- BIG IN BRITIAN: Judsonia native Beth Ditto is a star in the U.K.
Many other Arkansans were important to the life of the state in 2007, for good and ill. Among them:
MIKE HUCKABEE. After more than a decade as governor, he plunged into a race for president and quickly used his personal skills to move to the front of a splintered pack of Republican contenders. Ethical miscues and changing positions on everything from foreign policy and immigration to taxes and church-state separation made his campaign fun — and scary — to watch. His on-the-fly low-cost campaign had a small footprint in Arkansas, however, unlike Bill Clinton's war room of 1992.
ALICE WALTON. The billionaire Wal-Mart heiress made headlines as construction began on the world-class Crystal Bridges museum of American art she's building in Bentonville. Headlines included many major art acquisitions, some attended by local controversy in communities that will see the departure of long-held treasures.
CLAIBORNE DEMING. The CEO of El Dorado-based Murphy Oil was the driving force behind the company's decision to contribute $50 million to a fund to pay for college tuition for any El Dorado High School graduate at any college they wanted to attend. It was a mighty blow for El Dorado and for education everywhere.
HOUSTON NUTT. As UA football coach, he had a so-so year with an immensely talented team, though the victories did include a win over eventual national champion LSU. But as the source of soap opera for fans greedy for drama, he couldn't be beat. Turmoil among coaches and top recruits, a legal wrangle over Nutt's texting to a female TV announcer and so much more concluded with a buyout of Nutt's contract for more than $3 million and his departure to Ole Miss.
FRANK BROYLES. Partly on account of missteps in the Houston Nutt saga, sufficient force finally accumulated on the University of Arkansas Board of Trustees to force the legend's retirement as athletic director after 50 years on the UA payroll. Don't cry for Frank. He'll be paid a quarter-million a year, until he dies most likely, by the Razorback Foundation.
JOHN WHITE. Partly on account of missteps in the athletic saga, the chancellor of UA's Fayetteville campus accumulated significant opposition on the UA Board of Trustees. He insisted this had no bearing on his decision to step down as chancellor at the end of this year. He leaves a billion-dollar fund-raising legacy and a bigger and better-qualified student body, but a demoralized and weakened humanities sector.
JOHN WALKER. The civil rights lawyer remains spry and effective (aggravating, his detractors would say) at age 70. He was a key player in the emergence of a black majority on the Little Rock School Board. The majority reflects the enrollment and population of the district, but it's causing heartburn among white business leaders and the remaining white patrons of the district, who fear their concerns could take a backseat to racial considerations. Shoe's on the other foot, in other words.
KATHERINE MITCHELL. The president of the Little Rock School Board oversaw the historic shift in the balance of power on the board to a black majority. The new majority ousted the superintendent, and put the brakes on a merit pay experiment funded by Democrat-Gazette publisher Walter Hussman and the Walton Family Foundation.
U.S. SEN. MARK PRYOR. By our deadline, the Republican Party seemed unlikely to field an opponent for the Democrat, whose moderation infuriates liberal Democrats even as it explains his near invincibility.
DARREN MCFADDEN. A runner-up again for the Heisman Trophy, the exciting Razorback running back skipped his final year of college eligibility to reap pro millions. His celebration of his coming lottery entry landed him in a negative spotlight for a role in a bar fight in Little Rock, at least his second dustup in a bar he was too young to enter.
GOV. MIKE BEEBE. Smooth sailed the ship of state under legislative veteran Beebe. He cut the grocery tax by half, merrily spent a dandy surplus, thus making just about everybody happy, and generally avoided error. Courage in behalf of controversial issues? None seen. That's part of the reason things were so smooth.
GINGER BEEBE. The governor's wife flung open the doors to the Governor's Mansion, reinstating the notion — forgotten by the previous occupants — that it belonged to the people of Arkansas, and even gave the press a tour of the private quarters, saying, “Well, when I'm home, I have people over.” The Beebes closed the so-called “gift shop” stocked with books bought from the previous governor and mansion administrator, and the non-profit Mansion Association also cleaned house, writing new rules after its financial records vanished along with the previous administration. The new first lady spearheaded the association's project to earn money for the mansion, with the publication of a calendar featuring the work of Arkansas artists.
THE LITTLE ROCK NINE. All were in attendance to mark the 50th anniversary of their integration of Central High School, a commemoration that included the opening of the new Central High Visitor Center and a ceremony at the school, multiple special events examining the 1957 Crisis, an original play, a documentary film and the awarding of scholarships to college-bound high school students from a charitable foundation created by the Nine, at a gala that brought the three men and six women standing ovations from a cheering, tearful crowd.
PULASKI COUNTY GOVERNMENT. The gang that couldn't shoot straight turned voters against any tax increases, even if it meant turning career criminals loose by the dozens from an inadequate jail. A busted budget, a sex scandal surrounding a thieving comptroller and a rules-flouting circuit judge were among the stories that made many people happy they don't make their home here.
FELIX JONES. The Hogs' second-best running back, and half of the very best duo of running backs that Arkansas has ever had, also turned pro.
MAYOR STEVE WOMACK OF ROGERS. With tough talk and tough law enforcement, while avoiding the really crazy anti-immigrant crowd, he established himself as the Arkansas politician most likely to reach higher office on the strength of anti-immigrant sentiment.
