August 9, 1947 – Little Rock chosen as site for War Memorial Stadium

War Memorial Stadium was approved by the Arkansas General Assembly in March 1947.  The work then began on the finalization of the location.

Four cities were in the running:  Little Rock, North Little Rock, Hot Springs, and West Memphis.  Each of the cities was required to donate the land for the stadium, provide parking for it, and sell local subscriptions equivalent to $250,000 to raise money for it as well.

On May 19, 1947, the Little Rock City Council approved Resolution 1,747 to donate the land for the stadium in Fair Park if Little Rock was selected.  This was not the first mention of a stadium in City records.  In March of 1947, the City Council had set aside land in Fair Park to use for a playground — with the stipulation that if it was eventually needed for a stadium, it would be relinquished for that purpose.

On August 9, 1947, the War Memorial Stadium Commission met in the House Chambers of the Arkansas State Capitol to select the location for the stadium.  West Memphis dropped out prior to the meeting; they had not been able to raise the sufficient local funds.  That left the three remaining cities.  (Cities had until June 24 to file paperwork expressing their interest in applying and were to submit their proposals by August 1.)

Instead of meeting in a usual committee room, the meeting was held in the House Chambers of the State Capitol.  The location for the meeting had been set because a large crowd was expected.  And the attendance did not disappoint.  City government and business leaders from all three cities turned out in full force.

The members of the Commission were Ed Keith, Chairman, Magnolia; Gordon Campbell, Secretary, Little Rock; Ed Gordon, Morrilton; Senator Lee Reaves, Hermitage; Senator Guy “Mutt” Jones, Conway; Dallas Dalton, Arkadelphia; Judge Maupin Cummings, Fayetteville; Dave Laney, Osceola; and Leslie Speck, Frenchman’s Bayou.

For several hours the nine heard proposals from the three cities.  Little Rock’s location was in Fair Park, North Little Rock’s was near its high school, and Hot Springs was on land next to Highway 70 approximately 2.5 miles from downtown.  Finally it was time to vote.  After two rounds of voting, Little Rock was declared the winner on a weighted ballot.

The north shore’s leadership was magnanimous in their defeat.  Hot Springs, however, was far from it.  In the coming days they filed suit against the Stadium Commission alleging flaws in Little Rock’s proposal as well as improprieties by members of the commission.  A preliminary decision sided with the state.  Ultimately, Hot Springs’ relatively new mayor Earl T. Ricks opted to drop the suit.  The Spa City’s business community was concerned that fighting the location might delay construction – and could negatively impact legislative and tourists’ feelings toward Hot Springs.  (And it was entirely possible that the State Police could have been used to “discover” that there was gambling going on in Hot Springs.)

Though ground was broken later in the year, by December 1947, the stadium was still $250,000 shy of funding for the construction.  This was after the state and Little Rock had previously both upped their commitments to $500,000 each.

The building did eventually open on schedule in conjunction with the 1948 Arkansas Razorback football games.

As for Mayor Ricks of Hot Springs, he moved to Little Rock to serve as Adjutant General of the Arkansas National Guard during the governorship of Sid McMath.  He later held leadership positions in the National Guard Bureau in Washington DC.  He died in 1954 at the age of 45.  Among the ways he was memorialized was a National Guard armory in Little Rock, which stood in the shadow of War Memorial Stadium.

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Birth of future Razorback football star and LR Mayor Sonney Henson

On July 18, 1928, future Little Rock Mayor Harold E. “Sonney” Henson, Jr. was born in Fayetteville to Harold E Henson Sr. and Dollie Croxdale Henson.  He and his sister Sara Sue grew up in Springdale.

Henson graduated from Springdale High School and was later inducted as one of the first inductees into the Springdale High School Hall of Fame where he participated in the state high school championship in football and basketball. He attended the University of Arkansas in 1945 on an athletic scholarship where he participated in three sports: golf, basketball and football, and graduated in 1949 with a degree in Business Administration.

He was active in ROTC at the university and graduated as a second lieutenant in the U.S. Army. Henson served in Korea as a captain and commander during the Korean conflict. He attained the rank of major as an active member of the Army reserve post his duty in Korea.

