I’M SURPRISED HOW quickly off Interstate 30 the sign for Arkadelphia, population 10,714, pops up. I didn’t have to travel very far at all off the beaten path to arrive at this town I’ve never been to, and only really know because of my past career as a high school teacher. I’d watched many kids head off to one of the two institutes of higher education located here: Ouachita Baptist and Henderson State University. These two schools—located literally across the street from each other—are known for the Battle of the Ravine, an annual football game that originated in 1895; it’s the oldest rivalry in the history of the NCAA-Division II.
The week leading up to the game has historically been filled with pranks like Henderson students painting the tiger in the center of the Ouachita campus Reddies red, or the Ouachita students filling the fountain at the entrance to the Henderson campus with purple suds. In the 1970s, one Ouachita religion major (and future Arkansas governor) snuck out to the Henderson bonfire and lit it a day early. With such a contentious history, I have to wonder: Just what exactly have I got myself into today?
When I pull up to Arkadelphia’s town hall, I am immediately in awe of its beautiful red brick, its curved turret feature, and its white columns built into a towering gable. But I can tell by the lack of wear that this is not antique architecture, and I am impressed with how harmoniously the new construction incorporates aesthetic tradition. And when I enter the lobby, which features two levels with a white-railed balcony on the second floor, one of the most beautiful women I’ve ever seen is walking along the balustrade, greeting me with a smile.
“Can I help you?” she calls down to me, an angel with shining mahogany skin.
“I’m looking for Jimmy Bolt. Am I in the right place?”
She smiles wide. “You sure are. Come right up those stairs and his door is right across the hall.”
I feel so welcome, I think as I climb the stairs, and, peeking into the office across the hall, I see a man with a white ring of hair circling his head, mustache and goatee to match, wire-rimmed glasses circling sparkling eyes. Embroidered on his white short-sleeve button-down, right over his heart, a line of print says “Jimmy Bolt, Arkadelphia City Manager.” He rises to greet me and offers me his hand, and that’s when I see them: dimples for days.
“Don’t get too comfortable,” he tells me as I rest my hand on a nearby chair. “We won’t be here too long. I’ve got too much to show you.”
“Let’s go then!” I exclaim, his enthusiasm infectious.
Jimmy takes me down the hall to meet Jennifer Story, the city treasurer and the lovely woman who helped me earlier. He shows me framed black-and-white pictures of old buildings and historical happenings, gathered by the Clark County Historical Association and on display around the administrative offices. We take a long pause by a cabinet that proudly displays the plaque proclaiming Arkadelphia a 2015 Volunteer Community of the Year. “That was just last year,” Jimmy points out, and I take a picture with my cell phone to make sure I don’t forget it. Then we head downstairs, where even more plaques await us—this time a whole wall of them.
As he directs me into the two-tiered lobby that I first entered, which he informs me is referred to as the “Community Living Room,” I am beginning to realize that that word—community—is vital to understanding the essence of Arkadelphia, and one that’s become a top priority since the great tornado of 1997.
“We lost one-third of our town,” Jimmy explains. “And six people were killed. Two on the interstate, four in town. Lots of rebuilding needed to be done. This building needed to be rebuilt, and we wanted it to be built downtown. You need a living heartbeat downtown to keep your town alive. So we built it to mimic the Clark County Courthouse, and we keep this room up to reflect our rich history.”
And reflect it it does. There are cases displaying Henderson State beanies and Arkadelphia Milling Company memorabilia. Caddo Indian pottery fills one cabinet while reunion mementos from the former Peake High School (a once-segregated school that now educates all of Arkadelphia’s fourth and fifth graders) grace another. This Community Living Room, in fact, is the physical embodiment of one of the things that makes Arkadelphia so distinct: In 2011, the city created a Racial and Diversity Committee that is dedicated to nothing less than reducing prejudice and dismantling racism. (And Jimmy was instrumental in getting that committee going.)
But we don’t linger too long on any one of his accomplishments—that’s not Jimmy’s style.
“I hope you don’t mind a pick-em-up truck,” he says, escorting me to a white Chevy. His dimples make a charming appearance.
I don’t mind at all.
Jimmy grew up in Arkadelphia and played trumpet in the high school band (as a clarinetist, I won’t hold that against him). He has two sons and four grandkids (three of them girls) and all of them live here in Arkadelphia. His mom still lives here, and he takes time off from his job running the city—a job he’s held since 2005—to have lunch with her two or three times a week.
