Little Rock Look Back: The 2004 opening of the Clinton Presidential Center

wjc library openingIt has been fourteen years since the Clinton Presidential Center opened on a wet, cold Thursday.

The days leading up to it had been glorious.  And while the weather may have literally dampened spirits a bit, it was still an important day for Little Rock and Arkansas.

The events leading up to the opening included a concert by Aretha Franklin with the Arkansas Symphony Orchestra and an appearance by Senator John Glenn at the Museum of Discovery.  Events were hosted by the Arkansas Arts Center, Arkansas Repertory Theatre, Historic Arkansas Museum, and Old State House Museum.  There were scores of receptions and parties as Hollywood, New York, and DC descended on Little Rock.

November 18 dawned rainy and cool.  As the day continued on the precipitation continued while the temperature did not warm up.  Years of planning for a grand opening ceremony came down to this.  But at the appointed time, festivities began.

On the site of an abandoned warehouse district and unofficial dump which had previously been a train station, many leaders of the free world were gathered.  They rubbed shoulders with thousands of Arkansans from probably every county in the state.

It had been seven years and eleven days since Bill Clinton had announced the site of his presidential library.  It had been five years since artifacts and articles started arriving from Washington DC in Little Rock.  There had been lawsuits, threats of lawsuits, the threat of a Counter-Clinton Library, and countless meetings.

After speeches from Presidents Carter, Bush 41 and Bush 43, remarks from President Clinton and then-Senator Clinton (who was made even wetter by water pouring off an ill-placed umbrella), and even a musical performance by Bono and The Edge, Chelsea Clinton turned over the ceremonial key from the Clinton Foundation to the National Archives to officially open the Clinton Presidential Center.

In his capacity leading the Clinton Foundation, Skip Rutherford oversaw the planning for the Clinton Library and the grand opening festivities.  He, along with the foundation’s Executive Director Stephanie S. Streett, oversaw a phalanx of volunteers and staff to anticipate every detail.  The 1,000 days countdown sign that had been on the construction site (the brainchild of Tyler Denton) finally reached 0.

Isabelle Rodriguez, Shannon Butler, Mariah Hatta, Jordan Johnson, Lucas Hargraves, Ben Beaumont, Denver Peacock — among others — had been putting in twelve plus hour days for months on end to get ready for the opening.  City Manager Bruce T. Moore led a team of City officials who had assisted on the planning and execution of the site preparation and making sure Little Rock was ready to welcome the world.  Moore and City Director Dean Kumpuris had been appointed by Little Rock Mayor Jim Dailey to lead Little Rock’s efforts to land the library.  After Clinton’s announcement of the site, Dailey, Kumpuris and Moore continued to work together to ensure the library would be successful.

Among those present were Oscar winning actors Barbara Streisand, Robin Williams, and (of course) Arkansan Mary Steenburgen.  Future Oscar winner Morgan Freeman was also in attendance. Among the Oscar nominees who were present were Bono and The Edge (who performed at the ceremony) and Alfre Woodard.  It was the first public appearance by Senator John Kerry after his loss earlier in the month to President George W. Bush. Scores of Senators and members of Congress as well as countless Clinton Administration staffers were also in attendance.

While the weather on November 18, 2004, may have been a disappointment, the people who were gathered knew they were witnesses to history.  And fourteen years later, is a day people still talk about.

 

 

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Little Rock Look Back: Aretha Franklin with the Arkansas Symphony Orchestra at Robinson Center

On November 16, 2004, the rafters of Robinson Center Music Hall were shaken by the vocal prowess of Aretha Franklin.

She shared the Robinson stage with the Arkansas Symphony Orchestra.  The ASO brought Miss Franklin to town as part of the festivities surrounding the opening of the presidential library.  Long a favorite of the Clintons, Miss Franklin sang at his 1993 inaugural festivities the night before he took the oath of office.

Resplendent in a series of white dresses, Miss Franklin was in top form feeding off the love from the audience.  While backstage she may have been dealing with back and knee issues (which the Culture Vulture saw first hand), when she stepped on to the stage she was giving her all as she rolled through hit after hit from her starry career.  She sang, she played the piano, she entertained!

It was a sold out house and her voice and energy reached the last row of the balcony.

Prior to her appearance, the ASO played a few selections including variations on “Hail to the Chief” and “America.”

