Times: “It may be the Waltons’ work, but it is wondrous in our eyes.”
Hope, Ark., has produced many famous sons, but for current Little Rock influence it’s hard to top John Walker.
Now 75, Walker has hardly slowed his career pursuit of equal rights under the law. Himself a product of segregated schools, denied admission to the University of Texas on account of his race, Walker graduated from Yale Law School and in 1965 went to work for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, where he soon followed in the footsteps of Wiley Branton and future Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall in fighting racial segregation in Little Rock public schools. Nearly a half-century later, he’s still fighting the eternal Pulaski County desegregation case.
John Walker still matters for many more reasons. He’s a state representative and persistent voice of conscience in the House. He’s a pain and a prod to every school employee and board member in the county. He’s a successful lawyer, with a recent huge national class action judgment against Walmart. Over the years, he’s sued just about anybody who was anybody in corporate Arkansas over Title VII workplace discrimination. Downtrodden and abused — black and white, from the famous, like Nolan Richardson, to a man cheated on a convenience store lottery ticket purchase — know instinctively to seek help at Walker’s Quapaw Quarter law office.
If Walker can’t help legally, he might be able to help politically. Walker and his organization turned out the votes to defeat a business community coup of the Little Rock School Board six years ago. They’ve done the same in key legislative races and hold immense sway in base neighborhoods in tax elections. City Hall watches Walker warily, with good reason. He vows that his next challenge will be a lawsuit to end at-large representation on the City Board. That sound you hear is more corporate boardroom cussing.
Teresa Oelke must have been out influencing people every time we tried to call her. We never got through. Or she may have figured the Arkansas Times was influence-proof, and therefore not worth talking to, since Max Brantley once honored her on the Times blog as “Hypocrite of the Day.” (That was for her sharp attacks on President Obama’s stimulus plan while the construction firm that supports her family was accepting millions in stimulus-project funds.) But she is indeed influential, and will become even more so if Republicans win a majority in the state legislature, as is very possible. She’s the director of the Arkansas branch of Americans for Prosperity, the right-wing organization financed by the billionaire Koch brothers. She lobbies for lower taxes, less regulation and other things that rich reactionaries like, and with Koch money behind her, when she talks, Republican legislators jump.
Like most successful people in Northwest Arkansas’s flourishing start-up community, Jeannette Balleza stays busy. She’s a founding board member of the Northwest Arkansas Entrepreneurship Alliance. She runs the Professional Women’s Network of Washington County, a networking group for businesswomen. She owns Scribe Marketing, a company that she says focuses on “message development and content” for her clients. But these days, she spends most of her time at the center of a flurry of entrepreneurial activity as the director of the ARK Challenge, a start-up accelerator in Fayetteville. Accelerators, or business incubators, provide fledgling entrepreneurs access to business leaders, office space and seed money to launch fully-formed technology companies in the course of only a few months. Web companies like Reddit, Dropbox and Posterous have come out of Silicon Valley’s Y Combinator, perhaps the best-known tech accelerator. The ARK Challenge (Acceleration Resources and Knowledge Challenge) hopes for similar success, but within a narrower focus. The ARK’s 15 teams of entrepreneurs — selected from more than 80 applicants — are working to fill a need, identified by The ARK, in the food processing, logistics or retail industries, not coincidentally areas in which Tyson, J.B. Hunt and Walmart are industry leaders. It’s a focus Balleza calls “a playground for innovation.” With the support of more than 50 business mentors — including Rick Webb, senior vice president for global business processes at Walmart, and Collins Hemingway, a business consultant and the co-author of a book with Bill Gates — and funding and support from a number of federal and state partners, chiefly three jobs-focused federal agencies and Winrock International, The ARK could help Arkansas’s start-up culture develop a national reputation.
Kathy Deck is quoted in the news media a lot, and on important issues. She’s the director of the Center for Business and Economic Research (CBER) in the Sam M. Walton College of Business at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville. Business groups like the Arkansas State Chamber of Commerce consult CBER repeatedly for research that they then use widely in support of their positions. When the chamber fought a proposed increase in the natural gas severance tax, contending it would kill the goose that laid the golden egg by driving exploration companies away from the Fayetteville Shale, the chamber hired CBER. Deck and CBER found that the Fayetteville Shale was a virtual bonanza for the state, just as the companies and the chamber had contended. “Without the employment associated with the exploration and development of the Fayetteville Shale, Arkansas would have suffered a ‘lost decade’ where employment at the end of the period was lower than employment at the beginning,” she said. Environmentalists, consumer groups, labor unions and muck-raking journalists wish they had a Kathy Deck on their side.
