Nod to Bob 

A look back at the weird and wonderful world of Bob Lancaster.

click to enlarge Bob Lancaster image

OK, OK, settle down. You three there in the back, put away them gatdamn dominoes and listen up. We've called this meeting today on the occasion of the retirement of the great Arkansas humorist and Arkansas Times columnist Bob Lancaster, who hung up his jock and had his jersey hoisted in the rafters last month. We'll be presenting him in short order with his gold watch. Well ... gold-colored, anyway. We got a recession on, and the free newspaper biz was never a rich man's game, even back when the rest of the country was using their twenty-dollar bills to light their hundred-dollar bills.

As someone who has spent the last 10 years working a part-time gig in which I try to teach people how to write, I can tell you that the hardest part of that job is making a wannabe writer understand that even if he or she isn't beautiful, or rich, or powerful, or even particularly talented yet, they deserve to have a voice in the conversation. We've got a problem with that in this country (and maybe even as a species): the idea that unless somebody who appears to be in charge tells you it's your turn to speak, you should shut your yap. It's a high wall, one most people never even try to climb, much less get their leg over.

One person who scaled that wall a long time ago was Bob Lancaster. It says a lot about Bob that, as a student attending Southern State College in Magnolia in 1962, he lasted all of six weeks as editor of the student newspaper before he pissed off college president Dr. Imon Bruce badly enough that Bob was fired. Though the listed offense was that Lancaster had been running cartoons that offended religious groups, it probably had more to do with the fact that he'd spent that summer writing letters to the Arkansas Gazette in which he — writing under the pen name "Auspice" — went after Gov. Orval Faubus with the linguistic equivalent of a claw hammer.

Though Bob never got a college degree, he kept learning and moving, starting as a sports writer at the Pine Bluff Commercial at 19, eventually working for both the Gazette and the Democrat, heading north for a year as a Nieman Journalism Fellow at Harvard, and doing a three-year stint as a roving columnist for the Philadelphia Enquirer in the mid-1970s. He even took a turn as the editor of the storied publication you see before you. After covering the trials of the West Memphis Three for the Arkansas Times, he was the first journalist — and maybe the first person, period — to publically call bullshit on the prosecutions, years before the rest of the sane world began to suspect they were, in fact, the product of a kangaroo court. After the Oklahoma City bombing, he wrote what could be called the perfect eulogy for those lost. He helped start a magazine called Arkansan. He wrote and published several books, including two novels. He stayed in Arkansas, even though he and his family probably could have had more elsewhere.

In between, he developed that amazing voice of his, and it wasn't easy. In a 2005 interview with Mara Leveritt, on file at the Pryor Center for Arkansas Oral and Visual History, Bob said that as a child he didn't talk until he was four or five years old. "I was intimidated by the world," Bob said, "by my inability to make a place for myself in the world. I shied away from it and I still do, pretty much."


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