Ray Wingfield: Service careers let Arkadelphia man live boyhood dreams

By Wayne Bryan Published September 2, 2012 at 12:00 a.m.
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Wayne Bryan / Tri-Lakes Edition

Ray Wingfield, in his home in Arkadelphia, displays head covers from his many careers. These include the helmet of an Arkadelphia firefighter, the cap of a sheriff’s deputy, the campaign hat of the sheriff of Clark County, the parade hat of an Arkadelphia police officer and the cap of a U.S. Postal Service mail carrier. Wingfield wore them all in service to his community.

— Ray Wingfield said he is retired for good now. Well, at least his wife, Hilda, said he is retired and taking things easy.

Just a few days before he would turn 74 years old, Wingfield was doing a lot less than he previously had.

“I lease about 300 acres and have some cattle,” he said. “I also have some timber I look after at the old home place in Okolona.”

He has also built a workshop and guest house behind his home in Clark County with his own hands, made from lumber taken from trees in his yard.

He and his wife also travel more than they used to when Wingfield was holding down one, two or even three jobs at once. There are also five grandchildren and one great-grandchild to visit.

Wingfield of Arkadelphia said he enjoys life now, but he always has.

“I’ve been very fortunate,” he said. “I have lived every little boy’s dream.”

You can tell that from Wingfield’s hat collection. He has the baseball-style cap of a postal carrier, the helmet of an Arkadelphia firefighter, the parade hat of an Arkadelphia police officer, the campaign hat of the sheriff of Clark County, and another cap for an ambulance driver and emergency medical technician.

“If a siren has gone off in Clark County, I’ve been involved,” said Wingfield, who has held jobs for all those head covers.

However, he did not start off to have any of those jobs, though he said that as a child he wanted to be a policeman.

“I always liked a uniform, and I’ve worn a lot of them,” Wingfield said.

Before he even turned 20, he was working on what might have been a very different career.

“At 15, I worked in the Ben Franklin Store in Arkadelphia,” he said. “At 18 after high school, I was the assistant manager at a Ben Franklin Store in North Little Rock, living at the YMCA in Little Rock.”

That store was owned by Sam Walton, who soon left the Ben Franklin chain and started his own idea of American retailing.

“If I had stayed with him, things might have been much different,” Wingfield said.

A homesick teenager, he left Little Rock and returned to “the dime store” in Arkadelphia in just a few months. Then he bounced around with a few jobs for a while. He worked for a grocery store in town for a year, then tried his hand as an insurance salesman.

“Once I knocked, and a lady come to the door. I said, ‘Hello,’ and she slammed the door in my face,” Wingfield said. “It hurt my feelings, so that was the end of that.”

He took a construction job and left a mark on his community.

“I helped build the bridge over the Caddo River on [U.S.] 67,” he said.

Once the bridge was done, Wingfield took a unique and interesting government job. He joined the U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey, a federal agency established by Thomas Jefferson. It is now known as the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

“We traveled across the country building steel towers to survey the country by using lights,” he said. “Each tower had four or five Model T headlights on it, one over another, and during the night, we took readings and placed markers we called tablets. You could measure across the country from one to another and be accurate to within 3 inches.”

One night a tornado came close to the tower where Wingfield was working, and once he got his truck stuck between the tower and a tree and was stranded. When he returned home to Arkadelphia, he was looking for another job.

“I had tried to get on with the post office, but they told me you had to wait until someone died,” Wingfield said. “I got home on Saturday, and the postmaster said someone had left, and I was hired Monday.”

At that point, Wingfield said, his careers began to overlap.

For 33 years, he worked with the post office, first as a mail carrier in Arkadelphia, then as assistant postmaster. In 1983, he was made postmaster in Gurdon. Wingfield was postmaster for Magnolia starting in 1987, then in Russellville in 1991. He resigned in September 1992, just one day before his 54th birthday.

“I did not intend to work another day in my life,” Wingfield said.

However, there were other things going on in his life, with other careers calling.

“I joined the [Arkadelphia] Volunteer Fire Department in 1963, and in 1967, I was building my house and needed some extra money, and the chief asked me to fill in on my days off from the post office,” Wingfield explained. “Twenty years later, I retired from the Fire Department when I was made the postmaster in Gurdon.”

During that time, he served his hometown as a firefighter and EMT.

“Once we responded to a house fire on 14th Street, and it was fully engaged,” he said. “I was able to get into a window and pulled a lady out. I tried to get the man out, but the fire was too intense. The lady died the next day from too much smoke.”

Wingfield was an EMT, and one day the medical center in Arkadelphia, then called Clark County Memorial Hospital, asked Wingfield to run its ambulance service.

“They said it would just take one night a week, but I ended up spending as much time there as I did at the post office, but I loved the job,” he said.

He said he focused on fundraising and applying for grants that allowed the ambulance service to buy all new equipment. He also worked as a driver and EMT.

“I like helping people in a crisis,” Wingfield said.

He also put that job away when he retired from the post office, but he soon found himself bored with retirement.

First he helped remodel the Third Baptist Church in Arkadelphia, which his family attended. Then he joined the Arkadelphia Police Department as a radio dispatcher, using skills he had learned with the ambulance service.

Early in 1993, then-Sheriff Troy Tucker invited Wingfield to come to the Clark County Sheriff’s Office as chief deputy.

“He knew me, and he knew that I knew the county and the people,” Wingfield said.

His duties included overseeing the jail and court bailiffs, as well as supervising the deputies.

He was the chief deputy when Arkadelphia was struck by a devastating tornado in 1997.

“It was unbelievable,” Wingfield said. “I tried to drive into town, and there were no landmarks. Houses were down or moved across the road.”

He said he checked on the condition of the jail.

“It was built strong, and no one really noticed anything,” Wingfield said, “but the water line was out for about three days.”

When Tucker resigned in 2006, the Clark County Quorum Court recommended Wingfield to serve as interim sheriff, and he was appointed to the position by Gov. Mike Huckabee.

When David Tucker was elected sheriff, Wingfield was asked to stay as a deputy, and he served on patrol until Oct. 1, 2009, when he was 71 years old.

While Wingfield has stayed officially retired, when the large tornado struck Joplin, Mo., in 2011, he and a sheriff’s deputy, Bill Ratliff, drove to the stricken city and helped law enforcement officials for three days.

“I always used to encourage everyone to retire as soon as they could,” Wingfield said. “I have changed my mind. Retirement is not what it is cracked up to be.”

Looking forward to his birthday on Tuesday, Wingfield said he still has time to do more.

“My mother lived to be 101, and my brother is 94,” he said. “I am healthy. I still want to work. Maybe someone will call.”

Hilda said she keeps a close eye on the phone.

Staff writer Wayne Bryan can be reached at (501) 244-4460 or wbryan@arkansasonline.com.

Tri-Lakes Edition Writer Wayne Bryan can be reached at 501-244-4460 or wbryan@arkansasonline.com.

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