Gov. Asa Hutchinson thinks he knows exactly when the girl from Atlanta fell in love with his home state.
It was in 1972, when he tossed Susan Burrell his boots and socks, rolled up his pants legs, scooped her up in his arms and carried her across an icy creek in Northwest Arkansas. He wanted to show her where he had lived growing up.
"It was just beautiful," Hutchinson said with a laugh, blushing lightly at the memory. "It was her first trip to Arkansas. It just shows my pride in the natural beauty of our state that I really wanted to show her that part of it. By then, we didn't even own the farm."
At that moment, after climbing a snowy hill and being carried over Spavinaw Creek, Susan Hutchinson -- then Susan Burrell -- said she knew her city girl ways had come to an end.
"I thought, 'Oh, I have so fallen for a country boy.' Bona fide," she said, laughing at the memory.
Spavinaw Creek is a spring-fed stream that begins in the far corner of Northwest Arkansas and flows west into Oklahoma. A section of it runs through the 240-acre Benton County farm and woods in Gravette where Hutchinson and his five siblings spent the better part of their childhoods.
Murals depicting that snowy scene are now on display in the Governor's Mansion for the Christmas season.
Explore the Christmas decorations at the Arkansas Governor's Mansion in these 360-degree photos.
Each year, Governor's Mansion Association members, staff members and volunteers from around the state transform the 69-year-old Georgian Colonial-style mansion into a holiday showcase that's open to the public.
This year, Susan Hutchinson began conspiring early in the fall for a special Christmas surprise for her husband. She enlisted the help of artist Tim Morris, a retired University of Central Arkansas art professor, who then created two 10-foot-wide-by-16-foot-tall panels that depict their favored scene of the snow-covered Spavinaw Creek and woods.
The panels stand on either side of the Janet M. Huckabee Grand Hall, amid snow-flocked trees, garlands and cardinals.
"When we were decorating for Christmas this year, we were looking for having it more of a natural theme," Susan Hutchinson said, deciding to focus on the Ozarks in the Grand Hall. "We were looking to figure out the focal point. I was trying to figure out what different scene from Northwest Arkansas that others in the state might recognize or that would represent Northwest Arkansas accurately to the rest of the state.
"Then I remembered our little love story there at Spavinaw Creek," she said, smiling.
The materials for the mural were donated, and the work was completed in-house at no cost to the state, said Misty Phillips, the first lady's assistant.
"He started working on it in September. He was able to use another facility where he had the floor space to lay it down," Susan Hutchinson said. "He's quite the artist. Not many artists can do that large scale of a painting."
Morris said he stretched the two pieces of canvas across frames constructed of 2-by-4 boards. He used a 10-foot ladder and a rolling scaffold to paint the pieces at his studio.
"I kept telling her that it wasn't painted to be a masterpiece," Morris said. "I'm a decorator, a muralist, a special-finish artist. I don't do that much detail and mixing of colors. I just started smearing paint, adding water and letting it blend."
The first lady reacted with a mixture of awe and reverie when she saw the canvases after their delivery, Morris said.
"She loved it," he said. "She kept saying, 'Oh, you've captured it! You've captured it!'"
Susan Hutchinson said Morris' working on the pieces elsewhere helped her keep the governor in the dark about them.
"When they got it hung, Asa came home that evening and I told him, 'You can't go in the Grand Hall without me. You have to wait.' I had him stand at the front until I turned the lights on," she said. "He was quite taken aback that I had done that. He was quite touched. He has been telling everybody about it and tweeting it out. I had to do something romantic with him, but also share that part of the state with everyone else."
The governor said he instantly recognized Spavinaw Creek.
"I said, 'Man, I love them,'" he said. "She said, 'Do you know what it is?' I said, 'Of course. The Spavinaw Creek.' It was special. Very special."
Susan Burrell first met Asa Hutchinson at the end of their senior year at Bob Jones University in Greenville, S.C. They had been seated together at a dinner table.
She had heard his name previously because they were both members of the intramural debate society.
"People said it so quickly. 'Asahutchinson.' I thought he was a foreign exchange student from Greece," she said. "It was really funny."
He peppered her with questions.
What's your major?
What's your goal this semester?
"Well, to make straight A's."
A serious-minded student heading to medical school, Susan Burrell expected the future lawyer to go the way of the easily intimidated young suitors before him.
"I was rather tired of trying to find my true love, so I was just, 'Let's get to the bottom line,'" she said. "Usually, these are real killer answers. The guys wouldn't ask the next question after I answered them like that, but he just kept smiling and asking me questions."
