THE DANGEROUS SIDE of traveling to all of Arkansas’ amazing towns, being shown around by fabulous people in the know, is that I often want to move to wherever I’m visiting. (Like, as soon as possible.) Luckily, this month, I’m traveling to Jonesboro, a place I’m quite certain I will not want to reside in. After all, my husband graduated from nearby Walnut Ridge High School, and from my one visit to the northeastern side of our fair state, there are only three things I remember: rice fields, low-flying crop dusters and giant, man-eating mosquitoes. Finally, my family can rest easy knowing that I will not return from a trip wanting to pack up our belongings and begin our lives anew somewhere else.
As I draw closer to Jonesboro from my beloved central Arkansas, I pass through small town after small town. I see bass-fish mailboxes and silver silos and a lone dust devil swirling in an untilled field. With the sighting of a tiny little airfield just made for crop dusting (Quinn Aviation—“CALL FOR SCHEDULING”), there is no doubt in my mind that northeast Arkansas is going to turn out exactly as I suspected. But as I enter the outskirts of my destination, a sign indicating the city limits reports a population of 67,263. That’s, like, the fifth-largest town in Arkansas! Bigger than my home base of Conway, for sure. And as I approach the corner of Hasbrook Road and Dan Avenue, I see an actual skyline in the distance. What is this sorcery? Could I have been wrong? Maybe that’s Memphis, I wonder, desperately clinging to my previous assumptions (unaware that the Tennessee city is more than an hour away). As I drive closer, the skyline sharpens into towers of a Riceland industrial complex. I chuckle to myself, knowing my prejudices are safe to judge another day.
Or are they? Because now that I’m driving into the actual town, I see the Islamic Center of Jonesboro and Thai Taste (“Authentic Thai Food”). We didn’t even have Thai food in Fort Smith when I was growing up there, much less an Islamic Center, and it was larger than Jonesboro is now. The diversity surprises me, and that closed door in my brain that was certain I wouldn’t care for Jonesboro inches open just the tiniest bit.
I arrive at Arkansas State University and park in a clearly marked visitor spot in a tiered parking garage. So easy to navigate. So welcoming. So … metropolitan. As I stroll through the heart of campus, passing the beautiful blond-brick buildings of the College of Nursing & Health Professions, the International English Studies Center and the Student Union, I notice that students of seemingly every race populate the sidewalks. In what feels like no time at all, I find the Red W.O.L.F. Center, ASU’s recreation hub, where I am scheduled to meet my guide for the day, Matt Huckaby, executive director of student health and wellness. Aesthetically, the building is beautiful; functionally, it’s brilliant. In the lobby, a three-story rock climbing wall towers over pingpong tables, where three students are fervently locked in a match. Their enthusiasm delights me.
Matt, in a denim-blue long-sleeved button-down Oxford (sleeves rolled to his elbows) tucked into his jeans, appears, fresh from a meeting with a student, and greets me.
“Heather?” He smiles, his teeth perfectly straight and his short brown hair combed neatly.
I shake his hand. “Nice to meet you.”
I follow him to his corner office, noting the plaques that line the walls on the way in. Apparently, the “W.O.L.F.” in the Red W.O.L.F. Center’s name stands for “Wellness Opportunities and Life Fitness.” With his solid build and all-American looks, it makes total sense that Matt is the head of such an operation. And it all started with his dad.
“Dad’s a pretty competitive guy,” Matt tells me of the father he idolizes. A former attorney and current district court judge here in Craighead County, Curt Huckaby was the reason Matt first got into the sport he loves dearly: rugby. Curt moved to California in sixth grade, quickly picking up the game.
When he was a freshman at ASU, he joined the club team his dad established and coached. They started with a group of four guys, which, within five years, grew into a team of 40 to 50. For about 12 years, the ASU team operated strictly as a club sport, but around five years ago, ASU started footing the bill. That’s when Matt, who’d worn multiple hats in the university’s administration, took over the program.
After a few years of coaching, Matt transitioned back into administration, this time heading up the student health and wellness program at ASU. And the pride he has in his university’s wellness program is obvious. He shows me the hardwood triple basketball court where intramural sports take place. He shows me the huge weight room, machines sparkling like new. He explains how you can find the outdoorsy students at the climbing wall just about every day from 4-9 p.m., encouraging all passers-by to give it a try.
“On an average day,” Matt informs me, “we have about a thousand people come through here, on the low end. On the high end, we can have up to 1,500.”
