As these type of things go, today's funeral/memorial service for Paul Eells at Robinson Center in downtown Little Rock was something none of us who were there are likely to forget.
Brandon Eells, Paul's son, asked for a long moment of silence for B.J. Burton, the 40-year-old woman who was driving the car hit by Eells' car in last Monday's wreck on Interstate 40 in Russellville. Burton was remembered by her friends and family in Dover on Thursday.
Four of Eells' close friends gave most moving talks, all offering unique perspectives of a man that everyone we talked with agreed was probably the nicest guy to ever come their way.
Eells, 70, the KATV sportscaster and voice of the Razorbacks, died in Monday night's car crash on his way back to Little Rock after covering Houston Nutt's preseason benefit golf tournament and interviewing the coach about the effect sophomore tailback Darren McFadden's toe injury would have on the Hogs' early games.
In a matter of two and a half days, the Internet message boards dedicated to the Hogs turned from horror over a player's injury outside a Little Rock nightclub in the wee Saturday morning hours to the real horror of a genuinely good man, the only "voice" that many Hog fans had ever heard over the years, taken.
By Friday, the many print and television media who had worked with Eells, the entire Channel 7 employee roster (bused over to Robinson Center Music Hall), family, and many friends, including quite a few from Nashville, Tenn., where Eells had worked for 11 years before coming to Arkansas in 1978, were together to celebrate the man's life in a near-two-hour service. Rick Bezet, the senior pastor from New Life Church in Maumelle, led the service. The New Life Worship Team, an assembly of fine singers and musicians, performed an array of familiar songs with a Christian Contemporary sound.
Keith Jackson, Eells' sidekick in the football broadcast booth, brought the nearly full auditorium to its feet with a rousing eulogy. Jackson quoted Gallatians 22-23 as well as the poet Longfellow, and he gave the best insight anyone has to the things that can go wrong in a broadcast booth, while adding that "Paul just took [all the adversity] in stride."
Robert Dill, the Pine Bluff banker whose friendship with Eells started in the late 1970s and continued on many golf courses, pulled a good chuckle from the audience when he followed Jackson to the microphone and said, "I can see Paul laughing right now and saying, Robert, follow that!" Dill said Eells never uttered a curse word on the golf course, but did go far as to address a putted ball that had spun around the cup and refused to fall as a "dirty communist ball." Eells, Dill related, took great joy in helping a man and his wife pick out a car after the man had hit a hole in one at a tournament in Pine Bluff. "God sent Paul to us to show us how we should live our lives," Dill said. "Most of all, Paul loved people."
Jim Curry, the longtime statiscian for Vanderbilt football who counted Eells among his closest friends, told the story of getting Lou Holtz to do an interview in Nashville after Holtz had taken the University of South Carolina head coaching job only because Curry thought, at last resort, to bring up Paul Eells' name, after other bargaining wouldn't sway the one-time Hog football coach for a few words. And Ray Tucker, executive director of the Arkansas Sports Hall of Fame, which inducted Eells in February, said that Eells was a friend, mentor and brother. They shared the mike in KATV broadcasts of Razorback basketball more than two decades ago, and many trips home from Fayetteville. One, Tucker remembered, included Eells stopping on I-40 one night and backing up, in sleet and rain, to help two ladies with a flat tire. The irony, Tucker pointed out, is that this also occurred around Russellville.
Channel 7 had assembled a memorial video, narrated by KATV general manager Dale Nicholson, that told the Eells story, from a crewcut, small-town lad in Iowa who excelled in high school sports, to a top voice and TV anchor in Nashville, to his days as the Razorbacks' voice, and his love for family and friends.
Strangely, as Bezet was giving closing remarks, a thunderstorm blew up quickly from the north, and the speaker system inside the auditorium picked up the growing thunder, until a loud boom seemed to knock out the video screens and distract from the preacher's final words. Brandon Shatswell, whose strong baritone voice had been featured in some of the earlier songs by the church band, sang "You Life Me Up" a cappela, and the crowd was dismissed.
Eells' pall bearers were Nicholson, Dill, Tucker, Stephens Media sportswriter Harry King, Rudy Kalis, Joe Woody, Pine Bluff lawyer Spencer Robinson, Nashville broadcaster Dan Miller and boxer Jermain Taylor.
Keith Jackson's words summed it up best when he told Eells family, "We're going to miss him but we sure thank you for sharing him with us."
The founder of P.A.R.K. in Little Rock, NFL All-Pro player and college All-American at Oklahoma also said, "If Paul set the bar" for getting to heaven, "we better hope they grade on the bell curve."
Notable dignitaries at the service included former Arkansas football coach Ken Hatfield and former UA basketball coaches Eddie Sutton and Nolan Richardson, along with current Hog athletic director Frank Broyles, football coach Houston Nutt and basketball coach Stan Heath. Gubernatorial hopeful Mike Beebe was also among the crowd.