REX NELSON: Ernie Dumas weighs in

This newspaper is spending much of 2019 marking the 200th anniversary of the founding of the Arkansas Gazette, which printed its first issue at Arkansas Post in 1819. One of the fringe benefits of the columns and stories I've written in conjunction with this effort has been extra time spent with Ernie Dumas, whose work I grew up reading in the Gazette.

No one can explain 20th century Arkansas politics better than Dumas, who grew up in Union County in far south Arkansas and worked at the Gazette from 1960 until the newspaper closed in 1991. He has come out with a new book, The Education of Ernie Dumas: Chronicles of the Arkansas Political Mind. I received my copy last week, opened it and couldn't stop reading. That speaks to Dumas' talents as a storyteller.

The book is published by Butler Center Books of Little Rock, a division of the Central Arkansas Library System. It might never have happened had it not been for the persistence of Bobby Roberts, the former CALS director, and David Stricklin, the current director of the Butler Center for Arkansas Studies.

"This book fulfills a contractual agreement between Bobby Roberts and me and, by his lights, my obligation to the commonweal of Arkansas," Dumas writes in the preface. "Dr. Roberts, see, is a historian. ... For the purpose of gleaning more knowledge of Arkansas and Southern history and of spreading it to the needy public at large, the library established a publishing arm. ... Some years ago, Roberts began to wheedle me to write a memoir about more than a half-century of writing about politics and government. While no one should be even slightly enlightened by reading about my pedestrian life, he said, the stories about how and why things happened and the impulses that guided the men and women who were elected to office and made things happen or failed to make them happen would be important knowledge.

"Reporters who covered the events often saw and heard things that for professional, personal or other seemingly obligatory reasons they did not share in print. If the stories were suitable for lunch or evening conversations, he thought, they ought to be accessible to the general public so that people could make their own judgments about historical values. The stray filaments that constituted the little stories I could tell should at least be available for historians in their endless search for ultimate truth. For some years I put him off because I was weary of deadlines and obligations, even when they came only once a week, which is my explanation for sheer indolence. Some day, in complete repose, I might do it, I said. Detecting my deteriorating faculties, Dr. Roberts warned that if I perished or became incapacitated without having written the book, I should do so with the certain knowledge that I had failed a moral obligation to my fellow man."

Dumas was about to turn 80 in the fall of 2017 when Stricklin insisted that he sign a contract to write the book even if there were no deadline. The result is a narrative that brings to life the political figures (some famous, many obscure) who shaped the course of this state from 1960 through the turn of the century. The book is also filled with photos along with George Fisher caricatures and cartoons.

Dumas says he owes his Gazette career in part to University of Arkansas football star Jim Mooty.

"I graduated from high school a year before Mooty did, and he went on to become a first-team All-American halfback for the Razorbacks," Dumas writes. "The townspeople in El Dorado threw a parade for him around Christmastime in 1959 and the city declared Jim Mooty Day. Home from the University of Missouri for the holidays, I was sent by the Daily News with a Speed Graphic camera to take pictures of the spectacle around the square in El Dorado and to write a story, which appeared in the morning paper in gaudy detail. The evening before I was to drive back to Missouri, I received a telephone call at home from A.R. Nelson, the managing editor of the Gazette, who said he was in town visiting his mother and had read my Jim Mooty story."

Nelson (no relation though my initials are also A.R.) had worked for the El Dorado newspapers in the 1940s. Dumas writes that Nelson quit when the publisher objected to him receiving $2 per game from the El Dorado Oilers for being the official scorekeeper at home games. The Oilers played in the Cotton States League from 1947-55.

Nelson told Dumas he had a job at the Gazette when he graduated the following May. Dumas took him up on the offer and spent the next three decades at the newspaper. Rodney Dungan and Leroy Donald, who also hailed from El Dorado, already were working at the Gazette and had put in a good word for Dumas. The newspaper's newest reporter settled in the capital city and discovered that race still dominated most news cycles.

"The city had faded from the national news, but race was not absent from the pages of the Gazette or other newspapers in the state," Dumas writes. "The struggle over the pace of integration in the Little Rock schools and then, gradually, elsewhere in the state continued throughout the decade and beyond, and the civil rights movement spread to Main Street lunch counters, swimming pools, department stores, workplaces, the dingy basement dining room of the state Capitol and the police precincts where scores of African American protesters were jailed and often brutalized. Rare was the day when the newspaper did not carry an article about racial strife somewhere in Arkansas."


Senior Editor Rex Nelson's column appears regularly in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. He's also the author of the Southern Fried blog at rexnelsonsouthernfried.com.

Editorial on 06/01/2019