I am stunned by the numbers. There are currently 13,144 students enrolled at ASU, with 3,200 of those living on campus. Who knew it was such a large university? Matt attributes much of this thriving population to those same planners who impressed me with their brick selection: Formerly, the roads of Caraway and Aggie met to form a huge intersection right in the middle of campus, creating a commuter-college feel. Now, the roads end in landscaped roundabouts, putting an end to drive-through traffic. “When they closed that off, campus life went up immediately. You could see people playing Frisbee on the lawn!” Matt gushes, as well he should. It’s a beautiful campus, after all, as a Division I school ought to be. It’s easy to see how central to Jonesboro ASU has become.
It’s about this time that we run into the newest rugby coach. Going to lunch with us will be Coach Shaun Potgieter, who meets us on the front steps of the Red W.O.L.F. Center. Handpicked by Matt himself, Shaun is, honestly, the best-looking guy I’ve ever seen in real life. Seriously. He should be a movie star. At this point, I pretend not to notice, just shaking his hand and eking out a “Pleased to meet you.” We head to their cars, Shaun taking his own in case he needs to leave early to get to rugby practice. He gets into a black Mustang GT, my favorite car; I got a green ’66 model when I graduated from high school. Matt and I, on the other hand, get into Matt’s Subaru. “When you have kids and quit coaching rugby, I guess you trade for a wagon,” he tells me, and I laugh, thinking of the minivan I left behind.
“My wife is convinced I chose the right candidate for the job,” Matt explains as we follow Shaun to downtown Jonesboro. “‘Because he’s such a good rugby player?’ I asked her. ‘No,’ she replied. ‘Because he’s so darned good-looking.’”
Matt’s wife, Randi, seems like a real peach. They met when Matt was in grad school at ASU and she was an undergraduate volleyball player. She’s now a mechanical engineer, and they have two beautiful blond babies: Miles, a 2 1/2-year-old girl, and Dan, a 5-year-old boy (named in memory of Matt’s best friend). “Both really favor their mom, which is good. I don’t mess around. I married up.”
In the console in the middle of Matt’s car is a little Iron Man figurine, Tony Stark’s little plastic face smirking up at me, the helmet long-lost, I’m sure. I can picture my own two boys playing with this figurine and with Matt’s son. I think of my own 2-year-old girl watching Frozen with Matt’s. Am I really beginning to imagine myself in Jonesboro?
Downtown Jonesboro is nothing short of adorable. With its brick-sided buildings with many original painted ads faded but still visible and iron posts holding up awnings both striped and solid, the area reminds me of a tamer Beale Street or the French Quarter on a smaller scale. One storefront into our walk, I see a man sitting on a bar stool on the sidewalk. Matt immediately shakes his hand and introduces me to James Best, owner of Skinny J’s (the restaurant behind him). We then pass a narrow open section of downtown, where I imagine a building has been torn down. This empty space is now filled with three different food trucks, and sitting at one of the umbrella-covered picnic tables is a young couple with a baby. Matt waves to them as we pass. Next, we walk under a balcony shading a bar: It’s the Brickhouse Grill, which used to be an old theater, Matt tells me. A friend of his bought it and turned it into “one of the first restaurant-bars to start drawing a crowd back down here.” Is there anyone Matt doesn’t know?
Well, when we finally arrive at our lunch destination, at the very first table (not more than 6 feet from the door) a man calls, “Hey, Matt!” and holds out his hand for a shake. So the answer to that question is, obviously, “No.”
In fact, that’s one of the things Matt likes best about his hometown: “Jonesboro’s approaching 70-80,000, but when you walk into a larger place, you still see people you know.”
Shaun, sitting across from me at the table, concurs. “Everyone knows everyone after two years.”
“This is home,” he tells me. “Definitely.”
Shaun came from Port Elizabeth, a city in South Africa of about 2 million people. His last year of high school, he visited the area on a basketball tour, playing local church teams and high schools. He was then recruited by ASU for his rugby skills, and he moved to Jonesboro for college in 2009. “It was a bit of a culture shock,” he admits. “But I never once complained. I was happy with this place from day one. My parents came and visited and loved it, as well. They sent my sister here two years later.”
And neither he nor his sister went back to live in South Africa. He met his now-wife, Mollie (Miss Arkansas International 2013), at ASU, and his sister has married and had a baby. Now, even his parents are working on immigrating here. He explains: “It’s a very good family town. It has all the things a child needs. Good school, the crime rate’s low. …”
“Affordable housing …” Matt agrees.
Matt and Shaun go on to talk about all the other things that make Jonesboro great. There are people like Ted Herget, who brought the mountain biking craze to the area about 20 years ago and now, in addition to his flagship Gearhead Outfitters store in downtown Jonesboro, has locations in Fayetteville, Bentonville and Little Rock, as well as in Shreveport, Louisiana. There are hospitals like St. Bernards Healthcare and NEA Baptist Memorial Hospital, which make Jonesboro a major regional medical hub. And there are tons of industries here, such as Nestle and Frito-Lay and Post Foods—just three of the more than 35 industries listed on the city’s Chamber of Commerce website.