Henson’s professional career began with First National Bank of Springdale and soon moved to Little Rock where he served as Vice President at the Worthen Bank on Asher Avenue. In 1962 he was elected to the City of Little Rock Board of Directors.  From January 1965 to December 1966, he served as mayor of Little Rock.  In November 1966, he was unopposed in his bid for a second term on the City Board.  However in October 1967, he resigned from the City Board because he was taking a position with a bank in Joplin, Missouri.

From 1966 to 1972, he served as President of Security National Bank Joplin.  While there, he was a Missouri amateur championship golfer.  Herbert Thomas then asked him to move to Ft. Smith to head up City National Bank (present Bank Corp South) where he served as President and CEO from 1972 to his retirement in 1993 at the age of 65. He continued his service to Bank Corp South as an active board member for several years.

Among his many civic activities throughout his career were the Springdale Junior Chamber of Commerce,  Sparks Regional Medical Center board of directors of Fort Smith, president and active member of the board for the Arkansas Sports Hall of Fame and Razorback Foundation, on the board for the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences foundation, the Westark area council for Boy Scouts, the Arkansas State Chamber of Commerce, the Small Colleges of Arkansas, Leadership Fort Smith, the Community Rescue Mission and the President of the Arkansas Bankers Association to name a few.  In 1995 he received the meritorious service award by the Arkansas Sports Hall of Honor for his lifelong commitment to Arkansas sports.

Henson was married for 53 years to Helen Garrott Henson. He had four children, 16 grandchildren and one great-grand child.  He died on August 8, 2013, and is buried in Fort Smith.

70 Years Ago Today – War Memorial Park dedicated by President Truman with foreign affairs address

Though President Truman was in Little Rock for a military reunion, he did conduct some official business while here.  In his Presidential role, he spoke at the dedication of War Memorial Park on June 11, 1949.

(It is sometimes erroneously reported that he dedicated the stadium.  That took place in September 1948, at a Razorback game with former Razorback player and future Lt. Governor Maurice “Footsie” Britt delivering the keynote.)

President Truman’s address took place inside War Memorial Stadium at 2:30 p.m..   It was not a brief dedicatory speech, but instead was a lengthy treatise on foreign affairs.  The address was carried live on nationwide radio (though some radio networks opted to broadcast it later).  The text of his address can be found here.

The stadium was by no means full.  A major reason for that was that many thousand individuals had turned out to witness a parade downtown in which President Truman marched along side Governor Sid McMath.  The parade was in conjunction with the military reunion.  Given the June heat in Arkansas (in which parade spectators had been standing for several hours) and the difficulty of getting from the parade route to the stadium, most (if not all) parade spectators opted for skipping the presidential address.

Before the parade, President Truman (who was still riding high from his upset victory in the 1948 election) was asked by a local reporter if he would run in 1952. He refused to answer stating that the national media would think he had planted the question with a local member of the press.

Prior to the name War Memorial Park, the land had been known as Fair Park.  It was a former location of the State Fair.  In the 1930s, it had briefly been known as Overman Park in honor of then-Mayor R. E. Overman.  The City Council had named it for him as a tribute to his work on a variety of projects. When he displeased them, they reversed their decision and renamed it to Fair Park.

Little Rock Look Back: First night of first TABRIZ

After over a decade of the Beaux Arts Bal (it was spelled the French way with only one “L”), a change was afoot in 1971. Because of the need to raise more money for the Arkansas Arts Center, the Fine Arts Club decided to replace their evening of dining and dancing with an auction event.

While there had undoubtedly been thrift sales and small-scale bidding on items to raise money in Little Rock, this effort would be the first large-scale endeavor to use an auction as part of a fundraiser.   In order to maximize the fundraising potential, it was decided this would be a two-night event. The first night (Friday, February 12) would be casual with a silent auction while the second (Saturday, February 13) would be formal.

There were two major reasons the Fine Arts Club needed to raise more money.  The National Endowment for the Arts had issued the Arts Center a challenge grant which required a $10,000 match. In addition, the Arkansas Arts Center was trying to build up an endowment for future purchases.  (This was less than three years after the facility had been faced with closing its doors.)

The name Tabriz was chosen because it was the name of a cultural city in the Mideast known for its marketplace.  The first edition had the tagline of “A Persian Market of All Things.”

The logo was designed by Jim Johnson of the firm then-known as Cranford/Johnson Associates. The decorations echoed the exotic theme employing palm trees, ferns, ceramic elephants, paisley fabric swaths, and turbans.

