Former Wampus Cats reunite to remember

Originally Published December 23, 2012 at 12:00 a.m.
Updated December 21, 2012 at 2:44 p.m.
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Donna Stephens

From the left are former Conway Wampus Cats Gerald Henderson, George Doty, Kenny Price, Jim Bailey, Bill Nutter and Dennis Fulmer. The former teammates have gotten together to relive their football experiences in the 60 years since their last season together.

— Sixty years after their last football season together, six Conway Wampus Cats continue to gather occasionally to relive their experiences.

“We tell stories,” said Dennis Fulmer, 78, of his CHS teammates from 1952. “We run out of stories to tell, but from the last time to the next, we’ve forgotten them, so we tell them over and over again.”

Fulmer is joined by Jim Bailey, Gerald Henderson, George Doty, Kenny Price and Bill Nutter. Fulmer and Bailey were juniors in the fall of ’52; the others were seniors. After high school, their various paths took them to college, military service, coaching and business careers, but especially now in their retirements, they enjoy talking about the good old days, often over breakfast at a Conway landmark, Bob’s Grill on Oak Street.

“There’s something about Conway High School among its graduates,” Nutter said. “They seem to be proud [of their alma mater]. Conway has grown so dramatically now, though, it’s not even the same place. I don’t know that there can ever be that same magic because people go so many directions.

“When we were going to school, people became a teacher or coach, or their parents had businesses in town, so they’d assume those. And we were very fortunate, because of being a college town, to attract good teachers and administrators.

“Being from Conway, you like to think it’s special. It is almost magic that they like to get together.”

Nutter, like most of the group, played football and ran track for CHS. He continued his athletic career at Hendrix, went out into the business world, returned to school for a master’s degree in physical education at what was then Arkansas State Teachers College (now the University of Central Arkansas) and had a coaching career before completing his doctorate at the University of Arkansas and teaching full time at UCA.

An expert on Conway history, Nutter said World War II and its aftermath shaped both the town and his generation.

“Conway has a thing about old folks sticking together,” he said, mentioning the original Antique Wampus Cat group that brought together the CHS classes of 1942-50 for regular reunions. “The growing-up years were just unbelievable.”

Fulmer said the group’s common experiences on the football field and in track under the late Raymond Bright bonded the athletes for a lifetime. The Wampus Cats won the first state track championship in school history in 1953.

Henderson, now living in Higden, played center and was the state shot and discus champion in 1953. He played guard and kicked at Arkansas under coach Bowden Wyatt as part of the 25 Little Pigs (who played in the 1955 Cotton Bowl) before graduating in 1958, joining the Army and building his career in heavy-equipment sales.

He marvels that the sleepy little town of 5,000 he grew up in is now pushing a population of 60,000.

“I left there in the summer of ’53 and went off to work and college and the Army, but Dennis and I have kept in touch for a long time, and I’ve attended all the high school reunions,” Henderson said. “There’s not many of us left.

“We tell the same old stories, but we’re old, and we’ve forgotten them, but it don’t matter. We’ll keep doing it as long as we’re able.”

Henderson is awaiting his second knee replacement.

Doty played tackle and was a sprinter. After graduating from ASTC, he had a career in education. He was superintendent at Hughes and retired from the Arkansas Department of Education.

So what does the group talk about?

“The past, of course,” he said. “What was and who did what when. We can’t believe we’re this old.”

He said the reminiscing is the best part of the gatherings.

“How it was back then and how much joy there was in getting to do it the way we were able to do it,” he said. “Those times were very different than they are now.”

Price was a halfback and sprinter. After serving in the Army and attending ASTC, he became a master plumber and the owner of Best Plumbing in Conway.

“Sixty years since we were in school — that’s a pretty good milestone,” he said. “There’s not too many of us still living. I always enjoy visiting with my fellow schoolmates.”

Fulmer won the high point awards in the state track meets in ’53 and ’54. He had scholarship offers from Arkansas and Florida State for track and from Mississippi State for football. He wanted to continue both sports. During a meet in Memphis in 1954, he beat the state champions from Mississippi and Tennessee in a sprint and drew the attention of Mississippi State’s new coach — Darrell Royal.

“He told me I could do both, and I went down there a short while and got homesick and came home and went to UCA,” Fulmer said. “I never looked back.”

Fulmer coached at Jacksonville and Conway before going into private business with Custom Carpet Concepts.

“We grew up together during some hard times,” he said. “I don’t know what kids do nowadays, but back then, we met at Greeson’s Corner (now Michelangelo’s in downtown Conway) about every night.”

Fulmer called the six “a special group.”

“It means more to you now than it did years ago,” he said. “The older you get, the more you appreciate it. We’ll keep doing it as long as we’re able to get together. It’s a good feeling to get to talk and bring back old memories.”

Bailey has some interesting ones. He played fullback and linebacker in high school. After a couple of years in the Army and some time at ASTC, he worked as a heavy-equipment contractor, including spending some time in Alaska. He is now retired in Plainview.

“From second or third grade, Dennis and I were real close and got in a lot of trouble, so they split us up in fifth or sixth grade,” Bailey said. “I played two years in the Army overseas and came back and went to ASTC and made it halfway through the football season, and Dennis and I got in trouble, and I had to drop out.”

Bailey described himself as “the black sheep of the bunch.”

“We don’t talk about girls anymore,” he said. “We’ve all got too old. We talk about things. Me and Dennis talk about all the trouble we used to get in. I always tell him if I hadn’t quit school, he never would’ve made it.”

In the last 60 years, though, Bailey has reformed.

“I’m good now,” he said. “I’m so good, I stink. I’m boring.”

Not likely.

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