It's time again for our annual Visionaries issue, a celebration of Arkansans with ideas of transformative power. This year's class is filled with people who are devoted to enriching life here. They've built state history museums (Bill Worthen), brought down corrupt politicians (Matt Campbell) and written award-winning books (Geffrey Davis). They're advocating for commonsense gun policies (Austin Bailey and Kat Hills), aiming to bring large-scale bicycle manufacturing back to the United States (Tony Karklins) and working on the NASA team designing the James Webb Telescope, which will be the successor to the Hubble (Amber Straughn). Lauren Haynes, the new curator of Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, plans to highlight more modern artists of color. Lost Forty's Grant Chandler is isolating wild yeast strains in a lab to brew award-winning beer. All 20 are people with bold visions.
Correcting art history.
Lauren Haynes has not yet met Alice Walton, the founder and patron of the museum where, starting in October, Haynes will be installed as curator of contemporary art. But she's seen examples of Walton's sensibility at Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art — attention to women artists — and that fits right in to Haynes' own vision for what a museum should be: a place that tells "a more correct and inclusive story" about American art.
Haynes, who is leaving her job as associate curator of the permanent collection at The Studio Museum in Harlem to come to the Bentonville museum, recently curated a show there about the late abstract expressionist Alma Thomas, who was the first African-American woman to have a solo show at the Whitney Museum of American Art, yet whose name is not as widely known as it should be. (Women abstract expressionists have had to fight their way into art history; imagine being an African-American painter competing for recognition with the famed "Irascibles" like Jackson Pollock and Willem deKooning.)
- TRUTH IN ART: Lauren Haynes, the new contemporary art curator at Crystal Bridges, will work for inclusivity, both in the museum's collection and in the people who visit.
Hence Haynes' delight in seeing "Lunar Rendezvous — Circle of Flowers," an Alma Thomas painting, hanging on the wall at Crystal Bridges.
"I was really excited by the fact that the institution was thinking about not just black artists, but also women artists," Haynes said, and not only "owning their work but showing it." At some museums, the work of women and minorities is collected but relegated to the stacks. "At Crystal Bridges the works are up and there is a concerted effort to actually collect a wide range of artists," she said.
Haynes, 34, who was born in Tennessee and moved to New York at age 13, says she did not grow up going to museums. She discovered her passion at Oberlin College, when she got a work-study job in the college museum and started taking art history classes. Haynes is interested not only in diversity on the walls of a museum, but in its visitors: She wants to put the lie to the notion that museums are "only for certain people." "You may not love everything you see" at a museum, Haynes said, "but that is OK." She wants museumgoers to feel comfortable asking questions, to know they don't have to have a background in art to appreciate art, "to know that they can learn something."
Part of Haynes' job will be creating public programs, not just at Crystal Bridges, but at the new performing and visual art space that Steuart and Tom Walton, nephews to Alice Walton, are creating in a former cheese factory south of the Bentonville square. The undeveloped museum, referred to as "the plant," will include open studio space for artists; Haynes, who has experience in the oversight of artist residencies, was excited by the space.
Haynes will also create exhibitions and advise on collection development, but says it's too early to think about what sort of shows she'd like to curate. She wants to know more about the audience first — "You can't make an exhibition for people you don't know," she said — and familiarize herself with the collection and the museum's long-term goals.
Haynes does know one thing she will do upon arrival in Arkansas, however. A New Yorker, she's never learned to drive a car. "I am signing up for driving lessons immediately," she said.
- JUSTIN BRYANT: Teacher and painter both.
Crowning African Americans.
Langston Hughes, in his poem "Negro," writes,
"I've been a slave:
Caesar told me to keep his door-steps clean.
I brushed the boots of Washington.
I've been a worker:
Under my hand the pyramids arose.
I made mortar for the Woolworth Building."
The idea of Africans and African Americans building edifices in which they were not welcome inspires artist Justin Bryant. His watercolors feature portraits of black men wearing plantation houses, cut down to size, on their heads, like crowns. One of these watercolors, a self-portrait from his "All the King's Men" series, appeared on the June 23 cover of the Arkansas Times, for a story about an exhibition of work by African-American artists at the Arts & Science Center for Southeast Arkansas, in Pine Bluff.
"I've always been fascinated by plantations," the 28-year-old Stuttgart native said. Unlike his white friends, he sees them as "scary, not inviting. ... It's fascinating to me that some people have weddings there." His white friends may be able to celebrate there, but plantations and other structures built by slave labor throw Bryant into an emotional limbo: How can you be proud of the achievement of the builders of these imposing structures when it was achieved through slavery? How can you accommodate such cognitive dissonance, as he puts it, handle two opposing ideas at once?
Bryant is exploring that question by appropriating icons of white supremacy not only in watercolor, but in performance art as well. Now living in Louisiana, where he's working on a master's degree in fine art at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge, Bryant's been thinking about the second line parades of New Orleans — born of African tradition, dancing and marching, joyous but trailing the upper-crust crewes — as an example of African Americans making good out of bad. In response to that and controversy around Confederate symbols, he's made videos of himself dancing in front of Confederate memorials, "relating them to Congo Square," an area in New Orleans' Treme neighborhood where in the 19th century African slaves were allowed to congregate, dance and sing on Sundays.
Bryant's goal, however, is not just to express his own ideas, but to help others express theirs. After earning a bachelor's degree in fine arts from the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, Bryant taught art, first at the International School on the UALR campus, and then at The Art Connection, a program for high school seniors at The Innovation Hub in North Little Rock. From the start of his college career, Bryant knew he wanted to teach, but, he said, "I try not to say that too often, because people say, 'Oh, then you don't want to make art.' " He wants to do both — he is, in fact, doing both now, painting at LSU and teaching, in Baton Rouge during the school year and, this summer, at the Arkansas Arts Center. If you have a plan for your life, he said, "I really believe you should start today."
That doesn't mean Bryant has everything worked out. In fact, he said making art is a way of discovering your thoughts, not just expressing them. He'll think, "I don't know what this is; let me paint it more clearly." That's a lesson he wants to continue to share with minority students, as he did at The Hub. Studying art, or making art, is "really about the experience, and I'm starting to learn that it's not what you are learning but the experience of going there" that is valuable.
"Most of the time, I'm making bad paintings," Bryant said. "But my interest is what keeps me there." His students won't be the only ones learning, either. He said he learns from those he teaches "all the time. Mainly through conversation and telling them things, I start to realize I don't know something." A pause. "Kind of like this interview."
- Brian Chilson
- CAVE WOMAN: Dr. Carolina Cruz-Neira's Cave Automatic Virtual Environment allows you to enter a virtual room.
Virtual reality pioneer leads UALR's system.
Dr. Carolina Cruz-Neira, who heads the University of Arkansas at Little Rock's George W. Donaghey Emerging Analytics Center, didn't start out with the goal of being a world-renowned expert and innovator in the field of virtual reality.
"Strangely enough, I come from classical ballet dancing," she said. "That's my background. Then I broke a knee. That threw me into engineering. I grew up since I was 3 or 4 years old until I was almost 30 on the stage, dancing and performing with my tutus and my toe shoes."
After her injury, Cruz-Neira threw herself headlong into computer engineering at the Universidad Metropolitana in Caracas, Venezuela. It was during work for her doctorate in 1991 that Cruz-Neira hit upon the idea that would define her career: the CAVE (Cave Automatic Virtual Environment) virtual reality system.
"At that time, everything was [virtual reality] helmets, like we're seeing today," she said. "There were very good helmets, but I missed the face-to-face social aspect that the helmets take away from you because the face is covered. I crossed that over again with my stage background."
