Little Rock Look Back: War Memorial Stadium opens on Sept 18, 1948

On September 18, 1948, the Arkansas Razorbacks took on Abilene Christian and won the game by a score of 40 to 6.  It was the first game of the season, and the Razorbacks went into the game ranked #13. They maintained that ranking for four weeks before falling out of national standings.  The team ended up with a season record of five wins and five losses. Playing four of their games at War Memorial that season, they were two and two in Little Rock. They were one and two in Fayetteville and amassed a 2-1 record on the road.

Dedication ceremony in 1948. Photo courtesy of the War Memorial Stadium Commission.

Dedication ceremony in 1948. Photo courtesy of the War Memorial Stadium Commission.

Prior to the game, the stadium was dedicated to the veterans of World War I and World War II in a ceremony led by former Razorback standout and Medal of Honor recipient Maurice “Footsie” Britt.

Though Britt would later be known for entering politics and becoming Arkansas’ first Republican Lieutenant Governor, in his college days he was known statewide as an outstanding Razorback football and baseball athlete.  During World War II, his bravery and courage allowed him to become first person in American history to earn all the army’s top awards, including the Medal of Honor, while fighting in a single war.

Also participating in the opening ceremony were a mass of high school marching bands from across the state. Reports indicate up to forty bands were on the field to play the National Anthem as part of the event.

The construction of the stadium had been the brainchild of Razorback coach John Barnhill and Arkansas Secretary of State C. G. “Crip” Hall.  The duo shepherded it through the 1947 Arkansas General Assembly.   As a student at the University, Hall had been a team manager for the Razorbacks and had remained a longtime, active supporter.

In August of 1947, Little Rock was chosen as the location over Hot Springs and North Little Rock. West Memphis had abandoned its bid when it was unable to secure the necessary financial pledges.  Construction started in 1947 and continued up until opening day.  On the day of the game, newspaper photos showed heavy equipment grading the parking lot prior to paving.

The park in which the stadium sat would be renamed War Memorial Park in June 1949 and dedicated by President Harry S. Truman in a nationally-broadcast ceremony from War Memorial Stadium.

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RIP David McCollum

I was not blessed with athletic ability.  Or coordination.  But I am very competitive.

My lack of skill did not stop me from dragging my parents to four years of soccer and a concurrent six years of basketball.

McCollum_David_400x400Because of my lack of talents on the field, and my interest in competition, I have found myself drawn to sports journalism and sports history.  Which, being in Central Arkansas, lead me to the writing of David McCollum.

Disclosure, for several years I attended church with him and his family.  My parents and sister still do.  But he was such an unassuming gentleman, my interest in his writing sprung not from familiarity with him. It came from what and how he wrote.

With a career of over 50 years, David entered the newspaper business as it was starting the transition from hot lead and pecking out a story on typewriters into the world of computers and electronic filing.  Likewise the field of sports journalism was transitioning from the era of colorful, hyperbolic language (which might not always be 100% accurate) into a time of bare facts crammed into increasingly shrinking column inches.

David did not try to be a colorful sportswriter. He was not trying to have the spotlight shown on him through his writing.  In his stories, David sought to serve the sports. But he brought to his writing a sense of history and style that hearkened back to bygone days without sacrificing the facts that he knew his readers wanted.  In serving his sports, he also served his readers.

While often the smartest guy in the room, especially when it came to Conway sports, David never acted like it.  In his prose, he shows his expertise without lording it over the reader.  He used his knowledge to let his readers be more informed. He was like that favorite teacher we all had at least once in high school or college. He wanted to bring us along on the journey.

For a sportswriter, working in Conway must have been a dream job.  Both UCA and Hendrix have active athletic programs.  And the Wampus Cats of Conway have long been dominant. In addition, during his career, David was able to see towns like Vilonia, Mayflower, and Greenbrier grow and develop into powerhouses in their own high school sports classifications.

Over the years, as I’ve been seeking to learn more about a sports topic, I’ve often gone back to his writing on a player, an event, a game.  Whether it was a story or an interview, his trademark understated and engaging prose was on display.  Earlier this year, I was needing background on a Little Rock Touchdown Club scholarship because we were honoring a recipient at Little Rock City Hall.

