Ask Blake Browning about Conway, Centennial Bank or the Wampus Cats, and just sit back.
He could talk about those subjects for days.
“I’ve always been pretty passionate about Conway,” Browning said.
Browning, 62, is the energetic vice president of development at Centennial Bank in downtown Conway.
“I don’t consider myself a banker,” he said. “I’m a sales person who happens to work at a bank.”
One of his favorite things to do is work on special projects. He opened a filing cabinet drawer full of folders and raked his hand across the tops of dozens.
One gave him the surprise of his life.
A bronze Wampus Cat statue erected at Conway High School this month, paid for by Centennial Bank, was dedicated to him.
“I was totally, unequivocally shocked, surprised,” he said. “It’s the biggest surprise I’ve ever had in my life.”
Browning and other bank officials worked with Conway School District Superintendent Greg Murry on the project.
Browning noticed on Jan. 7, the day of the unveiling, that his son, daughter-in-law and grandson had come from Little Rock, which he found unusual.
Several of his classmates from 1968 were there, too.
Although it was said in the ceremony that the statue was dedicated to him, that didn’t sink in, he said.
Browning said it wasn’t until they went across the street to eat at a Mexican restaurant and his wife, Vicky, told him a plaque in his honor was going to be added to the Wampus Cat statue that he understood.
“I was just flabbergasted,” he said.
“For somebody who really never got on the field with a uniform on, and what the school and community means to me, it just couldn’t have been any better.”
Browning played football through junior high and was the student manager for football and basketball his sophomore year.
“I wasn’t ever much of an athlete, but I loved being around it,” he said.
His father, the late Blake Browning Sr., was a “huge sports fan,” he said, and took him to all the Conway High School games.
In fourth grade, when Ken Stephens was the football coach, Browning became a little mascot.
“I had a blue-and-white uniform. I’d run out on the field with them when they did pregame warm-ups,” Browning said.
Browning said that when he was 26 years old, then-Conway football coach Ernest Ruple asked him if he wanted to be a public-address announcer for the Wampus Cats in 1976 when the stadium opened.
“I was going to be at the game anyway, and I got to sit on the 50-yard line and be inside if it rained or anything,” he said.
He didn’t have any training, but he said Bill Johnson, then-radio owner, would give him a “pointer or two now and then,” as did Joe McGee, former
editor of the Log Cabin Democrat, who sat in the press box.
Browning said he got to see some good players, including Greg Lasker, Tim Horton and Peyton Hillis.
Browning did PA announcing for basketball for a short time, too, he said.
“Again, I got a front-row seat,” he said, and saw the likes of Lawson Pilgrim and Austin Sullivan.
All total, he was the full-time football PA announcer for 24 years, he said, and still fills in for Andy Hawkins about once a year.
In addition to a love of sports, Browning’s father also passed down a love of music to him.
After World War II, Browning Sr. was a professional drummer in the big-band era and traveled with a band until Browning’s mother, Emily, put her foot down.
After that, he was a salesman, but music was still part of his life.
“He always had a set of drums set up in the dining room,” Browning said.
“My dad was terrific. He was really good. Dad played drums, so I figured I could,” he said.
“I came home from junior high football practice, and there were beautiful new blue sparkle drums he’d bought me,” Browning said.
“Maybe my daddy figured out I didn’t have a real big future in athletics,” he said, laughing.
In 1964, when he was in ninth grade, Browning and three of his friends — Larry Nichols, Johnny Ray and Terry Bishop — started a band called The Teen Beats.
“That was the time of the British invasion,” he said, referring to The Beatles.
The Teen Beats morphed into The Chancellors, which included some University of Central Arkansas students.
The Chancellors played for a state student council convention in Little Rock, he said, and for the next two years “we played so many jobs around the state. It was really fun.”
The band added members and eventually became Loose Ends, which played private clubs and parties.
Browning still plays in the “current version” of Loose Ends, as do four of the original members, including Mike Grimes.
They rehearse in Grimes’ “huge garage,” Browning said. “That’s what I enjoy now, getting together. We all get along real well.”
Grimes said he and Browning have been good friends since 1965, or ’66.
“He’s a good singer, a good drummer,” Grimes said.
“He’s just a very organized person, and he’s very dedicated to his job, whoever he’s working for. He’s a company man. He goes out of his way to work with people,” Grimes said. “He just thrives on things like that.”
Browning joined the Army Reserve, and when he came back from basic training in 1970, he went to work for Ed Camp’s Men’s Store, where he had worked while in college.
He moved to Jonesboro for four months to run The Fig Leaf, one of the jeans stores Ed Camp opened. It also sold psychedelic posters and black lights.
Camp told the fresh-out-of-basic Browning, “You’re going to have to grow your hair out.”
Browning attended UCA, but he dropped out after his sophomore year to open a clothing store in 1971 with friend David White.
“We didn’t need any more school. We knew everything,” Browning said. “We were eaten up with the clothing business.”
The store was called Browning and White, and they ran it for four years in downtown Conway.
From there, he worked at Ed Camp’s again and Randy’s Athletics.
Before he was a “sales person who happens to work at a bank,” Browning had a 22-plus-year career in sales and sales management with Virco, a school- and commercial-furniture manufacturer in Conway.
He worked his way up to division manager, overseeing 35 states in the commercial sales group.
When his boss asked him to move to Atlanta to work at a regional office for Virco, he refused.
“I said, ‘I’ll go back to Ed Camp’s and sell socks and underwear, but I’m not moving from Conway.’”
Browning left Virco in 2000 and was asked to join Centennial Bank.
He said he got more involved in the community, which the bank encourages.
With the Centennial Bank Grill Masters, he cooks hamburgers at schools and community events.
The bank makes donations to schools for everything from play equipment and computers to scoreboards, he said.
“I’m really proud to work for a company that is so inclined that way,” he said.
“It’s something different every day. It keeps you energized,” he said.
Because of his job at the bank, he has been involved in the Conway Area Chamber of Commerce and as a member of its committees.
“Your friendships are able to deepen because you spend more time with them,” he said.
“I can remember — I grew up a block and a half north of the Methodist Church on Clifton Street,” he said. “You knew everybody.”
He talked about the past, but he quickly brought it back to the future.
“Conway’s a great place now — you evolve with it,” he said. “Now the fact you don’t know everybody, it’s an opportunity to meet new people.”
And talk to them about the city, Centennial, the Wampus Cats, music and more.
Senior writer Tammy Keith can be reached at (501) 327-0370 or firstname.lastname@example.org.