Released to the public in 1992, the CAVE system is essentially a room with 3D images projected on three walls, the floor and ceiling. By using optic sensors to locate a person within the artificial space, the system allows a viewer to get the feeling of moving through a three-dimensional, fully interactive version of any computer-generated environment, from architectural models to geologic formations deep underground. Real-world applications of the CAVE system include theme park modeling, oil and gas exploration and virtual prototyping.
"If you follow the public eye — the press — virtual reality is going to bring us a lot of interesting entertainment. A lot of really cool games and really cool immersive movies. But that's not really what I do," Cruz-Neira said. "What I do is what virtual reality brings to make our lives better. For example, very few people know that the work I've done in the past 20 years right now is behind pretty much every single car that's driven around the world. ... Every car, whether it's an American brand, an Asian brand, a European brand or any other brand, was designed with virtual reality."
In her lab at UALR, Cruz-Neira demonstrated another amazing technology that she hopes will benefit doctors of the future: a virtual cadaver, which UALR is working on in cooperation with the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences. Put on a pair of 3D glasses and a lifelike human body seems to spring from a table. Fully interactive, it can be virtually dissected with a handheld controller.
"A [real] cadaver is a human being," she said. "You have all the ethical issues surrounding manipulating a cadaver. You have all the safety, health and hygiene issues of that. And you also have that it's a destructive procedure. If a person does an incision in a cadaver, then the student can't practice that procedure anymore because that particular cadaver already has that. With our work, we have virtual cadavers that actually give unlimited access to a brand-new body to practice every procedure with every single student, and also a variety of bodies."
Cruz-Neira, who said she is the only woman in the world running a virtual reality research lab of the magnitude of UALR's Emerging Analytics Center, has traveled around the world, consulting and speaking about the virtual future. Though her focus is industrial application, Cruz-Neira has taken on entertainment challenges using the CAVE system.
"I've done a lot of fun things around the world with music concerts, where we embedded the CAVE into the music concert. I have done three or four dance performances, in New York and Los Angeles. I did another one in Tokyo. It's fun. I'm not your average professor."
- 'EXPERIENCE ARCHITECT': Hintz helps cities find their "unique."
Urban planner's 'theater of cool' staged Bentonville's revival.
If the square in modern downtown Bentonville looks like someone constructed a tiny-scale model of it on a conference room table somewhere, gluing down a miniature 21c Hotel or a dime-sized Walmart Museum, there's a reason for that. Monica Kumar, on her Bentonville Project website, said Daniel Hintz and his firm The Velocity Group had the vision for downtown Bentonville: "Much of our delightful bustling downtown square was dreamed up many moons ago in Daniel's head."
According to its website, Hintz' Velocity Group seeks to help cities "attract people, retain talent, produce revenue, generate champions and celebrate the human spirit" through what it calls "the DNA of place," an approach that seems to have cleared the tumbleweeds from the Bentonville square for the foreseeable future.
Given to buzzworthy phrases like "activating a neighborhood" and "working the master plan," Hintz, who calls himself an "experience architect," applies a theatrical analogy to his methodology: He helps direct "the theater of cool," in which a city decides what sort of experience it wants its citizens to have when they come downtown and then builds that experience in the same way a tech crew would design a set, build it, set up props and introduce actors (tenants, in this case) to engage with those elements.
"In downtown Bentonville, it was 1,765 acres" that The Velocity Group worked on, Hintz said. The "stage" in downtown Rogers was 467 acres. "So we set that stage and understand what needs to happen in there, economically, socially, culturally, physically."
Hintz's consulting work takes into consideration the delicate balance between, as he puts it, "experience vs. commodity." As evident by the homogeny of the Applebee's, Walgreen's and Chick-fil-A's triumvirate — or some variation thereof — that graces highway exit after highway exit along the interstate, "the commodity is the 'everywhere.' And there, you compete for price ... a lot of quick development that values up very quickly and then devalues very quickly. You buy a fast food restaurant in much the same way as you'd buy an orange," Hintz said. Towns in Arkansas live by sales tax revenue generated in those "commodity" areas.
But Hintz's work is about the "somewhere": "I try to work on helping communities understand their 'somewhere,' to understand their 'unique,' and then capitalize on their 'unique.' " Asked what he sees as evidence that the work he's done in downtown Bentonville has been successful, he points to the burgeoning culinary scene. "From engaging the James Beard Foundation to seeing a community that really cares about this — the farmers and the amazing chefs and the investors and people spending their hard-earned dollars in these restaurants, what I really love to hang my hat on is the level of cooperation that the food community has up here."
Hintz gave a TEDxFayetteville talk on the "DNA of Place"; you can find a link to the video at tedxfayetteville.com.
- Brian Chilson
- NOURISHING COMMUNITIES: Chris James, with the Roots Art Connection and 'Buy Back the Block.'
Building community through art.
Can art save the world? Maybe not, but Chris James, founder of the Roots Art Connection and North Little Rock's House of Art, is giving it a go, working to make his own little corner of the world a bit more beautiful and livable. He calls it "social entrepreneurship."
"We're all about connecting art to community, to education and to opportunities for commerce to underserved artists in our community," he said. "That's the goal. We really want to be connected to everyday type of people, the people who normally don't get opportunities and don't get heard from."
James, 26, got his start in the arts as a spoken word poet, and has since branched out into photography.
"That was my entry to the art world. I opened [House of Art] because I felt like there wasn't enough art and poetry happening for people like me and the type of people that follow me. We started doing open mics in 2010, but we always had to rent a venue. You could only see poetry, like, once a month in Little Rock, so I opened this space so it could happen on a weekly basis, to create some kind of consistency."
The Roots Art Connection (online at rootsartconnection.com), founded in 2013, is now headquartered at the House of Art, 108 E. Fourth St. in Argenta. Since opening the House of Art a year and a half ago, James has hosted open mic poetry readings there every Friday night and the "Starve No More" program, which feeds the homeless on the third Saturday of every month. There are also pop-up classes on everything from sewing to basic financial literacy at the House of Art.
Another project James is passionate about right now is "Buy Back the Block," which aims to use collective action to chip away at the issue of inner-city blight.
"In Little Rock, we have a lot of abandoned houses," he said. "So I said, what can we do as artists to make an impact in these type of communities? So I came up with 'Buy Back the Block.' ... We said, we're going to buy these houses, we're going to renovate these houses, and we're going to put an artist in each room for very low [rent]. Artists will able to stay there for $300 to $400 a month, and that will be their total expenses. That's all they have to pay. In return for that opportunity, they have to go back into the community and use their art to impact their community."
The Roots Art Connection has already purchased two houses in Little Rock, one on 21st Street and the other on Hanger Street, and renovation of the first house is underway. The goal is to buy and restore two houses per year. Another facet of the project is a partnership with Bank of the Ozarks to teach inner city residents how to become homeowners.
"If they become homeowners," James said, "they'll take a lot more pride in the communities. A lot of people don't realize that they're paying $600 in rent, but could pay a $400 mortgage and own the house. ... We're conditioned to believe that a traditional loan isn't possible."
James said he believes exposing people to art in unexpected places can lend a more colorful perspective to their lives and bring out their youth and innocence. He said he wants to make positive change happen whenever and wherever he can.
"Some people make change being politicians, some people make change being pastors, some people make change having a lot of money," he said. "But I realize I'm able to make change in my community with my art, and bringing people together through art. I know that I'm able to do that. Art is my superpower, and it makes me happy to see the results and the impact I have."
- MAKING A DIFFERENCE: Majors and other Prescott parents.
Grandmother fights for fairer, smarter discipline policies.
