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If you've ever lived in beautiful Hot Springs National Park or had occasion to examine the historic underbelly of that city, the impressions likely will endure across a lifetime.

That's been the case with me after serving as executive editor of the city's daily paper, The Sentinel-Record, from 1973 to 1980, when I departed for the Los Angeles Times.

Those seven years proved the most interesting and adventurous of my years in journalism.

And now journalist/author David Hill, a native of Hot Springs, is drawing considerable attention for his new book, five years in production, "The Vapors: A Southern Family, The New York Mob, and the Rise and Fall of Hot Springs."

Hill refers to his book as a "braided" work of family and Hot Springs history spanning 40 years to feature the once-famed Vapors nightclub with its one-armed bandits and national celebrities, opened in 1960 by "well-connected" local celebrity Dane Harris.

It also was a wild and woolly period in the town where mobsters like Al Capone visited and New York mobster Owney Madden settled to become a partner with Harris in the club. A moratorium on syndicate-style slayings prevailed while illegal gambling and corruption flourished, and the stylish Vapors was mysteriously bombed, along with four other bombings in town during those years.

A reinvigorated Vapors nightspot has now reopened with the advent of legal gambling and opening of the state-sanctioned casino at Oaklawn.

The city's shadowy history set a lingering tone for local power brokers doing business and various "activities" in the Hot Springs I came to know well beginning in 1973, after also having lived there as a child when my Army colonel father was troop commander at the former Army Navy Hospital that towers over famed Bathhouse Row.

Six years after The Vapors' demise as an illegal gambling mecca, the mindset of the Leo McLaughlin-era political machine remained more than apparent to a youthful group of newspaper reporters.

I've written previously about some of the exploits of that newsroom with a staff of 13 who soon became dedicated and determined reporters and editors.

The directions I gave to a largely demoralized staff upon arriving in 1973 as a 26-year-old journalist with two whole years of experience as the editor in Newport, while well-intentioned, also were idealistic and naïve.

The paper then had largely been passive and sleepy, content to fill its front pages with wire stories rather than offering local revelations that mattered to readers and residents.

Hill said that, in researching, he found the Sentinel-Record of that era provided no relevant historical material because it intentionally didn't report on what was happening with the city's gambling because the paper's mindset was "we're just not going to talk about what's happening."

Supported by publisher Walter Hussman Jr., I encouraged the staff to dig for relevant stories in the public interest without political party considerations, axes to grind, or friends to favor. In other words, unleash a torrent of authentic reporting.

The staff responded. Stories of wrongdoing and shedding light in darkness began regularly appearing across the front pages. They ranged from exposing a circuit judge who owned a sleazy, out-of-code downtown hotel and a former sheriff turned state legislator who allegedly had allowed illegal cockfighting for payoffs. Two reporters placed horse-racing bets in downtown bars, then wrote about their winnings. The municipal court judge had been continuing DWI cases until they vanished from his docket. And uncovered facts freed an innocent Black laborer charged with rape and robbery from incarceration.

There were news accounts saying the then-sheriff had been (without the court's knowledge) secretly escorting favored prisoners from his jail to out-of-town weekend jaunts.

Hussman, also then 26, who'd hired me and was living in Hot Springs while overseeing the paper's operations, reassured me of his support. There were no "sacred cows" to avoid or protect. That's just how Hussman was, and remains today, in his unflinching support for First Amendment-style journalism as the publisher of this newspaper and WEHCO Media holdings (See the paper's Statement of Core Values on page 2).

There were prices to pay for awakening from years of lethargy. One reporter was beaten, prompting me to distribute big sticks to each staffer with the inscription "For self-protection while telling it like it is." Admittedly pretty cheesy in the era of "Walking Tall." But it did help boost morale, which was my hope.

News of Hill's book indeed brought those memories and more surging back the other day. And I could fully relate to the philosophies and methods that became such an ingrained part of this city's past stretching well into my years there almost 50 years ago.

Meanwhile, time has marched on, as time invariably will, and I anticipate reading Hill's book with an understanding eye.

Now go out into the world and treat everyone you meet exactly like you want them to treat you.

--–––––v–––––--

Mike Masterson is a longtime Arkansas journalist, was editor of three Arkansas dailies and headed the master's journalism program at Ohio State University. Email him at mmasterson@arkansasonline.com.

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