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OPINION | MIKE MASTERSON: Written on a wall

by Mike Masterson | May 31, 2022 at 3:33 a.m.


More than 20 years have passed since I penned my first column in this space on the Voices page. Yet the message behind it remains as relevant today.

Since I suspect many readers have come and gone over those decades, I've decided to share a slightly revised version this morning in hopes it triggers awareness of the fleeting and uncertain mortality we share. In returning to Harrison from Little Rock the other day, I realized this home is no longer standing, lost like everything eventually to time and history. Carpe diem, my friends.

The abandoned white house with its rusting metal roof stands barely 10 yards from the blacktop of U.S. 65, well within sight of the Ozark foothills.

I've long driven past similar homes decaying beside Arkansas highways. They are collapsing testaments to the generations who came and thrived, then departed inside them. You've likely seen them, too.

This day I impulsively left the blacktop to lose a few minutes exploring this one.

The cracked wooden front door stood ajar. Cracked strips of flooring covered all five small rooms, creaking beneath each step. Scores of dirt daubers earlier had claimed the walls as their own. Their mud homes were equally hollow and deserted.

I stepped off the dimensions at 24 by 26 feet, a tiny house by today's standards. Yet I also felt the families who'd occupied this place over the years had managed just fine.

Although every artifact and remnant had been removed, shreds of history still lay exposed after decades in the dark. Beneath the wallpaper were layers of deeply yellowed Arkansas Gazettes that served as crude insulation. There to read in dim light spilling through a small window were the faded names of Ben E. Hill of Arkadelphia and Harvey R. Smith of Little Rock. Their activities once made news.

Boxers Frank Metheny and Tommy Young of Blytheville also were on a page, along with the names of the Rev. O.W. Yates of Arkadelphia and the Rev. Calvin B. Waller of Little Rock's Second Baptist Church.

Finally, I managed to locate the date: Tuesday, Oct. 29, 1940--some 60 years earlier. It was printed above an account of President Franklin D. Roosevelt's speech the previous night in Madison Square Garden.

Someone had pressed these newspapers bearing hundreds of names into these walls six years before I was born, and more than a year before the bombs fell on Pearl Harbor. And now, after the passage of decades, the house had revealed them to a curious traveler.

During the next week, the names buried within the dining room wall weighed on my mind until I finally decided to learn whatever I could about at least one of these people.

Perhaps it was an attempt to make their brief lifetimes here all the more real. So I took to the phone and eventually learned the Rev. Calvin Waller, who had ministered the Second Baptist Church in Little Rock between 1918 and 1944, had been a heavy-set man with a devoted wife and three daughters.

Those who remembered him--all now late into their own lives--said Waller personified a gentle kindness and dignity during the 26 years he headed that church. They agreed, to the person, that he'd made positive differences in thousands of lives.

"Rev. Waller was my favorite pastor," said Lynn Hefler of Little Rock. "He baptized me and my best friend Kathryn Stair at the same time. And he married my late husband, Jay, and me in June of 1940. A year later he also baptized Jay.

"Rev. Waller visited in our home," she continued, "and I remember seeing him often in the grocery store. He was always so friendly, a nice and compassionate man."

Peggy Buice of Little Rock said she recalls the minister taking her aside following one service immediately after she'd joined the congregation.

"He told me, 'Now that this is your church, Peggy; tell me what you plan to do with it.' His message has stayed with me all these years.

"When I told him that day how I loved a choir, he escorted me right to the choirmaster and made certain I joined that group. As it turned out, I soon met my husband Bob in that choir, and Rev. Waller married us," she said.

"You might even recall him, Bob Buice, who died last year. Bob was a well-known announcer on KARK radio, which later became KARN. He did that for 50 years."

Years earlier, Waller also had married Peggy's parents in the pastor's home. This family's connection with the minister obviously ran long and deep.

I can't explain what led me to the names of these people long-departed, except to say it was a gut feeling that urged me to leave the asphalt and hectic traffic behind for a while.

I can, however, tell you the primary message I took from that impulsive stop: Our actions today, as well as what we leave behind, all matter even if all that remains 60 years from now is our name on a piece of flaking newsprint inside the wall of some home we never visited that was occupied by people we never know.

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


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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