Among those working on the first Tabriz were Jane McGehee Wilson, Betty Mitchell, Betty Terry, Frances Cranford, Feetie Hurst, Tina Poe, Annette Connaway, Willie Oates, Phyllis Brandon, Jane Wolfe, and Mary Worthen.

Over 650 people attended the Friday night event. Admission of $5 provided sandwiches (conflicting newspaper accounts indicate either coldcut sandwiches or hot dogs) and beer.  Mixed drinks were an additional $1.

Newspaper coverage indicated that men wore “sports outfits,” suits without ties, or colorful parkas. It attracted men with “longhair and beards” and “conventional haircuts.” (Depending on who the writer was, “longhair” could have meant anything over one inch.)  The women that Friday favored maxi or midi skirts. There were no mini skirts on hand, but a Gazette reporter noted that some women were wearing hot pants which might make a mini skirt look long.

Music was provided by the trio of Tom, Jerry, and Barbara.

Because a Silent Auction was such a new thing, newspaper coverage pointed out that the rooms were actually quite full of sound as people chatted with each other both about bidding on the items and socializing in general.

To give people a preview of the auction items, the Arts Center galleries had been opened for viewing on the Sunday and Monday prior to the Friday and Saturday events.  An auction catalog was also available for pickup in advance of Friday.

Among the items up for bid were tennis and golf lessons, visits to beauty salons, credit at a pharmacy, a tour of the Municipal Courts building and lunch with city prisoners, a tour of the Little Rock Zoo, jewelry, artwork, tickets to Razorback games, a football jersey worn by Lance Alworth, a week in Las Vegas (one of only three items with a minimum bid), and a subscription to an answering service.

When all was said and done, the evening raised $9,500 for the Arkansas Arts Center.

Little Rock Look Back: The THREE Mayoral Elections of 1951

On September 24, 1951, Pratt C. Remmel was nominated for Little Rock Mayor by the Pulaski County Republican Committee.  This was the first time there had been a GOP mayoral nominee in Little Rock since the 1880s.  It also set up a competitive General Election mayoral race for the first time in decades.

Incumbent Sam Wassell, a Democrat, was seeking a third two-year term. First elected in 1947 (after being unsuccessful in his quest for the position in 1945), Wassell had survived a primary and runoff in the summer of 1951. So confident was Mayor Wassell that Little Rock would remain a Democratic city, he barely campaigned for the office in the General Election.

While Mayor Wassell was ignoring the “run unopposed or run scared” maxim, he was not incorrect that Little Rock remained a stronghold for the Democratic Party.  Indeed there were no Republicans seeking office in Little Rock other than for mayor in 1951. Few, if any, Republicans had run for the City Council since Remmel had unsuccessfully made a race in the late 1930s.

In response to inquiries as to his lack of campaigning, Mayor Wassell averred that the voters had shown their support for him on July 31 and August 14. He continued that he did not see a reason to think the result would be different in November.  The 68 year-old Wassell stated that if he could defeat a young opponent who had over a decade of experience as an alderman, he could certainly defeat a young opponent who had no governmental experience.

In the July 1951 Democratic mayoral primary, Wassell had been challenged by Alderman Franklin Loy and grocer J. H. Hickinbotham.  Two years earlier, Wassell, seeking a second term, had dispatched Loy rather handily by a vote of 7,235 to 3,307.  He fully expected that 1951 should produce the same results as 1949.

But Wassell was trying to buck recent history.  Since 1925, no Little Rock mayor had won a nomination for a third term. One (J. V. Satterfield) had chosen not to seek a second term, while two (Pat L. Robinson and Dan T. Sprick) were defeated in their quest for two more years. Of those who served two two-year terms, a brace (Horace Knowlton as well as Charles Moyer in 1945) had not sought a third term.  Moyer HAD sought a third two-year term during his first stint as mayor (1925-1929) but was defeated. Likewise R. E. Overman also lost his bid for a third term.

By trying to win a third term, Wassell was seeking to return to the era of the first quarter of the 20th Century where several of his predecessors had been elected at least three times.  In his 1951 campaign, he was promising to stay the course of the previous four years. He answered his opponents’ ideas with a plan to continue providing services without having to raise taxes.  So confident was he of besting Loy and Hickinbotham that he predicted a 3 to 1 margin of victory.  A large horseshoe-shaped victory cake sat in a room at his campaign headquarters inside the Hotel Marion on election night.