Gloria Majors graduated from high school in Prescott in 1964, a time in which the small Southwest Arkansas town's students were still segregated into McRae High School (black) and Prescott High School (white). By the time the schools desegregated in 1969, Majors had moved to California to build a life. When she returned to her hometown in 2006 to enjoy retirement, Majors found much had changed, and much had not. White and black students now attend classes together — but their experiences are often strikingly different.
In Prescott, as in most schools across the nation, there persists a pronounced academic "achievement gap" between black and white students, the legacy of generations of discrimination and poverty. In 2010, after hearing a presentation by an organizer from the Arkansas Public Policy Panel, Majors and other parents started a group to address the achievement gap in their community, the Concerned Citizens of Prescott. The group is working to improve pre-K education as part of the "Good to Great" initiative, a project of the Public Policy Panel, Arkansas Advocates for Children and Families and Arkansas State University. The group has been successful in pushing for changes in how the Prescott School District approaches student discipline.
The district's student body is about 55 percent white and 38 percent black. However, when the Concerned Citizens of Prescott looked at a snapshot of kids referred to the school office for discipline, "We found that they had 160 black to 80 white referrals," she said. "So it's a disparity. ... We know that there are more black children being referred." Indeed, state and national data show African-American students in most schools are punished more frequently and more harshly than their white peers and are suspended at much higher rates. Meanwhile, there is a developing consensus among education researchers that suspensions should be used as a last resort, since removing students from school tends to hurt them academically and otherwise.
Majors became personally invested in the issue in 2008, after one of her 11 grandchildren, a high school freshman, got into a fight he didn't start. Majors accepted that the school's zero-tolerance policy required him to be suspended — but she objected to the fact that he'd miss his final exams in several subjects and would not be allowed to make them up, potentially wrecking his grades. She spoke to the superintendent and the school board and found her concerns fell on deaf ears.
"I told them that I thought our first goal in school was to educate our children. Discipline is about trying to correct what's going wrong. ... You're trying to help that person change that behavior, not just punish them. I think that's the difference that a lot of schools just don't see," Majors said.
In Prescott, that may be changing. Not long after the incident with Majors' grandson, the district hired a new superintendent, Robert Poole, who Majors said is "really trying to work with us." Majors' group wants to bring a program to the schools called "Conscious Discipline," which emphasizes nonpunitive solutions to behavior problems and reinforcing positive behavior. Poole is receptive to the idea: "It's a more proactive approach — to help kids before things escalate into bigger problems," he told the Arkansas Times. The Concerned Citizens of Prescott is now seeking a grant to institute the program.
Majors believes that Prescott "is really making progress in race relations," even if "we still have a ways to go." Better discipline, she said, begins with "lifting a person's self-esteem rather than tearing them down ... from the youngest to the oldest. I think if we can get that going, and each teacher gets that training and can apply that training, it would help students all around — no matter what color they are."
- Brian Chilson
- A GIFT FROM GOD: That's what being transgender is to her, Rev. Fry says.
Transgender priest serves as bridge between trans and faith communities.
While most of our visionaries are still out there pursuing the goals that landed them on this list in the first place, Rev. Gwen Fry might be our first Visionary to ever lose the ability to follow her passions because of something about herself she cannot change. Ordained as an Episcopal priest in 1990, Fry is transgender. Having risen to the position of priest-in-charge of Grace Episcopal Church in Pine Bluff, she publicly revealed she was transitioning from biologically male to female in February 2014, a choice she said was a matter of living or dying.
"Within a week of coming out, I'd lost my position," she said. "I was pretty devastated. I thought there was a real chance of me staying in the position through my transition. Unfortunately that did not happen." Fired from her job by the church she has devoted her life to since her earliest memories, Fry, 56, is still an Episcopal priest, but she is currently cleaning houses in order to keep a roof over her head.
A native of Northern Kentucky, Fry was called to the ministry from an early age. She knew there was something different about herself as early as age 5, but could never put a name to it until she was 17, when she saw trans pioneer Renee Richards on television, playing tennis at the U.S. Open. At the time, Fry was at a gathering of her close-knit family, and rode a rollercoaster of emotion in that moment.
"The commentators were talking about a controversy that was happening at the U.S. Open," she said. "That controversy just happened to be Renee Richards entering the tournament as a transgender woman. As soon as I heard that, everything just clicked for me. There was that spark, an identification. This is me. They're talking about me. That was an amazing five seconds, because right after that, my aunt turned to the family and said, 'He's a freak,' and my father chimed in, 'He's a monster.' That spark was extinguished."
Fry struggled for years with her identity, getting married and having a child, all the while continuing her ministry in the Episcopal Church. She accepted her identity privately 15 years ago, but the inner turmoil of not living as her authentic self finally pushed her to come out. The results have been personally devastating. In addition to losing her position in the parish, Fry eventually divorced, and was estranged from her daughter for a while. Even so, Fry said, she would do it all again.
"I do not regret making the choice I made," she said. "It came down to a choice of living or not. So yes, I would make this choice again."
Since her transition, Fry has carried on her ministry, trying to connect transgender people and the faith community. The church doesn't know what to do with a transwoman who is a priest and neither does the trans community, she said with a laugh, "but here I am in the middle holding both of these sides together. I see my ministry as building that bridge."
Being transgender, she said, is a gift from God, just another facet of the brilliant and vibrant diversity seen throughout creation. Coming out and losing so much, she said, has taught her more than she expected about herself, her faith and her calling.
"It has taught me that living an authentic life is a life we all need to strive for and live into for ourselves," she said. "I've learned that there's great power in being vulnerable. The strength that I've gained from the ability to live authentically and vulnerably has been life-changing. I think that's what we're all called to do as Christians, is to be transformed. My transformation just happens to be a little more public and visible than others."
- Brian Chilson
- O'DANIEL: Says pre-K is crucial to learning, lauds legislative response.
Policy wonk advocates for early childhood education.
Every moment in our lives is a grain of sand, and any one of them can grow into the pearl that defines us. For Susana O'Daniel, that moment was the day she started attending a Head Start pre-K program in tiny Shirley (Van Buren County).
"I remember two things about it very clearly," she said. "I learned the words to 'This Land Is Your Land' — I'm a huge music person, and music is something that influences my life a lot, and of course the lyrics and the meaning behind that song have become very important to me as I've gotten older and been able to understand them. But I also learned how to write my name. To me, that was very empowering. It felt very empowering to be able to write your name. Those are the skills that I was able to start kindergarten with."
O'Daniel, director of public affairs for the Arkansas Education Association, is still big on the ideals found in that famous Woody Guthrie tune, and still a vocal advocate for pre-Kindergarten education for kids. It's a cause she championed during her four years as director of outreach at Arkansas Advocates for Children and Families, and which she has continued to support in her work with the AEA. She often talks to educators about the difference between kids who benefited from pre-K education and those who didn't, and has been told the difference is like that between daylight and darkness.
"To me, that is such a motivator to make sure that kids have that early intervention, to make sure we're capturing all that brain development early on," O'Daniel said. "I know my family benefited from it, I know I benefitted from it, I know there were advocates who advocated for Head Start and other pre-K programs for generations before they ever knew me. But they advocated for that program so it was there so I could benefit from it as well as my family. That, to me, is a huge motivator. ...
"That early brain development that happens in children, you never get that time back. If you don't make sure those children are engaged, you lose that and you cannot recoup it."
Arkansas is lucky, O'Daniel said, in that the state has led the way nationally in funding early childhood education, with officials of both parties lending their support to the cause. The legislature currently invests $111 million annually in the Arkansas Better Chance Program, she said.
"That's a huge success story, but that funding has been flat for the past several years," she said. "It was flat until this last legislative session when Governor Hutchinson put in $3 million. Those are one-time funds."
