To know Fred was to love him.
We said goodbye at a service last week to our 100 1/2-year-old friend. I add that half because every day after 100 is a little miracle.
When my husband and I moved to Conway in 1990 to work at a newspaper, Fred was already there, weaving his words into the fabric of the community. For people who didn’t know him, let me explain: He was a wordsmith, and he was known for using “big” words, like vicissitude and milieu.
In a feature he wrote for the River Valley & Ozark Edition, he said the subject of his story “hustled up the stairwell of the Conway Regional Health and Fitness Center, an air of expectancy and anticipation replacing her perennial smile.”
As the priest at his funeral said, “He could make a Rotary Club Cadron Park cleanup an event you were devastated to miss.”
Fred started his 70-something-year journalism career writing sports in 1945 at the Arkansas Democrat, but he switched to news and became assistant city editor. He also became a professional wrestling agent to make ends meet. He publicized the matches, then wrote stories about them to sell to papers. He also served as a booking agent for the All-American Redheads, a female basketball team that toured the country, a fact brought up at the funeral that one of his daughters told me she didn’t know.
Before my husband and I met Fred, he’d lied about his age to get hired at the Log Cabin Democrat in Conway because he thought then-publisher Frank Robins wouldn’t hire him if he knew Fred was 70.
Fred always looked at least 10 to 15 years younger than he was, so it worked. His secret might have been the red wine, his “swill,” he called it, that kept him young. Or his copious coffee. He loved both and imbibed often. You could often find him by following the trail of spilled coffee on the newsroom carpet.
I remember how he always came strolling into the office, whistling like he didn’t have a care in the world. As my husband recalled, all the other reporters would shout out, ‘Fred!” when he came in, just like the bar patrons did for Norm in the television show Cheers.
In the last few months, he had two articles published in a local magazine. I really think we should have called Guinness World Records about him.
He also worked in public relations for former Gov. Winthrop Rockefeller and worked with several nonprofit organizations and civic clubs (he was Kiwanian of the Year) and enjoyed playing the role of Kampus Kop in the University of Central Arkansas’ Torreyson Library Murder Mysteries that his wife, Lillian, wrote and directed for years.
He was devoted to Lillian and loved her Italian cooking.
Fred was a little hard-headed, but I never once saw him actually get mad when he was arguing. In fact, he’d laugh when he was trying to make his point, and we’d try to change the subject. He was always humble and self-deprecating.
A few weeks ago, I saw him for the last time. We talked about food and restaurants — always one of our favorite topics — and he had been to Mather Lodge at Petit Jean Mountain. He said he talked to the mayor of a small town. When I ascertained it was the FORMER mayor of Morrilton, he argued. And argued. And kept asking me to name other small towns north of Morrilton. He even asked my husband to get on Twitter to look up little towns, and we explained that wasn’t what Twitter was for.
There are rules: Never argue directions — or anything — with Fred.
For the record, I called the former Morrilton mayor, who acknowledged that he was at the lodge and shook Fred’s hand and thanked him for coming to Conway County.
Before I left Fred and Lillian’s house, I always kissed Fred goodbye and squeezed his hand. Lots of times, I took selfies or a photo of him, just in case. Sometimes I’d video a little of our conversation. We always said, “I love you.” Every time.
I respected him, and he added joy to my life and so many others in his 100 1/2 years.
The other quote I remember from my interview with him years ago was, “I have no regrets.”
We should all live like Fred, even if we don’t make it to 100.
I posted pictures of him on my Facebook page, and more than 100 people commented. People called Fred “a true gentleman,” “a gem,” “an excellent reporter,” and another of his friends summed it up: “Loved by all who knew him.”
Senior writer Tammy Keith can be reached at (501) 327-0370 or firstname.lastname@example.org.