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UA professor Purvis dies

His UA, Fulbright years remembered by Bill Bowden | May 27, 2023 at 3:37 a.m.
Hoyt Purvis, former journalism professor at the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville is shown in this 2003 file photo. Hoyt died Friday, May 26, 2023 at age 83. (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Lori McElroy)

FAYETTEVILLE -- Hoyt Purvis died on Friday after an illness, said his wife Marion Purvis. He was 83.

During his colorful life, Purvis had been kidnapped by Johnny Cash, dangled his feet in the Black Sea with U.S. Sen. Robert Byrd while waiting to meet with Leonid Brezhnev, and watched smoke billowing from the Pentagon on 9-11.

For 34 years, he was a prominent figure on the campus of the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville -- 36 years if you count the two years it took him to clean out his office.

Purvis was a journalism professor who had served as an aide to U.S. Sen. J. William Fulbright of Arkansas and an adviser to Sen. Byrd of West Virginia.

"He was just a brilliant, brilliant man," said former UA journalism professor Gerald Jordan. "He read anything in site and just constantly vacuumed up information. We were so fortunate. Imagine the places he could have gone."

Purvis had an uncanny ability to be in the middle of history, said UA journalism professor Larry Foley.

"Like Forrest Gump, he was everywhere," said Foley.

"He had a date to appear on 'Jeopardy!', and he probably would have won, but somehow or other word got back to Sen. Fulbright and he wouldn't let him go," said Foley. "The senator didn't want his staffer off gallivanting in California on game shows."

Charlie Alison, a UA spokesman, said he called Purvis while he was in Washington, D.C., during the aftermath of 9/11.

"He was there for a meeting of the Fulbright Exchange Program when he was chair of it," said Alison. "He adjourned the meeting and walked across the Capitol Mall to the Potomac, where he could see the Pentagon on the opposite side burning and smoke billowing out."

Then there was that time in 1958 when he was kidnapped by Johnny Cash.

Sort of.

Purvis was in high school in Jonesboro at the time. He and another student drove to Bono, where Cash was playing a gig, to ask him to perform in Jonesboro.

After the show, Cash invited the boys to join him in his black Cadillac to talk it over. The next thing they knew, the driver started the car, shifted into gear and the Caddy began rolling down the highway. Eventually, it went over the Mississippi River bridge into downtown Memphis, where the driver stopped and deposited the boys.

They ended up having to settle for Roy Orbison instead. And calling for someone in Jonesboro to come get them.

In the 1990s, while desperately seeking a vintage photo of Orbison for a student-produced project, Foley said Purvis walked by carrying a cardboard box of stuff.

"Hey Hoyt, got a picture of Roy Orbison in that box?" Foley asked.

"As a matter of fact, I believe I do," said Purvis, pulling a black-and-white 8x10 from the box.

Hoyt Hughes Purvis was born on Nov. 7, 1939, to Hoyt S. and Jane Purvis in Jonesboro, according to an obituary provided by Marion Purvis.

Hoyt Purvis got his start in journalism at age 14 doing sports reporting at KNEA radio and then moved on to reporting for the Jonesboro Sun while he was still a student at Jonesboro High School.

He went on to study journalism at the University of Texas where he was elected editor of the Daily Texan newspaper.

While there, he earned his bachelors degree in 1961 and his masters in 1963, both from the University of Texas.

Purvis participated in two exchange programs: the Texas-Chile Student Leaders Exchange Program and a Rotary Foundation Fellowship in France.

He went on to postgraduate studies at Vanderbilt University and then to work as a political reporter for the Houston Chronicle from 1964 to 1965.

He lived and worked in Nairobi, Kenya, and Brussels, Belgium, from 1965 to 1967, then headed for Washington, D.C., where he served as press secretary and special assistant to Sen. Fulbright from 1967 to 1974.

During those years in Washington, Purvis and his first wife, Susan Campbell, had two daughters.

After Fulbright left office in 1974, the Purvis family returned to Austin, Texas, where he served as director of publications and lecturer at the LBJ School of Public Affairs from 1974 to 1976.

Purvis also worked on Jimmy Carter's presidential campaign. Purvis returned to Washington to serve as foreign and defense policy adviser for Sen. Byrd and deputy staff director for the Senate Democratic Policy Committee from 1977 to 1980.

Purvis returned to Austin in 1980 where he was a senior research fellow at the LBJ School from 1980 to 1982, and took on the role of primary caregiver for his two daughters Pamela and Camille after he and Susan divorced.

In 1982, Sen. Fulbright encouraged Purvis to return to Arkansas to serve as the founding director of the Fulbright Institute of International Relations at the UA in Fayetteville.

Dede Long worked with Purvis at the institute.

"I just feel so grateful that I got to learn from him and be around him," she said. "Such a storyteller."

Foley described him as a raconteur, able to tell stories with a cadence that built suspense.

A budding obituary writer for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette took a course from Purvis. It met for three hours every Wednesday night. The obit writer thought it was going to be boring, but it was anything but that. The time flew by.

Foley said he taught one of Purvis' classes for a summer while Purvis was gone. Foley said he didn't ever want to do it again.

"For Hoyt, it was like a 75-minute, two-day-a-week stand-up routine," said Foley.

Purvis remained in his position with the institute from 1982 to 2000 and was a professor of journalism, political science and international relations until his retirement from the university in 2016.

"We all cried when he retired," said Jordan. "We were all aggrieved. 'Oh dear, what are we going to do?'"

Purvis had a famously messy office.

"It was a like a stop on the tour when visitors came," said Jordan.

"When he retired and had to move out of his office, it was like a crisis," said Patsy Watkins, a former UA journalism professor.

The UA's Special Collections came to the rescue and took Purvis' papers.

Foley said it took two years for Purvis to clean out his office. Meanwhile, a major renovation was about to begin.

"I look in there, and he's going through this piece by piece," Foley said. "Finally, I say, 'Hoyt, in two days they're coming to knock the walls down.'

"Hoyt was beloved. I didn't want to tell him in two days, the wrecking ball is coming down."

Watkins said Purvis brought an expertise in political affairs to the journalism department, and that attracted more students.

In 1993, President Bill Clinton, who had been a colleague in Sen. Fulbright's office, appointed Purvis to the Fulbright Foreign Scholarship Board. He served on the board for 10 years, with three of those years as chairman.

In 1997, Hoyt married Marion Matkin, who is now senior director of development at the Fay Jones School of Architecture and Design on the UA campus.

Hoyt Purvis was a regular panelist on Arkansas Week on what is now Arkansas PBS, as well as a columnist for the Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette for twenty years.

Purvis was an avid sports fan, particularly passionate about baseball and the Cardinals and Orioles. For a while, he even hosted a local television program in Fayetteville called "Talkin' Baseball."

"He could be seen carrying a stack of newspapers, wearing a baseball hat from his enormous collection, watching a sporting event or the evening news, or listening to Willie Nelson, Johnny Cash or other favorite tunes," according to the obituary from his wife.

Print Headline: Former professor Hoyt Purvis dies

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