O'Daniel said there are people — herself included — at the Capitol working to make sure that funding stays in place, who can often be found walking the marble over there, making sure pre-K and other causes close to her heart are preserved. She said she feels good about the future of early education in Arkansas.
"It's just too important of an issue to walk away from," she said. "I actually feel fairly optimistic about it. I think there's widespread public support for it. Of course, I like to believe that the public drives the decisions over there."
Democracy, she likes to tell people, isn't a spectator sport, which is why she tries to get people engaged and active in the political process whenever she can. She knows the factors that keep ordinary citizens from getting involved, and works to help people overcome those barriers.
"People are trying to survive day to day. They're trying to put food on the table. It's not easy," she said. "People feel like maybe they don't have the right clothes to wear to the Capitol. They feel intimidated by that space. I really try to demystify the process for people. I try to do a lot of voter education and empowerment. If there's anything that's my focus right now, it's really empowering people to speak up. Don't just tell people to speak up. Show them the path to do that. Help them understand that your legislator may be a farmer. He or she may not be an expert on pre-K education. You as a mother may be an expert on your child, and why that program would work for them and improve their life."
- Brian Chlson
- SAVING THE INDUSTRY'S SOUL: Tony Karklins, with part of a carbon bike frame manufactured by HIA Velo.
Bicycle industry vet wants to revive American manufacturing.
In a nondescript warehouse in Little Rock's Riverdale neighborhood, Tony Karklins is busy readying his new bicycle manufacturing company, HIA Velo (HIA stands for "handmade in America" and velo is "bicycle" in French), to turn out high-performance road, gravel and mountain bikes made of aluminum, steel and carbon-fiber composite. Already nearly 20 people are at work creating the time-intensive carbon frames — manipulating a massive laser cutter, applying strips of carbon-fiber composite around molds in just the right pattern, operating large heat-set machines, sandblasting — with 10 more set to join the company before the year is up, including specialty painters and welders.
In HIA Velo's first year of operation, it will produce 2,000 bicycles, Karklins says. He expects to be doing 10,000 within four years. Bikes, with various brand names HIA Velo owns, will retail between $2,500 and $6,000. "It's quite possible we could have $200 to $300 million in sales within a decade," he says.
Behind all that is another mission: Karklins wants to spark a revival of American manufacturing within the bike industry.
There are people in the performance bicycle business with more experience than Karklins, 46, but surely no one has spent more of his life working in the field. He got his first paying job at the Chainwheel bike shop when he was 11, changing flat tires and doing other odd jobs, and at 16 he became a partner in the business, where he stayed for 19 years, overseeing the store's expansion and move to West Little Rock. Then at a trade show in Europe he happened upon the Spanish-bike brand Orbea.
"I knew damn near everything in the bike industry, but I didn't know Orbea," Karklins said. "It was kind of a sleeping giant. It had been just in Spain and more of a Schwinn-level product for most of its history. They were just moving upmarket when I was introduced."
Karklins secured the North American rights in 2001 to distribute the brand just as Orbea had its first team riding in the Tour de France. The bike sold so well that the Spanish company determined it would be a long-term success and formed Orbea USA, a joint venture with Karklins with a 10-year contract. The deal matured in 2014 and Karklins sold his interest. "It was a great run," Karklins said. "For many of those years, we were the No. 1 selling European bike in the U.S."
After Orbea, Karklins went back to Europe to hunt for another brand to work with in the U.S., but ultimately decided he wanted to get into manufacturing.
A decade or so ago, when lightweight and stiff carbon-fiber composite replaced aluminum and steel as the preferred material with which to make performance bicycle frames, most of the manufacturing jobs in the bicycle industry went to Asia.
"When it was steel and aluminum, the cost of producing the frame was mostly the material and a little bit of welding," Karklins said. "It didn't cost a whole lot. But when you're developing composite [frames], the majority of cost is labor. Naturally, it had to go to Asia. You're talking $25 an hour vs. $2 an hour, times 30 hours. The math is the math. I see why it happened.
"But the effect to me was devastating because most of the bike brands stopped manufacturing their own bikes. They became these design agencies. To me the bike industry started to lose its soul."
Karklins initially sought to realize his vision with BST Nano Carbon, a San Diego manufacturer of mostly carbon-fiber golf clubs that wanted to get into bicycle manufacturing. When that company started to struggle in late 2015, he returned to Little Rock and started to put together a new plan right around the time Guru Bicycles of Montreal, the second largest carbon-composite bike manufacturer in North America after Trek, declared bankruptcy. He and partners Sam Pickman (a longtime member of the bicycle company Specialized's senior engineering team) and Douglas Zell (the founder of Intelligentisa Coffee) purchased the assets and HIA Velo was born.
Already, Karklins has managed to recruit what one online bike publication dubbed an "all-star team" of industry veterans from throughout North America. What's the draw? "They all believe in American manufacturing," Karklins said. "Everything is manufactured by us in this building."
- STAR GAZER: Astrophysist Straughn at work on telescope.
Journeying to the edge of the universe.
When NASA launched the Hubble Space Telescope into low Earth orbit in 1990, Amber Straughn was an elementary school student in Bee Branch who dreamed of becoming an astronaut. Though she never made it into space herself, Straughn has done one better. Now an astrophysicist at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland, she's part of the team building Hubble's successor, a deep- space observatory of unprecedented power. The James Webb Space Telescope, which has been in the works for almost two decades, is scheduled to launch in 2018 and will be the largest such device ever deployed: As wide as a tennis court and as tall as a four-story building, Straughn said, it will be about 100 times as powerful as the venerable Hubble.
"[Hubble] completely changed, in fundamental ways, how we understand how the universe works," she said. "But there's a lot of ways in which we've pushed Hubble to its limits, and so we're designing Webb to answer some of the biggest questions in astronomy today that Hubble just can't quite answer."
Straughn would know. After she graduated from the University of Arkansas in 2002, her doctoral dissertation at Arizona State University drew on data from the "Hubble Ultra Deep Field" — an image of thousands of galaxies that existed some 13 billion years ago, when the universe was only a few hundred million years old. Straughn's research today concerns the formation and evolution of galaxies, which have a dynamic life all their own on an inconceivably vast scale. (Our own Milky Way, which contains between 100 and 400 billion stars, is one of perhaps 200 billion galaxies in the observable universe.)
"Galaxies come in all different shapes and sizes and colors, and the galaxies in the early universe, in the distant universe, are very different from the ones we see nearby. But there's a lot we just don't know yet," she said. "For example ... we see galaxies that are huge in the early universe, and we don't have a great idea of how they got so big so fast. ... One of the fun things about being an astronomer is that we've learned so much using telescopes, in space and on the ground — but there's still so much we don't know yet. We're never going to run out of questions to ask and things to look for."
Webb will shed light on such questions, as well as even more rarefied cosmic puzzles (such as what's behind the accelerating expansion of the universe itself). But it will also examine objects closer to home, such as exoplanets — that is, planets that orbit other stars. Astronomers now know there are likely billions of exoplanets in our Milky Way, and Webb will allow those bodies to be studied in detail for the first time.
"When I was a kid, we only knew of the nine planets in our solar system — well, it's no longer nine," Straughn said with a laugh. "Now we know they're everywhere, and that's such a fundamental paradigm shift in how we think about the universe. What we want to do is watch planets pass in front of their star [and] look at the starlight passing through the atmosphere and coming towards us. You can imagine how difficult that gets, because stars are bright, planets are tiny and their atmospheres are miniscule. ... But with Webb, we have this huge mirror and such ultra-sensitive detectors that we expect to be able to do transit spectroscopy." That means the telescope should be able to deduce the chemical compositions of the atmospheres of planets outside our solar system based on their infrared light signature, and possibly detect the presence of water vapor.