There it was.

In a column David wrote a few years ago, there were not just the facts, but the emotions. In writing about how some Texas Longhorns had created a scholarship in Little Rock to pay tribute to the memory of one of their own, David touched on the sentiment without being maudlin.  He did not pile on the irony of Longhorns who beat the Hogs in the 1969 shootout creating a scholarship here. He let the story speak for itself.  The kinship the two teams feel for each other now came through in David’s prose.

As David’s son Gavin said in making the announcement his father had died, “there were more stories for him to write.”  Yes, there were.  I feel sorry for future athletes in Faulkner County that they won’t get to be interviewed by him.  I feel sorry for the readers who won’t get his take on a future game.

David had seen enough games to know that the outcome does not always go your way.  As much as he would probably be uncomfortable with the outpouring of emotions that are now going on, I think he would understand we need to do this.  We need to express our sadness.  It helps us to move on to the next challenge.  And part of that challenge is a world without him.  I know he would be very pleased to see, just as a team rallies together, people are rallying together to support his wife and son.

So thank you, David McCollum. For your life and your commitment to excellence.  Though it has fallen out of usage these days, I’m old school enough to pay tribute to your life and career with an old journalism and PR tool to indicate the end.

David McCollum -30-

Little Rock Look Back: War Memorial Stadium approved

WMS Hall BarnhillOn March 18, 1947, Governor Ben T. Laney signed the bill into law which authorized the construction of War Memorial Stadium.

The plans for the stadium were the brainchild of Arkansas Secretary of State C.G. “Crip” Hall and University of Arkansas Athletic Director John Barnhill.

Apparently the Southwest Conference was threatening to kick Arkansas out because of an inadequate football facility. Since the University did not have the funds to build a new one on its campus, Barnhill and Hall decided that the state should build one. Many other states were building War Memorial facilities of a variety of natures. The duo decided that the new football facility could be a War Memorial Stadium to pay tribute to the men who died in the recently concluded World War II.  While the stadium was touted as being of use to all colleges in the state and a variety of other types of activities, it was very much designed to be a home for the Arkansas Razorbacks.

Getting the stadium through the Arkansas General Assembly was not easy.  The bill to create the stadium commission sailed through both houses. But even some who voted for it said they would oppose any funding bills.  When time came to vote for the funding, the bill fell far short of the three-quarters vote that was needed in the House for an appropriation bill.

WWII veterans were on both sides of the issue.  Some felt it was an appropriate way to honor those who died.  Others felt it was a gimmick to get the stadium approved.  Some of the opponents felt that a new state hospital for UAMS would be the more appropriate way to honor those who died during the war.  The debates were often heated and personal.

Overnight a new bill was created. It would pay for the stadium through the issuing of bonds. In addition to the state issuing bonds, any city which wished to bid for it would have to put up money for it as well as provide land.  This new bill would require only 51 votes to pass the House.  It was able to pass that threshold.  The Senate made a few amendments (mostly dealing with the composition of the stadium commission and the amount of dollars that the host city had to pledge).  Finally the House agreed to the Senate amendments and it went to Governor Laney.

The next hurdle for the stadium was choosing a location. That process would occupy stadium proponents throughout the spring and summer of 1947.

Little Rock Look Back: Aluminum Bowl

Aluminum_Prog_f

Courtesy of Paul Edwards to the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History and Culture

On December 22, 1956, Little Rock played host to the first (and only) Aluminum Bowl.  It was the NAIA national championship game between Montana State University and St. Joseph’s College (of Indiana).  This was the first time the NAIA had a football championship.

Originally the game was set to be played in Shreveport, Louisiana.  But because some NAIA schools were integrated, it was forbidden by a state law passed by the Louisiana legislature.  The Little Rock Chamber of Commerce and others worked to bring the game to War Memorial Stadium.  Because of the importance of the aluminum industry in Central Arkansas, the name Aluminum Bowl was chosen.  Both ALCOA and Reynolds were major sponsors of the event.

The game, which was aired on CBS TV and radio, was played on a rain-soaked muddy field and turned into a defensive slugfest. Both teams only got close to scoring once.  The score ended up a 0 to 0 tie.  Both teams were declared co-champions.  The rain kept the crowds away as only 5,000 people showed up leaving 33,000 empty seats in the stadium.  Miss Arkansas Barbara Banks, who had been wearing a dress made entirely out of aluminum, spent the game covered up to keep the dress dry.

