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OPINION | TOM DILLARD: Saluting chroniclers of our past

by Tom Dillard | January 3, 2021 at 8:40 a.m.

The past year has been challenging for everyone, especially the history community. Research facilities such as libraries and archives have struggled with limited public access. Many museums have instituted extensive precautions and limitations, and some have closed until further notice.

On top of all this, several people active in state and local history died last year.

Friends and associates of Ellen Compton of Fayetteville were heartbroken to learn of her death on March 19. I know of no one who contributed so much to preserving Arkansas historical records and manuscripts. For 30 years she worked as an archivist at the University of Arkansas Special Collections department, much of that time as a field archivist.

With tenacity and time--aided by dedication and commitment--Ellen scoured the state looking for people, organizations, and businesses with records which ought to be preserved.

Ellen was thoughtful in her approach. She once told me she was guided by the original mission of the University of Arkansas, especially its statewide mandate. She sought to document the lives of Arkansas women, resulting in the acquisition of dozens of women's groups; Searcy County Extension Homemakers Club Collection, for example, contains records covering most of the 20th century.

Then there are the records of Petentes Women's Club of Little Rock, which existed from 1912 to 1973. An older group, Philomathic Club of Helena, was organized in 1888. Many of these women's clubs established libraries, which later evolved into public libraries.

Ellen concluded her career as archivist in charge of architectural collections. She was an authority on the papers of Fay Jones, the renowned professor of architecture at the University of Arkansas.

For several years Ellen edited Flashback magazine for Washington County Historical Society. She helped Butler Center for Arkansas Studies during the early years of Encyclopedia of Arkansas by serving as chairman of a statewide advisory group. She received Arkansas Historical Association's Lifetime Achievement Award in 2018.

Since I just turned 72, you would think I would be accustomed to the loss of friends and colleagues. But the pain of Ellen's death refuses to fade.

Helen Boyd of Stuttgart died in April. I worked with her at the Arkansas Museums Association in the 1980s, and became familiar with her extraordinary achievements with Museum of the Arkansas Grand Prairie in Stuttgart in Arkansas County.

Helen also had an interesting backstory. Her parents, French natives, met on a boat as they immigrated to the U.S. after World War I. Her mother was a French-Swiss governess and her father later became a chef at the Arlington Hotel in Hot Springs. Helen knew how to have fun and loved to dance, having once been a professional dance instructor. She brought that infectious enthusiasm to her work at the museum.

John G. Ragsdale of El Dorado and later Little Rock shared Helen Boyd's enthusiasm for Arkansas history, but his style was considerably more formal. He grew up in El Dorado, the son of a municipal judge.

A petroleum engineer by profession, he worked for Lion Oil of El Dorado and retired from Monsanto Oil Co. I met John G. (he preferred the use of the middle initial) about 30 years ago when he was demonstrating Dutch oven cooking at Cabot Middle School during Arkansas Heritage Month.

The golden brown biscuit his English-teacher wife Dora "DeDe" Ragsdale served me that day still lingers in my mind, but Mr. Ragsdale assured me that it needed butter and mayhaw jelly. Until he became frail and moved to Houston to be close to his children, John G. stopped by my office or home each autumn to deliver a peck of his favorite apple, the Arkansas Black.

He contributed mightily to several causes, especially Boy Scouts of America. He and his wife were generous to several Arkansas educational institutions. They funded the first chair in state studies, the John G. and Dora J. Ragsdale Endowed Chair of Arkansas Studies at Southern Arkansas University in Magnolia, which was held until recently by Professor Ben Johnson, a well-regarded historian of 20th-century Arkansas. He also endowed an annual book prize through Arkansas Historical Association.

Mildred Coulter "Jody" Parsons of Bella Vista died June 30. Jody had a career teaching English literature and theater, but late in her long life she established Authors Showcase, a yearly series of events promoting Arkansas writers, many of whom were historians. Without an audience, state and local history will wither and die, and Jody lives in my heart because she took her beliefs into vigorous action.

She was a proud relative of Wayman Hogue, Arkansas educator and father of writer Charlie Mae Simon. Late in her life, Jody reprinted Hogue's long out-of-print book "Back Yonder, an Ozark Chronicle" (New York, 1932), which she distributed free to many schools.

F. Hampton Roy, M.D., died Oct. 8. Dr. Roy made his reputation as a pioneer in cataract surgery in Little Rock. And for many years Hamp was a force for historic preservation.

Among the large projects he undertook were restorations of Ada Thompson Memorial Home on Main Street and Cornish House on Arch Street, both in Little Rock. He also served four years on the Little Rock Board of Directors, and ran unsuccessfully for lieutenant governor.

Historic preservation lost another stalwart on Nov. 17 when William L. Cook II of El Dorado died after a sudden illness at age 65. Bill was a certified public accountant and served in many professional groups, including at the national level. But his real passion was saving the historic structures of his hometown El Dorado.

Bill was a founding member of Heckatoo Heritage Foundation, president of South Arkansas Historical Foundation, and put his time, energy, and money into such organizations as Quapaw Quarter Association and Arkansas State Capitol Association as well as National Trust for Historic Preservation.

When I think back over the past 18 years I have written this column, I am struck by the large number of people who have shared my passion for understanding how American history played out in Arkansas and in my community.

While many of those people have passed on, I am heartened by the number of young people who, when given an opportunity, find our collective past interesting and important.

Take a look at the number of masters and doctoral dissertations published each year dealing with our Arkansas past, and you might be surprised; a number of youngsters each year manage to avoid the clutches of STEM education long enough to study our state's history.

Tom Dillard is a historian and retired archivist living near Glen Rose in rural Hot Spring County. Email him at Arktopia.td@gmail.com.

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