Earlier in the day, I had the privilege of picking up several copies of Bill Clinton’s autobiography for her to get signed by him.  I delivered them to her as she was resting between rehearsals. She was preparing for an interview with Craig O’Neill, and I hated disturbing her. But I wanted to be sure she got the books.  She was gracious and very appreciative.

Little Rock Look Back: Little Rock announced as Clinton Library site

Refuse on the site where the Clinton Center would be built

On November 7, 1997, President Bill Clinton announced his intentions to locate his presidential library in Little Rock at the end of a warehouse district.

The Little Rock City Board met in a special meeting that day to rename part of Markham Street, which would lead to the site, as President Clinton Avenue.

While the announcement was met with excitement in many quarters, there were still some skeptics who had a hard time envisioning a presidential library and park in the middle of a wasteland worthy of a T. S. Eliot poem.

There would be many hurdles between the November 1997 announcement to the December 2001 groundbreaking. But for the moment, City of Little Rock leaders, celebrated the achievement.  Then Mayor Jim Dailey had appointed City Director Dean Kumpuris and City employee Bruce T. Moore to lead the City’s efforts.  Moore and Kumpuris worked with Skip Rutherford and others to narrow the potential sites.

In September 1997, the Clintons were in town for the 40th anniversary of the integration of Central High School.  They surprised Kumpuris and Moore with a decision for a Sunday afternoon visit to the warehouse district proposed site. Secret Service would not let the limousine drive in part of the property, so the Clintons, Moore, Kumpuris, and Rutherford walked up a path to the roof of the abandoned Arkansas Book Depository.  It was there that the Clintons could see the Little Rock skyline which would be visible from the library.

Of course by the time the library had opened in November 2004, the Little Rock skyline was different. Spurred on by the library, several new highrises had been constructed in downtown.

Little Rock Look Back: Bill Clinton Announces Run for Presidency

The Clintons following his remarks.

On October 3, 1991, Governor Bill Clinton strode out the front doors of the Old State House Museum and announced his intentions to seek the 1992 Democratic Party’s nomination for President of the United States.

He was the fifth major Democrat to announce for the office. That there were that many by early October was somewhat surprising considering that the first half of 1991 saw many national Democrats announce they were NOT seeking the office.

Jerry Brown, Bob Kerrey, Paul Tsongas, and Tom Harkin were also in the race.  Clinton was seen as a centrist, along with Senator Kerrey while the others were viewed as being from the far-left wing of the Democratic Party.

In its coverage of the announcement, The New York Times noted the significance of Gov. Clinton’s remarks on race.  In the speech he referenced his desire to strengthen relations and remove barriers between the races.  As the Times pointed out, it was at the Old State House that Arkansas held two conventions on the issue of secession prior to the state’s entry into the Civil War.

At the time of the announcement, Gov. Clinton was far from a frontrunner. His national profile was probably the lowest of any of the announced candidates. Most of the knowledge of him outside of Little Rock came from his lengthy speech about Michael Dukakis at the 1988 Democratic Convention and the subsequent appearance on “The Tonight Show” where both he and Johnny Carson poked fun as his loquaciousness.

Regardless of their views on his chances, the Governor’s family, friends, and fans packed the front lawn of the Old State House to cheer him.  The national media treated him as a serious, albeit largely unknown, candidate.  After having had Wilbur Mills, Dale Bumpers and others flirt with running and then backing out, the local media were probably thrilled to finally have someone from Arkansas actually running for the presidency.

One local media outlet would not see much of the campaign. Just fifteen days later, the Arkansas Gazette would close. As a paper which had covered nearly two decades of his career, the Gazette was often Clinton’s champion, though the paper was not afraid to point out times the two differed.  However, there would be no Gazette headline about Clinton in New Hampshire, at the Democratic Convention, or a general election victory.

On Election Day in 1992 and again in 1996, Bill Clinton would repeat the stride out the front doors of the Old State House accompanied by his wife and daughter.  Those two times the crowds would spill down the streets in all directions. Instead of a handful of media outlets there would be scores of them.

But it all started on a sunny autumn day in Little Rock in early October 1991.

LR Culture Vulture turns 7

The Little Rock Culture Vulture debuted on Saturday, October 1, 2011, to kick off Arts & Humanities Month.

The first feature was on the Arkansas Symphony Orchestra, which was kicking off its 2011-2012 season that evening.  The program consisted of Mendelssohn’s Symphony No. 4 in A, Op. 90, Rossini’s, Overture to The Italian Girl in Algiers, Puccini’s Chrysanthemums and Respighi’s Pines of Rome.  In addition to the orchestra musicians, there was an organ on stage for this concert.