This all sounds like fine, small-town How-do-you-do? to me, and then Jimmy drives me past the Amtrak station. It’s a nice little brick building with an antique train car in a neatly trimmed grass park next to it, and Jimmy tells me how he hopes there will soon be a shuttle service to Hot Springs and DeGray Lake. That’s all well and good, I think. “But where does it go now?” I ask.
“Oh, it goes up to Chicago and down to San Antonio,” Jimmy says.
My jaw drops. “You mean I could get on right here in Arkadelphia and go all the way up to Chicago?”
“Yes,” he nods, dimples playing like they might come out.
Behind the Amtrak Station lies the old Arkadelphia Milling Company, which burned about a century ago but is still a giant part of Arkadelphia’s history and serves as a local landmark with its three old concrete silos standing stalwart against time and tornados. It seems like the town has always, in its way, tried to be progressive, and when the Milling Company shut down, Arkadelphia looked toward tourism to help out its economy. Jimmy tells me how Arkadelphia used to be known for having more gas stations than any other town and, in fact, the Encyclopedia of Arkansas reports that Ripley’s Believe It or Not proclaimed that the small God-fearing town had more service stations than—gasp!—churches.
But these days there are much better things for Jimmy to brag about. He shows me the beauty in the flowerbed full of tulips and azaleas next to the Martin Luther King Jr. overpass that the Rotary Club constructed when he was president, making one of the two major entrances into town a joy upon arrival. He shows me the user-friendly arrangement of the Baptist Health System buildings, which are clustered together to form an entire medical village (which also keeps these sorts of industrial buildings separate from residential areas). And he shows me the super-inclusive recreation center at Feaster Park, where tourists and residents alike can enjoy a water park, a skateboard park, an indoor recreation facility, softball fields, outdoor basketball courts, and other play areas all in one centralized location. It’s like … there was a plan.
“Oh, there’s a plan,” he says, and the dimples reappear.
“A local family donated part of their land for us to pave the street into the complex,” Jimmy points out as we drive up to the Youth Sports Complex. Before us lie 80 acres of recreational space, including playgrounds and baseball fields and softball fields and soccer fields and a disc golf course and a borrow pit (that is now a fishing hole). “And the Caddo Valley A&P raised funds for the tarps that cover the fields, the Little League raised money for the shade over the bleachers, and the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission stocks the borrow pit with fish. We only have three full-time park employees, and we try to be good stewards of the money we have.”
And being good stewards, while trying to be progressive and inclusive, takes creativity and collaboration, two skills Jimmy and Arkadelphia seem to have in abundance.
Take, for example, Feaster Trail. Donated to the city by the Feaster family, this approximately 3-mile trail runs the width of Arkadelphia and is a beautiful little walk that ends with a view over the Ouachita River. Or take the Arkadelphia Arts Center, located in a building owned by the city in the heart of downtown. The Clark County Arts and Humanities Council occupies the building, rent-free, provided that it makes art accessible to locals.
And take the DeSoto Trail, the next stop on Jimmy’s tour de pride. Well, actually, don’t take it. Leave it for me, because I love love love it. Located on the north side of town, this quarter-mile trail takes visitors to an overlook of the Ouachita River so stunning that I have to stop and take a selfie. Modesty be damned! Just off the trail are two outdoor classrooms, donated by the Alcoa Foundation, which a Ouachita Baptist professor has utilized heartily.
The wind blows through my hair as I watch the Ouachita flow by.
“How many towns of 11,000 do you find like this in Arkansas?” Jimmy asks me.
On the way to lunch we drive by the site where Arkansas’ first state-aided School for the Blind was opened back in 1858. “There used to be five colleges in Arkadelphia,” Jimmy tells me. “It was once called ‘the Athens of Arkansas.’”
That emphasis on education carries through to today’s Arkadelphia. We make a stop at the Ross Foundation, which, Jimmy tells me, I’m “really going to love.”
I don’t get it. It’s such a boring building, with a round silo-looking structure in the center flanked by two square building wings covered in brown clapboard with a little bit of stone at the bottom. But inside, it’s like a rainforest. The circular silo-like centerpiece I saw from the outside is actually an atrium in the center of the building, its glass ceiling throwing the midday light onto a floor made from concentric wooden rings fashioned like a cut tree stump. The walls are rock, and vines crawl up wooden support beams. I immediately know I am in a place of uncommon thinking.
Amanda Fenocchi, assistant grants officer, her stylish bob tucked behind one ear, explains: “We’re a nonprofit organization that owns timberland. We both conserve land and have philanthropic endeavors.”