ANTHONY B. TAYLOR
Catholics, immigrant advocacy
Bishop Anthony B. Taylor of the Little Rock Diocese of the Catholic Church made the headlines earlier this year with his call for Catholics to protest federal rules that would require health insurance plans — including those offered by Catholic hospitals — to cover the cost of birth control, rules issued earlier this year by the Department of Health and Human Services. Taylor wrote an open letter to the Catholic community asking it to pray, fast and contact congressmen asking them to overturn the ruling, which he said was a violation of First Amendment rights. Taylor is most known, however, for his welcoming of Latino immigrants, documented or not, to the community. His passionate and outspoken advocacy for immigrants has not been entirely accepted by the Catholic community, but it is so important to the bilingual bishop that his first letter to the faithful was “I Was a Stranger and You Welcomed Me: A Pastoral Letter on the Human Rights of Immigrants.” In the letter, Anthony wrote that “people have a God-given right to immigrate” and urged that Catholics embrace the “Marias and Joses” the way they would embrace Mary and Joseph as new members of their community. Taylor leads mass in English and Spanish, and feels it is a sign of love to be able to speak the language of the congregation.
Jeff Amerine is a start-up guy. In his 22-year career, the Arkansas native has been part of seven, including the wireless solutions company KonaWare in Silicon Valley. “Every now and then, you’ve got to take a break and go work for a big corporation just to keep your marriage intact,” he joked. “One too many times at the roulette wheel and you’ve got to go get a real job.” Today, that “real job” is as technology licensing officer for the University of Arkansas. “The university does about $130 million of research each year. By virtue of the federal and state mandate, we’re supposed to try to figure out how we can best take some of that to market to benefit society,” he explained. But it’s through his side gigs that he’s managed to remain one of the crucial forces in Arkansas’s start-up culture. He teaches an entrepreneurship course at the Walton College of Business. He’s an advisor with Innovate Arkansas, a non-profit funded by Winrock International and the Arkansas Economic Development Commission that tries to help tech start-ups become viable businesses. He was one of the early forces in organizing Gravity Ventures, a venture capital fund that invests in and, perhaps more importantly, provides guidance to mostly fledgling Arkansas tech start-ups. He’s a mentor with ARK Challenge, the Fayetteville tech accelerator (see Jeannette Balleza). He’s also behind Gone in 60 Seconds, an elevator pitch competition for young entrepreneurs that’s made stops in Fayetteville, Fort Smith, Rogers, Little Rock and El Dorado. “The secret sauce of this place is that people really genuinely want to help,” he said by way of explaining Northwest Arkansas’s success in fostering a start-up culture. Perhaps no one is a better purveyor of that ethos than Amerine himself.
Libraries, urban renewal
Librarians are not often regarded as large figures in urban renewal, but Bobby Roberts is. Many people were involved in the birth, or rebirth, of the formerly deserted downtown area where the River Market is now located, along with bustling bars, restaurants and hotels. But the first big-money project completed in the area was the construction of a new main branch for the Central Arkansas Library System. Other development followed, to the surprise of people who’d never thought a library could influence anything more than a dwindling number of readers.
Roberts, the director of CALS, is different from many librarians in another way, too. He has connections outside the book world.
An early supporter of Bill Clinton for governor, Roberts worked on Clinton’s staff before he was hired as director of CALS in May 1989, when the main branch was at Seventh and Louisiana Streets. Even after he took the CALS job, he took leave during legislative sessions to work as an aide to Clinton, lobbying legislators for Clinton bills.
It was during Clinton’s last term that Roberts and other library supporters prevailed on Clinton to support a constitutional amendment to change the way that libraries were funded. The existing tax limits on library financing wouldn’t allow for the construction of a new main library at Little Rock. The amendment raised the limit on the tax millage that voters could approve for libraries. The legislature referred the proposed amendment to the people, who approved it in the 1992 general election. In 1993, Little Rock voters approved a higher millage to build a new library.
Construction was now possible, but, “There was a lot of debate where to build, midtown or downtown,” Roberts says. “In the beginning, I was on the side of midtown, but the board said downtown.” One of the downtown sites that was looked at was the historic Arkansas Gazette building, vacant since the storied newspaper had closed in 1991. But the Gazette building wasn’t designed to bear the kind of load the library would require. The board chose to expand and renovate the old Fones Hardware Building at 100 Rock St.
More new construction in the area followed so closely it was hard to keep up. The River Market. The Clinton Library. Streetcar lines. The Arkansas Studies Institute, an adjunct to the library that CALS was able to build only because of the change in the Constitution that gave CALS its own earmarked source of money. “Ninety percent of our money comes from voter-approved millages,” Roberts said. “If we had to be in the city or county budget, we’d never have been able to do what we’ve done.”
Now Roberts and CALS are involved in another big project, which, it’s hoped, will have a big impact on another part of town: a children’s library, being built across from the Little Rock Zoo. “We think that will be a great project,” Roberts said. “It will make a big difference in that neighborhood.”
