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Phillip Hal McMath

Phillip McMath spent boyhood years in the Governor's Mansion, but he shuns politics to be a lawyer and a writer's writer. He's being inducted into the Arkansas Writers' Hall of Fame. by Werner Trieschmann | May 31, 2009 at 2:47 a.m.
Phillip Hal McMath

— As law offices go, it is filled with the expected - thick books including a handy copy of Black's Law Dictionary and, beside a large wooden desk overflowing with papers, a podium to practice courtroom speeches.

It is an office also filled with the unexpected. There's a framed and signed poster for Dress Blues, a play staged at Little Rock's Weekend Theater in 1999. There is a blackand-white photo of shirtless young men, smiling and holding beer, in front of a military tank. There is a wooden hat rack with two straw hats perched on top.

This is the workplace of Phillip McMath, a lawyer who has dedicated much of his nonbilling hours to the art of writing. At the Arkansas Writers' Conference on Friday, he will be inducted into the Arkansas Writers' Hall of Fame, joining the likes of famous scribes of the Natural State including Miller Williams, Ellen Gilchrist and Charles Portis.

McMath's curriculum vitae notes his three novels, a trilogy that began with Native Ground (August House) in 1984, followed by Arrival Point (M&M Press) and concluded with Lost Kingdoms (Phoenix International Press).

But his mark on the state of letters in Arkansas can't just be measured with his books, short stories or even award-winning articles. He is a co-founder of the Porter Prize, which for the past 25 years has recognized the achievements of Arkansas writers. (Full disclosure: This writer was a Porter Fund recipient.)

"He has made an enormous contribution to writing in Arkansas," says Grif Stockley, a fellow lawyer and author of several novels and nonfiction books. "There is nobody who deserves the honor more."

Roy Reed, author of a biography of Orval Faubus and noted writer and reporter for the Arkansas Gazette and The New York Times, received the 2009 Porter Prize. At the Porter Prize reception that marked the end of the Arkansas Literary Festival in April, Reed expressed his genuine surprise and gratitude for the honor that also comes with a $2,000 check. In October, the Porter Prize will celebrate its first 25 years with a gala atthe Governor's Mansion.

The Porter Prize has done well for a project that began in a less-than-academic setting. McMath and writer Jack Butler were talking in a bar when the idea was formed to honor Ben Kimpel, the late, much loved English professor at the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville.

"Jack and I started it over a few beers," McMath notes. "It just took off and it filled a vacuum. The state needed a prize like that. It helps with that by recognizing writers and getting them in contact with each other."

The Porter Prize is named after Kimpel's mother, Gladys Crane Kimpel Porter. McMath is a good 40 years past college and yet he can vividly recall his days in the classroom.

"I was so impressed by who [Kimpel] was," McMath says. "The guy was an academic genius. He could speak French, German, Russian and Italian. He was quite the scholar. I had been around politicians and generals, but this was a different kind of greatness. This was an intellectual greatness. There wasn't an arrogance about him at all."

Kimpel expanded the literary universe of the young Mc-Math.

"At that time, I knew Hemingway and Steinbeck," McMath says. "We studied Yeats and Joyce and Proust. This was a step up. I was getting an education at a different level. He said - and I'll never forget this - 'All we can do is introduce you to the material.' There is something about formal instruction that gets you there faster. He was very important in my life from the standpoint of education."

IN A FISHBOWL

Perhaps it's no surprise that McMath has devoted much of his time to creative writing. He has lived a colorful life that would challenge the imagination of the greatest of authors.

As the second of five children of the late Sid McMath, Arkansas governor from 1949 to 1953, Phillip was a pre-schooler when his family moved into the brandnew Governor's Mansion. His fairy tales were populated with kings and queens, but his real life was filled with celebrities such as June Allyson and Mountain View native Dick Powell, who would stop by to have dinner with the governor. There was also a dramatic visit by President Harry Truman, who arrived in Little Rock by train.

"I just thought that was the way life was," McMath says. Those glamorous days and nights - however routine they might have felt - did come with a little loss of privacy.

"People would come up to the door and ring the doorbell and want to see the governor," McMath recalls. "It was like living in a fishbowl. See, now you go to the Mansion and the gates are locked and you have all this security. When I was there, the gate was open and there were two state policemen. There was almost no security. All the help were felons from the prison farm. They were trusties. There were about a dozen. I got quitean education. I would hang out with all the prisoners. They would tell stories."

McMath never felt in danger because the prisoners were on their best behavior.

"Mother made them like butlers and dressed them up in white suits and taught them how to wait at tables," he says. "She taught them how to shine the silver and do all the right things and entertain people. She had the power of God over them. She could send them back to Cummins if they misbehaved. And they all wanted to stay there and didn't want to go back. Dad said, 'I will pardon all of you if you have a good four years.' We never had any trouble out of any of them. A lot of them did very well after they got out."

The straw hats on the hat rack in McMath's office were worn by his famous father while traveling the state stumping for votes.While Phillip would take up the law as his father did after leaving politics, the son didn't have any desire to press the flesh and campaign for office.

"It didn't fit me personally," McMath notes. "Now my dad loved it. He couldn't get enough of it."

The son's admiration increased when he witnessed his father argue cases in front of judges and juries. "It was like watching him be a politician. He was natural. He could charm the birds out of the trees. He had a certain something. You know how certain actors are great, certain ones are better than others? He had that gift."

