Columns » Bob McCord

Finley Vinson's legacy

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Finley Vinson, who died at the age of 92 last week, was one of those businessmen every town needs to have if it is going to improve. I knew him well, and those of us who have lived around here for 50 years or so ought to be grateful for him.

Fifty-six years ago he moved to Little Rock from his native Texas with his wife, Sue, who was from Searcy. They came here because of J. V. Satterfield, another fine businessman, who was then the mayor of Little Rock. Satterfield, who was very much like Vinson, wanted him to head the city’s first urban renewal program. Satterfield was president of the Peoples National Bank — the smallest one in town — in a little building on Main Street. After Vinson got urban renewal started, Satterfield made him a bank officer whose job was to promote the bank and the city.

In 1963, Vinson became the president of the bank, changed its name to First National and built a much bigger building for it at Third and Louisiana. Then in 1975 he built a 30-floor building for the bank at Capitol and Broadway, the largest building in Arkansas, with the state’s only European restaurant on the top floor.

Soon he had turned Little Rock’s smallest bank into one of the biggest, and he had become the first bank president in Arkansas to appoint a woman to a bank board and to promote a black employee to be a bank officer. And he worked consistently helping his chosen city grow and get what any modern city needs. When making a speech he often said he had “escaped from Texas.”

The population of Pulaski County since he arrived here has doubled — from 195,000 people to nearly 400,000. He contributed and worked hard with dozens of organizations that brought what modern cities deserve — Statehouse Convention Center, community concerts, Arkansas Arts Center, Baptist Medical Center, teaching economics in public schools, the Excelsior Hotel (now the Peabody), a better airport, a new University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences with the Arkansas Cancer Research Center, the Reynolds Institute on Aging and the Jones Eye Institute, etc.

Vinson wanted Little Rock and North Little Rock to consolidate as so many large cities have done with smaller neighbor cities to save money, attract more businesses, receive more federal money and go after factories that like to be in big cities. Unfortunately, lately no one here is even talking about it.

Bill Gatewood is the director of the Old State House Museum in downtown Little Rock, built in 1833. It used to be the state Capitol until a new Capitol was finished in 1914 at the west end of Capitol Avenue. Among other things, the old building was used as an Army barracks, armory, medical school, etc.

Now Gatewood doesn’t think of a museum as just a place to fill up with old furniture, pictures, maps, clothes, etc. He thinks the museum has to have today’s music and not just the old music. He likes us to know that Arkansas is still producing lots of good musicians and music and not just the old “Arkansas Traveler” or “Three Black Crows” or Scott Joplin, born near Texarkana in 1868, the famous ragtime star.

Last week, for the second time, Gatewood brought some men from Nashville, Tenn., to town who are writing and playing country music sold on records that are bought by millions throughout the world. These are not stars like Glen Campbell, who, by the way, is from Delight, Ark. These five guys are those who compose the songs and may or may not play or sing them on the records. It’s those big record companies in Nashville that buy the country songs and decide how to cut the records to sell them.

The musicians were Donny Lowery of Little Rock, Shawn Camp of Perryville, Wood Newton of Hampton, Mark Alan Springer of Weiner and Steve Dean of Little Rock.

I confess that I am not a real fan of country music, but I like to watch and listen to fine musicians of any kind. Those five guitar players were the best I have ever heard or seen, playing popular country songs like “Two Pina Coladas” and “Riding with Private Malone.” The next night two or three of the musicians went to their home towns and played and sang. Gatewood says that he has invited the five guys back next year. Not so long ago in the museum he had Lucinda Williams, the outstanding singer who used to live in Fayetteville.

Gatewood is giving us fine reasons to go to that newly restored building and making us proud. But it’s no surprise to me. Gatewood is the son of Willard B. Gatewood, a distinguished professor of history at the University of Arkansas I thought was the best professor I had when I was there for four years.

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