The Arkansas history community lost several members to death during 2019. Preserving our history—and telling its story—falls mostly on the shoulders of a relatively small number of people, so deaths among our ranks can leave major voids.
The year was young when Michael H. Lewis of Little Rock died Jan. 14. Michael, who had a master’s degree from Wake Forest University, worked as a historian and curator at Colonial Williamsburg before moving here with his wife, UALR history professor Johanna Lewis, in the mid-1980s. He worked in a variety of positions at Historic Arkansas Museum, Old State House Museum, and Arkansas History Commission, all in Little Rock.
Larry Ahart of Little Rock died Feb. 14. Larry, who had studied at Harvard after growing up in Little Rock, served for many years as a historian and curator at Old State House Museum. He was a quiet man, but his knowledge and helpful attitude allowed him to share the story of Arkansas with a whole generation of Arkansans.
William D. Downs Jr. of Arkadelphia died April 20. With both master’s and doctorate degrees from the University of Missouri School of Journalism, he was professor of communications at Ouachita Baptist University for 41 years before he retired in 2007.
I had the pleasure of advising Bill on a couple of research projects he was pursuing with singular enthusiasm, and both resulted in books. In 2004 Bill published The Fighting Tigers, an interesting tribute to the 36 OBU students whose names appear on a campus memorial dedicated to those who died during World War II.
Each of the 36 students is discussed at some length, and each story tells “how he lived” and “how he died.” Many of the OBU students were killed on the battlefield, some at sea, and at least one, First Lt. Ralph Carlton Mann, died in a Japanese prison camp.
Mann, who transferred from Ouachita to the Naval Academy and ended up in the Marines, had the misfortune of being assigned to the U.S. forces stationed in the Philippines just before the Japanese invasion. He, along with his wife, an employee of a U.S. consulate, were captured by the Japanese. His wife was repatriated, but Mann suffered grievously during the Bataan Death March, arriving at a prison camp in terrible health—possibly suffering from malaria as well as starvation. He soon died since the Japanese would not allow any medicines—even from the Red Cross—into the camp.
Most of the deceased prisoners were buried in mass graves, but a small group of captives received permission to bury Lt. Mann in an individual grave: “Four of us … placed his body on a window shutter from one of the huts and carried him on our shoulders to the burial ground where we reverently laid him to rest with his identification tags in a glass bottle.”
Bill’s second research project involved documenting the lives of farmers during the Great Depression. Conducting scores of interviews with a wide spectrum of Arkansans, Bill documented a world many have forgotten. For example, Bessie Blacknall of southern Clark County described how her duties included sweeping the yard as well as the house. “We’d use a hoe to dig up pieces of grass that was growing in the yard. We’d scrape it clean. We’d make brush brooms out of dogwood branches and tie them together …”
Among the scores of interviews Bill conducted was one with Jack Wood, born on a farm south of Arkadelphia in 1918. One of Wood’s memories vividly addressed the economic and social conditions of the Depression years: “As we walked each day [to school], we passed by the Poor Farm … and all the poor people came to the fence and wanted to talk to us. We kept on walking slowly because they were mentally unstable, and they wanted us to help them. [It] made us feel sad each time they came out …”
Denyse Stigler Killgore, who died May 12, contributed to Arkansas history for two decades by being the go-to person in the Arkansas Historical Association office in Fayetteville. Beginning in 1970, Denyse served as assistant to Dr. Walter L. Brown, longtime editor of Arkansas Historical Quarterly.
In addition to proofreading and fact-checking, Denyse brought her keen eye to the demanding task of proofing citations. In addition she wrote an unattributed column for the magazine, handled correspondence, and kept the books for the Historical Association. She was the friendly and welcoming public face of the Association, known to soften the rough edges of her sometimes curmudgeonly boss.
Wayne Boyce of Newport died June 10 at age 93. He was a lawyer who played an important role as a leader of Jackson County Historical Society and was the editor of The Stream of History, the Society’s journal, for 30 years. His book on his hometown of Tuckerman was published in 2015.
Waddy W. Moore, a longtime professor of history at the University of Central Arkansas in Conway, died June 15. A native of Helena, Waddy held a doctorate from the University of North Carolina. He was my mentor when I was an undergraduate at UCA, introducing me and others to the larger story of history—teaching us how to “do history.”
His research methods seminar was the most important one of my college career, in part because that class required students to write an original paper dealing with some aspect of Arkansas history.
Many of the students in that seminar grumbled about Waddy’s research rules. For example, he demanded that when citing a source, the author’s full name—including full middle name—be included. Finding middle names can be damnably tedious work, but it did force the students to dig deeply—which was Waddy’s goal.
Waddy served as president of Arkansas Historical Association and Faulkner County Historical Society. He was a pioneer in the oral history field in Arkansas, serving as a charter member and president of the American Oral History Association in 1977. One of his major oral history projects was interviewing every member of the 1969 Arkansas Constitutional Convention. He also authored two books. One was an elementary-level Arkansas history textbook and the other was about the Gilded Age in the state.
Jeffrey K. Lewellen, who died Dec. 1, was an archivist at Arkansas History Commission for many years. He had a master’s degree in public history from UALR and was an authority on popular culture in Arkansas. At first Jeff seemed shy, perhaps a bit distant, but became a totally different person when giving a presentation or acting in a play.
My friend Maylon Rice has reminded me of the important contribution to Arkansas history performed by Charles O’Donnell of Fayetteville, who died Aug. 13. He was co-owner of Dickson Street Books, a source not only for books on the state, but for information, as he was always willing to share his considerable knowledge about Arkansas titles and their authors.
Tom Dillard is a historian and retired archivist living in rural Hot Spring County. Email him at Arktopia.td@ gmail.com .