THE VIETNAM IMPRINT

Like many his age, McMath was inexorably changed by an Asian country a world away from Arkansas. In 1969 and 1970, he spent nine months in Vietnam as a Marine first lieutenant tank commander. He wasn't severely wounded, but he did lose some of his hearing and contracted a disease that took part of his sight in his left eye. His time in Vietnam was short but intense.

"Oh yeah, I wrote three books about [Vietnam] and a play," Mc-Math says. "I still think about it to this day."

In terms of combat action, McMath says that he "experienced it all. By far my best assignment was when I commanded a platoon of tanks in direct support of the Third Battalion, 26th Marine Regiment, north and west of Da Nang. I did that for three months.

"We were in frequent contact with the enemy in this area, but it was mostly at night and was with small guerrilla units. We also had a big problem with mines, snipers, rockets and booby traps all over the [area of operations]. I received the Combat Action Ribbon for this service."

He describes his part of the war as "a combination of boredom and terror with some fun thrown in here and there." The foreign land McMath was fighting in left an indelible impression on the young soldier:

"I came to appreciate the country of Vietnam more and more because of its astounding physical beauty and marvelous ancient culture, which is alien to us and was deeply influenced by the Chinese, who were there for over a thousand years. This combined with a remaining remnant of French colonialism that makes it a fascinating place, indeed."

Some Americans actually became obsessed with the place and became known as "Vietnam imprinted." But McMath believes "this is a misnomer, because I think all Americans who served there are 'Vietnam imprinted' for the rest of their lives, for better or for worse, depending upon the individual, of course, and their experience. But I came to admire the Vietnamese. They are a marvelous people with a great culture and a tragic history."

McMath says he is proud of his service and feels America went to Vietnam with "the best of intentions." But he also says plainly that the war "was a mistake.

"While we lost the war, I think in the long run, we will 'win the peace' because in time Vietnam will throw off communist tyranny and become a modern, democratic, pluralistic state like South Korea and Japan, and, eventually, China. In fact, this process is obviously already well under way."

LETTERS AND LAW

Before he left for the war, McMath had met the woman he would marry and come home to when his stint in Vietnam was up.

"Carol [Belew] and I met in Fayetteville, at the University of Arkansas, on a blind date, arranged by my roommate," he says. "I knew she was the one from the moment I saw her.When I was in the Marine Corps she followed me around the world - California, North Carolina, Puerto Rico, North Carolina again, Hong Kong, home in Texas while I was in Vietnam, back to California, and finally Arkansas. We did all that in less than three years.

"We got out, went to law school on the GI Bill, she worked, I graduated, and we took off for Europe with the money we'd saved, and Carol, who had already been there, showed me around."

Now president of the McMath Woods law firm, he has over the years taken up cases in the areas of workers' compensation, railroads and the environment.McMath says he can't imagine having to write under the pressure to "pay the bills." And he is comfortable with the idea that he is never going to sell books like that other lawyer turned writer, John Grisham.

Yet McMath's literary talent hasn't gone unnoticed. He received a National Endowmentfor the Arts grant in 1984. Morris S. Arnold, in his review of McMath's Lost Kingdoms, noted the "ear for dialect and dialogue that suffuses this grand Southern epic of war and peace." An article McMath wrote in 1993 for the Los Angeles Times was given the Freedoms Foundation Award in Communications.

McMath's Dress Blues, a play about how a young man's decision to go to Vietnam created conflict in his family, was greeted by enthusiastic crowds when the Weekend Theater staged the work in 1999. McMath was happy for the opportunity to be back around a theater. One summer after high school, he worked as an actor in semiprofessional summer stock in Hot Springs. He laments the state of theater today.

"The real theater has been compromised by films," Mc-Math says. "I love the live theater, live stage and live actors, but it doesn't have the resonance that it did."

McMath also recognizes that a world that looks to novels and short stories as primary art forms is gone: "It's not a good time to be a writer. With the Internet, there's all this energy that goes a million different directions."

Still, McMath has hardly given up on his writing career. Completed and seeking a publisher is a Holocaust novel titled Broken Vase, described in the book as "a roman a clef written by Phillip H. McMath, with co-author Emily Matson Lewis, as told by 'Miriam Kellerman,' a Holocaust survivor." And he continues to shepherd the Porter Prize, noting with pride what the writers who have been given the award have accomplished.

"You know how isolated it is to write and not be recognized," McMath says.

It would be hard to find a writer in Arkansas who doesn't think the Arkansas Writer's Hall of Fame honor for McMath is well-deserved and long overdue.

SELF PORTRAIT Phillip McMath

DATE AND PLACE OF BIRTH Dec. 25, 1945, Memphis.

MY FAVORITE CHILDHOOD MEMORY IS Growing up in the Governor's Mansion. I enjoyed meeting movie stars like Gene Autry, Roy Rogers, June Allyson, Dick Powell and even President Truman.

THE BEST CLASS I EVER HAD WAS Pat Williams' Hall High senior English class. She opened the door a little wider and turned on a few more literary lights.

I AM ADDICTED TO Popcorn, pistachios, coffee and Tex-Mex. All efforts at reform have been graced with failure.

I WON'T START THE DAY WITHOUT Reading the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

A BOOK I HAVE RECENTLY REREAD Resurrection, one of Leo Tolstoy's novels.

THE BEST JOKE I KNOW ABOUT LAWYERS IS "When two lawyers argue, there are three opinions."

THE BOOK ON MY BEDSTAND IS Promises Kept, by Sid McMath.

A PHRASE TO SUM ME UP Someone who loves words.

High Profile, Pages 39, 43 on 05/31/2009

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