The cake would remain uneaten.

When the results came in, Wassell had managed to get 5,720 votes to Loy’s 4,870. But with Hickinbotham surprising everyone (including probably himself) with 1,235 votes, no one had a majority.  The race was headed for a runoff two weeks later to be held in conjunction with the other city and county Democratic elections on August 14.

The day after the July 31 election, the Arkansas Gazette showed an dazed Wassell with top campaign aids in a posed picture looking at the results.  Further down the page, a jubilant Alderman Loy was surrounded by his wife and supporters.  The differing mood reflected in the photos was echoed in the two men’s statements that evening.  Wassell castigated his supporters for being overly-confident and not getting people to the polls. He further apologized to the Little Rock electorate for having to be “inconvenienced” with another election.  Loy, on the other hand, was excited and gratified. He thanked the citizens for their support.

The day of the runoff, a 250 pound black bear got loose at the Little Rock Zoo after the zoo had closed and took 45 minutes to be captured and returned to its pit.  Perhaps Wassell wondered if that bear was a metaphor for the Little Rock Democratic electorate.  Much like the bear returned to its pit, Little Rock’s Democrats returned to Wassell — or at least enough did.  Wassell captured 7,575 votes, while Loy received 6,544.  The moods that night echoed those two weeks earlier.  Wassell, his wife, and some supporters were combative towards the press (they were especially critical of the “negative” photo for which he had posed) while Loy was relaxed and magnanimous in defeat.

The closeness with which Mayor Wassell had escaped with the Democratic nomination was noticed.  A group of businessmen started seeking someone to run as an independent.  Likewise the Pulaski County GOP was open to fielding a candidate.  At a county meeting held at Pratt Remmel’s office, the offer of the nomination was tendered to their host.

After he was nominated in September, Remmel (who was County Chair and State Treasurer for the GOP) visited with the business leaders who were trying to find someone to run. He had made his acceptance of the nomination contingent on being sure there would be a coalition of independents and possibly even Democrats backing him in addition to the Republicans.

Once he was in the race, Remmel was tireless.  He blanketed newspapers with ads touting his plans and criticizing the lackadaisical attitude of his opponent. He made speeches and knocked on doors. He worked so hard that once during the campaign his doctor ordered him to 48 hour bedrest.

Mayor Wasssell, for his part, was confident voters would stick with party loyalty.  But as the November 6 election day grew nearer some City and County leaders grew increasingly wary.  Still, the Mayor rebuffed their concerns.  Someone had even gone so far as to set up a campaign office for him in the Hotel Marion. But before it could officially open, it was shut down.  (While the Mayor had criticized his supporters for being overly-confident in the July election, he apparently was not concerned about too much confidence this time around.)

Remmel had an aggressive campaign message promising better streets, more parking availability, a new traffic signalization plan, and the desire for expressways. His slogan was “a third bridge, not a third term” in reference to the proposed expressway bridge across the Arkansas River. (This would eventually be built and is now the much-debated I-30 bridge.)

The Saturday before the election, the Hogs beat Texas A&M in Fayetteville at Homecoming while a cold snap held the South in its grip.  In addition to featuring both of those stories heavily, that weekend’s papers also carried the first ads advocating for Wassell. They were Wassell ads, in a manner.  Ads from the County Democratic Committee, County Democratic Women, and Democratic officeholders in the county urged voters to stick to party loyalty.  That would be the closest to a Wassell campaign ad in the autumn of 1951.

The night before the election, Wassell made his only radio appearance of the campaign while Remmel made yet another of his several appearances. Earlier that day in driving rain, there had been a Remmel rally and caravan through downtown, including passing by City Hall.

That evening, as the results came in, the fears of Democratic leaders were well-founded.  Remmel carried 23 precincts. Wassell won two precincts and the absentee ballots. His victories in those three boxes were only by a total of 46 votes.  Remmel won both Wassell’s home precinct (377 to 163) and his own (1,371 to 444).

In the end, the total was 7,794 for Remmel and 3,668 for Wassell.

And Little Rock was poised to have its first Republican mayor since W. G. Whipple had left office in April 1891, sixty years earlier.

Thanksgiving Football 1969 in Little Rock: Hogs, Tigers, Warriors, Bearcats and Rockets

The Hogs stop Texas Tech at War Memorial Stadium

On Thanksgiving 1969 (November 27), four Little Rock high schools AND the University of Arkansas all played football games in Central Arkansas.  It was a day for football in the Rock!