As for the question of what led Straughn to the stars, that's easy to answer. "Being from Bee Branch. The sky there was, and still is, beautiful and dark. And that really is what got me into astronomy as a kid — the beautiful, dark, rural sky."
- FOR COMMON SENSE: Austin Bailey (left) and Kat Hills say moms are key to gun safety laws.
Moms advocating for commonsense gun violence prevention and policies.
It's become the conventional political wisdom: If the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary, where the victims included 20 children, 6- and 7-year-olds, didn't move lawmakers to do anything to curb gun violence, nothing will. But Austin Bailey, who serves as the volunteer leader of the Arkansas chapter of the national advocacy group Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, sees hope in the example of another group of activist mothers: Mothers Against Drunk Driving.
"Before MADD came along, people would be killed by drunk drivers and other people would say, 'What a terrible, tragic accident, that's such a shame.' And then MADD showed up, and I'm sure that no one wanted to go to parties with them ... and they were social pariahs and nags, but after 10 years or so they were able to see significant legislation passed that's saved so many lives."
While Moms Demand Action is open to anyone who supports its mission, Bailey and Little Rock chapter communication leader Kat Hills think that the moms will be essential to its success.
"I think we're more rabid," Bailey said. "I know that I wouldn't have been this vehement about [gun-related issues] before I had kids."
"From the moment they come out, you worry about every little thing — are they eating enough, are they sleeping, where should I send them to school? ... [Their getting shot] is not something we should have to worry about it," Hills said.
Bailey and Hills stress that Moms Demand Action is pro-Second Amendment and bipartisan. Hills' husband is a hunter, and many of the group's members, including women on the leadership team, own weapons. They're advocating for moderate, "commonsense" policies. The group talks about the need for universal background checks and want to see Arkansas pass a Child Access Prevention law, which would impose criminal liability on a guardian whose negligence allowed a child access to a firearm. Members plan to mobilize if state lawmakers introduce legislation allowing firearms to be carried on college campuses (currently, law allows staff at colleges and universities to carry conceal weapons, but it also allows colleges and universities to opt out of the law on an annual basis; nearly all have). But much of the work of Moms Demand Action is on the ground. They regularly pass out gunlocks at events and at the Hillary Rodham Clinton Children's Library and do presentations on gun safety.
The S.M.A.R.T. campaign is a particular focus. It's an acronym: Secure all firearms. Model responsible behavior if you're a gun owner. Ask when your kid goes to a friend's house if anyone in the home has guns and whether they're secured. Recognize the signs of teen suicidal thinking. Tell your friends about the importance of gun safety.
Bailey and Hills say parents should think of asking the guardians of playmates about guns just as they would about dogs or swimming pools.
"Let's make it part of normal conversation," Bailey says. "Right now, talking about guns is gauche, it's like religion or politics. I feel like that's been orchestrated. The gun lobby controls the conversation, so they control the game."
- SEEING THE ISLANDS SINK: Chris Balos says the rising sea level threatens the property and livelihood of the residents of the Marshall Islands, including his family.
Fighting climate change, from Congress to the Marshall Islands.
As a child, when Chris Balos visited his family in the Marshall Islands, he played on a stretch of beach near his grandmother's house in Majuro, the capital. But the last time he returned, in 2007, the spot was gone. "There was no beach," he recalled. The ocean had covered it.
As global temperatures have risen over the past century (a pattern that tracks closely with the growth of greenhouse gas emissions), rising sea levels are threatening coastal communities around the world. The Republic of the Marshall Islands is nothing but coastland — about 70 square miles of land in the South Pacific, parceled into 29 ribbon-thin, low-lying coral atolls with an average elevation of 7 feet above sea level. If temperatures keep rising at the rate predicted by climate models, the entire nation could disappear. That's why Balos, 28, a resident of Springdale, is sounding the alarm on climate change.
"It's threatening the livelihood of my family and friends, their homes," he said. "Even graves ... are washing away, because the rising tides are taking them away," he said. His grandmother's house, which sits against Majuro's lagoon, is itself in danger. "We've got a seawall that breaks the waves from coming into the backyard ... [and] it's pretty much losing ground. ... It's crazy." Also, seas that are warmer and more acidic (another consequence of increased carbon emissions) are harming coral and the other marine life that depends on it. "Coral is the bedrock of the ecosystem. It's how my people survive, living on those islands," Balos said.
In June, Balos was among a group of Arkansans who traveled to Washington, D.C., as part of the Citizens' Climate Lobby, a nonpartisan effort to build support in Congress for a national fee on carbon. They met with staff from the offices of Sen. Tom Cotton and Rep. Steve Womack and visited in person with Sen. John Boozman, all of whom are Republicans skeptical that climate change is fueled by human activity. Nonetheless, "They were very receptive. They listened," Balos said.
"I was able to be a spokesman for my friends and family back home. I think that's one of the main reasons why they were so receptive — because it came from a personal point of view." The point of the Citizens' Climate Lobby is "trying to find common ground. Instead of yelling at deniers, we're trying to understand them from where they're coming from."
Born in the islands, Balos moved to the United States with his mother at age 2 and grew up mostly in California. About six years ago, he and his mother relocated to Springdale, which is home to the largest Marshallese population in the continental U.S. outside Hawaii. There are perhaps 10,000 Marshallese people living in Northwest Arkansas — an extraordinary number, considering the population of the Marshall Islands is only about 72,000 — and if rising seas force an exodus from the islands, there will surely be more.
Most Marshallese came to the U.S. to escape poverty, not climate change. "We're trying to find better health care, better education, better jobs," Balos said. "We left to seek a better life." Balos' day job is with the Ozark Literacy Council, teaching English to Marshallese workers at a Tyson chicken plant in Springdale before their shift starts.
But in his spare time, he's working urgently to educate Marshallese and Americans alike about climate change. He's started a youth organization called Lamoran, which means "homeland" in Marshallese, to spread the word.
"I'm trying to raise awareness of the issue within my community. Many people ... are still thinking it's an act of God. They don't realize that we humans have a role to play in [causing] this, and a role to play in trying to prevent it. ... I don't want some of these people — my people — to grow up and ask, 'Why did nobody teach me about this?' "
- SUDS SCIENTIST: Grant Chandler will head up state's first in-brewery laboratory, at Lost Forty.
Most days, Grant Chandler does what a number of Lost Forty brewers do: regular production brewing, an almost rote process. But soon, he'll be the brewery's quality control manager, analyzing beer samples with lab equipment and, maybe, with his curly hair growing further upward and outward, also the resident mad scientist, experimenting with different fermentation methods.
Chandler is overseeing construction and assembly of what in the not-too-distant future will surely be the first in-brewery laboratory in the state. A native of Houston, Chandler went to Hendrix College, where he majored in biochemistry and molecular biology. After graduation, he worked as a research technician at a microbiology and immunology lab at the Arkansas Children's Hospital Research Institute. It was a stable job that provided Chandler with a schedule that allowed for a lot of free time. Graduate school was supposed to be next, but he found that instead of studying for the GRE, he was picking up new hobbies: gardening, kickboxing, computer coding, bread-making and brewing.
Brewing, especially, took hold. "It's the best mix and balance of all my interests," Chandler says. "Every time I try to list them all out, I forget something, but they include things like science, art, business, history, community, nutrition, alcohol. It really brings together a whole lot of things I take for granted — I suppose I take for granted the things that are most meaningful."