BUDDY PHILPOT AND THE WALTON FAMILY FOUNDATION
With big money comes big power. And there’s no bigger money in Arkansas than the Walton family, whose Walton Family Foundation and the Walton Charitable Support Foundation it supports aim to call the shots in Arkansas education. Longtime proponents of “education reform” in the form of vouchers, which channel tax dollars to private schools, and charter schools, the Waltons have upped the game by making the University of Arkansas an arm of their public policy initiatives, creating the UA’s Department of Education Reform. While the family foundation also invests in programs that benefit all people, such as the arts, the environment, and economic development, its public education initiatives are controversial and their application narrower. Many educators take issue with their argument that public schools — which unlike charters and private schools can’t manipulate their student bodies and receive no private dollars — will be made better by competition. Foundation Director Buddy Philpot declined to be interviewed but said in a prepared e-mail that “we view grant making as an investment in the societal changes we want to see.”
Little Rock business
A reporter will not get Jay Chesshir, the CEO of the Little Rock Regional Chamber of Commerce, to brag on a particular asset he’s brought to the organization. In fact, he says it’s important that chamber staff work “interchangeably and without ego.” This team player credits those that have gone before (mentors like Joe Ford, Bill Clark and Hugh McDonald), co-workers, family, friends, maybe even the weather for the chamber’s successes in attracting companies to Central Arkansas. He said the chamber’s growth into a regional outfit marketing 12 counties (with a population of 1 million) “began to create interest from projects that would never have looked at us individually from a community standpoint.” Chesshir, 49, born in Arkadelphia and raised in Nashville (Howard County), came to the Little Rock Chamber in 2005 from the Greater Hot Springs Chamber/Garland County Economic Development Corp. He said it was an “honor” to be the first executive director of the regional configuration of the chamber, and that he has a “passion” for his work, “having the opportunity to positively impact people’s lives without them ever knowing who we are”; he singled out Create Little Rock, the chamber’s young professionals group, as a new program he’s particularly happy about. Chesshir, as a member of the Little Rock Technology Park Authority, is not anonymous among the people whose lives would be impacted by eminent domain to create a biotech campus where their homes now stand; he’s taken on a controversial role there. Nor has he gone under the Arkansas Times’ radar, which has taken him to task for defending the secrecy in the chamber’s business with the city.
As a second-term representative in the Arkansas legislature, Linda Tyler, a Democrat from Conway, chaired the House Committee on Public Health, Welfare and Labor. In this role, she quietly spearheaded the defeat of radical abortion legislation that would have, among other things, prohibited any abortion after 20 weeks and forced women to have a pre-abortion transvaginal ultrasound. “We had significant testimony from the attorney general about the unconstitutionality of those bills [due to invasion of privacy],” said Tyler. “In other states, these bills have already been declared unconstitutional, or they are preparing lawsuits on them right now.” Portions of the anti-abortion legislation were sponsored by Sen. Jason Rapert, whom Tyler will face again this November, in a race for Gilbert Baker’s District 20 Senate seat. But Tyler isn’t a one-issue legislator, and she doesn’t always vote with the party. As a 20-year veteran of Acxiom and an entrepreneur who runs Red Mango Frozen Yogurt with her son, Tyler adamantly supports job development. She has crossed party lines to promote natural gas development in the state. “I’ve signed on as sponsors of some Republican bills, and I have some Republicans who have sponsored my bills. … I think we ought to campaign politically, but then when we get to be elected, we need to take off that D or R sign and go to work together,” Tyler said. She is particularly proud of a bill that mandates fluoride in the water supply to bolster kids’ dental health, a bill that gives cities more options for transporting senior citizens and Boys and Girls Club members and a bill that offers grants for converting car engines to run on compressed natural gas.
Though the market for long sticks to catch snakes is a small niche, one of the pioneers in the industry is based in Rogers. Pillstrom Tongs president Larry Pillstrom took over the company from his father, Dr. Lawrence Pillstrom, after the lifelong general practitioner and inventor died in 2003. Lawrence Pillstrom came up with a better slither-stopper while studying herpetology at the University of Arkansas in 1954, after a professor told him there was a need for a better snake-catcher. The result was a rugged design featuring a stainless-steel driveshaft, a cast-metal handle and a trigger-activated “pincher” that holds the snake gently but firmly so it can’t get away. They’re still made that way 58 years later, and more than 1,000 are shipped all over the world each year. Since taking over, Larry Pillstrom moved the company from Fort Smith to Rogers, but it’s still a family business. Pillstrom said his biggest customers are universities, exterminators and private citizens. As you might imagine, the biggest seller is the longest model Pillstrom makes. “Our biggest market is middle- to older-aged people who are deathly afraid of them,” Pillstrom said. “They get the longest one they can because they don’t want to get close to them.”