The Observer was saddened to hear about the passing last week of Jennings Osborne: businessman, philanthropist, Republican and all-around round mound of goodwill toward men. He had his differences with the Times (most centering on his being overly-generous with a certain former Gov. who always seemed to have his hand out), but he managed to touch The Observer's life over and over again through the years.
Back in the mid-1980s, maybe eight or nine, hot summertime, riding along with our roofer father in a rattling pickup with no air conditioning and a bunch of sweaty laborers, on our way to a shingle job (where The Fledgling Observer would mostly stand around and learn — just as Pa had planned, we later realized — the myriad reasons why a college education is a good idea), we vividly recall motoring past Jennings' big, white, walled compound on Cantrell Road:
"I heard Tom Selleck lives there," one guy solemnly intoned.
A little older, we were one of the thousands who saddled up with the family and waited in traffic on the freeway to see Jennings' Christmas light-o-palooza. Even under the highway lamps, you could see the house in the distance a mile away: a red dome of light, glowing against the dark horizon over the river like fire. The line of cars, we remember, stretched all the way from his place on Cantrell Road, down 430 and then up 630 to Baptist Hospital. We thought: Could there be that many people in Arkansas? Could there be that many people in the world?
A little older still, in college (before The Observer got our job in journalism and its corresponding dose of journalistic integrity — college students, as you know, rarely come equipped) The Observer and his then-girlfriend were among the heaving multitudes that hit one of Jennings' barbecue feeds at UALR. Jennings was there in his apron, helping dish up the goodies. The plate, we remember, was gargantuan, all a plastic shopping bag could hold without splitting: chicken and pork and sausages gleaming with fat. Broke and starving back then, The Observer's girl and Yours Truly feasted for days.
We hate to bring up bad memories for some, but this is a part of it for us: When the big brass eagle Jennings and family donated to the city was installed at the entrance of the Clinton Presidential Park, we remember looking at the plaque, which said it was a gift of: "The Osborne Family: Mitzi, Jennings, Breezy and Paul." Jennings' daughter Allison "Breezy" Osborne got divorced from Paul Young in 2007, and she's since remarried. Walking past the statue again last year on the way to something down at the Clinton Library, we noticed for the first time that Paul's name has been carefully obliterated from the plaque, ground down to a shiny spot in the metal.
Things change, we thought. Jennings' eagle is still there, though. Will be for a good while, we'd wager, unless the midnight metal scrappers get it.
We'd long known that Jennings made his dough in pharmaceutical testing. Surfing the Arkansas page of the site www.reddit.com the other day, we ran across a post by Jennings' son-in-law Tristan Wingfield, who is married to Breezy. "My father in law," Wingfield wrote, "owns a medical research company ... His research firm did some of the phase 2 testing for Viagra and he tells the story often to new friends: 'You haven't seen anything until you've fed 45 homeless men Viagra and they are running around your facility boasting about their erections.' "
The Observer's philosophy has long been: If you can go out leaving more people smiling than crying, you've lived a good life. Goodbye, Mr. Osborne. No, you weren't Tom Selleck. But thanks for the memories (and the fireworks), just the same. You left a lot of folks smiling.