We journalists (well, we features/society journalists especially) have our share of instances in which a story source becomes a friend, someone to admire, someone to learn from, perhaps even a mentor.
For me, one of those story-sources-turned-all-that was Alita Mantels, a fellow Missouri-born lady and retired teacher. She passed away Sept. 23; her memorial reception took place Saturday at Ruebel Funeral Home.
Alita and I connected through her role as secretary for the Arkansas Jazz Heritage Foundation/Arkansas Jazz Hall of Fame. I became acquainted her and James Thomson, president of the foundation and hall of fame, when I began to cover fundraisers for the Art Porter Music Education and Foundation. I also began to cover the biennial Jazz Hall of fame induction ceremonies.
Alita always kept that teacher's demeanor; she liked things to be decent and in order. Everything she did as far as the Arkansas Jazz Hall of Fame, she made sure all I's were dotted and T's crossed. And she made sure that anybody having anything to do with the Hall of Fame had their I's dotted and T's crossed, especially ink-stained wretches who wrote about its inductions. She'd give you credit for having some sense, but she would make darn sure you'd have no excuse for taking leave of your senses. And although I could tell she didn't brook much nonsense, she was a warm and generous soul. One of my fondest memories was celebrating my birthday with her and Thomson at Cajun's Wharf.
But there was so much about the woman herself that I didn't realize and wish I'd taken the trouble to learn. Her obituary, along with Thomson, revealed a number of fascinating facts. A National Merit Scholar as well as an honor graduate of Hendrix College, Alita spent the last 35 years of her teaching career at Hall High teaching English, French and Spanish among other subjects.
She also led small student tour groups to foreign countries. Says Thomson, also executor of Alita's estate: "They weren't just guided around by some guide in a bus. Alita was taking [them] personally to places and meeting personally with people and integrating into the culture. If they went on a trip with her, they learned about where they were going."
Alita was a supporter of "public education, the arts, civil/human rights, and the environment," read her obituary -- which, of course, was handwritten by her last year, Thomson told me. I especially appreciated her dedication to jazz, an art form that everybody seems to enjoy but, from what I've observed, doesn't get the support around here that I wish it did.
Alita worked with Thomson's mother on the move to make the Buffalo River a national river, which it was named in 1972. He encountered her again in high school at Hall, which he attended from 1976 to 1979. In 2006, their paths crossed once again. Alita re-chartered the Hall High School Key Club; it was sponsored by the Kiwanis Club, of which he was a member.
"She was an interesting lady and had many stories to tell about her life," Thomson says. He recalls her development of a statewide curriculum for American College Testing (ACT) preparation for the Arkansas Department of Education. She'd been tapped to teach advanced placement classes, but chose instead to teach the students at the other end of the scale ... "kids that were not great students. She was kind of like their last chance."
Alita kept her teaching certification even after she retired and stayed with the Key Club until 2012. "Right after that, she started helping me with the Arkansas Jazz Hall of Fame," Thomson says, adding that she created all the current literature on the foundation and the Hall of Fame.
"She was really into that Hall of Fame in her last years," he continues. "It was very important to her that people that might be left out of it should be in there. And [she] was working very hard -- before they were forgotten -- to get historic and posthumous names into that Hall of Fame, as well as other people who are are still living."
That was Alita, who deserves to be in a Hall of Fame of her own. And I'm wondering where Thomson is going to be able to find another volunteer even approaching Alita's precision ... and dedication.
Donations in Alita's memory can be sent to the Arkansas Jazz Heritage Foundation/Arkansas Jazz Hall of Fame, P.O. Box 251187, Little Rock, AR 72225-1187. Questions should be directed to Thomson, (501) 225-2891.
And if anyone out there would like to try to fill Alita's shoes, I'm sure Thomson would like to hear from you, too.
Style on 10/27/2019
Print Headline: Saying goodbye to Alita Mantels