By the time I finish my hummus, my head is reeling with all the economic opportunities available in Jonesboro. I’m sad to say goodbye to Shaun (as any good Southern belle would be), but he has rugby to get to, and Matt and I have three-fourths more of downtown to explore.
We stop at Gearhead Outfitters, but Herget is at the opening of a new location on Dickson Street in Fayetteville. Luckily, Brandon Stevens, who’s been with the company for 10 years, turns out to be a pretty entertaining substitute. Originally from a tiny town outside of Batesville, Brandon moved to Jonesboro in 1993 to attend ASU and never left. “There’s lots to do in Jonesboro, but it still feels like a small town. There’s restaurants and shopping and events, but you always see people you know.”
Brandon’s really made a place for himself in Jonesboro, serving on the advisory board for ASU’s museum and fundraising for St. Bernards. His original life plan? “Move to New York and work in a museum’s education department,” he says. But the folks in Jonesboro have just made him feel so welcome; he can’t see ever leaving. He and I chat about his time teaching preschool at Montessori and about musical theater, and about how “in” Birkenstocks were when we were in college, but now they’ve come back, and I realize I could talk to him forever. I mentally check my schedule to see when I could meet him for lunch, and then I remember: I don’t live in Jonesboro. I have no desire to live in Jonesboro. Ever. Right?
As we continue to walk down Main Street, Matt and I pass Omar’s Uptown (a fancy steakhouse), Velvet Monkey Tattoos and Body Piercing, and the Foundation of Arts, a nonprofit providing art, dance and drama lessons, as well as community theater and all kinds of outreach programs. A poster in the corner window advertises a forthcoming production of Rumors by Neil Simon, a play that I was in more than 20 years ago. I begin to miss my time onstage and wonder when auditions for their next show might be.
Our last stop on Main Street is a goldmine for art fans: the Sara Howell Gallery, where landscapes and portraits hang on the walls, and blown glass, jewelry and figurines are displayed throughout the store. Sara is Matt’s mom’s best friend, but, unfortunately, she isn’t here today. Jackie Vandigo, a recent graduate from ASU is, though, and she is a pleasure. Originally from south Louisiana, Jackie and her family moved to Arkansas after Hurricane Katrina. I know so much of the area was a disaster after the hurricane, but why, I wonder, did she decide to stay in Jonesboro after graduation?
“The city is blossoming,” she tells me, a shy smile creeping onto her face. “As I’m growing into an adult, the town is also growing into its own.”
She is just the cutest thing. I know this other recent graduate I might could fix her up with … if I lived in Jonesboro. But I don’t. And I don’t want to. I don’t. I don’t. I don’t. I don’t.
Matt and I get back into his wagon and he tells me, “I’m gonna drive you around town.” Around town? Haven’t we just spent the last several hours around town? But no, apparently. We haven’t. He takes me along the commercial strip of Jonesboro that has every shopper and eater’s needs covered. “Are you officially placed on the map when you have a Starbucks?” he asks me. And if the answer is yes, then Jonesboro is officially placed on the map. Twice.
Next, we drive through Craighead Forest Park, where a man-made lake is circled by a shaded 3-mile running trail. I can just see myself running along the trail and my kids playing in the tiny little sandy beach sloping into the lake. I try to shake that vision right out of my head because, No! I do not want to live in Jonesboro.
We arrive back on campus. Matt takes me to see William McLean, the chair of the political science department and Matt’s mentor and friend. William has been in Jonesboro for 13 years now, returning to home soil after graduate work in New Orleans and several years teaching at the University of Northern Iowa. So why did he decide to return?
“I like ASU,” he says. “I was a kid who grew up in the Delta and felt a pull to come back and help first-generation college students.” Jonesboro has grown from his time here as an undergraduate, but he asserts, “It’s still a college town at heart. The university drives everything. As jaded as you might get, every year, there’s a new crop of students that reminds you of the importance of optimism.”
He and Matt both exude that optimism. Optimism in rebirth, as Jonesboro’s burgeoning downtown reflects. Optimism in rejuvenation, as new college students bring youthful enthusiasm every year. Optimism in recognition, as Jonesboro continues to shine in education, arts and sports. Optimism, outdoors, eating, shopping, art, dance, theater, sports, community, education, economic opportunity, good-looking guys … yeah, who wants to move to Jonesboro?
I guess my family can’t rest so easy after all.