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OPINION | REX NELSON: Leadership Pine Bluff

by Rex Nelson | February 17, 2021 at 3:39 a.m.

When I was young and Pine Bluff was a happening place, I associated that city with great leaders.

I joined the board of the Arkansas Sports Hall of Fame almost 30 years ago, and I was in awe of the people on that board. One of them was Louis Ramsay, the only person to have served as president of both the Arkansas Bar Association and the Arkansas Bankers Association.

At the time of his death in 2004 at age 85, he had been associated with Simmons Bank for 52 years--as a director and later as president, chief executive officer and chairman.

His former law partner, Bill Bridgforth, said of Ramsay: "He had a way of making the right result happen. In everything that he did, he exemplified the way people should conduct their personal and professional lives with integrity."

Ramsay, who would become known as Mr. Arkansas, grew up at Fordyce and often would go to the Dallas County Courthouse to watch criminal trials. Following high school graduation in 1937, he headed to the University of Alabama on an athletic scholarship. But he missed Arkansas and came back to play football at the University of Arkansas.

Ramsay served during World War II and wound up as a major in the Army Air Corps. He returned to Fayetteville after the war and received a UA law degree in 1947.

A friend from Pine Bluff, Harvey McGeorge, suggested that Ramsay join the Pine Bluff law firm that had been founded by William Franklin Coleman and Nicholas J. Gantt Jr. in 1911. Ramsay did indeed join and stayed there. He was a board member at Simmons in the 1970s when other board members asked him to take over the bank.

"I told them that I wasn't sure I was the right person," Ramsay told Arkansas Business in 2003. "I always wanted to be a lawyer."

A deal was made that allowed him to remain with the law firm while also running the bank, "so that I would have a job to come back to if the bank job didn't work out."

It's safe to say that it worked out well. Simmons has since grown into a $21 billion regional powerhouse under the leadership of Tommy May, and now Pine Bluff native George Makris Jr.

In that Arkansas Business interview, Ramsay talked about his passion for advancing Arkansas: "I love this state. I believe it's poised to overcome some of its past. I'm always disappointed when I see things that set us back. I remember back to Bob Burns and Lum and Abner. But it's now poised--if we take advantage of the opportunities--to get a better reputation. I look at the growth in northwest Arkansas. I see the expansion at Walmart and the trucking industry in the state, at businesses like Stephens and Dillard's, and I see the state doing much better.

"We need to unify in an all-out effort and support efforts to gain new business anywhere in the state. We need to stop the competition among ourselves. If Pine Bluff can help Marion get a Toyota assembly plant, do it. If we can help west Arkansas get Interstate 49, we should do it. Unity is important for the state. We can overcome a lot, but we need to work together."

Those words ring true 18 years later. Ramsay was a member of the UA Board of Trustees from 1971-81 and also served as chairman of the boards of the Arkansas Science and Technology Authority, Arkansas Blue Cross Blue Shield and the University of Arkansas Foundation.

When then-Gov. Bill Clinton appointed Ramsay to chair the state's sesquicentennial celebration in 1986, he said that Ramsay "represented everything good about the state of Arkansas."

May, who was instrumental in starting the Go Forward Pine Bluff initiative that I wrote about in Sunday's paper, is also a son of south Arkansas. He was born at Prescott in December 1946 and raised at El Dorado. His hard-nosed father, a lawyer named Buck May, pulled him out of school after two years because he was unhappy with his son's college grades in Fayetteville.

Tommy May then worked on a pipeline project in the pine woods of south Arkansas before joining the U.S. Marine Corps in 1967. He served in Vietnam and then returned to Fayetteville after his discharge from military duty. A much more mature May had better grades this time around. He received his bachelor's degree in 1971 and his master's of business administration degree the following year.

The CEO of First National Bank of Commerce in New Orleans came to the Fayetteville campus for interviews and offered May a job. May returned to El Dorado in 1976 to work for Exchange Bank, becoming president and CEO in 1981. In 1987, Ramsay convinced May to make the move to Simmons. Like Ramsay before him, May spent a decade on the UA Board of Trustees. He was inducted into the Arkansas Business Hall of Fame in February 2010.

During Simmons' annual shareholders meeting in April 2013, Makris announced that May would be the inaugural chairman of the Simmons First Foundation.

Makris had spent his career building his family's Anheuser-Busch distributorship, M.K. Distributors Inc. He served 12 years as a director at Pine Bluff's National Bank of Commerce and joined the Simmons board in 1997. His fellow board members convinced him to serve as May's successor.

Pine Bluff has lost about 14,000 residents since it registered 57,140 people in the 1990 census. In a city once known for strong leaders, a new group has stepped forward to implement the Go Forward Pine Bluff recommendations. The encouraging thing this time is that this group includes far more Blacks and women than in the past. Pine Bluff's mayor, Shirley Washington, is a Black woman.

In Pine Bluff, leadership still exists.

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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.

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