CONWAY Acting Hendrix College President Ellis Arnold III was lured back to Arkansas with a pony.
Of course, he was just in first grade, but a deal was a deal.
Born in Little Rock, Arnold’s family moved a lot because his father, a civil engineer, served in the Air Force after graduating from the Naval Academy.
“We moved from here to Okinawa when I was about 2,” Arnold said.
From there, the family came back to Arkansas, and when Arnold was in kindergarten, they moved to Omaha, Neb., for his father to work with the Strategic Air Command.
Arnold attended part of first grade in Nebraska.
“My maternal grandparents lived in Conway, so I had deep roots in Conway,” he said. “My grandfather told me when I moved back to Arkansas, I could get a pony.”
As soon as Arnold’s parents told him they again were packing for Arkansas, “I was on the phone to my grandfather: ‘Get that pony,’” Arnold recalled, laughing.
Arnold’s grandfather kept the pony, Cookie, at the University of Central Arkansas president’s home. Then-president Silas Snow also had a horse, Baby Doll, and was best friends with Arnold’s grandparents.
Arnold, 56, graduated from Northeast High School in North Little Rock and enrolled at Hendrix College in the fall of 1975.
He was familiar with the Hendrix campus from attending United Methodist Church youth assemblies there when he was in junior high and high school.
Arnold had his whole life planned from a young age.
“I wanted to be a lawyer from the time I was 12 years old,” he said.
When Arnold talked to the Hendrix football players this year — the first Hendrix team in 53 years — “I told them it’s good to be focused, but don’t be so focused that you don’t take full advantage of the breadth of opportunities — academic and co-curricular — across the campus.”
Arnold is familiar with athletics. He played baseball from age 7 to 18 and was on the Hendrix golf team.
He and other students begged for baseball, but Arnold said the Hendrix president thought baseball would take away from the young men’s academics and wouldn’t allow it.
After graduating from Hendrix in 1979, Arnold interviewed at Wake Forest and Southern Methodist University law schools, enrolling at SMU. However, two factors caused him to change his mind, so he attended the University of Arkansas at Little Rock School of Law.
“I decided I knew I was going to practice law in Little Rock, and I’d fallen in love with a student at Hendrix,” he said, referring to his wife, Kim.
He said both decisions were the right ones.
“I felt like my experience going to Hendrix and law school at Little Rock allowed me to build a huge network of contacts, in the whole state, really.”
He started a law firm in Little Rock with two former Rose Law Firm attorneys. He was a litigation attorney and “loved it.”
“We were having the times of our lives and doing extremely well,” he said.
A call from then-Hendrix President Joe Hatcher changed everything, though.
Hatcher asked Arnold, a 33-year-old up-and-comer, to meet for coffee. Arnold assumed Hatcher wanted money.
As Arnold was leaving his office — running late — to meet Hatcher, the phone rang. Arnold’s assistant told him it was his wife, so he took the call.
It was his daughter, Laura, who was 5 at the time.
“She said, ‘I’m gonna have a baby brother or baby sister,’” he said.
That turned out to be Grace, who graduated from Hendrix in 2013.
Arnold had another surprise coming. Hatcher didn’t want money. He wanted Arnold to work at Hendrix as vice president for development and college relations.
“Within the span of about an hour, I had had two life-changing events,” Arnold said.
Arnold said he wanted the job because of his loyalty to Hendrix as his alma mater, and he was drawn to a church-related institution.
“I think a lot of people thought I’d lost my mind,” Arnold said. He had questions, too.
“I thought, ‘What if I’m bored? What if I don’t like foundation work and raising money?’
“We just immediately started raising money for the library. I loved [fundraising], and I have never been bored.”
He also learned more about himself.
“I guess I really found out when I got here that I had this latent passion for education,” he said.
“The liberal arts is in the marrow of my bones. John Churchill (former dean of the college) said that about me, and I think that’s true,” Arnold said. “That’s just what makes me tick. We’re lucky to have three colleges in the community and good leadership at all the colleges. It’s good for Conway.”
In 1996, a search firm approached him about applying for the presidency of Lambuth College in Jackson, Tenn., and he took the job.
Arnold said he originally was just testing the waters to see what was required to be a college president, but his skills matched so closely that he couldn’t pass it up.
“The institution was in the ditch. … We got it out of the ditch,” he said.
He was the head of Lambuth, now part of the University of Memphis, for almost eight years.
Although he said he was approached about other jobs during that time, they weren’t in the direction he wanted, toward central Arkansas.
One was — the presidency of Pulaski Academy in Little Rock.
He took that job, and “we proceeded to pull off one of the biggest acquisitions of land probably in central Arkansas at that time,” buying property that Fellowship Bible Church owned.
Arnold said he loved the Pulaski Academy job, too, but in the spring of 2008, Rock Jones, then Hendrix executive vice president and dean of advancement, and Hendrix President Tim Cloyd contacted him to see if he was interested in coming back as executive vice president and general counsel.
Arnold came back and did what he loved — fundraising.
“When I came back in 2008, we were in the throes of a major campaign — $100 million,” he said.
The primary focus of the campaign, which was successful, was to finish raising money for the Student Life and Technology Center and Wellness and Athletics Center and Odyssey endowment.
When Cloyd took a sabbatical in February and decided to go back to the classroom, Arnold was tapped to fill the role of president.
It wasn’t a shock; it’s the third time he has done it.
Since 2008, he had taken over the presidency for stints of three months and nine months.
He said this time, the acting role would likely last approximately 1 1/2 years.
Is he applying for the position?
Sitting at the conference table in the president’s office, Arnold was noncommittal.
“You’ll have to ask someone else about that,” he said. “It’s a search that’s underway, and they hope to make a decision before the end of the calendar year.”
Arnold is comfortable with his role; it embraces a lot of his strengths.
“My charge has basically been to make sure we do strategic planning going forward so that we don’t lose any momentum,” he said.
The college is looking at implementing new programs and facilities, and Arnold’s aim is to keep that process moving and clarify the goals so the board can talk about them.
He is also supposed to make sure the fundraising is on track and that construction is advancing.
“My old job had a tremendous amount of responsibility,” he said, “but when you’re the president, you have the ultimate responsibility. The difference between tremendous and ultimate is enormous.”
There’s something else Arnold said he enjoys about the new role.
“I get to see the students more and feel I’m more connected and feel like I know what’s going on more,” he said. “For me, it’s just fuel.”
No pony needed.
Senior writer Tammy Keith can be reached at (501) 327-0370 or email@example.com.