The next year, the game went to Saint Petersburg, Florida, where it was rechristened the Holiday Bowl.  The Little Rock outing would mark the only appearance by either team in the NAIA championship game.  Both teams subsequently switched to NCAA competition.  As of the spring of 2017, St. Joseph’s has suspended operations because of financial shortcomings.

It has been said that Little Rock leaders had wanted to get the Aluminum Bowl game to showcase that Little Rock was a progressive Southern city when it came to race relations. By 1956 the buses and the public library were integrated.  However, both teams were faced with their African American players having to stay at separate hotels while in Central Arkansas (one in Little Rock, the other team in Hot Springs).

For more on the Aluminum Bowl, visit the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History and Culture.

Little Rock Look Back: First meeting of Central and Hall in football

lrchs-lrhhsHall High opened its doors and started playing football in 1957. As a new school with a largely younger student body, it only played smaller schools that initial season.  The first Hall vs. Central game was set for Thanksgiving 1958 (November 27).

During the 1958-1959 school year, Little Rock’s high schools were closed for the ill-conceived, ill-advised reason to keep them from being integrated schools.  Though classes were not in session, football teams practiced and played.  The Arkansas Gazette noted that most of those games that season drew only 1,000 spectators, which was down from the usual 5,000 to 8,000 a game.

With the future of Little Rock’s high schools in doubt, there was some hand wringing about whether the 1958 Thanksgiving Day game would be not only the first meeting between Hall and Central, but perhaps also the last.

In only its second year of playing, Hall was undefeated and poised to win the state championship heading into the Thanksgiving game.  Central surprised the Warriors by winning 7-0 before a crowd of 5,000, which cost Hall the undefeated season and the championship (El Dorado became state champs).  This game set the tone for the high stakes of the rest of the series.

Little Rock Look Back: First Arkansas Razorback game at War Memorial Stadium

On September 18, 1948, the Arkansas Razorbacks took on Abilene Christian and won the game by a score of 40 to 6.  It was the first game of the season, and the Razorbacks went into the game ranked #13. They maintained that ranking for four weeks before falling out of national standings.  The team ended up with a season record of five wins and five losses. Playing four of their games at War Memorial that season, they were two and two in Little Rock. They were one and two in Fayetteville and amassed a 2-1 record on the road.

Dedication ceremony in 1948. Photo courtesy of the War Memorial Stadium Commission.

Dedication ceremony in 1948. Photo courtesy of the War Memorial Stadium Commission.

Prior to the game, the stadium was dedicated to the veterans of World War I and World War II in a ceremony led by former Razorback standout and Medal of Honor recipient Maurice “Footsie” Britt.  Though he would later be known for entering politics and becoming Arkansas’ first Republican Lieutenant Governor, in his college days he was known statewide as an outstanding Razorback football and baseball athlete.  During World War II, his bravery and courage allowed him to become first person in American history to earn all the army’s top awards, including the Medal of Honor, while fighting in a single war.

Also participating in the opening ceremony were a mass of high school marching bands from across the state. Reports indicate up to forty bands were on the field to play the National Anthem as part of the event.

The construction of the stadium had been a dream of Governor Ben T. Laney. He had encouraged the Arkansas General Assembly to create the stadium during the 1947 session.  In August of 1947, Little Rock was chosen as the location over Hot Springs and North Little Rock. West Memphis had abandoned its bid when it was unable to secure the necessary financial pledges.  Construction started in 1947 and continued up until opening day.  On the day of the game, newspaper photos showed heavy equipment grading the parking lot prior to paving.

Though it had been Laney’s dream, with the passing of the guard, a newspaper photo on the day after the dedication focused on the incoming governor, Sid McMath.  Because Arkansas was such a Democratic heavy state, the paper referred to him as Governor-designate even though it was six weeks prior to the 1948 General Election when he would face off against C. R. Black.  McMath won the race with 89.4% of the vote.

Little Rock Look Back: Sonney Henson – LR Mayor and Razorback star

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.