It appears this was the only time this feat has happened.

It was a cool and misty day which seems to have made balls slippery and grass fields sloppy. But the precipitation seemed to be more an annoyance than a barrier for the players and fans.

The Arkansas Razorbacks, ranked Number 2 in the nation, played host to the Texas Tech Red Raiders at War Memorial Stadium.  The two teams played before a crowd of 35,287.  This was the smallest crowd in LR that season, likely due to it being Thanksgiving and the presence of the Central/Hall football game the same day.  It would have been hard to fit in two football games, Thanksgiving meals, and a possible church service all within one day.

The Hogs were 16 point favorites for the game with a 1:50 kickoff.  It was broadcast on ABC, and fans were encouraged to wear red to show up well on the color telecast.

The Hogs beat the Red Raiders by a score of 33 to 0 in their penultimate regular season game.  Turnovers were the key with the Hogs recovering a fumble and intercepting five passes.

This game set the stage for the final Hogs regular season game, which was the December 6, 1969, shootout against the Number 1 Texas Longhorns in Fayetteville.

Earlier in the day, Little Rock Catholic took on NLRHS north of the river with a 10am kick off. The Rockets, under head coach George Loss, were 9-2 heading into the game. The Wildcats (coached by Ken Stephens) were 5-4 and had won four in a row. At the end of the game, NLR was triumphant by a score of 21 to 12.

Later that day, Jones High hosted Horace Mann at the same stadium. This game, with a 2pm kickoff, would be the final game between Jones and Mann. Jones was being closed at the end of the year.

The teams had met earlier in the season with Mann triumphing 13 to 8. Mann had a record of 2-8, playing in the larger AAAA classification. Jones, with a record of 4-6, played in the AA classification. For years these all African American schools were not allowed to play in the Arkansas Activities Association. But by the late 1960s, they were now playing in AAA conferences.

Jones scored an upset victory over the Bearcats by a score of 19-8.

Quigley Stadium was less than three miles from War Memorial Stadium. With a 10am kickoff before a sold out crowd, people who had wanted to go to both the Hogs game and Hall/Central game also had the option of listening to the high school gridiron competition on KARK radio (now KARN).

Prior to the game, Hall had captured the AAAA State Championship by virtue of its record. (The top classification did not participate in playoffs until 1983.) C. W. Keopple was the Warriors’ coach, while Gene Hall was the Tigers’ mentor.  The damp field and high stakes of the game turned it into a defensive slugfest.  Hall had 2 fumbles while Central fumbled four times.

At the end of the fourth quarter the scoreboard showed a 0 to 0 tie. And that one went into the record books.  Hall’s season record was 9-0-1, while Central’s was 6-2-2.  It was the best season record Hall had amassed in its 13 years of football.

Four football games within a few miles of each other were a peek into Little Rock life:

  • The Hogs were riding the crest of their 1960s football superiority in the Southwest Conference.
  • The final Thanksgiving football game in Arkansas between two segregated public schools.
  • Continued alternating dominance by Hall and Central in the state’s largest school sports classification.  Soon, Parkview would be added to the mix. Throughout the 1970s, all three Little Rock public high schools would rotate winning state championships.

RIP Donna Axum

News outlets are reporting that Arkansas’ first Miss America, Donna Axum, has died.

A native of El Dorado and a student at the University of Arkansas, during her reign as Miss America Miss Axum (or simply Donna as the newspaper headlines referred to her) made four public visits to Little Rock.  As the first Miss Arkansas to become Miss America, the state’s Capitol City was very interested in giving her a warm welcome.

After being crowned on September 7, 1963, Axum’s first official visit to Arkansas was November 1 through 3.  In addition to stops in Hot Springs and El Dorado, she appeared in Little Rock to attend events including an Arkansas Razorback football game at War Memorial Stadium.  Her entourage included the top four runners up from the Miss America pageant.

In February 1964, she made a brief appearance in Little Rock which included a press conference.

Donna Axum spent nearly two weeks in Arkansas in May 1964 attending several pageants as well as spending time with family.  During that visit she appeared in Little Rock twice.  The second time she headlined a concert with the Arkansas Symphony (not related to the current Arkansas Symphony Orchestra) and the Arkansas Choral Society. It took place at Robinson Auditorium.