Self-taught initially, Chandler reached out to Matt Foster, whose Flyway Brewing was then a weekend and after-work pursuit. Chandler was especially interested in Foster's Arkansas Native Beer Project, an effort to brew beer made only with Arkansas ingredients. Foster tasked Chandler with finding a wild yeast strain in Little Rock. "Most brewers order yeast from the lab just like any other ingredient," Chandler explains. "For the most part, they're selling the same yeast strains that have been used for a long time. ...
"Yeast is everywhere. The trick isn't finding yeast or even growing yeast. You can literally take sugar water and leave it out and it will get fermented. That's yeast and bacteria doing fermentation. It's making pure cultures that's a little more difficult, that is, taking one organism out from many mixed organisms and separating it from the rest and growing it in a pure manner."
Chandler, who built a lab with his roommate in a spare bedroom of their house, found a strain of Saccharomyces* yeast in the Dunbar Garden and used it to homebrew a hoppy American ale he called Dunbar Wild, which won a homebrew competition at Damgoode Pies and was, soon thereafter, possibly the first "wild" ale commercially available in Arkansas. Chandler got the job at Lost Forty not long after.
He's still homebrewing, though. Early this year, his Dunbar Brett, a variation on Dunbar Wild, won gold in the American Wild Ale category and Best of Show at the Blue Bonnet Brew Off in Dallas, the largest single-site homebrewing competition in the country.
Whatever the future holds, Chandler is confident it will "be around beer, for beer or about beer. ... Brewing by its nature is rather experimental. The possibilities are endless with beer."
- WORKING FOR A MORE LIVEABLE LITTLE ROCK: Cyclist and 30 Crossing opponent Tim McKuin.
Cyclist gives voice to the 'street view' in 30 Crossing debate.
Somewhere between downtown Little Rock and the grassfed chicken operation he operated on a farm near Pinnacle Mountain, "It started to sink in," Tim McKuin said. "That there was a problem, and how big it was: You needed a car to participate."
McKuin had sold his car after graduating from Hendrix College and moving to Brooklyn, where he taught high school. In New York, he didn't need a car to get around. Though his commuting needs here changed — the chicken farm didn't last ("it became a very expensive hobby," McKuin said) — he still wanted to see Central Arkansas take a smarter approach to transit. That goal landed him squarely in the middle of the ongoing debate over the Arkansas Highway and Transportation Department's 30 Crossing project.
When the aging Interstate 30 bridge that crosses the Arkansas River in downtown Little Rock was deemed "structurally deficient," the AHTD did what it does best: designed a plan to pour more concrete. Armed with an unwavering belief that traffic congestion is best remedied by widening our state's highways, the highway department unveiled a plan in 2015 to replace the bridge and widen I-30 through Little Rock and North Little Rock from six to 10 lanes (and more in places).
McKuin, who had "always enjoyed seeing how local government worked" since his college days attending Conway City Council meetings, was working for bike retailer Competitive Cyclist and wondering what sort of effort it might take for "the older core" of Little Rock/North Little Rock to become more bike-friendly when he and Cary Tyson established the blog Move Arkansas. The blog was dedicated to imagining a livable, walkable Little Rock and, as its mission statement reads, to "shift the conversation on cycling, transit, planning & design in Central Arkansas."
When it became evident that the AHTD had zero intention of incorporating the sorts of green alternatives that cities like Milwaukee and Boston have employed — replacing freeways with boulevards and expanding trolley, bike, pedestrian and bus options — the once-niche issue entered the sphere of public discourse. McKuin started working with Ellen Fennell, Pratt Remmel, Barry Haas, John Hedrick, Rebecca Engstrom, Kathy Wells, Paul Dodds, City Director Kathy Webb and members of the social media group Improve 30 Crossing to disseminate data and discussion points regarding Little Rock's pivotal decision about the interstate expansion and, more broadly, about what its citizens want their downtown to look like in the future. He waded through a labyrinth of Google Earth mockups, ran his own cost-benefit analyses of the AHTD's $600 million project, spoke at public meetings about alternatives to the expansion design, and helped recruit a consultant to run an independently-funded, citizen-led analysis of traffic data to compare with the congestion numbers AHTD reported. AHTD has tweaked some of its planning, but still plans to substantially widen the highway and the gap between east and west Little Rock and North Little Rock.
Despite many setbacks, including a failed transit ballot initiative and a highway department that often seems to prize cars over the people inside them, McKuin remained optimistic and even-keeled about the possibilities for his city. "In my opinion, nothing's set in stone until the concrete's poured," he said.
- Brian Chilson
- NORMAN AND GIVENS: Friends, not just cop and resident. Trust is the key to policing, Norman says.
Community policing, with love and respect.
North Little Rock Police Officer Tommy Norman is known for his style of policing not just in Arkansas, but all over the country. He'll throw out the first pitch at the St. Louis Cardinals game on Sept. 29 — he's that kind of famous.
But he wasn't on this writer's radar until a friend told her that her daughter had asked Norman to be her junior prom date at Mayflower High School, and showed me a photograph on her phone of the two: a smiling 40-ish white man in uniform, his head shaved, and a proud African-American teenager in a purple satin gown. This writer thought, that's something: This policeman escorted a child to the prom just because she asked. Then this writer started seeing Norman's name everywhere: in the newspaper, on the cover story of a local magazine, online. He even has his own Wikipedia page.
That's because Norman, 44, who's been an officer for 18 years, has gone the extra mile in his beat — Interstate 40 south to the river and Pulaski Technical School on the west to Smothers Street in Rose City — to get to know the neighborhood. He spends more time outside his patrol car than in it. He knows everyone by name. He takes endless selfies and videos with kids and posts them to Twitter and Facebook, where he also posts information about people in need. People from all over the country send books, games, letters, even checks to the people Norman has mentioned on social media.
Last week, Norman let this reporter and a photographer follow him a bit on his rounds. First stop: an alley behind Moss Street where a group of older men and women were enjoying some early morning libations. Norman introduced a man named Willie, saying, "Willie's my buddy. We've been through a few things and he's been a good friend." Willie had stolen some copper pipe to pay his light bill, it turns out, and "paid the price," Norman said. When Norman posted about Willie on his Facebook page, a woman from Rhode Island sent him a check to pay the bill. "She wanted him to know that someone loved him enough to encourage him to do better," Norman said. "Love" is a word Norman uses all the time. In turn, Willie said he tries to do right; "I try not to make no messes."
Next stop was a house on 18th Street, where a woman was in her yard talking to a couple in a car. This woman was mourning: Her little sister had been beaten to death in Alabama and she needed to get there to take care of the arrangements. Norman had posted about the woman's plight a few days ago; Brigitte Gibson of Hot Springs, a follower of Norman's on Facebook, drove to Little Rock the next day to cut and color her hair for the journey.
Now this woman was someone you might hesitate to touch, much less embrace, such was her lack of hygiene. When we turned to leave, Norman said, "Give me a hug," and she did. Later, in an interview, he said he believed that society turns its back on people like Willie and the bereaved but unkempt woman. "More of us should really pay more attention to those people and [know] their names."
Norman can be respectful even to a murder suspect; he said a homeless man who'd killed someone in Little Rock and was in North Little Rock was told "there was a police officer he could surrender to peacefully," and turned himself in to Norman.
Around the corner, Norman stopped to talk to Eddie Givens, who was cleaning up from a Labor Day barbecue he'd held for folks in his front yard. Asked what he thought about Norman, Givens said, "He's officer of the year to me. He's been a real nice guy and showed a lot of effort. The other [officers on the beat] are good, too, but he's a special guy."
Givens once repaired the Velcro straps on Norman's bulletproof vest. "So there's trust, right?" Norman said. "That's a relationship we formed."
Givens said he was, of course, "leery" of Norman when he first met him, 11 years ago. "But, like, he stood out."