One of the greatest of these endeavors is Arkadelphia Promise, a collaboration with Southern Bancorp dedicated to making “a college education a reality for every child in Arkadelphia by removing the financial obstacle of a higher education.”
Every child? Is that really realistic? If you look at the Arkadelphia Promise website, it certainly doesn’t seem ridiculous. Since the scholarship program began in 2011, the Arkadelphia Promise has awarded almost $2 million in scholarships. It awards an average of more than $3,000 per student per year, and Arkadelphia students have attended more than 45 different institutions of higher education in 10 states. What I find especially remarkable is how things are looking at the high school level: the retention rate at Arkadelphia High School was up to 87.1 percent for 2014—24.2 percent higher than the highest average in Arkansas in the past five years. Athens of Arkansas, indeed.
Numbers are great, but they wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for the people, who are the driving force behind all the good done here. Which is what Angela herself likes best about her hometown. “You know, it’s small-town America. I had a friend put wedding invitations in the mail. She got a call from the post office: ‘Teresa, you don’t have enough postage on these invitations!’ They pulled all her invitations so she could come put postage on them. Where else would that happen? It’s small-town America, and I like it.”
“Everybody’s building outdoor malls,” he says, “while we already have one! Our old downtown.” And he takes me to eat at Slim & Shorty’s, a beach-themed restaurant with down-home favorites like fried chicken and French dip sandwiches. Our waitress, Christi, with her gray pageboy hair and her glasses hanging from a beaded chain, wears a Slim & Shorty’s t-shirt that says #MEETMEDOWNTOWN on the back. I can’t help but ask her my signature question. “What makes Arkadelphia Arkadelphia?”
“The friendliness of everyone,” she begins. “The fact that we’re trying to get our downtown back tourist-friendly and resident-friendly. There’s lots to do here. The colleges bring in lots of things to do and are really good at plays and operas. And Slim & Shorty’s has trivia every Tuesday!”
Christi isn’t just a waitress here. She also owns Christi’s Gifts—which features local arts and antiques—just down the street. And in the restaurant behind her, an elderly man is refilling the salt shakers and placing silverware. “Here comes Mark, my okra man,” Jimmy tells me. Mark runs a community garden, where people can grow food they need. Christi and Mark are two of the synergistic cogs that make up the grand, collaborative wheel that is Arkadelphia.
We head back to Town Hall, where we began. Jimmy introduces me to Nancy Anderson, director of grants and research. Her dark hair is cut in a modern-day Dorothy Hamill, and she welcomes me into her office. Originally from upstate New York, she came to Arkadelphia to attend Ouachita Baptist. When she got on the bus to head down south, her dad said, “She’ll go down there and marry one of those rebels and she won’t come home.”
And that’s just what she did.
Her most recent project with the city has been a grant for storm drain art. In order to build awareness that what’s going down the drains eventually invades local waterways, the city obtained a grant that’s enabling them to feature winning art from Henderson State, Ouachita Baptist and Arkadelphia High School student artists on storm drains around town. And in yet another ecological coup, Nancy tells me, Arkadelphia’s police force has replaced 10 of its traditional Crown Victorias with environmentally friendly Toyota Camry hybrids, a Jimmy-initiated move chronicled in a Carbon Nation film called Hybrid Law that was produced in collaboration with Arizona State University. As I watch the film, I notice Jimmy points out that the environment wasn’t the only thing on his mind when he encouraged the department to make the change: “Green is popular,” he says, “but it also has to be practical.” And practical it is. As a result of the reduction in monthly repair costs for the new hybrid vehicles, every department in the city received a 3 percent raise.
After she finishes showing me the video, Nancy is smiling. “You don’t think of a small Southern town as being progressive,” she says. “But after the tornado, we got unstuck.”
I have to agree with her. Stuck is definitely not an adjective I’d use for Arkadelphia. Instead, I’d say it’s “inextricably intertwined,” the phrase my own high school English teacher taught me to put in every paper I ever wrote to guarantee I’d get an A. It means that no matter how you try to separate things, you just can’t, because their connectedness is so integrated into their identity that without that collaboration, they’d cease to be who they are.
So when I leave Arkadelphia, driving back down the street that separates what I first thought was two contentious universities, I see what I somehow missed on my way in. Above the road, a bridge links the two sides of the ravine. Written along its face are the words “Arkadelphia: It’s a great place to call home.” When a small town becomes unstuck after a devastating disaster, when good people fight to end intolerance, when even the bitterest of rivalries become literally and metaphorically linked, and all of these become inextricably intertwined to form a community, I have to agree. It is a great place to call home.