Since then, there have been 10,107 persons/places/things “tagged” in the blog.  This is the 3,773rd entry. (The symmetry to the number is purely coincidental–or is it?)  It has been viewed over 288,600 times, and over 400 readers have made comments.  It is apparently also a reference on Wikipedia.

The most popular pieces have been about Little Rock history and about people in Little Rock.

Little Rock Look Back: Dedication of Clinton Presidential Park Bridge and Bill Clark Wetlands

Photo by the Little Rock Convention and Visitors Bureau

On a very warm Friday, September 30, 2011, the Clinton Presidential Park Bridge was dedicated.  This completed the eastern loop of the Arkansas River Trail as well as created another feature in Clinton Presidential Park.

The ceremony featured remarks by both President Bill Clinton and the incumbent Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton.  Chelsea Clinton also took part in the ceremony.  Former US Senators (and Arkansas Governors) Dale Bumpers and David Pryor were in attendance as was Jim Guy Tucker who followed Clinton into the Arkansas Governor’s Office.  Current Governor Mike Beebe was also present and took part in the ceremony, which was emceed by Stephanie Streett, executive director of the Clinton Foundation.  Many other former and current elected officials were present.

In addition to dedicating the bridge, the ceremony officially dedicated the William E. “Bill” Clark Presidential Wetlands which are adjacent to the bridge.  City Director Dean Kumpuris joined Clark’s widow, Margaret, and son, William, in the dedication of the wetlands.

This Clinton Presidential Park Bridge is over 2,600 ft. long.  It was constructed in 1899 as the Rock Island Bridge.  After the Rock Island stopped using the bridge, the lift span was permanently raised.  It had to stay this was for the Clinton redevelopment.  Therefore a new surface was built that slopingly takes persons from park level up to the span level and back down.

The bridge’s “rusty” structure is complemented by a well-lit 12-18-foot walkway flanked on both sides by silver galvanized steel handrails.
The total investment for this area is over $13.5 million.
Later that weekend, the Clinton Foundation hosted an event to commemorate the 20th anniversary of Clinton’s announcement that he was seeking the Presidency.

Little Rock Look Back: Happy Birthday to Ernest Green

Ernest Green’s sixteenth birthday was probably more memorable than most people’s.  It was not about getting a car, it was about wondering if he would ever get to attend Little Rock Central High School.

Born on September 22, 1941, he was the son of Lothaire S. and Ernest G. Green.  In 1957, his birthday was on a Sunday.  The next day, the Little Rock Nine would spend a few hours in Central High School before being escorted out for their own safety.  However, three days after his birthday, escorted by members of the 101st Airborne Division of the US Army, he finally entered Central to complete the school year.

In May 1958, he became the first African American to graduate from Little Rock Central High School.  At the age of seventeen he was awarded the NAACP’s Spingarn Medal, as one of the Little Rock Nine.  He then obtained a  B.S. in Social Science and Masters in Sociology from Michigan State University.

Featured in the 2006 list of Black Enterprise Magazine’s “75 Most Powerful Blacks on Wall Street”, Ernest has served as senior investment banker on transactions for such key clients as the City of New York, State of New York, City of Chicago, Port of Oakland, City of Atlanta, State of Connecticut, Detroit Wayne County Airport, Denver Airport, and the Washington Metropolitan Airport Authority.

He served as Assistant Secretary of Labor for Employment and Training during the Carter Administration.  President Clinton appointed him to serve as Chairman of the African Development Foundation.  Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley, appointed him Chairman of the Historically Black Colleges and Universities Capital Financing Advisory Board.

In 1995, he was awarded the Distinguished Eagle Scout Award.  Ernest Green is also a recipient of the Urban League’s Frederick Douglass Freedom Medal, and the John D. Rockefeller Public Service Award. On November 9, 1999, with the Little Rock Nine, he was presented by President Clinton with the Congressional Gold Medal. He holds honorary doctorates from Michigan State University, Tougaloo College, and Central State University.

Several books, movies and documentaries have chronicled his and his eight classmates’ historic year at Central High School in Little Rock — the most recent being the “Ernest Green Story”, produced and distributed by the Walt Disney Corporation.

He and his wife Phyllis live in Washington, D. C.  He is the proud father of Adam, Jessica and McKenzie Ann.