When he was a young officer, Norman said, he thought community policing was rolling the patrol car window down and waving at folks. Now he knows it's more important to put mileage on your shoes, not your car, and commit to the relationships you make. Today, he said, there are hundreds of front porches on his beat where he could sit, put his feet up, and no one would say, "What are you doing on my porch?"
"If you are doing community policing the right way," Norman said, "people should view you — it's not the gun, the badge, the police car that makes you a police officer. It's your heart, it's how you lead with your heart. If you lead with your heart, with passion, you're going to win the community over."
By forming friendships with the people on his beat, Norman said, he hopes they'll hesitate to do something that they know would let him down.
Givens asked the reporter if she'd heard of James Brown. "When I was a kid, whenever James Brown was on television, everybody would come watch, 'There's James Brown!' Now it's 'There's Officer Norman,' the same thing."
Meanwhile, Norman called out to a young man across the street, saying, "You know you look just like Drake?" and laughing, and as he drove away, he stopped to fist bump a man down the street.
- BOWIE KNIVES AND MORE: Bill Worthen, the first director of the Historic Arkansas Museum, and his staff have overseen the maturation of the museum and added to what we know of Arkansas's material culture in the 19th century.
Getting history right.
When Bill Worthen was hired to run the Arkansas Territorial Restoration in 1972, the houses on the eastern half of Block 32 of the original city were furnished in a way that the museum's original driving force, Louise Loughborough, thought proper, and the grounds were landscaped in a similar vein, with formal gardens. Loughborough had single-handedly rescued the dilapidated structures on the block three decades earlier, convincing the state General Assembly to fund their restoration and create the museum. She made them see the worth of rescuing the oldest building in Little Rock (the Hinderliter Grog Shop) and the other buildings, including one in which the founder of the Arkansas Gazette printed the newspaper. The "savvy" Loughborough — Worthen's word — also knew that by proclaiming one of the houses as the home of Elias Conway, the fifth governor of Arkansas, she could grab the public's interest.
In later years, the restoration, once a part of Arkansas Parks and Tourism, was virtually run from the office of architect Ed Cromwell — "There's a man who was a visionary," Worthen said. Worthen had voluntarily written a study guide for the museum for students he was teaching in Pine Bluff, and Cromwell thought "I might bring a fresh perspective to the place. And he thought I was moderately competent."
Thus Worthen was hired as the first director of the Arkansas Territorial Restoration (there had been superintendents earlier.) Worthen said it took him about three years of "on-the-job training" to gain confidence in the position.
In 1979, the museum sought accreditation from the American Alliance of Museums, but was rejected because "they said we didn't have a good enough security system, because we didn't have any security system." The legislature was sympathetic and increased the museum's funding for security; the museum, now part of the Department of Arkansas Heritage, was accredited in 1981.
Under Worthen and his staff, the museum took a more professional turn. "The first thing that we really needed to do was have the museum's houses accurately reflect the period they represented," Worthen said. That meant researching probate inventories, newspaper articles, photographs, paintings and other material culture in Arkansas from the 1820s and '30s, an effort led by Deputy Director and Chief Curator Swannee Bennett. The carefully footnoted research changed the furnishings of the houses and formed the basis for an interpretive narrative for the museum's living history actors. But, "when we did the research for the interpretative narratives, that's when we had to face the fact that the Conway House was not, alas, Conway's house," Worthen said. It was the home of James McVicar, the head of the state penitentiary.
"That was part of getting real with what we had," Worthen said. "I felt like I didn't have Mrs. Loughborough's strength of personality or drive ... but I had to fall back on history, fall back on doing it right, come what may."
And by falling back, the museum went forward. Its living history program — one of its primary missions — tells an accurate story of 19th century Arkansas, including the story of slavery. The museum's research into Arkansas's material culture was seminal, bringing to light the state's silversmiths and gunsmiths and potters and painters — artisan apprentices and employees who came to Arkansas to run their own shops. No longer was Arkansas seen as a place that produced log cabins and woven baskets and brooms and little else. Bennett and Worthen eventually published a survey on Arkansas material culture in two "Arkansas Made" books (a third volume is due next year).
In 2001, thanks to funding from the 1/8-cent conservation tax, which provides continuing support ("God bless Mike Huckabee," who campaigned for the tax, Worthen said); private dollars; and state and federal dollars; the museum opened its facility on the western half of original Block 32 and changed its name to the Historic Arkansas Museum. It now includes several galleries, including one devoted to the Indians of Arkansas and another devoted to Worthen's passion, the Bowie knife, and storage for a portion of its collection of Arkansas-made items.
So what impact have Worthen and the staff of HAM had on Arkansans' appreciation of their state's history?
"I have people tell me they don't visit" the museum, Worthen said, "but then they look at me earnestly and say, 'I'm so glad it's there.' That might be a majority of the citizens of Arkansas. They are glad somebody is preserving some of the history."
Thanks to the Old State House and HAM and the Encyclopedia of Arkansas — "the greatest thing for Arkansas in possibly forever," he said — the state's history is no longer a secret.
"You really see among the younger generation less of the self-consciousness or awareness of the barefoot hillbilly caricature," Worthen said. They've grown up with a president from Arkansas. "Our museum and others are trying to promote the fact that Arkansas has a worthy history, an interesting history, and we ought to preserve it."
Worthen has done his part, and will retire at the end of December this year. He'll finish a catalog on the museum's 2013-14 Bowie knife exhibition, the largest ever curated in the U.S., and said "there may be another Bowie knife book left in me."
- AT TERRY: Principal Register and her staff "go above and beyond" to get good results.
High performance, high poverty, high expectations.
Arrange the 30 traditional public and charter elementary schools in Little Rock by student poverty rates, and a stark divide emerges. In 2014, at nine schools, between roughly one-quarter and one-half of students were eligible for free or reduced lunch based on household income: Forest Park, Roberts, Jefferson, LISA Academy, eStem, Fulbright, Gibbs, Williams and Pulaski Heights (eStem and LISA are charter schools). In the city's other 21 elementaries (including one charter, Little Rock Preparatory Academy), low-income children made up between 80 and 97 percent of the population.
The nine elementary schools in Little Rock with the highest test scores in literacy and math were those with lower poverty rates — with one exception. Although 84 percent of Terry Elementary's students were from poor households in 2014, 82 percent of its kids scored proficient or advanced on the literacy portion of the test and 86 percent did so in math. That placed Terry among the highest performing elementary schools in the city and earned it one of only four "A" grades in the Little Rock School District in 2014. (Carver Magnet Elementary, another high-poverty LRSD school, wasn't far behind and also earned an A.)
In a city where demographics are too often destiny, Terry performs as if it were an affluent school, but its student demographics resemble those of the LRSD as a whole: 67 percent African-American, 15 percent Latino, 13 percent white. Fourteen percent of students have "limited English proficiency," and 15 percent are eligible for special education services.
Sandra Register, who has been the principal at Terry for five years, attributes the school's success partly to teachers willing to put in long, long hours. "You have to go above and beyond the contract hours of the day," she said. "I work at least one of the days almost every weekend, and many times there are several teachers here as well. ... I never demand that [they stay late], but I do say, 'I'm going to be checking on this or checking on that.' Well — they better get it done sometime."
Register has been working in public education for 39 years, including more than two decades as a teacher, and she said the staff at Terry rises to her expectations. "Not that I'm a tyrant or anything, because I'm not. The people that work here love it," she said. She demands intensive academic collaboration: A large portion of teachers' planning time every week is dedicated to group lesson planning sessions for literacy and math. (One recent change concerns Register: The school has lost two full-time math and literacy instructional facilitators who "planned, met with [teachers] weekly, pulled groups and worked with kids ... They were my right and left hands." She believes the facilitators were a key piece of Terry's impressive performance in 2014. This year, the district, which is facing a tightened budget due to the impending loss of state desegregation payments, has the facilitator positions rotating between multiple schools.)