THE PEOPLE OF PHILLIPS COUNTY. Their continued squabbling along racial lines, sometimes paralyzing city and county government, encouraged those who preach that black and white can never work together effectively.
COPS. Gunning down grade schoolers in West Memphis, lumping up on skateboarders in Hot Springs, cuffing and stuffing middle-aged reporters in Maumelle — the Boys in Blue didn't do their public image any favors in 2007. That said, here's to all the Good Cops, the ones who do the job without going Gestapo, Rambo or psycho. Now, to keep the font of good will flowing, howzabout you guys cut out that once-a-month speed trap you run on Markham near the state Capitol?
BETH DITTO. Chances are you've never heard of her, but Judsonia native Beth Ditto and her band Gossip are bigger than fish and chips in Great Britain. Though Ditto is a whole lotta woman (210 pounds at last count), she's spent a good portion of her young life giving a figurative (and, quite possibly, literal) middle finger to the accepted standards of beauty and decorum. It's an attitude that helped her win the 2007 Sexiest Woman of the Year award from NME Magazine — pretty much the punkified UK equivalent to Rolling Stone. All that, and a kick-ass singer as well? Where do we sign up for her fan club?
THE CITIZENS OF EUREKA SPRINGS. In March, less than three years after the state's homophobes turned out en masse to vote for the Arkansas Marriage Amendment, the Eureka Springs City Council passed Ordinance 2052, which established a domestic partnership registry open to all couples, gay or straight. For $35, partners can sign on the dotted line, receive a certificate, and have their names added to a city registry — thus entitling them to be just as miserable as married folk. Soon beset by the same gay bashers who always seem to scurry out of the woodpile at the mention of civil rights for queers, the good people of Eureka have held their ground. Sure, we suspect it's mostly about publicity and tourism. But when it comes to sticking up for the rights of our gay and lesbian neighbors, we'll take good news where we can get it.
JEFF NICHOLS. The Little Rock-born filmmaker became a rising star in independent cinema with the release of his debut feature “Shotgun Stories.” Filmed in Pulaski and Lonoke counties, the film resonated with audiences from Seattle to Sydney, scored a grand prize at the Austin Film Festival and landed a nomination for the prestigious Cassavetes prize at the Independent Spirit Awards, a nod tantamount to an Oscar nomination for films made for under a half million dollars.
CHRIS LEMLEY. In 2007, the Atkins native and Hendrix dropout was the George Steinbrenner of professional video gaming. Professional wha', you say? Try this: Last year, Team Pandemic, the pro video game team that Lemley owns and manages, grossed a quarter million dollars in endorsements and winnings, while dominating the competition (a headline on a national gaming magazine asked “Will Pandemic ever be defeated?”) and traveling around the world.
THE RENAUD BROTHERS. The documentarian brothers Brent and Craig made a powerful, nuanced documentary for HBO on Central High 50 years after the crisis, and together with friends Jamie Moses and Owen Brainard, founded the Little Rock Film Festival. After the success of last year's inaugural edition, the festival seems poised to be one of the region's best.
TIM GRIFFIN. He became Arkansas's home-grown symbol of Bush administration hackery. Two years removed from a controversial direct mailing effort in Florida for the president's re-election — which many said was an attempt to suppress black voters — Griffin was back in Arkansas as Karl Rove's hand-picked successor to the unobjectionable Bud Cummins as U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Arkansas. Griffin stepped down after only five months and the scandal of which he was a part brought down the attorney general of the United States, Alberto Gonzales.
ANDRES CHAO. The large and growing Mexican population of Arkansas, Mississippi, western Oklahoma and eastern Tennessee got a new champion when Chao arrived in Little Rock as Mexican consul.
FITZ HILL. He could probably be raking in big money coaching college football — he was the head coach of Division I San Jose State from 2001-2004 — but instead he's finishing his second year as president of tiny Arkansas Baptist College, a historically black college in Little Rock. With the addition of a football program and the hiring of Corliss Williamson as assistant men's basketball coach, Hill has been able to improve his school's image as well as increase its enrollment.
CLARK DUKE. An inspiration to aspiring filmmakers from places in Arkansas no one has heard of (Glenwood, in this case), the 22-year-old actor/director turned his Loyola Marymount senior thesis into the most successful web TV show of the year.
A “Curb Your Enthusiasm” for the hipster set, “Clark and Michael” hilariously parodied shiftless young Hollywood over the course of 10 eight- to 10-minute shorts. Look for Duke in some bigger roles in 2008, including co-starring in a film with Eddie Murphy.
607. Arkansas's most prolific rapper didn't slow his roll in 2007. He released four albums and one mixtape, performed just about weekly and, when he became convinced that the local market had become static, he tweaked a popular corporate model and outsourced himself, traveling twice to “hip-hop starved” Russia. Whether his trips paid real dividends is unclear, but it's a model the MC continues to believe in. He'll travel to Australia in March to spread his hip-hop message.
Several readers nominated state REP. KATHY WEBB of Little Rock. Not because the Little Rock restaurateur is the first openly gay member of the legislature, though she is, but for her savvy work as a first-termer (instrumental in defeat of a bill aimed at discouraging gay foster parents) and for her support of civic endeavors, sometimes unpopular ones, too numerous to list.
SEN. HILLARY CLINTON. No longer an Arkie, she has some claim given her 18 years here. We'll certainly claim some small part if she wins the White House.