After dinner, she asked her friends what they knew about the boy from Arkansas.
"The more I found out about him, the more I liked him," she said. "He was dating someone else from up north. I found out more about her, but it didn't sound like a match to me. She wasn't interested in the things he was interested in."
She stopped and smiled conspiratorially.
"But I was interested in the things he was interested in," she said.
After not hearing from him for weeks, Susan Burrell took matters into her own hands. As secretary of the debate club, she knew the schedule.
"So I just popped in one night to his debate," she said. "I was one of seven people there: four debaters, the timekeeper, the faculty judge and me. He lit up like a Christmas tree, so I kept going to his debates and visiting with him afterwards."
Finally, she said, he asked her out on a date.
"I was all nervous because I had just come back from the science fair in downtown Greenville. I helped display the university's scientific creationism artifacts that demonstrated scientific reasons for a sudden appearance of life," she said. "We talked about that some, and I thought, 'Well, that's usually a good turn off.' But he wasn't. He thought it was fascinating."
It was six weeks before the end of their senior year in college, and there was no doubt to Susan Burrell that she was in love.
Asa Hutchinson returned to Arkansas for the summer.
But by the second letter from him, the romance came to a screeching halt. Hutchinson had decided to attend law school in Fayetteville and saw his future as practicing law in his home state.
The distance was too great, he said, to carry on a meaningful relationship.
"I had determined I was going to get out of school scot-free and unattached," he said, with a laugh.
"So basically, 'Goodbye.' Yeah," Susan Hutchinson said. "I thought, 'Oh, no, you don't. I'm going to marry you and have your babies. You just don't know that yet.'"
She ditched her plans to study medicine at Clemson University in South Carolina and instead took a teaching job at a Christian school in Memphis.
"I said, 'Oh yeah, I'll split the difference between Atlanta and Fayetteville, Arkansas, of all places.' I get the encyclopedia out to see exactly where that was," she said. "It is the farther most point in Arkansas from Atlanta that you could possibly be. Even from Memphis, you couldn't be further away."
Still, when she wrote to Hutchinson about her move, he said he would visit. After weeks passed and he hadn't made it to Memphis, her friend Billy Glenn decided to call Hutchinson's parents and ask for the phone number at the Fayetteville rooming house where Hutchinson lived.
"I'm really pleading with him there. I'm near tears," Susan Hutchinson said of Glenn. "I just know that he's going to scare him off, that I should be waiting on him to initiate the visit."
Glenn dialed the phone. When Hutchinson answered, Glenn handed the phone to Susan.
Glenn "doesn't say anything to introduce what's happening. I'm on the phone and saying, 'I'm sorry to call you. It's really hard to explain. You have to meet this gentleman to understand how it all happened." Then Hutchinson said, 'Oh, that's OK. It's good to hear from you.' He was just really sweet about it," Susan Hutchinson said.
By the next weekend, Hutchinson had driven his Plymouth Valiant down the mountain on U.S. 71, parked it at the old Phillips 66 station in Alma and hitchhiked with a trucker to Memphis.
"He rang the doorbell where I was staying with another family, and there he was," the first lady said. "I looked over his shoulder for the car, and that's when he told me, 'No car. I hitchhiked.' Oh my goodness, what have I done? He hitchhiked. OK."
By his third hitchhiking trip to Memphis, he had asked her to go to Gravette to meet his family.
And it was on that trip that they went in search of Old West outlaw Jesse James' hide-out. The young Asa Hutchinson swore it was up the hill a ways in an abandoned cabin after crossing a frozen Spavinaw Creek.
It was later, in Memphis underneath a sycamore tree along the Mississippi River, that Hutchinson proposed.
"But whenever I made up my mind, 'You're the one. Let's get married,' she's saying, 'Let's wait until you get out of law school. Let's be practical about this,'" Hutchinson said. 'I said, 'Phooey on that. We're not waiting on that.' So we set a date a little bit quicker than she expected."
The two married in 1973, two years before Hutchinson graduated from the University of Arkansas School of Law in Fayetteville. They now have four grown children and six grandchildren.
Gov. Asa Hutchinson and his wife, Susan, pose during last Sunday’s open house at the Governor’s Mansion. A pair of murals on display with the Christmas decorations represent their early courtship.
SundayMonday on 12/09/2018
Print Headline: Murals a trip down memory lane; this Christmas, Hutchinsons reflect on their courtship past