If Register drives her teachers hard, she and Assistant Principal Patricia Boykin earn their goodwill by doing as much as possible to lessen their non-instructional workload. "Get assessments ready for them, run off materials. ... Anything that we can possibly do for those teachers, we take that away from them so they can teach. Same thing about discipline: If it's serious enough that you need to stop instruction, you need to send them over here and we're going to take care of it." The school also has an on-site behavioral health provider, New Beginnings, with a four-person staff that helps counsel students before problems develop.
All of this adds up to a calm, stable environment in which the priority can be placed on classroom instruction, rather than putting out fires. That's all the more essential when most of the kids in a given class are starting out at a huge disadvantage relative to their higher-income peers in terms of access to pre-K, exposure to the written and spoken word, nutrition and health, transportation, stability of housing and a dozen other factors.
Register doesn't dwell too much on those glaring disparities on a day-to-day basis — you "move on, start teaching them, get them caught up" — but she also acknowledges that at the most affluent schools, they "don't have to teach like my teachers teach ... because the kids have parents that are going to study with them at night, take them here and there. [Those children] have this, this and this — and they come in the building already being way ahead of these little babies."
- THE BLUE HOG: Matt Campbell has led to downfall of an elected official, a judge and a school superintendent.
Crusading attorney, muckracker on the side.
Matt Campbell was in Doe's Eat Place for lunch a couple of weeks back with another lawyer and a client who's been active in Republican politics. State Republican Party Chairman Doyle Webb came by to say hello to the client. When Webb stuck out his hand to Campbell and Campbell introduced himself by name, he said Webb flinched and pulled his hand back. "He ran away like he was afraid someone was going to take a picture," Campbell said, laughing. Such is the legend of the 38-year-old lawyer in private practice who, in his spare time, is perhaps the state's most successful investigative journalist.
Through reporting on his blog, Blue Hog Report, he's led to the downfall of Lt. Gov. Mark Darr, Circuit Judge Mike Maggio (who was running for the state Court of Appeals at the time) and Little Rock School District Superintendent Dexter Suggs. How has a full-time lawyer managed massive scoops on the side? "Sometimes I get a tip and a story is 80 percent formed," Campbell said. "Some of it comes on a hunch. Because I'm a lawyer and I have sued people for [Freedom of Information Act] violations, most agencies comply with my requests. I'm also willing to go through records."
That willingness to put in long hours was typified in the Darr expose in 2013. It started with a tip: Look at the lieutenant governor's use of gas cards. Campbell made FOIA requests, and he and his wife, Leabeth, spent six weeks combing through campaign finance reports and credit card receipts at night, with everything spread out on their dining room table and Leabeth working a calculator. Finally, after cross-referencing enough records, Campbell realized: "This guy is using his campaign money as an ATM." It's illegal to use campaign funds for personal use. Campbell filed an ethics complaint against Darr, who ended his just-launched campaign for U.S. Congress. Darr was later found to be in violation of ethics laws and resigned from office.
Campbell's professional career has included time as an investigator at the Pulaski County Public Defender's office, as an attorney for the Department of Human Services for several weeks (he hated it) and as assistant criminal justice coordinator at the Arkansas Supreme Court. Since 2013, he's been in practice in his own firm, the Pinnacle Law Firm
Lately, he estimates he's spending 75 percent of his time on civil rights cases. Perhaps most prominently, he's been engaged in a legal battle with the city of Fort Smith. One is a whistle-blower lawsuit involving former and current police officers who, Campbell said, were retaliated against after confronting superiors about illegal activity within the department. Another, filed in federal court on behalf of Fort Smith Police Department Cpl. Wendall Sampson Jr., alleges racial discrimination in hiring and promotion. "They haven't promoted a black officer since 1998. He's the only one in an agency of 167 officers in a city of 88,000 people. ... It's fertile ground," Campbell said.
The Fort Smith Police Department tried to hack his computer and once followed him and a client and photographed them while they ate lunch, Campbell said. It's just more fodder for his blog. "I've found that if you give too much of a fuck, you're giving in to them," he said.
- WINNER DAVIS: Writing "just kept happening."
Professor and poet finds inspiration in family history, fishing.
National Book Award-winning poet Terrance Hayes has said that Geffrey Davis' poetry "translates and transforms our contemporary modes of love, violence and history." That poetry, which has been published in the New York Times magazine and Crazyhorse, landed Davis, 33, a position at the University of Arkansas's Master of Fine Arts program in 2014 shortly after the publication of his debut collection of personal poems, "Revising the Storm," which won the prestigious A. Poulin Jr. Prize.
Davis was born in Tacoma, Wash., an urban port city south of Seattle. His upbringing, in the shadow of Mount Rainier, was turbulent thanks to a father who struggled with drug addiction. His father went through a string of rehabilitation programs that ultimately landed the family in Onalaska, a tiny rural town that was primarily agricultural, in an effort to reduce his father's risk of relapse.
Once in recovery, Davis' father picked up fly fishing and took Davis along. "Early on we fished any water we could find, then we fell in love with trout and salmon," Davis said. He loved the quiet he and his father found on the banks of Washington streams, the space and silence they were able to share as they cast their lines into crystal waters. This meditative activity brought strength and structure to their relationship, and provided a healing quality to his father in recovery.
"For my father, limits were good. He was someone who really sort of resisted limits. The limits on a stream are set, there are only so many outcomes. You're either going to catch a fish or you're not," Davis said.
Fly fishing also offered an opportunity for the elder Davis to impart valuable lessons to his son, lessons Davis would in turn pass on to his own son. This rural, outdoor space brought unique challenges and prejudices with it.
"My father, as this black man in rural Washington, trying to get into these streams on private or public property, taught me a sense of fearlessness," Davis said.
The shared bond of family and fishing would become fundamental in Davis' later poetry, coloring it with cyclical patterns of life, fishing line and family lineage. These early years in Onalaska are a frequent inspiration for his writing.
When time came for college, Davis was determined to integrate his love of the outdoors and nature with his creativity, and set out to major in biology and photography. It was at Oregon State University that Davis was first introduced to writers such as Jacques Derrida and Roland Barthes, and they stirred in him a latent interest in writing and philosophy. One day, spurred on by friends, Davis started writing himself.
"It wasn't something that I felt compelled to do, and I didn't identify as a writer," Davis said. "Then, it just kept happening."
He brought to his poetry a focus similar to that required by fishing, a presence and immediacy that is evident in his kinetic yet smooth verse. "Revising the Storm" abounds with verse inspired by his time on Washington's rivers, streams and sea with his father.
While fly fishing inspires his poetry, it's also Davis' best escape from it. Fishing gives him a new rhythm to attune himself to, a different meter to adhere to than that of his own poetry.
"When I go to the river to fish, it's one of the few spaces where I don't feel 'dispersed through in one body,' " said Davis, quoting fellow poet Li-Young Lee. "There's a healthy backdrop of sound, and I'm only responsible for looking at certain things. It's a rare kind of presence on the stream."
Davis attempts to transfer this focus to his many pursuits — teaching, boxing, writing and now a father himself — to his own family life. It is this focus and continuity that make his poetry and his person so compelling. Still at the beginning of his career, in writing as in teaching, there is surely more exciting verse to come, more streams to fish. All things are cyclical, without end.
Davis said it best himself: "Every poem I've ever written felt like the last. Then, somehow, it is not."
— Zoë Rom